Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
Matthew Hillsman was born near Knoxville, Tenn., August 7, 1814. He was one of a family of eleven children. His parents, John and Rebecca Hillsman, were natives of Virginia, born in Amelia County. John Hillsman was born November 17, 1764 ; died December 8, 1850, in his 87th year. His oldest son, "Uncle Billy Hillsman, a Knox County pioneer, passed away," according to newspaper announcement (January 15, 1896), "at the age of 90." John Hillsman, though but a youth, was a "gallant soldier in the war of the Revolution, saw Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown, Va. (1781), heard Washington deliver his farewell address, taking leave of the army at the conclusion of the war." At the close of the war, following. the instinct of adventure, with a company of young friends, he went as far "west" as the Sewanee (now the Cumberland) River, in Middle Tennessee. For a time he was an inmate of Colonel Bledsoe's fort, a few miles east of where Nashville now stands. He taught school in the village of Cumberland (now the city of Nashville), and numbered among his pupils boys who afterwards became men of influence and standing in the community. Returning to East Tennessee, about the year 1793, he located and entered into the mercantile business where Knoxville now stands, retiring to his farm, near Third Creek, Knox County, in 1809 or 1810. (Inman. ) "I am now! (1896) in the house in which Dr. Matt Hillsman was born, taking "notes" for my sketch from Sister Nancy Johnson, a sister of Dr. Hillsman and the only surviving member of a family of eleven, well along in her eighties, well preserved in mind and memory, and a thorough Baptist." (Notebook No. 1.) There is a creditable and uncontradicted family tradition that John Hillsman built the "first" dwelling house (a log cabin) on the ground where the present city of Knoxville stands, the only other building at the time being the soldiers' "barracks." The country was still a wilderness. The Cherokees and Creeks were a terror. Killing and horsestealing were an everyday business. The state of Tennessee was not yet in existence. Knox County was not on the map, had not been "erected" into a county, and Knoxville had not as yet been "laid off:" There wag not a "shanty" in sight, and the "seat of the territorial government" was only a coming event, when John Hillsman left his native Virginia for the "west."
The "first" baptism ever witnessed in the city of Knoxville was that of John Hillsman by Elijah Rogers, who, in the presence of 3,000 witnesses, led his candidate down into the waters of the Tennessee River and baptized him, August, 1825. Richard Wood and Elijah Rogers, pioneer preachers of the Baptist faith, had been holding a meeting in the Presbyterian church, and this was the first fruits of their labors. This fact I glean from a trustworthy old manuscript.
As to young Hillsman's education I have this note from Sister Johnson: "Brother Matt. was pretty nigh a self-made man. His father paid his way one session in Knoxville (at the East Tennessee College, which later became the University of Tennessee) ; he got the rest by himself." To which we may add, that he was a life-long, painstaking student, lived a good deal in the atmosphere of schools as well as of books, and became a classical scholar.
In the summer of 1832, in a meeting held at Third Creek by that devoted and greatly beloved servant of the Lord, Elder Sam. Love, Matthew Hillsman made a profession of religion, being in his nineteenth year, and was baptized by Elder Love, uniting, most likely, with Beaver Ridge Church, the nearest and only Baptist church in reach of him at that time. February 8, 1833, the Third Creek Church was constituted, with Samuel Love "pastor" and Matthew Hillsman "clerk." At the April meeting, of the same year, it was "moved" by the pastor and "approved" by the church, that Brother M. Hillsman "exercise a public gift in preaching, prayer and exhortation in any of the sister churches." In December of the following year he was granted a "letter of dismission." In 1835 (June
7th) he was "ordained" by Bethel Church, Anderson County, Samuel Love, Chesley H. Boatwright and James Kennon acting as a presbytery.
January 28, 1834, he was married to Ann Eliza Mynatt, of Knox County. To this union were born eight children. He now spent one year working on the farm, preaching as he had opportunity. But in the fall of 1835 he went to Talladega, Ala., where he remained eighteen months, preaching and looking after the struggling interests of Baptists in that part of the country.
