MEMORABLE among American years was the year 1776. It was the year in which our Revolutionary fathers adopted the "Declaration of Independence," and pledged for its support their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor." They were noble men. How brightly did the flame of patriotism burn on the altar of their hearts! How pure was their love of liberty! How anxious their solicitude for the welfare of their posterity! There was something sublime in the fact that, though few in number, they fearlessly threw their banner to the breeze of heaven, resolved on victory or death. They contended against the mightiest nation on the globe, but their heart faltered not. Their military resources were scanty, but trusting in God, and sustained by the justice of their cause, they went forward under the command of the great Washington, till, after a struggle of seven years' continuance, during which their blood stained the soil from Massachusetts to South Carolina, they triumphantly achieved the object of their patriotic exertions. Let it never be forgotten that American independence was secured by as precious blood as was ever shed in the cause of human liberty. Degenerate sons of noble sires are those who do not appreciate the heritage which we enjoy - a heritage bought at such a price - a heritage covered with Revolutionary glory, and transmitted to us by the hands of our fathers.
In the remarkable year to which I have referred, that is to say, on the 9th of May, 1776, in Martin County, North Carolina, the infant, Reuben Ross, first saw the light, and wept at its entrance on the rough journey of life. Alas, the eyes that wept so soon, wept often, and continued to weep till more than fourscore years had fled.
The Ross family is of Scotch descent, and the grandfather of Reuben settled in an early day at Roanoke, Virginia. The year of his emigration from Scotland cannot now be given. His son William, the father of Reuben, was a citizen of Martin County, North Carolina, and had for his wife a woman of vigorous mind, superior in intellect to himself. They were both Baptists, and, so far as circumstances allowed, brought up their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Many, however, were the difficulties they had to encounter. The whole country was in a state of restless excitement for years before the commencement of the War, and from the battle at Lexington to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown anxious fears filled the minds of the people. We may well imagine how such a state of things interfered with the regular training of children.
William Ross was the father of ten children, of whom Reuben was the youngest son. Three of his brothers were in the war of the Revolution, and two of them, Martin and James, became Baptist ministers.
Reuben went to school only nine months in all, at different times, in the course of seven years, and left school finally at fourteen years of age. He greatly desired an education, but could not obtain it. He considered it his duty to contribute, by physical labor, to the support of his father's family. To such labor he may have been indebted for that vigor of constitution which made him every inch a man, and lengthened out his days so far beyond the ordinary limit of human life. He knew in his youth and early manhood the inconveniences of poverty. And why? Because his father had sacrificed an independent estate to promote the objects of the War; and his youngest son, when he had become old, was heard by the writer to say: "I was always proud that my father became poor by spending his estate to carry out the principles of the Declaration of Independence." Such language as this could not have been spoken if patriotism had not reached its climax and its perfection. Poverty is generally regarded as a calamity, but Reuben Ross rejoiced in his youth, in his manhood, and in his old age, that his father became poor by cheerfully surrendering his estate to help forward the Revolutionary contest. How safe would our country be if such a spirit of patriotism pervaded the hearts of all American citizens!
Young Ross was at school but nine months; and these months not consecutive, but interspersed through a period of seven years, so that he was at school only a few days at a time. "Dilworth's Spelling Book" and the "Psalter" were the books chiefly used in schools at that period. The educational facilities of the country were very meager. None but the rich were able to send their sons from home and give them the advantages of Collegiate training. Hence there were but few scholars.
