My dear Sir: The Rev. Dr. Waller, of whom you ask me to give you some account, though his course was not a protracted one, has left behind him a name that will long be gratefully cherished and honoured, at least throughout the whole Southwest. I knew him well during his last fifteen years, and have since had every needful facility for becoming acquainted with the history of his life.
John Lightfoot Waller was born in Woodford County, Ky., November, 23, 1809. His grandfather, Elder William E. Waller, a Baptist minister, emigrated to Kentucky, from Orange County, Va., with his familv, in the fall of 1784, and settled near Lexington. After a residence of some twelve years in this part of the State, during which he preached for the Baptist Church at Bryant's Station, and supplied other destitute churches in the neighbourhood, he removed to Shelby County, where he remained until his return to Virginia in 1801, in which State he continued to labour until his death, - which closed a ministry of more than fifty years. He left in Kentucky two sons, - George and Edmund, both of whom became Baptist ministers, and were extensively known as uncompromising defenders of the ancient landmarks of their Church.
Edmund Waller, the father of the subject of this sketch, was, like most Baptist ministers in the West at that time, dependant upon the labour of his own hands for the support of his family, - receiving, for many years, from the churches he supplied, but a scanty remuneration for preaching to them two days in seven. It was, therefore, impossible for him, living remote from any public school, to educate his children but imperfectly, or to do even this except by practising the most rigid economy in his necessary expenditures. Occasionally, a school was taught for a few months in the neighbourhood, which his older children attended, and these taught the younger what they themselves had learned.
Until he was twelve years old, John L. received no instruction, except from his elder brothers. But as soon as he had learned to read. he manifested an extraordinary fondness for books; and, having now in his possession a key with which he imagined he could unlock all the storehouses of knowledge, he addressed himself to the task of "getting an education," - schooling or no schooling. Until after he was sixteen years old, he had attended school only fifteen months. But, with occasional assistance from his father and his elder brothers, he had thoroughly mastered all the elementary branches of an English education, - Geography, Grammar, Arithmetic, Algebra, and so much of the Natural Sciences as was to be found in the text books then used in Western Academies and High Schools. He had, also, read and re-read every volume of History that he could buy or borrow. He had become especially interested in and familiar with
the historical portions of the Old Testament, and with whatever of Ecclesiastical History he chanced to find in his father's library, or in the books he could borrow in the neighbourhood. Endowed by nature with a memory of wonderful tenacity, he thus, in boyhood, without those facilities generally deemed indispensable, laid the foundations of his future fame as a defender of the Baptist faith and polity.
It was the custom of his father to permit his sons, on reaching the age of sixteen, to select for themselves a profession or business for life. When the question was propounded by Elder Waller to his third son, John L., what calling he preferred, he replied, - "I wish to get an education first, and then decide." Elder Waller was more than willing, but he possessed not the ability, to send his son to College, when he should be prepared to enter one; but he promised to render him all the aid in his power in his preparatory studies. He sent him to the Academy in Nicholasville, where, in three sessions, of five months each, he completed the Latin and Greek course required for admission into Transylvania University. But his father's pecuniary resources were altogether inadequate to meet the current expenses of his son at the University, and John returned, nowise disheartened, to his father's house, determined to educate himself. Procuring the text-books used at the University, he entered upon his "college course," as he called it, with his authors for his Professors. In the mean time, as a partial remuneration for what his father had paid to defray his expenses at the Academy, he devoted a part of each day to the instruction of his younger brothers and sisters. He remained at home thus employed until the spring of 1828, when he accepted an invitation to take charge of a select school in Jessamine County. He had never relinquished the hope of completing his studies at the University, and the prospect of being able to procure, by his own labour, the pecuniary means of accomplishing his purpose, induced him reluctantly to discontinue the instruction of the younger children at home. He was now in his twentieth year, - a young man much esteemed by all who knew him, unassuming in his deportment, social in his disposition. and of a cheerful and hopeful temperament. As yet he had made no profession of religion - indeed he had never, until the spring of 1828, made personal religion a subject of very serious consideration, though he had carefully read and studied the Bible, investigated its claims to a Divine origin, and had become familiar with the history of Polemic Theology, ancient and modern. His father regarded him and spoke of him as a sort of "Theological Encyclopedia," and frequently conversed with him for the purpose of eliciting information relating to Church History which he himself did not possess.
