Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
R. B. C. HOWELL
Dr. Howell (Robert Boyte Crawford Howell), a pioneer preacher in Nashville in 1831, and, later, one of the most widely known preachers of the Southland, was a son of Ralph and Jane (Crawford) Howell. His father was a native of North Carolina; his mother was a Virginian by birth. Dr. Howell was born March 10, 1801, in Wayne County. N. C. He was educated in Columbian College, Washington, D. C. He commenced preaching in 1825, and in 1827 he was ordained in Cumberland Street Church, Norfolk, Va., where he was pastor till 1831, when he went to Nashville to pioneer the way for the Baptists in that city. Here he built up the congregation of the First Baptist Church to a membership of about 500, whites and blacks, and led the way in the erection of a house of worship. In April, of 1850, he resigned his charge to go to the Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Va., where he labored successfully for seven years. In 1857 he was recalled to Nashville. Resigning the charge of his flock in Richmond he returned to "the scenes of his early triumph, where he had built up his great fame as one of the most learned and eloquent divines of the age." The success of his second pastorate with the flock lie had gathered in former years, was not less signal or enduring than that which had crowned the first. His ministry in Nashville for more than twenty-five years was in every sense monumental work.
As a pioneer of Baptist religious journalism in Tennessee Dr. Howell stands at the head. From an old copy of The Baptist, an eight-page, semi-monthly paper published at Nashville (price, $1.00 a year), dated December. 13, 1837, being Vol. 3, No. 24, with an editorial announcing the "Rev. Mr. Howell's resumption of the editorship" of the paper with the next issue, it is reasonably certain that Dr. Howell was the founder and first editor (January, 1835) of the first Baptist newspaper published in the state. November 21, 1846, The Baptist had become a 16-page paper, with "R. B. C. Howell, D.D., and Rev. J. R. Graves" editors. In the first editorial of this number is this statement: "We have the pleasure of announcing to our readers that the Committee of Publication have, at length, succeeded in procuring the services of an assistant editor for this paper, whom we here introduce in the person of our beloved Brother J. R. Graves, the indefatigable and successful pastor of the Second Baptist Church (now the Central) in this city. Brother Graves is already favorably known to many of you as an eloquent speaker, and a very handsome writer."
Following is a pen-picture of Dr. Howell in "Sketches of Some of the Ministers Attending the Southern Baptist Convention, in Richmond, Va., June, 1846," by Dr. S. H. Ford, in "Ford's Christian Repository," of May, 1876: "Reverend R. B. C. Howell, D.D., is bishop of the First Baptist Church, of Nashville, Tenn., and editor of the Tennessee Organ. The same rotund face, beaming with good feeling, marks the man that distinguished him while a youth at college, twenty years ago. Whenever I come in contact with such a man as Dr. Howell, I feel a love of my species strengthened within my bosom. Dr. Howell is a native of the Old North State; was educated at the Columbia College, and settled first as bishop of Norfolk, Va., where his memory is still embalmed in the hearts of his brethren Subsequently he assumed the care of the church at Nashville, Tenn., where his labors have been herculean. With a handful in a rented room to begin with, he continued to labor until the few have become a powerful band, and the rented room has been changed for one of the most beautiful edifices devoted to the worship of God to be found in the valley of the Mississippi. Dr. Howell is about 45 years of age, but bears his years well. His eye is still lively and swimming in emotion when the heart is touched - it needs not the aid of glasses in reading; complexion is florid and healthful, forehead ample, hair abundant and brilliant in hue as at eighteen."
As preacher and editor Dr. Howell would naturally and necessarily be drawn into debates with his religious opponents. In the '30's and '40's he had to contend with the anti-missionaries of his own denomination, had to cross swords with the followers of Alexander Campbell, and sometimes to take up or throw down the gauntlet with the Episcopalians and the Methodists. In these polemical bouts with tongue and pen he acquitted himself loyally to Christ and his denomination and honorably to himself.