God had given to Reuben Ross superior intellect, and superior intellect will display itself amid the greatest disadvantages. There is a buoyant elasticity in it which enables it to rise and throw off the incumbent mass with which untoward circumstances oppress it. Well is it that it is so. Owing to this peculiarity of a vigorous mind, the subject of these Memoirs, in spite of the unfavorable surroundings of his youth, rose to distinction, and became a favorite preacher of the learned and the unlearned. For long years the educated and the unlettered listened with the deepest interest to the wondrous things he told them. But I am anticipating:
The mother of Reuben Ross was a woman of prayer, and maintained family worship in the absence of her husband from home. He was often absent during the War. She rose early and sat up late. Her domestic duties probably rendered this necessary, but she had another object in view. She wished to pray in secret without disturbance. Early in the morning and late at night she called on God, supposing that his ear alone heard her. It was not so. The ear of Reuben heard. Sometimes his slumbers were disturbed at night, and he heard his mother praying - sometimes he waked early in the morning and he heard the same imploring whisper. He afterward called them "whisperprayers.'' He did not let his mother know that he heard them, yet they made an impression on him which went with him to his grave. In the days of his subsequent thoughtlessness he never forgot that his mother prayed, never forgot her "whisper-prayers." Who knows how much those prayers had to do with his conversion and usefulness in the ministry? One of the greatest blessings known on earth is the blessing of a mother's prayers, and the most cruel manner in which children can be disinherited is not to be prayed for by their parents.
Though often impressed with the importance of salvation, Reuben Ross did not become a Christian till he reached his twenty-sixth year. Then he was led to see and feel himself a sinner against God, and after experiencing much anguish of soul he was enabled, by divine grace, to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. This brought peace and joy to his soul. He soon felt that it was his duty to make a public profession of Christianity, and was baptized by Elder Luke Ward. Not long after his baptism he became anxious to glorify God by doing good in the -world; and, strange as it was to him, the thought of preaching would come into his mind. He tried to dismiss the subject from his consideration, for he regarded himself as utterly destitute of ministerial qualifications. He was tempted to believe that if the people knew he had thoughts of preaching, they would say he wanted to be like his two brothers, who were preachers. This annoyed him not a little. Preachers were not supported in those days, and he concluded to sell his land and engage in merchandise until he made money enough to sustain his family, thinking he might then with greater propriety devote himself to the ministry, if, indeed, his impressions continued. As soon as he began "to sell goods'' his impressions in regard to preaching left him, nor did they return till he became embarrassed by the failure of his mercantile arrangements. Then they returned with great power, and he ever believed that his want of success was providential, because he was not employed as the Lord intended he should be. He now began to feel that he must preach the gospel, and was licensed by the church in the year 1806. When he made his first attempt at speaking in public he was ashamed to leave the house, after the services were over. He was unwilling for any one to see him, and wished to hide himself. Among many things that troubled him there was this fact: Many of the preachers of that section of country professed to preach by inspiration or its equivalent. They were accustomed to begin their sermons by saying that they had not studied their subjects, and had not seen their texts for a considerable time, and that, therefore, whatever they said must be received as coming immediately from God. The candor of Reuben Ross did not permit him to do and say this. He studied his subjects as well as he could, and told the people that he knew nothing but what he had learned. In after years he sometimes amused himself, in a circle of special friends, by referring to his statement of a truth too obvious to need statement; but at the time it was a serious matter with him.
The church of which he was a member encouraged him, and even called for his ordination the year after giving him license. This was done when he was about to emigrate to Tennessee. Under different circumstances he would have protested against ordination, for he attached much importance to the apostolic admonition, "Lay hands suddenly on no man." In 1807, having been solemnly ordained by Elders Joseph Biggs, Luke Ward, and James Ross, he left the State of his birth and turned his steps to Tennessee, at that time a place very attractive to North Carolinians.
It is a sad thing to leave one's native land, and the graves of kindred, and to go among strangers. On such occasions the most manly heart trembles with emotion, and tears come into eyes unused to weep, as the scenes of childhood are left forever.The "old North State" was dear to Reuben Ross, but he thought preachers were more needed in Tennessee, and supposed he could better provide for his rising family in a new State, where land was much cheaper and more fertile. He sighed and wept at the graves of his kindred and started on his pilgrimage westward. His prayer was that God would be with him, conduct him safely to the end of his journey, and then be his God and the God of his family forever. He reached the neighborhood of Port Royal, Tennessee, on the Fourth of July, 1807. Here he sojourned for a time, and his removal to other places is minutely described in the pages which await the reader's perusal. It may be said, however, that his permanent place of residence was about six miles from Clarksville, and that his ministerial labors were devoted chiefly to the Counties of Robertson, Montgomery, and Stewart, Tennessee ; and those of Logan, Todd, and Christian, Kentucky."Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said:
'This is my own, my native land'?"