The parting words of his venerated parents, when he was about leaving the paternal roof, made a deep impression upon young Waller's feelings. and led him to serious reflection upon his relation to God as the moral Governor of the universe. The result was that, to use his own words, he "was brought to feel himself a great sinner, to seek, by prayer, the intercession of Christ, to adopt the language of the Publican, 'God be merciful to me a sinner,' and, ultimately, by faith in Christ, to indulge the hope that, for his sake, God had pardoned his sins." He did not, however, make a public profession of religion until July, 1833, at which time he was
baptized by his father, and united with the Baptist Church at Glenn's Creek, of which his father was the Pastor. Not long after the change in his religious views occurred, he seems to have entertained serious doubts concerning its genuineness, and, for the five years following, he made no open profession of personal piety. But he felt an interest to which he had hitherto been a stranger, in the Redeemer's Kingdom on Earth, and engaged with much zeal in the advocacy of what he regarded as the fundamental truths of Christianity. Several articles from his pen, over the signature of "Juvenis," appeared in the "Baptist Chronicle," a small monthly sheet published at Georgetown; but what brought him prominently before the public was a pamphlet entitled " Letters to a Campbellite, alias Reformer," originally addressed to a young friend of the writer, but, falling under the eye of Judge S____ , were solicited for publication. These Letters, reviewing the history of the so-called "Current Reformation," inaugurated by Alexander Campbell, and defending the Baptist faith and polity against what he believed to be misrepresentations, were extensively read, and secured for their author, wherever they were circulated, the reputation of a bold and vigorous writer, and an able defender of the doctrines for the utterance of which, without "license" from the civil authorities, his ancestors in Virginia had suffered fine and imprisonment "according to law."
Mr. Waller's mind was, after his public profession of religion, deeply impressed with a sense of his duty as a disciple of Christ, and especially in reference to preaching the Gospel. He conversed freely on this subject with his father, who greatly desired that at least one of his sons should enter the ministry. John L.'s distrust of his own fitness for the sacred office prevented him, for several years, from receiving ordination, though, in the judgment of those who best knew him, he possessed, in a high degree, the requisite qualifications. He continued, until 1835, teaching a select school, composed principally of pupils studying the Greek and Latin languages and the higher English branches, - devoting a large portion of the time, however, to study, to general reading and to writing; and there is little doubt that, in his case, this course of self-instruction, carried out as it was with that self-reliant energy and untiring industry for which he was distinguished, better qualified him for his subsequent career than would a four years' college routine have done.
In August, 1834, he was married to Miss Amanda M. Beatty, daughter of George Beatty, Esq., of Scott County. This pious and excellent lady died in February, 1851, leaving three children, - all of them daughters. In 1835, he was solicited to accept the editorship of the "Baptist Banner," a small semi-monthly sheet published at Shelbyville, and the only organ of the Baptist denomination in Kentucky. He accepted the place, and, in September of this year, entered upon his duties as a public journalist, with Doctors S. M. Noel and R. T. Dillard as assistants. The denomination of which the Banner, under the direction of Mr. Waller, was to be the exponent, though it was, in numbers, the strongest Religious Body in the State, was in a condition of great inefficiency. Its churches had suffered greatly from adverse influences on the right hand and on the left. Its College at Georgetown, established for the purpose of educating young men for the
ministry, had for years been manacled by a board of Trustees composed of discordant sectarian elements, - Baptists, Campbellites, and Anti-mission Baptists. There were but two Baptist churches in the Slate that enjoyed the entire services of a Pastor, and weekly preaching. The general rule was preaching once a month. For several years, very little had been done by the Kentucky Baptists for either Domestic or Foreign Missions, or for the circulation of the Scriptures - in fact, so much of Antinomiauism still lingered in many of the largest and wealthiest churches, that it was deemed inexpedient by their Pastors to introduce into their pulpits the Agents of the Mission Boards of the denomination. To rectify this state of things, to awaken the denomination to a sense of duty and to action, or, in the language of the youthful editor, "to arouse the sleeping giant to a consciousness of its own power, and to a perception of its duty to God," was the mission of the Baptist Banner. Mr. Waller had surveyed the whole field and well understood the nature of the work before him. The Banner, under his direction, became popular throughout the State, and its subscription list soon justified its enlargement and its weekly publication. It was shortly transferred from Shelbyville to Louisville, as a more eligible point of issue, - its circulation having already extended into other States, West and South. Mr. Waller