Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


(pages 90 - 95)

The subject of this sketch was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina, near Asheville, September 14, 1829.  He was a. son of Swan P. and Frances Burnett, being the youngest of thirteen children.  His grandfather, Thomas Burnett, was a Virginian by birth, of Scotch descent.  His mother, a daughter of Thomas and Janny (Montgomery) Bell, of North Carolina., was partly Irish.  His father was a well-to-do farmer and ambitious for his children, wanting to give them an education and a "start" in life, and, if possible, "settle" them around him.  This, however, he could not do, without more and better acres of land for a home-basis of operations, and the possibility of additional land purchases in the course of time.  Down the French Broad River, fifty miles west, was an "opening," and in 1835 the family left the old homestead and came to the newer country, settling down near the Mouth of Big Creek (now Del Rio), in Cocke County, Tennessee.  Here the lad was brought up to farm life, grew to manhood, lived most of his life, died and was buried.

At the age of 13 he was converted in a meeting held by Elders Joseph Manning and Ephraim Moore at Clay Creek Church, and was baptized by Elder Manning.  He preached his first sermon at Pleasant Grove Church on the banks of Pigeon River, six miles from Newport.

August 31, 1854, he was married to Evelyn Ann Huff. daughter of Stephen Huff, a lovable but frail woman, who brightened his home for three brief years, and died, leaving an issue of two children, a son and a daughter.  December 26, 1861, he was married to Miss H. S. Cody, a daughter of Elder Edmund Cody, of Alabama, a woman of refined tastes and consecrated life.  To this union were born eight children, four sons and four daughters.

In 1859 and 1860 he was a fellow-student with Dr. Win. H. Whitsitt in Union University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Dr. J. M. Pendleton, then one of the university professors, made the statement, it is said, that J. M. L. Burnett and W. H. Whitsitt "were the finest, or among the finest, linguists he had ever taught."  Dr. Whitsitt, in a personal letter, says: "Dear Brother:  I had the honor to be a fellow-student with J. M. L. Burnett at Union University - studied with him in several classes.  He was a man of marked ability, insight and independence.  Though he was older than myself, we appeared to fraternize on the spot and were much in each other's company.  Perhaps one of the most important ties that bound us was his taste for Burns, in whom he took more delight than any other student.  He had the ability, too, to read the great poet in dialect - a thing that I could not accomplish.  It was a revelation to me to hear him recite "Tam O'Shanter."  The inexpressible fun and pathos of it had never got hold of me before.  And I have never since heard anybody who could do it in his style.  I lost my sense of propriety; I rolled on the floor; I shouted till the landlady sent to inquire if anything had happened.  I sometimes seem to hear his tones through these long years as he would say, 'Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! Thou'll get thy fairin'; in hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!' 1"  This is an exquisite compliment, coming from one who afterwards became a charming interpreter of the Scotch poet and a delightful lecturer on "Bobby Burns."

In 1861 he was ordained pastor of the Fort Gaines (Georgia) Church, Elders Edmund Cody, Adiel Sherwood and Dr. E. W. Warren constituting the ordaining council.  He served this church, and other churches in Georgia and Alabama, some five or six years.

In 1867, with impaired health and a change of life-plans, he returned to his East Tennessee country home, near the Mouth of Big Creek (Del Rio), in Cocke County., where he lived the independent, quiet life of a farmer-preacher the balance of his days.  Declining calls to some prominent pulpits and an offer of the chair of mathematics in a  leading university, he remained on the farm, serving as pastor of his home church, Big Creek (at Del Rio), Newport, Leadvale, Morristown, and other nearby churches.

From his home at Del Rio, in sight of the mountains and in touch with the mountain people every day, he did a great deal, in an inspirational way, toward fostering missions, Sunday schools, pastoral support, associational and other co-operative work among weak and backward churches in the mountain districts.  By his sympathetic touch with mountain preachers he also did real pioneer work, encouraging and helping them, as he did, to equip themselves for effective work among their own people.

Joseph Manning, Ephraim Moore and J. M. L. Burnett were the principal founders of the East Tennessee Association, composed at first of four churches, afterwards covering two counties, Cocke and Sevier.  The last of the above mentioned brethren was frequently chosen as Moderator, and was a good parliamentarian.  He was at home in deliberative bodies, whether in the presiding officer's chair or on the floor of the body; he would keep the body out of parliamentary tangles, straighten out the tangle, or skillfully "cut the gordian knot," so as to go on with the business.

As to scholarship, he was not a graduate, had no scholastic titles or degrees.  He was educated., however, in the true sense of the word, and was a trained thinker.  He had a good working knowledge of Latin and Greek, and as to his "mother tongue," alike in the pulpit and by the fireside, he drew from 'a  well of English undefiled."  He was a Fullerite in theology, and Robert Hall was his model of diction and pulpit discourse.  He was naturally a good sermonizer, and had the instincts of the orator, but had been denied the orator's voice.  He was gifted and able in prayer.  As a conversationalist he had the faculty of adapting himself to any sort of company, and was a generous dispenser of sunshine and good cheer.  He could be a good listener, or on occasion could play the role of "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," in which he was wont to revel with the greatest delight.

When he had preached his last sermon (at Leadvale, one of his charges), the brethren gathered about him to give him the usual invitation to their homes.  He declined the invitations with the words: "I must go home; the harvest must be gathered; the Reaper is there awaiting my return," not knowing that the reaper whose name is Death was awaiting him in the dim shadows and that he himself was soon to be harvested.  He fell on sleep August 1, 1883, in his 54th year.

The deceased is survived by his widow, Mrs. H. S, Burnett, of Del Rio, Tennessee, and ten living children who are making good in the various callings of life.  One of them is a medical doctor in Newport, another a physician in Greenville, South Carolina, another a writer of history on the Carnegie Foundation, Washington, District of Columbia; another a preacher and former President of Carson and Newman College; while one is the wife of a most liberal giver to Carson and Newman; another the wife of a life-long teacher; another the wife of a lawyer, and still another the wife of a successful merchant who is a Baptist, etc.

He received his honorary title, "D.D.", from Carson College, date not remembered.


Burnett, J .J.  Sketches of  Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers.  Nashville, Tenn.:  Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.


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