Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
Thomas, the son of Elder James Gilbert, is one of a family of ten children. He was born October 27, 1825, in Lee County, Virginia. His grandfather; Hiram Gilbert, came over from England, at an early date, and settled in Giles County, Virginia. He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. His grandmother Gilbert was of German descent-a small, dark-skinned woman, with a heavy suit of long, wavy black hair reaching nearly to the ground.
Growing up in the mountains of Virginia and East Tennessee, where schools were poor and far between, young Gilbert had few advantages of an education. Speaking of his early life, he said he "grew in years and in sin, till converted in his twenty-second year." He dates his "conviction" for sin from a meeting held at Greasy Rock (Sneedville) by his father, James Gilbert, and his older brother, John Gilbert, who was a preacher of great power, as well as his father. For weeks he was as "the stricken deer:" Like the "unclean spirit," he wandered in desert places, seeking rest and finding none." He even went over into Kentucky, to attend a meeting, but returned, still in darkness and unrest. Of this sad period of his life and experience he said
"How I did wander up and down,
And no one pitied me;
I seemed a stranger quite unknown,
A child of misery."
This prolonged despair and agony he attributed to the then prevalent "blue doctrine" in regard to predestination and reprobation. He was at last found by the seeking Savior, and was converted, or "born again," November 7, 1847. But immediately he fell to doubting on this wise:
"I thought it was Satan deluding me here;
I thought that my case was as. bad as before;
I had lost my conviction, and could not grieve more.
But Jesus returned with a kind, loving smile,
'To seek for your sins it is not worth your while;
For, lo! I have nailed them all to the tree;
You cannot retain them-but look unto me.'
All glory to Jesus! my soul then replied;
All glory to Jesus! for me He hath died.
I'll show forth his praises as long as I live,
Because He is glorious and mighty to save."
November 24, 1847, he was married to Malinda McNeal, a daughter of Neil S. McNeal. In 1849 he was licensed to preach, and in 1850 was, ordained by the authority of the Sneedville Church. He was soon sent out as a "missionary" of the Mulberry Gap Association.
In 1859 and 1860 he served as missionary of the General Association of Virginia, in Lee County - baptizing hundreds of people. The next five years, during the terrible civil strife, he remained at home, preaching to the women and children, and the old men, who were not in the army, managing to live
the best he could, and baptizing about 400 converts. At the close of the war the Virginia board again employed him to labor as missionary in Tazewell and Buchanan counties, at a salary of $600 a year. While in Virginia, besides his general missionary and protracted meeting work, he was pastor, first
and last, of some fifteen churches.
In 1871 he resigned his work for the Richmond (Va.) Board and came to Tennessee to labor under the auspices of the Mission Board of the East Tennessee General Association. In this position he had his usual marked success.
As a pastor-evangelist, Elder Gilbert held successful meetings with nearly all the leading Baptist country and village churches over several counties in East Tennessee, frequently adding from fifty to seventy-five or eighty converts to the membership of a church from a single meeting, and often doubling the church's financial strength. Notably was this true in the counties of Claiborne, Hancock, Hawkins, Hamblen, Greene, Grainger, Jefferson, and Cocke. Nearly all the churches of the last-named county received wonderful ingatherings from Brother Gilbert's meetings. It was through his instrumentality and as a result of his great meeting (February, 1876) that the Newport Church was organized, and the money, for the most part, raised, to build their first house of worship.
He was pastor of the following churches: Union Grove, Big Spring, Concord, Warrensburg, Persia, Antioch, Bethel, Clay Creek, and Pleasant Grove. As pastor he indoctrinated his churches faithfully, teaching and urging them to give to all good causes-pastoral and .ministerial support not excepted.
Elder Gilbert witnessed in his meetings about 4,000 conversions and baptisms; and, being always and on all occasions a "doctrinal" preacher and making revival meetings a special occasion for preaching on baptism, "close communion," the doctrine of a New Testament church, and the duty of the churches to support the gospel, he never failed to baptize about all the converts in his meetings, or to get an adequate remuneration for his services.
Elder Gilbert was combative in disposition, and frequently aroused opposition -sometimes made enemies; but he baptized many a sinner, and many a pedo-Baptist as well, whom he first made mad. His preaching generally bordered on the controversial; and if at any time it seemed to him necessary to defend the truth by public debate, he rather gloried in it. During his ministry he had some five or six public debates with the local champions of the Methodist or Presbyterian faith, and never failed to acquit himself creditably or fully sustain the Baptist position.
In his palmy days few men were more powerful in exhortation than Brother Gilbert; not many were better acquainted with the human mind, or better understood the plan of salvation. In dealing with inquirers he was like a skillful physician who understands the disease and knows the remedy and how to apply it.
For half a century Thomas Gilbert was a true yoke-fellow in the gospel with Asa Routh. The last time the writer saw him he was a battle-scarred veteran, retired from the field of conflict but with the trophies of victory about him - a good deal of the old-time fire in him still. "Monday morning I drop in on Brother T. Gilbert at Whitesburg, and find him still suffering with rheumatism but joyously conversing with his brethren about the Lord's work and the condition of our Baptist Zion." (J. J. B., February 9, 1899.)
Brother Gilbert answered the summons to "depart and be with Christ," February 11, 1901; and was followed to the better land by his son, Henry Gilbert, who was a useful minister, March 27, 1909.
By report of committee and unanimous vote the Nolachucky Association memorialized Elder Thomas Gilbert as an "able and effective minister, performing more hard labor, baptizing more people, and organizing more churches than any other single preacher, perhaps, in all the surrounding country being sound in the faith, bold in defense of the truth; he at last
stacked arms at the feet of his great Commander, received an honorable discharge, and went Home to join in a re-union with his worthy comrades, Routh, Baker, and Brown." (J. B. Bundren, for committee.)
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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