continued principal editor of the Banner until 1841, during which period the subscription lists of the "Western Pioneer," of Illinois, and the "Baptist," of Nashville, Tenn., were transferred to the books of the Banner; and their respective editors, Rev. Dr. J. M. Peck, and Rev. Dr. R. B. C. Howell, became assistant editors of the "Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer," as the paper was styled after the union above indicated. The estimation in which Mr. Waller was held by his co-labourers, is expressed in the following paragraphs from the pen of the late Dr. J. M. Peck. "In the editorial corps, there was, from the beginning to the end, harmonious intercourse, fraternal feeling, and mutual co-operation. Not a jar, or note of discord can be found in the columns, nor were there any unkind suspicions entertained. Brother Waller was leader, - for he was at the office, - arranged the columns and looked over the proof slips; yet, in no instance, did he ever assume any superiority over his co-editors." "Nor did we permit any quarrelling in the Baptist family, - that is, among Baptists in general union. When factions broke away from those general principles that bound the whole Baptist fraternity in the United States in common bonds, by declarations of non-intercourse or non-fellowship on account of Missions; or when ministers and churches were carried into the muddy current of the 'Reformation,' and relinquished not only creeds in form, but the old scriptural creed (belief) always held by sound Baptists, we considered these factions as legitimate matters of controversy and exposure. 'Union and mutual co-operation, were our rallying words, and they may be found scattered over the columns of the "Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer." "Mr. Waller was modest, unassuming, did not put himself forward, and yet attracted attention. In all our personal intercourse, we found him courteous, kind-hearted, affable and good tempered. We never heard him give an angry or an impudent word to any one. Yet we
have seen occasional articles from his pen that were terribly severe. This was not his customary style of composition."
The prudence and ability which, from the first, characterized Mr. Waller's editorial writings, secured the confidence of his brethren every where, and even the elder portion of the Baptist ministry in the State, who had been accustomed to lead, recognised in their young lay-editor an able champion of their faith, and a wise counsellor in all their plans. His unassuming demeanour, his calm self-possession in the midst of exciting and sometimes of angry discussion, in the Association or the Convention, and his warmhearted conservatism, secured for him the confidence of all parties. During the six years of his connection with the "Banner and Pioneer," great and salutary changes were wrought in the denomination, especially in the State of Kentucky. The College at Georgetown had been reorganized, in its Board of Trustees and its Faculty, and a temporary endowment had been secured. The "General Association of Kentucky Baptists" had been organized for the purpose, mainly, of supplying the destitute portions of the State with the preaching of the Gospel. The wide-spread prejudice against an educated ministry had nearly disappeared from among the churches; preaching every Sabbath had come to be regarded as desirable, and had been secured by many of the churches; the Bible, Sunday School, and Missionary organizations were multiplying without opposition. Not only in the columns of the Banner, but in the District Associations, in the churches, by private correspondence, and in conversation with his brethren from all portions of the State, with whom he had become acquainted, did Mr. Waller contribute his influence to bring about this great change.
Mr. Waller was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1840, by the Baptist Church in Louisville, of which the Rev. Wm. C. Buck was the Pastor. His retirement from the "Banner and Pioneer" was prompted by a conviction that a field of more extensive usefulness was presented to him in his appointment to the office of General Agent of the General Association of Kentucky Baptists. He discharged the duties of this office for two years, during which time he visited every portion of the State, became intimately acquainted with the condition of the churches of his denomination, their past history and present wants, furnishing much valuable information to the Executive Board of the Association for their guidance in locating missionaries and in aiding feeble churches. He was every where greeted by his brethren with a cordial welcome, and succeeded in enlisting the active co-operation of the ministry and the more influential lay-membership of the churches, in support of the objects of the General Association. His "appointments," as published in the weekly issues of the Banner and Pioneer, represent him as preaching almost every day in the week.
On the death of his father, in 1843, the Glenn's Creek Church, of which his father had been Pastor for many years, invited John L. to become his successor in the pastoral office. He accepted the call, and entered upon his labours with a warm greeting from the companions of his early years. His pulpit ministrations were always of a high order, and generally attracted large congregations to Glenn's Creek. The church was united
and prosperous under his ministry, and, though no great revival occurred, accessions were frequently made to its membership.