As an author Dr. Howell was laborious and fruitful. He put forth volume after volume of permanent value. His work on "The Deaconship" ran rapidly through six editions. His next work, "The Way of Salvation," was eagerly read, running through several editions. "The Evils of Infant Baptism" had a wide reading, exciting popular interest in the subject and calling forth a good deal of comment from Pedo-baptist denominations. At the request of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (1854) he wrote "Terms of Christian Communion," which run through several editions in this country and three or four in England. About the same time two other popular works, from his fertile pen, came from the press, "The Cross" and "The Covenants." "The Early Baptists of Virginia," written in 1857, and published after his death, was a valuable contribution to the historical literature of the Baptists. "The Christology of the Pentateuch," a "Memorial of the First Baptist Church of Nashville " (1820-1863), "The Family," Eighty Bound Volumes of Sermons in manuscript, are literary remains showing Dr. Howell to have been a prodigious worker in his lifetime. Some of these manuscripts may yet be published, and their publication will add to the literary fame of the author. Dr. Howell's published works, as well as his pulpit ministrations, evince both genius and scholarship. He knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and was universally admired for his scholarly attainments. The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by Georgetown College, Ky., about the year 1844.
Dr. Howell was for many years president of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of its vice-presidents at the time of his death. He was vice-president of the American Baptist Historical Society, was a member of the Historical Society of Tennessee, and was president of the board of trustees of the Asylum for the Blind, an institution endowed and sustained by the State of Tennessee. As Moderator of the Concord Association and other religious and deliberative bodies he was a gracious and efficient presiding officer.
"As a minister Doctor Howell was regarded as one of the ablest and most learned in the South. His Christian career as ennobled by the highest virtues. His life was unspotted. His genial courtesy and kindness of heart made him a universal favorite, notwithstanding the fierce theological debates in which he was often engaged. He was a thorough Baptist, always jealous of the fair fame and name of his denomination. Under his ministry many souls were added to the Lord and received the ordinance of baptism at his hands. His death occurred on Sunday, about noon (April 5, 1868), at the very in which, for more than forty years, he had stood up for Jesus in the pulpit. For a week he had been stricken with paralysis, speechless but not unconscious. When his pastor, Doctor Skinner, spoke of the infinite pity and compassion of the Saviour for his suffering servant, he burst into tears. When asked if he saw Jesus, he answered by pointing first to his heart and then to heaven." (A. N.) "Of Doctor Howell's labors as a voluminous author and a vigilant pastor it is not necessary to speak, as be attained a more than national reputation. He has been long considered a standard bearer in the communion in which he was so great an ornament. He was, moreover, held in high esteem in the community at large, with respect to church relations." (Nashville paper.) At a meeting of the pastors of the leading churches of Nashville a committee was appointed to draft suitable resolutions on behalf of Doctor Howell, with Dr. T. O. Summers as chairman. At a memorial service at tire First Baptist Church, on the following day, with fitting ceremonies in the presence of a vast throng of people, gathered to do honor to a great man and a prince in Israel who had fallen, the committee reported in part was possessed of great intellectual and moral endowments, qualifying him for the ministry, in which he was most laboriously and successfully engaged for a long period, being highly esteemed, not only in his own church but also in the community at large, and particularly by us, his brethren in the ministry; therefore, Resolved, 1, That we bow with submission to this dispensation of Providence, knowing that it was ordered in infinite wisdom, power and love, and that while God buries his workmen he carries on his work. 2, That while God is glorified in the useful life and peaceful death of his servant, we will endeavor to imitate his fidelity, that in due time we may, like him, enter into the joy of our Lord." Brethren of the different denomination, bore their testimony to the character and talents of Dr. Howell. Dr. J. B. McFerrin, the veteran Presbyterian minister and editor, said: "Dear brethren, I feel sad this morning. There are only two of the old preachers left now who were co-laborers in the ministry with Dr. Howell when he first came to Nashville, nearly forty years ago, Doctor Green and myself. I lived on most intimate terms of Christian friendship with Doctor Howell. At one time we were both editors of church journals, and our expression of opinion on doctrinal differences sometimes, as did those of the apostles of old, became sharp, but our warm and fraternal regard for each other was never broken to the last. Doctor Howell was a scholar, a gentleman and a Christian. He enjoyed the abiding affection of his congregation, the high esteem of the community and, what was better than all, the signal favor of God, as the abundant success of his pastoral labors testifies. I could not, were I disposed, pronounce a suitable eulogy upon him. May the same rich blessings of God be upon his successor, Dr. Skinner."
He was buried in the beautiful cemetery of Mount Olivet. Nashville, where his sleeping dust awaits the resurrection of the just.
Thursday morning, April 23, 1829, Doctor Howell, was married to Miss Mary Ann Morton Toy. Of this marriage ten children were born, two of them dying in infancy. Of the remainder, three are still living: Robert Henry Howell, Mrs. A. J. Grigsby and Joseph Toy Howell, all of Nashville.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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