In 1837 he returned to Tennessee, locating at a ferry and Indian trading place known as "Ross's Landing," now Chattanooga. Here he went into the mercantile business, had a partner, and was going to "get rich." The Indians and white men around, who had more "credit" than cash or honesty, got the "goods," while the merchant got the "experience." Young Hillsman soon learned in the school of experience that the Lord "had not called him to be a merchant." I remember reading an interesting editorial in The Chattanooga Times, some years ago, on "Dr. M. Hillsman, a Pioneer of Ross's Landing and Founder of the First Baptist Church of Chattanooga. 1839." There appeared also in the Baptist and Reflector, in 1880, a series of articles by Dr. Hillsman, giving many interesting reminiscences of his early ministerial life. On Baptist beginnings in Chattanooga I quote him as follows: "But few persons now, living know anything of the origin of the First Baptist Church organization in Chattanooga, which was the germ from which the present First Church has grown. In 1838, while the Cherokee Indians were still residing in the country, I became a resident of Chattanooga, then known as Ross's Landing. The Indians, having sold their land to the government, it was being rapidly settled upon by immigrants who were expecting to be allowed preemption of their settlements at government prices. Chattanooga was settled in the same way and had a population of several hundred, living in log cabins and board shanties. It had, however, an extensive trade with the Indians and with the back country in North Georgia and with the older settlements north of the Tennessee River. Among the settlers were many excellent people, a fair proportion of them being professors of religion, the larger number being Presbyterians. But there was no church organization or minister of any sort in the place or near it. The citizens had built a good-sized log schoolhouse, and occasionally visiting ministers would occupy it as a preaching place. Although I had been preaching for three or four years I had never received a cent for preaching and had not come to Chattanooga to engage in ministerial work, but, like others, to engage in a secular business. No Baptist preacher in East Tennessee a that time, so far as I know, received anything for preaching, or ever expected to. With the Baptist preacher of that day the first thing to do was to make a living, and then preach all he could. After the people found out that I was a young Baptist preacher they requested that I should preach for them on Sundays, when no one else had an appointment, which I did for two or three years, with a good deal of regularity. In the meantime the Indians were removed, the land was sold, and the town was laid off and rapidly increased in population, when the different denominations began to prepare for organization. The Presbyterians, being the strongest, took the lead, and, by the assistance of others, built a pretty good frame house on their lot, with the understanding that the Baptists and Methodists might have the use of the house by courtesy till they were able to build. Several Baptists had moved into the place and others lived in the neighborhood near by, who attended my preaching, but I had not intended an immediate organization. In the summer of 1840 I was called to Nashville on business, had a talk with Dr. Howell, pastor of the First Baptist Church, who urged that an organization be at
once gone into and a regular pastor be secured. A young Brother Lindsley, educated and gifted, was conferred with, agreed upon, ordained by the Nashville First Church, put in charge of the Chattanooga interest, and in a few weeks Dr. Howell came over the mountains in the stage, and a small church was organized. Following the organization Dr. Howell preached some strong sermons on the subjects and the act of baptism, which excited an interest and drew the crowd, also the fire of the other denominations. Brother Lindsley stayed with the church three or four months and sought another field, leaving me to keep up the meetings of the church. I had occasional visits from other ministers, especially from the well-known evangelist, Richard H. Taliaferro, under whose labors converts and accessions to the church were made. In the summer of 1841, to escape the prevailing malarial fever, I moved my family to Knoxville, stayed a year, and returned to Chattanooga, to preach for the Presbyterians and the Baptists alike in the Presbyterian house of worship. This I did for several months, leaving Chattanooga and the struggling Baptist interest, in the spring of 1843, to go to Middle Tennessee. Elder Sidney Dyer followed me as supply, Elder William Wood followed him, and about 1853 Elder Eugene Strode came to the city, gathered together the scattered elements of the church, reorganized the church, perhaps, and built a house of worship. I was never pastor of the church but gave it such volunteer labor as I was enabled from time to time to bestow, which amounted to little more than holding it together." These essential facts are followed by incidents bordering on the sensational and the romantic, but our space limits forbid their being recited here.