In 1845, Mr. Waller commenced the publication of the "Western Baptist Review," a monthly periodical which he continued to publish till his death, - its title, after the fourth volume, being changed to "The Christian Repository." His design, as set forth in a Prospectus, was "to supply the denomination with a sort of reading not usually to be found in weekly newspapers, or, if found there, seldom read, and never preserved." In the prosecution of this design, he furnished the readers of the Review with a vast amount of historical matter, relating to the origin and progress of errors in polity, and heresies in creed, as they exist in Papal and in Protestant organizations; with articles, in a compact and readable form, in defence of the peculiar doctrines and the polity of Baptist churches; with critical reviews of books in the department of Polemic or of Didactic Theology; and with a monthly record of the progress of the Baptist denomination, as indicated by current statistics. Intermediate between the newspaper and the more elaborate "quarterlies," it supplied a felt want in the West and South, where but few of the clergy, and fewer still of the lay-membership, of the Baptist Churches, could be induced to subscribe for the more expensive and, perhaps, the more erudite Reviews, emanating from Princeton, Andover, or Newton.
An episode in the life of Mr. Waller, unanticipated by him and disapproved by some of his friends, occurred in 1849. The people of Kentucky had decided that a Convention should be called "to re-adopt, amend, or abolish the Constitution" of the State. The ablest statesmen and politicians of the Commonwealth were divided in their opinions in relation to the expediency of attempting to improve the fundamental law of the State, and the canvass for delegates to the Convention promised to be one of unusual interest. The Hon. Thomas F. Marshall was already the candidate of the party opposed to changing the Constitution, in Woodford County; and, as it was deemed doubtful how the question would be decided in that county, if the vote should be taken upon its merits, the "New Constitution party" felt the necessity of bringing out their strongest man. By common consent, Mr. Waller, who was understood to disapprove of some of the provisions of the existing Constitution, was the only man in the county that could successfully cope with Mr. Marshall, at that time regarded the most eloquent and best informed politician in the State. When the nomination was tendered to Mr. Waller, he at once declined it; but his acceptance of it was urged on the ground that, in all probability, the Constitution would be materially modified, that the religious rights of the people should be carefully guarded in that instrument, which might, for the next half century, underlie the State legislation; that already the other denominations had their ablest clergymen in the field as candidates for the Convention, and that the Baptist denomination, which was the largest in the State, should also have among its representatives at least one of its ablest ministers. With no little hesitation, - in fact, against the convictions of his own judgment, Mr. Waller accepted the nomination, and entered upon the canvass, which was conducted by the candidates with great ability, and with gentlemanly courtesy. Mr. Waller was elected by
a considerable majority; and, in the Convention, composed of the ablest men of the State, he ranked among the very first. He was always listened to with marked attention, and was treated with uniform courtesy, even by those who opposed his views and the measures he advocated. But he often, afterwards, spoke of his brief political career, as so much time lost; and no considerations could have again tempted him into even a temporary withdrawal from the great business of his life.
In 1850, he was recalled to the editorial management of the Banner and Pioneer, and the united voice of the denomination in Kentucky urged his return to his former position. Among the circumstances which led him to resume the responsibilities of editorship was the deep interest he felt in the subject of Bible Translation and Revision. The formation of the American Bible Union, for the purpose of furnishing correct translations of the Sacred Scriptures into all languages, was regarded by him as a measure of vital importance to the cause of Christianity; and, with that earnestness and unshaken confidence which characterized his advocacy of any measure which he believed to be sanctioned by the Great Head of the Church, did he address himself to the task of enlisting in its support not only the readers of his paper, - (now styled the "Western Recorder,") but Christians of all denominations, who desired a faithful version of the inspired original Scriptures into the English language, made by the best scholars of the age, untrammelled by any restrictions which would prevent them from furnishing in their translation "an exact transcript of the mind of the Spirit." The better to secure the co-operation of the West and the South, he proposed, by private correspondence with the friends of Revision in Kentucky, and adjoining States, the organization of a Society independent of the Bible Union located in New York, in nowise subject to its control, but to be, in fact, auxiliary to it, so long as it should adhere to the catholic principles upon which it was based. Such an organization, styled the "Bible Revision Association," was effected in April, 1852, at Memphis, Tenn., by a large convention of delegates from ten different States. Mr. Waller was elected President of the Association, and remained such to the time of his death. Through the columns of the Recorder and of the Repository, by an extensive correspondence, and by lectures, addresses, and oral discussion, in Kentucky, in Missouri, and in Mississippi, he greatly multiplied the friends of Revision, and obtained liberal contributions to the funds of the Society. The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on Mr. Waller by Madison University, in the State of New York, in 1852.
