Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 110 - 114)
In the cemetery of the old Sweetwater Church, in Monroe County, not far from Philadelphia, rests the remains of one of the earliest pioneer settlers of the Sweetwater Valley. From his tombstone I copy this inscription: "In memory of Rev. Eli Cleveland; born October 1, 1781; died November 23, 1859. Born a sinner; saved by grace."
The Clevelands are a numerous and noted family, both in England and in the United States. A book has been written which gives the history of the family as far back as the year 1200, showing the varied spelling of the name to be, "Cliffland, Clyveland, Cliveland, Clieveland, Cleaveland, and Cleveland - the last spelling being the one adopted by the members of the family who came to this State" (Lenoir).
The subject of our sketch was born in Wilkes County, N. C. He was a son of Capt. Robert Cleveland and a nephew of Col. Benjamin Cleveland; both of Revolutionary "fame," making many campaigns together, "fighting the tories." The father of these two American patriots, the grandfather of Eli Cleveland, it is thought, settled in Orange County, Va., about the year 1700.
Eli Cleveland was married to a Miss Mary Ragan, of Ashe County, N. C., December 28, 1803. To this union were born eight children, four sons and four daughters.
He was baptized the third Sabbath in December, 1813. uniting with a Baptist Church in Ashe County, N. C., having obtained a hope in Christ a short time previous. Soon afterward he commenced exhorting and preaching to sinners to "flee the wrath to come." He moved with his family to Knox County, Tenn., in 1817. He was ordained to the ministry in 1818, by request of Beaver Ridge Church. He moved to Sweetwater Valley in 1821. He united with the church at Sweetwater the fourth Saturday in January, 1822. He was chosen moderator of the church soon afterward, and retained the office until his death. This being a newly settled country, he preached much and was instrumental in building up and establishing a number of churches. He also built up a fine estate and became the owner of several negroes. He had some $30,000 loaned out, mostly to farmers, at 6 per cent interest. He gave the ground for tile meeting house and cemetery of the old Sweetwater Church, and largely built the house, boarding the hands and furnishing teams, and negroes to drive them, as well as to do other work in connection with the building. The house was built of brick, and Elder Robert Snead was a co-laborer with him in building the house, Brother Snead being an expert hand at moulding and laying brick and, having charge of the building, put his indelible mark on the house by putting up the front wall with his own hands out of the
brick he himself had made.
Eli Cleveland was a good practical surveyor, and did a good deal of surveying in connection with the entry and settlement of the new and fertile farms in the "Ocoee district," thus helping his neighbors to establish their lines and corners. I have been told the town of Cleveland was named for him at any rate, it was named for the Cleveland family. As to education, culture, style of preaching, etc., a venerable brother, who knew him well and heard him preach often, characterized him as a "good mathematical man , well versed in the Scriptures, sympathetic, powerful in exhortation, a great peacemaker, and a genuine missionary; he was very simple and plain, and never tried to go into the deep doctrines of the Bible before an audience." As to personal characteristics and appearance, he is described as a man of plain manners and plain speech, having perfectly black hair (in his younger days), a fine physique, weight about 200 pounds, a fine conversationalist, and possessed of a voice of very great power, but a voice that was full of pathos and tears. "His exhortations and appeals had a most wonderful effect upon big hearers. Repentance was the great theme of his preaching, and hundreds of souls were brought to the Savior under the influence of his ministry." His brethren sometimes twitted him, good-naturedly, over his money-making, slightly insinuating that he was too "rich" for a preacher. But he had a talent to make money, and Providence had spread out before him a new, rich country, and all he had to do was to use his good sense and go out and possess the land. He was not grasping, however, but was liberal with his means for a man of his day and environment. He not only contributed liberally toward building a house of worship for his own neighborhood, but helped the First Baptist Church of Knoxville build their first meeting-house. gave liberally to the Baptist Female Institute at Jonesboro, and to other causes of religion, as be had opportunity. He gave his time to the churches, never receiving anything from them in the way of remuneration for his services. It is said, however, that on one
occasion a collection was taken for him without his knowledge; but, with the consent of the brethren, he took the money donated and with it purchased an overcoat for a poor preacher in the neighborhood.
In the '30's and '40's, when churches were dividing over the question of "missions" and the "societies of the day," Elder Cleveland, by keeping a cool head and steadying the boat, taking a conservative position, as he did, kept his church a unit and steered it successfully through the straits of those stormy days, landing it at length in tranquil waters, on the "missionary side" of the question.
Elder Eli Cleveland died of heart failure November 23, 1859, aged 78 years, 1 month and 22 days. His last words were addressed to his true yoke-fellow in the ministry, Elder Robert Snead, who was to succeed him in the pastoral care of the old 'Sweetwater Church: "I shall not long be here; I have given up; I have no desire to stay here at all; this world is nothing to me. I am perfectly resigned to go at any time it is the will of God to take me. I have great reason to be thankful for His goodness toward me. My trust is altogether in Jesus, because I could not trust in anything on earth or in myself. I want you to pray for me that I may go easy, for God answers the prayers of His people. Take care of my little flock." The last words spoken, in thirty minutes he fell asleep in Jesus without a groan or a struggle.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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