In all the early years of his ministry his hands ministered to his necessities and to those of his family. Having heard that he was accustomed to carry his Bible with him to his work, I once asked him if it was so. He replied that it was. In opening his farm, after cutting down a tree, he often sat on its stump to rest for a time; and while resting he read his Bible that he might learn more about the word of God, and prepare himself as well as he could to preach to his neighbors on the next Lord's Day. I have seen many likenesses of him taken in after years, but the likeness I should specially rejoice to see would be a representation of him with his coat off, sitting on the stump of a tree he had just felled, with the Bible open in his hands. I would intently gaze upon it, and I am sure I should weep. What a picture! Reuben Ross, with the sweat extorted by physical labor on his brow, the Bible in his hands, treasuring up the words of eternal life! I would hang up such a picture in every preacher's study, and in every theological seminary, that the present generation of ministers might be reminded of one of the ways by which one of the fathers became mighty, not in philosophy, not in science, but like Apollos, "mighty in the Scriptures."
It will, no doubt, be strange to many to learn that Reuben Ross, in the first years of his ministry, did not preach to impenitent sinners. Under the influence of the erroneous sentiments he had imbibed, he felt that he had no message to them. He considered the gospel as addressed to elect sinners, and as he could not tell who except Christians were elect, he confined his labors to the people of God, and dwelt chiefly on the consolatory topics of the Bible. He made the old English distinction, and classified sinners as "sensible" and "insensible" - a distinction which Andrew Fuller attacked with his mighty pen. A sensible sinner was a sinner who had feeling on the subject of salvation, while an insensible sinner had none. This sensibility, rather than the teachings of God's word, was allowed to decide to whom the gospel was to be addressed; for it was to be considered an intimation of God's purpose of mercy toward those who possessed it. Insensibility, it was argued, indicated, on the part of God, an absence of all merciful intentions. True, the sensible sinner, before the period of sensibility, was insensible, and this fact wan very perplexing to the investigating, logical mind of Reuben Ross. He reasoned on it by day and by night. Amid the toils of his agricultural pursuits, his mind toiled and labored over this knotty point in his theology. He pondered the Apostolic Commission: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." The common exposition of this passage was that the gospel was to be preached to every elect creature, and therefore ministers must wait till some evidence of election was given before they were authorized to preach the gospel to a person. This view could not long satisfy such a mind as that of Reuben Ross. He read, "He that believeth not shall be damned." He saw that the teachings of the pulpit at that day led to the conclusion that some of the elect creatures might refuse to believe, and bring upon themselves damnation - a conclusion at war with the dogmas of the ministry. After much thought, perplexity, and prayer, he began to look on the commission in its obvious sense. He saw its comprehensiveness - "Go ye into ALL THE WORLD." He could not deny its definiteness - "Preach the gospel to EVERY CREATURE." He, therefore, having in the meantime read Andrew Fuller's " Gospel worthy of all Acceptation," settled down in the belief, from which he never afterward swerved, that all men without exception are subjects to whom the gospel should be addressed. He renounced the doctrine which has received the designation Hyper-Calvinism. From that time, as long as his voice was heard from the pulpit, no one rejoiced more than he to proclaim, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters."
The reader will learn from the pages that follow how effective were the labors of Elder Ross from the time of this change in his views to the end of his ministerial career. It will be seen that under the inspiration of these labors the Bethel Association was formed, composed of churches, some in Kentucky and some in Tennessee, and that the number of its churches at its formation has been more than quadrupled. He was often called the father of this Association, and was its Moderator for twenty-five years.