It is perhaps unnecessary to say a word, in reply to an intimation that was thrown out previous to Mr. Waller's death, and which took the form of a more open and direct statement afterwards, that he sympathized with the peculiar views of Alexander Campbell. During his lifetime, Mr. Waller treated all such insinuations with silent contempt. As a Baptist, he could cordially unite with Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformers, or even with Catholics, in any benevolent enterprise that did not involve a sacrifice of principle. But that he ever entertained a thought of compromising one iota of Baptist faith or Church polity, for the purpose of bringing about a union of Baptists and Reformers, his most intimate friends never had a suspicion. He was, indeed, hopeful that the evangelical portion of the
Reformed Churches would adopt such a creed, or such a basis of church organization, as would ultimately effect a separation of what he deemed the anti-evangelical elements from the heterogeneous mass, leaving a residuum of orthodox theology combined with scriptural ordinances. But to the day of his death, he persistently refused to recognise the Reformed congregations as Christian churches, declining, on all occasions, when invited, to commune with them at the Lord's table, though he was on terms of friendly intercourse with, and entertained a high regard for, many of their preachers. and he even preached occasionally in their houses of worship. In a work on Communion, written shortly before his death, and published since, he expressly deprecates intercommunion between Baptists and Reformers, and advises Baptists, if they cannot conscientiously abstain from communing with Reformers at the Lord's table, to leave their own denomination and become Reformers themselves.
Mr. Waller's death, which occurred on the 10th of October, 1854, may be said to have been, at that time, sudden, though it scarcely took his intimate friends by surprise. His health had been, during the last ten years of his life, in a precarious condition; and, on several occasions, his recovery from sudden and severe attacks of illness had been despaired of. Several times, without any premonition, he had fallen senseless, and remained so for hours, - once, when travelling alone on horseback. For this reason he never, during the latter portion of his life, journeyed without some friend as a companion. After his recovery from one of these attacks, as far back as 1844, he thus writes to his sister: - "I have always had a presentiment that I should die young; and I know that I am liable to go without a moment's warning. But I have nothing to do with life - my death is with God. I never felt more cheerful in my life - I am persuaded you never saw me more so. Had I died the other night, I should have had a most pleasant exit. I almost murmured because it was not the time."
In reply to a suggestion from a friend, that preaching was calculated to increase the frequency of these attacks, and that he had better, therefore, abstain for a while from public speaking, he says: - "I believe we ought to use all laudable means to preserve our lives. God requires this at our hands; but I am slow to believe that our health is ever set against our duty, or that we are any longer required to live in this world, when we can do no good. When a Christian can do nothing in the vineyard of the Lord, his time of departure has come. I intend, therefore, to do what I can while I live, for I have no other motive in living. If preaching proves an injury to me, it must do so; for I shall certainly preach when I can." A few days before he died, on leaving Louisville for the purpose of meeting an engagement to lecture on his favourite theme, - the Bible faithfully translated into all languages, - he left with his family a paper containing suggestions and directions relative to his temporal affairs, to be consulted by them in the event of his not returning, - remarking that, of late, his mind had been strongly impressed with the idea that he had but a short time to remain with his friends on earth. He had looked forward with much interest to the annual meeting of the General Association of Kentucky Baptists, which was to occur on the 12th instant, two days after his decease. The announcement of his death in the Association created a
profound sensation. All felt that a great and good man, a wise and able counsellor, had been removed. Resolutions expressive of their sympathy with his surviving relatives, and especially with his orphan children, were passed, and brief eulogies upon his character were pronounced; and, as a testimony of their respect for his memory, they solicited the privilege of superintending the interment of his remains, with appropriate ceremonies, in the cemetery near Frankfort, where, it was understood, Mr. Waller had desired to be buried. On the 27th instant, the time fixed by the Association for the Funeral solemnities, his remains were taken to Frankfort, where an able discourse was pronounced by the venerable Elder William Vaughan, at the close of which the corpse was accompanied to the cemetery grounds by the largest Body of Baptist ministers ever convened in Kentucky on a similar occasion, and deposited in its final resting place.
In person, Mr. Waller was somewhat below medium stature, of a broad and compact frame, and rather inclined to corpulency in the latter portion of his life. His features were expressive of great kindliness of disposition, rather than of a high order of intellect, except when animated by strong mental excitement.
Very respectfully yours,
J. E. Farnam, Georgetown College, Ky., July 8, 1859.
[From William Buell Sprague, editor, Annals of the American Pulpit: Baptist, 1860, pp. 837-845. Document from Google Books. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall]
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