Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
87 - 90)
(pages 87 - 90)
For forty years there was no better or more favorably known preacher in Knox, Blount and Sevier counties, or a more stalwart defender of the Baptist faith, than W. M. Burnett, son of Jeremiah B. Burnett.
The subject of our sketch was born in Knox County, Tennessee, June 10, 1814. He was not gifted with physical beauty, as his picture shows, but he was gifted with brains and had force of character. His mixed features leave the casual observer in doubt as to whether he was most Roman, Jew, or Indian - or a combination; whereas, in point of fact, he was no blood kin to any of these ancient historic peoples. His physiognomy - high cheek bones, aquiline nose, sunken face and swarthy complexion - as well as the family records, show him to be a scion of an ancient black stock of the Burnetts, which now and then, in all the tribes, puts forth an occasional unexpected shoot.
He was converted in his youth; in his twenty-first year was licensed to preach by Hopewell Church, Knox County; and was married, March 21, 1838, to Latitia Sharp, Elder James Lankford officiating. He was ordained by Nail's Creek Church, at the regular May meeting in 1840, James Lankford, William Billue and William Hodges acting as presbytery.
He served as pastor the following churches: Hopewell, Nail's Creek, Ellijoy, Sugar Loaf, Pleasant Grove, Henderson's Chapel, Knob Creek, Maryville, Sevierville, and Boyd's Creek. He was pastor of the last mentioned church twenty-six years, building a new house of worship to take the place of the old brick house, which was falling into ruins. Besides being pastor, he was Circuit Court Clerk, Deputy County Court Clerk and County Trustee of Sevier County, farmer and school teacher. I have met scores of grown-up girls and gray-bearded boys who went to school to him and received mental training and "physical stimulus" at his hands.
He was not a classical scholar, technically so-called; however, he was a hard student, and knew some Greek. "His learning was varied and extensive, and he was specially familiar with the doctrines and principles of Baptists." He preached in plain, forcible English, easy to be understood by the common people.
As a defender of "the faith delivered once for all to the saints," he was bold and unflinching. Armed with Henry's and Clark's Commentaries, Wesley's Journal, and what he considered a Baptist Bible, he was ready to meet doughty champions of error whenever it seemed necessary. His four days' debate with a champion of Methodism is still fresh in the memory of the Boyd's Creek people. His Moderators were M. Hillsman and C. C. Tipton, and the cause of truth, on that occasion, it is said, "did not suffer in his hands." He was not a "fighting preacher," in the popular sense of that term, but, as his brethren testified, was only and always a 'faithful expounder of the Scriptures, and an able advocate of the principles and practices of the Baptist people," in sermon or debate. That he was not a sectarian or a bigot or bellicose in spirit was evidenced by the fact that, in time of the Civil War, when he was not serving as "chaplain" in the army, be was preaching everywhere at home to men as men, to Baptists and Methodists alike, weeping, like the prophet Jeremiah, over the desolations of Zion and the war-stricken condition of his people.
His last sermon was at Boyd's Creek, from the text: "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life." A brother preacher, who was in feeble health, had begun the sermon but began coughing so badly he could not finish. He called upon "Brother Burnett to take up the thread of the discourse and finish." It was an inspiring and uplifting sermon. which the people "never forgot." His greatest sermon was preached from his death-bed, with Paul's triumphant words as a text: "I have fought the good fight." He died April 14, 1881, and was buried in Pleasant Hill cemetery, in the neighborhood of Antioch Church, nearby the old home where the deceased had lived for many years.
By special request the funeral discourse was preached by Elder John Russell, from Paul's words above quoted, "I have fought the good fight." On the minutes of the Boyd's Creek Church is this memorial: "For more than a quarter of a century our brother has served this church with perfect acceptance and without a jar. Under his ministry the church has passed through many precious revivals, and by his solemn appeals and persuasive eloquence many souls were led into the fold of the good Shepherd.
His toils are past, his work is done,
And he is fully blest;
He fought the fight, the vict'ry won,
And entered into rest."
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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