In April, 1843, Dr. Hillsman had calls to churches in Middle Tennessee, with a guaranteed support for all of his time. For the next six years he was pastor, at one time or another, of Fairfield, New Hope, McMinnville, Winchester, ,Mulberry, and Shelbyville churches. In January, 1849, he took charge of the Murfreesboro Church. During his successful pastorate here for three years and a half the church sent three missionaries to the foreign field. From '52 to '58 he was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. During a part of this time he was editor of the Baptist Watchman, a paper published in Knoxville in the interests of East Tennessee Baptists. I see the paper and its editor strongly endorsed and enthusiastically recommended in the minutes, both of the Tennessee and the Nolachucky Associations.
May 21, 1858, he was elected President of Mossy Creek College, and Professor of Logic, Rhetoric and Moral Science. He served as president one year, preaching meanwhile to the Knoxville, Morristown and New Market churches. One of his associate professors said of him: "Dr. Hillsman was the finest reader of the Scriptures I ever heard. His chapel lessons were Scripture readings, generally from Proverbs, with a word of comment, and every reading was equal to a sermon."
In '59 and '60 he was Corresponding Secretary of the Bible Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, with headquarters at Murfreesboro. The following year he was pastor at Jackson, till the church was broken up by the ruthless hand of war. In February of '62 he began his twenty-one years' pastorate in Trenton and vicinity, West Tennessee, giving two Sundays a month to Trenton, one to Poplar Grove, one to Hickory Grove. Of the last mentioned church he was pastor twenty-six years, during which time, under his wise and efficient leadership, the church took on new life and built an elegant new house of worship. His Trenton pastorate was one of the longest and most successful pastorates of his life. He enjoyed the esteem of everybody, and his appointment as postmaster of Trenton, under the first administration of Mr. Cleveland, was an expression of public confidence in his integrity and ability.
For twenty-seven years he was Vice-President of the Foreign Mission Board for Tennessee, was several years Moderator of the Central and Tennessee Associations, was President of the West Tennessee Baptist Convention a number of years and the President of its Board of Missions; he was a trustee of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and one of a committee to locate the seminary in Louisville. He was also on the committee which presented a plan for the organization of the Southwestern Baptist University. In addition to these responsibilities and duties he was editor, associate editor, or corresponding editor for more than one of our denominational papers, and was recognized as a practical and pungent writer.
As a preacher he was "sound in doctrine, clear in exposition, and entirely free from sensationalism. His style was plain, practical and direct, his best efforts being those of his regular services. A judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court said of him: `I know no preacher whom I would prefer to hear, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.' He was not demonstrative, but felt deeply. He was somewhat lacking in imagination, but had a mind of quick discernment, was discriminating and logical, and had the ability to make you see things as he saw them."
Dr. Hillsman "had a peculiar dignity and bearing that always impressed a congregation before he commenced preaching. He was a good parliamentarian, a good debater, and did a great deal toward getting the churches out of their hard doctrine." (W. A. Keen.)
For years Dr. Hillsman supported himself, preaching without salary or pay. The first pay he ever got for preaching was a "bag of flour and a dressed hog," the donation of a Presbyterian brother. He always had a friendly feeling and great respect for his Presbyterian friends, although he had several tilts with them over controverted points of doctrine, both in private and public debate.
In 1870, in recognition of his scholarship and ability, Union University conferred upon him the merited title, Doctor of Divinity.
From his home near Trenton, October 2, 1892, having served well his day and generation by the will of God, as a preacher of righteousness for nearly sixty years, he laid his armor by and departed to be with Christ. His body rests beside the "remains of his beloved wife and children" in the cemetery at Trenton, awaiting the resurrection of the just.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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