As a preacher Elder Ross cannot be easily described so as to give an adequate idea of either himself or his sermons. In his best days his person was not only impressive, but majestic. His appearance commanded respect and reverence. His presence awed wicked men into propriety of demeanor. His countenance, especially in the pulpit, was clothed with solemnity, so that his hearers at once felt that he had something of transcendent importance to tell them. After attending the old Triennial Convention in Philadelphia in 1844, I remember that, on returning to my home in Kentucky, I said to my friends that I had seen no man whose appearance impressed me like that of Elder Reuben Ross. There was in the expression of his eyes and in the features of his face a union of intelligence, gentleness, solemnity, greatness, majesty.
In his sermons were combined exposition, argument, and exhortation. He was able in his interpretation of the Scriptures, and though he had no knowledge of the languages in which they were originally written, he was superior in exposition to most learned ministers. The reason, doubtless was, that the Spirit who indited the Holy Oracle? dwelt in his heart and sanctified his large common sense, thus utilizing it in the explanation of the divine word.
When the nature of his sermons called specially for argument he displayed logical ability. He had no acquaintance with Logic technically; he knew nothing of its Moods and Figures, but he knew that if such and such things were so, then such and such results must follow, and vice versa. There was no artificial laying down of premises, and no scholastic deduction of conclusions, but the whole thing, for substance, was done. Positions were established and fortified by such reasoning as no sophistry could successfully assail. This argumentative power was of great value in doctrinal discussions, and the prevalence of truth in many places is traceable to its able advocacy by Elder Reuben Ross.
But it is not to be forgotten that his sound expositions and conclusive arguments were designed to furnish a basis of persuasion, so that he might prevail on his hearers to do what his expositions and arguments indicated ought to be done. Here, therefore, was the place for hortatory appeal, and who that has heard it has forgotten it? Sometimes the appeal would recognize "the terror of the Lord," and then the preacher seemed to be clothed with terror. He trembled while pronouncing the doom of the ungodly, and implored his impenitent hearers to escape that doom. Most usually, however, the love of God in the gift of his Son, the tragical death of the cross, the value of the soul, the advantages of piety in this life, and immortal glory in the life to come, supplied the hortatory element in his sermons, especially in their peroration. His appeals were generally fine specimens of impassioned eloquence, and at times their power was transcendent and irresistible. They carried everything before them. The intonations of the preacher's voice were melting, finding their way to every heart; his deep emotion was seen on the quivering lip and in the tearful eye, while the whole face was in a glow of ardent excitement. I have seen the wonders of Kentucky's great Cave, the thousand objects of interest in our Centennial Exposition, the magnificent scenery of mountains and vales, the wild, dashing, thundering waters of Niagara, and I have stood on the shore of the Atlantic, where wave after wave has rolled in majesty and power; but I do not remember anything that has impressed me more deeply than a sight of Elder Reuben Ross, with a countenance full of dignity, solemnity, anxiety, tenderness, and love, entreating sinners to accept Christ and salvation.
It remains for me to express my gratification that the public is to be favored with "Recollections of the Life and Times" of this good and great man. It is a beautiful thing that these Recollections are those of a son who intended them as a tribute of filial admiration, and also as a legacy to his daughter. The spare hours of about ten years were consecrated by the son to these reminiscences of the father, and the son has since passed away. There is no escape from the stroke of death. Parents and children are equally mortal.
In the "Recollections" which follow there is not only an account of the "Life and Times," but also of the death and burial of Elder Reuben Ross. He first saw the light in North Carolina - the greater part of his life was spent in Tennessee - and he died in Kentucky. His body was conveyed to his former home near Clarksville, Tennessee, and buried by the wife of his youth, under the spreading branches of a noble oak, and not far off a cluster of cedars, evergreens, fit emblems of immortality, on whose boughs birds of charming notes often perch. Sing on, sweet birds! You will not disturb the silent sleepers - and may the lightnings of heaven spare that oak.
J. M. Pendleton
UPLAND, PA. February 1, 1882.
The entire book is here.
[From Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross by James Ross, 1882, pp. 11-19. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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