Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 170 - 172)
James Gilbert, son of Hiram Gilbert, was born on Walker's Creek, in Giles County, Virginia, in the year of our Lord 1787. The family moved to Lee County, Virginia, when James was quite a lad. In 1813 he was converted and united with the Thompson Settlement Church. He was baptized by Elder Andrew Baker, the great-grandfather of Dr. Jesse Baker, and was the "last person, save one, baptized by that devoted servant of God." They went down into the water, like Philip and the eunuch, and when they had come up out of the water, the spirit of prophecy came upon the venerable man of God; and he exclaimed, "I have baptized a preacher." And so "the mantle of Elijah fell upon Elisha."
In early manhood he was married to a Miss Sarah Marshall. To them were born ten children, two of whom, John and Thomas, became able and useful ministers of the gospel.
James Gilbert enjoyed few advantages of a school education, and never was a man of many books. But as a preacher of the old-school type he was mighty in the Scriptures, one of the ablest preachers of his day.
His ministry was largely in Virginia, where he was pastor of the Thompson Settlement Church, and did successful work as missionary and evangelist. In Tennessee, the larger part of his labors was in Hancock, Claiborne, Sullivan, and one or two other counties. Dr. I. B. Kimbrough, who as "secretary" and "agent" went almost everywhere, used to say that when he struck Powell's Valley and Lee County, Virginia, "where old Jimmy Gilbert preached," he found "nobody but Baptists." He was the founder and builder of the Mulberry Gap Church, and was pastor of Sneedville, Beech Grove, Little Sycamore, and other churches.
Of the Mulberry Gap Association he was moderator for sixteen years in succession: He presided over the conference or convention at the organization of the association (1835), and was for years the leading spirit, the "big preacher," of the association. He fought long and hard against the "anti-mission" heresy in the association: Frequently he would call some brother to occupy the moderator's chair while he went down into the arena, to "hew to pieces" the bold and defiant spirit of anti-Christ, which thus dared to lift its head among Baptists.
At other times he would turn the association into a protracted meeting: When the association met at Little Sycamore, he preached and called for penitents. The vast throng, as if moved by one impulse, came forward. Only two sinners in all the crowd were unmoved. On another occasion the association met at a private house. After the regular sermon, Brother Gilbert was called on to "conclude" the service, according to the custom of those days. The preacher arose and said, "I have a headache, brethren; and, what is worse, I have a cold heart" - but before he had talked ten minutes the fire had kindled and he was launching out on an exhortation. The audience was stirred. One woman, a "hard-shell," shouted. She had broken her iron jacket, and was shouting herself hoarse, as she came out from among the "antis" to join the "missionaries."
As a visitor to the Holston Association, when that body met with the Muddy Creek Church, Elder Gilbert was appointed to preach out of doors. His text was, "I have a message from God unto thee." In the midst of the sermon it began to rain. The preacher told his hearers they had better find shelter, but they said, "Go on !" The few umbrellas at hand were lifted. The preacher preached and the rain poured. Most of the audience were drenched, but still they listened. More than one offered to hold an umbrella over the preacher, but he said, "No ; if you can listen in the rain, I can preach without a shelter.",
Brother Gilbert's special gift was that of an evangelist. His greatest work was in revival meetings. He was instrumental in the conversion of more than 2,000 souls, who were added to the Lord through his ministry.
East Tennessee and the mountains have had few men, if any, who had greater power over an audience than James Gilbert. Under the lightning strokes of his fiery denunciations of sin hard-hearted sinners would quake and tremble -would sometimes fall to the floor, crying out, "Pray for me! I am a lost sinner!" A noted preacher and competent critic said of James Gilbert, that "when the spirit of exhortation, was upon him he was simply irresistible."
In personal appearance, Elder Gilbert has been described by those who knew him as a man of "portly mien, tall and commanding, eyes dark and flashing, voice powerful and trumpet-like, as if given to awaken sinners and call them to judgment. His manner was grave and impressive. He had a fine delivery, and was a persuasive, melting preacher." He was also a great singer, and had a voice not only of great power but of wonderful melody and sweetness, both in preaching and singing the gospel.
January 21, 1858, this noble servant of God passed to his reward, at the age of 71. His brethren memorialized him in their Associational Minute as "an able minister of the gospel," and his death as removing "one of the few remaining ancient pillars of the sanctuary among the Baptists of East Tennessee.
This "venerable father" was laid to rest in the old graveyard under the shadow of the church at Mulberry Gap. When the writer was on the ground no stone marked his resting place. His monument is in the life he lived, the good he was enabled to do - but, some day, Baptists and others will bethink themselves and place a stone at his grave.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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