Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
Here in the shadow of the old Cherokee church, on Cherokee Creek, Washington County, I am standing on historic ground, listening to the silence that broods over the cemetery where I meditate. The church has been in existence since 1783; has outlived two meeting houses, and for years has been worshiping in a third. The old church book (preserved from the beginning) and tombstones show some interesting records. I find in the cemetery a stone erected to the member of "Rev. Rees Bayless; born August 22, 1787; died October 29, 1864; more than fifty years a Baptist preacher"; and another erected to the memory of his grandfather, "Daniel Bayless who died in the year 1800." He also sleeps the dust of Elder John Bayless, father of Rees, and once a minister of the Cherokee Church. In its long list of member the church record shows seven generations of the Baylesses, among them three generations of Baptist preachers.
The subject of our sketch was born on Cherokee Creek, Washington County, Tennessee, four miles south of Jonesboro. On the paternal side he was of sturdy English stock, his grandfather, Daniel, having emigrated from England more than a century and a half ago, settling first in Pennsylvania, afterwards locating in Washington County, Tennessee, with is three sons, Samuel, John and Reuben. In the large family connection are a number of interesting land "grants," made to the older Baylesses before Tennessee became a State.
Elder Bayless was converted in his youth, and uniting with the Cherokee Church, was baptized, most likely, by Jonathan Mulkey, a preacher of pioneer fame. He was married May 17, 1804, to Margaret Young, who became the mother of his six children, five daughters and one son. In August of 1828 he was married a second time, to the widow Elizabeth McPherin. In 1810 the Cherokee Church licensed him to preach, and in 1820 ordained him. He became pastor of this, his home church, in June, 1827, and continued pastor for more than a quarter of a century. He was also pastor of Buffalo Ridge, Sinking Creek, Indian Creek (now Erwin), Limestone, and other church of the Holston Association. For many year he was a leader in this, the oldest association in the State, and was its Moderator for twenty-two years.
He was a prominent figure among East Tennessee Baptists and influential in the councils of his brethren. His judgment was deferred to and his advice had weight with the churches. At a meeting of "representatives" of the Holston, Tennessee, Nolachucky and East Tennessee associations, held August 25-26, 1843, at Pleasant Grove Church, Cocke County, for the purpose of adjusting doctrinal differences in regard to "election," "free salvation," etc., and to secure, if possible, a basis of union and co-operation in mission work, Elder Rees Bayless was chosen Moderator of the convention, and to his wise counsel and conservative being was due, largely, the substantial adoption of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith and a resolution to co-operate in the work of missions.
Like most of our Baptist preachers of a hundred years ago, young Bayless grew to manhood, having few educational advantages. Being a student, however, of men and books, and a hard worker in the field of knowledge that was open to him, he dug out for himself stores of practical and useful learning, and became in the real sense of the tem an educated man. I am credibly informed that he was even a "Geek scholar," but whether he got his knowledge of Greek at school or at home, I am not able to say.
I close this sketch of a faithful and honored master-builder in our Baptist Zion with the following characterization of him by one who labored with him in word and doctrine and who appreciated his great worth to the denomination and to the cause of God: "Elder Bayless was not a man of culture or scholarly attainments, in the modern sense of these terms. But he was really educated and a self-made man. He was an old-fashioned gospel preacher, a great preacher for his day. He had great strength of character and was as firm a man as Andrew Jackson. He was a speaker of commanding appearance, standing erect, six feet three inches, rawboned and stalwart, a splendid specimen of physical manhood. He had great compass and strength of voice, and always spoke with ease, never straining his voice, giving the audience the impression of reserved power in the preacher. For a long while before his death he was afflicted with rheumatism, and was a great sufferer, much of the time being unable to preach, but he bore his sufferings with Christian fortitude, and endured as seeing Him who is invisible. He was in deed and in truth a man of God, and did great good in his day, mightily influencing the people. (W. A. Keen).
To Elkana Bayless, grandson of Elder Rees Bayless, an ordained minister of Cherokee Church, a lover of books and a student of history (deceased, March 31, 1899), I am indebted for considerable kindnesses and practical help in my work.
To Robert Rees Bayless, of Johnson City, a grandson name-sake of the elder Rees Bayless, I am indebted for helpful suggestion and service in many ways. He recently (May, 1917) passed to his reward. He was past 73, had been a deacon of Cherokee Church for fifty years, and for forty-eight or forty-nine years had attended, almost unbrokenly, the annual meetings of the Holston Association.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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