Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
Jesse, the son of G. W. and Martha Baker, was born near Sneedville, Hancock County, Tennessee, March20, 1836. On his father's side he is mostly Irish. His mother was of German descent, having been born in Holland. His grandfather, Joseph was a native of Virginia, but in the early history of the country, moved to Tennessee and settled in Hawkins (now Hancock) County. His great-grandfather, Andrew Baker, was a Baptist preacher in Virginia, a man of great usefulness, but a little eccentric in his habits. For instance, he would conscientiously "walk," and would never ride, to the house of worship on Sundays, in "imitation," as held, of Christ and His apostles. On any other day of the week he felt at liberty to ride. It happened on a certain occasion, so the story goes, that the venerable old preacher was seen riding on a fine horse and approaching a crowd of worldlings. One of the crowd, a smart fellow, who had just the day before been elected Esquire, said to the others: "Now, let's have some fun out of the old man." And so he accosted the preacher: "Well, Mr. Baker, you seem to be prouder than your Master; I believe He never rode on as fine an animal as you are on." "No," was the quick retort, "they have made 'squires of all the asses, leaving me nothing in that line to ride." The tables were turned and the joke was on the other fellow.
Jesse Baker was converted in his seventeenth year, in a meeting held at Sneedville by Asa Routh and Thomas Gilbert, and was baptized by John Gilbert into the fellowship of the Sneedville Church. March 12, 1855, in his nineteenth year, he entered Mossy Creek College, graduating June 9, 1859. In the summer before his graduation he was ordained by the authority of the Sneedville Church - Elders A. Routh, T. Gilbert and J.D. Berry acting as a presbytery.
He was married October 3, 1860 to Lucy A Neil, a daughter of William and Margaret Neil, of Tazewell. I suppose no preacher's wife ever fed and entertained more preachers, and other company, than Sister Baker.
At different times Brother Baker was pastor of the following churches: Tazewell, his first pastorate, ten years; Mossy Creek, sixteen years; Dandridge, seventeen years; Cedar Grove (Alpha), eighteen years; Mouth of Richland, ten years; Dumplin, Island Home, Smithwood, a number of years; also Newport, Rankin, Beaver Creek, Buffalo, Rob Camp, Little Sycamore, and other churches. His greatest work was at Mossy Creek, now Jefferson City, extending over a number of years. First and last, he baptized into the fellowship of the church at this place not fewer than 500 persons, including college students.
He was closely identified with the interests and fortunes of Carson and Newman College from near its founding in 1851. In 1868 he was an associated teacher in the college with Prof. R. R. Bryan. In 1869 he was President of the college with the Russells (W. T. and T. R.) as associate professors. As agent for the college, in a crisis when its very existence was involved, in ten months he rode horseback 3,500 miles and raised $5,250 to free the struggling and debt-burdened institution from the imminent peril of being sold under the hammer. Closing his agency work, and taking his place in the college as teacher (1870), in less than five months' time he saw a hundred young men matriculate as students in the college. In the fall of the same year a revival wave swept over the college and church (of which he was pastor), and about 100 souls were converted. December 10, 1870, he resigned the presidency of the college to give himself wholly to preaching and pastoral work. His interest in the college and its work, however, never ceased. He was Secretary of its Board of Trustees for about thirty years, and rarely missed a board meeting in all that time.
In 1882 the college honored him, and itself as well, by conferring upon him the title, "D. D."
Dr. Baker passed to his reward May 29, 1902. From an address delivered by Prof. W. T. Russell at a memorial service held by the Trustees and Alumni of Carson and Newman College, I copy the following eloquent words. "The college had just come out of the war a wreck, with a debt of $6,000 - the only assets being an unfenced campus and three dilapidated brick buildings, destitute of floors, windows and doors. Dr. Baker had been elected President. I had been elected, a mere boy, to a place in the faculty. We went to look over the grounds and talk over the work, August 7, 1869, the day of the total eclipse of the sun. As we looked over the wrecked buildings and grounds, it seemed fitting to have the light of the sun shut out. Dr. Baker was distressed because the property was in ruins and the people discouraged, the college about to be sold under debt, and its history about to end in dishonor. As we turned to leave the cheerless spot he said, "let us undertake it." That was heroic faith. He rode horseback all over East Tennessee and preached and prayed and plead for money. At the end of the year funds had been secured to pay off the debt, and that was a day of great rejoicing. Dr Baker than took up his work in this college. He was also pastor of the church, which held its meetings in one of the college buildings. It was during these years that some memorable revivals were held by him in the college. He taught during the day and preached at night. In one of those great meetings 100 souls were saved, and this occasion became an epoch in the history of the church and the college. I remember especially one great sermon at night. He spoke with such pathos and power and eloquence that it seemed the whole audience was moved as I have never seen an audience moved, before or since. His voice was full of fervor and melody. His tongue was eloquent; his hands could speak. His fiery words burned into every soul present. In the midst of his sermon his face shone as it had been the face of an angel, and he said, "My soul's on fire tonight!" He then proceeded to describe a soul about to be doomed to death. He pictured that soul reaching out the hands of faith to take hold on the Christ, and struggling to break loose from the demons of hell, that had come up from their fiery home, clothed with scorpion stings and flames of fire. He painted that soul laying fast hold on Christ. Then the demons loosed their hold and turned in flight. "Thank God, he's saved." cried some one in the audience. He rose to such heights of impassioned and entrancing eloquence that many of the audience rose from their seats and stood up. One strong you man fell down and buried his face in his hands, and involuntary shrieks and groans came from all parts of the room. It was after midnight when that meeting closed."
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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