Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


(pages 101-106)

In the old cemetery at Jonesboro is a slab erected by the Baptist church of that place and inscribed: "In memory of Rev. William Cate, born June 17, 1807; died February 2, 1860. For twenty-five years he was an energetic and efficient minister of the Baptist faith, whose labors in the sacred cause of Christ are all imperishable monument to his memory. 'Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace.' "

William, the son of John and Mary Cate, was born in Jefferson County, Tennessee, being the sixth son in a family of eleven children, eight sons and three daughters. The Cate family in this country is a multitudinous generation, all akin and most of the stock a Baptist folk, the various tribes being descended, according to tradition, from two brothers who "came over from England" in the early settlement of this country.

Young Cate grew to manhood with few advantages of an education. In his twenty-third year he was married to Mary Thornburg, of his native county. November 10, 1837, he and his companion "went down into the water" together and were baptized, uniting with the Rocky Valley Church. The same church licensed him to preach, and January 1, 1838, he made his "first lecture as a licentiate." He was ordained to the full work of the ministry, January 24, 1840, Elders James Lankford and Robert G. Kimbrough constituting the presbytery.

In 1841, under appointment of the Baptist State Convention, he went to Washington County and commenced his labors as "missionary" in the bounds of the Holston Association. At the close of his first year on this field he reported to the board, "protracted meetings held, 23; sermons preached, 200; addresses delivered, about the same; number of conversions witnessed, 500."

In 1842 he organized the Jonesboro, Elizabethton, and Blountville churches, and later the New Salem, Rogersville and Bristol churches. The same year (1842) he became pastor of the Jonesboro Church, and continued pastor eighteen years (till his death), building for the Baptists of the town two houses of worship. When he commenced his work in Jonesboro there was but one Baptist in the place - the territory having been "pre-empted," so to speak, by people of other faiths. At the close of his pastorate the Baptists were 170 strong. Meanwhile he had baptized thousands of people in the bounds of the Holston, and had canvassed nearly the whole of East Tennessee as collecting agent for church-building, missionary, and educational enterprises. He was the inspiring genius and principal founder of the Holston Baptist Female Institute, Jonesboro, where many of our Baptist young women of other days received their education. Having no children of his own to educate, and believing that the thorough education of Baptist young people, especially our Baptist girls, would be a pillar of strength to the denomination, he took the field, and with much sacrifice of time, energy, and vital force, raised several thousand dollars for the above institution, and erected a number of handsome buildings.

When the Baptists were struggling to get a foothold in Knoxville (1850), and the First Church meeting-house was about to be sold for debt, William Cate was employed as financial agent and saved the building from going under the auctioneer's hammer. When William Cate commenced his work as missionary, the cause of missions in Tennessee was languishing and the workers were discouraged; but his dauntless courage and unprecedented success, and the widespread revivals of 1841 to 1845 inspired hope and put new life in all the associations connected with the State Convention.

Referring to Elder Cate and his labors as missionary for the Holston Association the venerable and now lamented William A. Keen said: "No man ever stirred up so much interest, or aroused such fierce opposition, or made so deep an impression upon the people as did William Cate. He was a full Baptist, and preached the gospel fearlessly, attacking the very stronghold of the enemy. From the very start his preaching was a sensation. He proclaimed the duty of Baptists to go up and possess the land, and led the way. But every step of the way was opposed and every foot of the territory was stoutly contested by Pedobaptist opponents. Every day was a battle, but every battle was a victory; for the hand of the Lord was with him."

William Cate was not robust, nor was he particularly striking in his personal appearance. On the contrary, he was lean and swarthy, and had a weak voice. But his dress was neat, his figure tall and straight, his eyes were dark and piercing ,and his voice, though weak, was pathetic and spiritually magnetic. In a scholastic sense he was not educated, but he had a trained mind. His style was not that of a popular preacher, still he was popular. He was not a "revivalist," in the popular sense, and yet be was a wonderfully successful soul-winner. He never failed to command attention and sometimes produced upon his hearers, a profound impression. "He was pious, determined, persevering. He knew no discouragement, but with faith in God he planned and executed his plans, confidently expecting that if he failed today he would succeed tomorrow."

When the Baptist banner was first uplifted in the old historic town of Jonesboro, it seemed presumptions to some that such a thing should be done, and not a little disturbance was thereby occasioned in certain quarters. Wm. G. Brown "Parson" Brownlow, he was called - preacher and politician, and editor of the Whig, gave the Baptists some hard knocks in his paper, and wrote a book against them. Among the caricature pictures in the book was one representing William Cate baptizing a female in Cherokee Creek. The pictures in the book were not overly modest, nor its arguments formidable - it is of interest only as a sword or other weapon of war, captured from the enemy, is of interest to the old soldier after the war is over.

One of the marked characteristics of William Cate was his modesty, he always shrank from occupying distinguished or popular pulpits. On his collecting-agency trips he rarely got far from his base of operations, East Tennessee, but on one occasion he got as far as Baltimore, and was urged by the distinguished Dr. Richard Fuller to preach for him on a Sabbath. Brother Cate reluctantly consented. and did the best be could. To his surprise and encouragement he overheard one of the old members, say, "Well, thank God! we have heard the gospel preached in Dr. Fuller's pulpit once more."

As an illustration of the strong prejudice the "agent" or money-getter had to encounter in Brother Cate's day, take the following. On the Dumplin Church records of December 7, 1851, is the copy of a "notice" posted on a tree close by the church-house and addressed to "Mr. William Cate." The notice reads as follows: "It is generally believed you had better not come to this camp-meeting at Dumplin, lest you cause sinners to be lost; for they have no confidence in you. They believe you are not seeking souls, but money. Now for the cause of God and your good, you had better stay away." It is gratifying to note that the Dumplin Church branded the notice as a "base falsehood and a foul slander," and endorsed Elder Cate as a "successful minister of the gospel and an efficient agent in raising funds for benevolent purposes."

Elder Cate, with his usual painstaking accuracy, had kept a detailed account of himself in a diary and had preserved many papers and records with a view to writing a history of the Cate family, which has in it a score or more of preachers; but after his death these documents were turned over to Professor Starkweather, then of Jonesboro, who took them with him to Rochester, N. Y., with the intention of writing a biography of Elder Cate; but the war coming on, the work was abandoned and the records have not been recovered.

In 1860 the beloved Cate left the field where he had sown and reaped so bountiful a harvest, and went to Fayetteville, Ark., to visit relatives, hold meetings, and perhaps make a settlement in the West. Immediately upon his arrival he fell sick of pneumonia fever, which brought to a speedy close a most useful life. The Holston Association, which he had served nineteen years as missionary and eight years as moderator, by committee and vote paid beautiful tribute to his memory. Peaceful was his death and without a struggle.  

"So fades the summer cloud away;

So sinks the gale when storms are o'er;

So gently shuts the eye of day;

So dies a wave along the shore."


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


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