Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
Following is a life sketch of a lamented veteran standard bearer, who fell at his post, October 20, 1898.
William, the fourth son of Samuel and Nancy Huff, was born in Botetourt County, Va., near James River, December 21, 1825. Young Huff was brought up to farm life with the usual advantages of a Virginia farmer's boy of his day -plenty of work in summer and in winter the country school. In early life he professed faith in Christ and by baptism was received into the fellowship of Zion's Hill Church. With what he conceived to be a divine call to the ministry there came to him another call, the clear and abiding impression of duty to prepare himself as thoroughly as possible for his high vocation. Accordingly he entered Valley Union Seminary, Virginia, where he began that lifelong course of study, self-culture and discipline, which made him the self-educated, self-reliant man that he was, and enabled him to realize in ever-increasing measure his life purpose and ambition to be an "efficient minister of Jesus Christ." Other years of teaching and home study were a further preparation and training for his life work.
He was ordained September 19, 1851, and began his ministerial life as a pioneer missionary in the mountains of Virginia, first under the auspices of the Western Virginia Association, afterwards of the General Association of Virginia, his field of labor being, for the most part, Russell and Tazewell counties. Lebanon, the county seat of Russell County, and a stronghold of the Methodists, was the center of his operations. There was no Baptist congregation or house of worship in the place, and only one Baptist. Here he built a house of worship and left the church 100 strong, with a commanding influence in the community. At Marion, the county seat of Smith County, also with South Fork and Rich Valley churches, he labored with like signal success, building houses of worship, organizing and extending the mission work and indoctrinating the churches in the principles of the Baptists.
The war of the sixties coming on, Brother Huff secured an appointment as army colporter, to distribute Bibles and religious literature among the soldiers in Confederate camps, in this way rendering real service to suffering humanity and to the cause of God.
Coming to Tennessee in October, 1866, he located near Fairfield, in Bedford County, becoming pastor of New Hope Church. Here, more than in Virginia, he found churches and communities rent asunder as a result of the war; but with his conciliatory spirit and the disinterestedness on his part as of an outsider or stranger, Brother Huff proved to be the Lord's appointed instrumentality for healing the breach of fellowship that threatened disaster to the cause of Christ.
At Shelbyville Brother Huff was pastor for two years, preaching first in a hall, then in the Cumberland Presbyterian church, laying the foundation of a Baptist church in this important center. At Big Springs also he built up the Baptist cause and was instrumental in erecting a house of worship.
In a ten years' pastorate at Wartrace he laid the solid foundations of an efficient church, developing his people in mission and Sunday school work, inaugurating a church-building enterprise, and obtaining the testimony of the brethren, that they were "greatly edified by his sound Scriptural preaching and teaching, and that the love and faithfulness of their shepherd and leader had greatly endeared him to his flock."
In January, 1871, Elder Huff moved to Bell Buckle, with the purpose of planting a Baptist church there. At that time there was not a church of any denomination in the place. The dominant influence in the town was Methodism. A little way in the country, however, was a handful of Baptists, and hard by was a schoolhouse. From a successful meeting here was formed the nucleus of a church. Brother Huff became pastor and remained with the church for more than ten years, building a house of worship, organizing the work, building up and training the membership for constantly increasing usefulness from year to year.
The churches at Fayetteville and Tracy City owe, in large measure, their establishment and present efficiency to the self-denying labors of Brother Huff. Enjoying the confidence of his brethren and willing to undertake a hard job, Brother Huff, at different times and much of the time, was missionary or secretary of one or another of our several boards, and as such did real effective pioneer work on his many fields of labor.
For many years he was the efficient Moderator of the Duck River Association. Judge M. B. Tillman bore testimony to the "signal ability with which he always presided over that body," as well as the "uniform pleasure" it gave the body to be presided over by so "able and so distinguished a brother." Brother D. S. McCullough, the clerk of the Association, justly characterized Elder Wm. Huff as a "sound theologian, a deep thinker, an able expounder of the Scriptures, and a good preacher. He was conservative, amiable, broad-minded, progressive, having faith in God and his brethren, and ever ready to press the claims of Christ and of the Baptists, even at the risk of imperiling his personal popularity." Dr. J. M. Robertson said of him: "No man in Tennessee, in the reconstruction period of denominational affairs in the State, did more to make possible the present unity and success of Tennessee Baptists than did Brother Huff."
The writer can testify personally to his unusual sound common sense, his level-headed thinking, practical judgment. firm grasp of doctrinal and practical truth, and, above all, to the tender and sweet-spirited brotherliness of his character. He was a good preacher indeed, but his greatest sermon was his life.
His contributions to the religious press were clear expositions of the truth, always forcible and practically helpful. There were few better writers among us. Few of our preachers have made a better record.
He witnessed something more than 2,000 professed conversions, baptizing with his own hands not less than that number into the fellowship of Baptist churches.
May 7, 1856, he was married to Mattie E. Johnson, daughter of Thomas Churchill Johnson, of Carter County, Tenn., a woman of culture and consecration, the Lord's hand-maid, and a help-meet indeed for the Lord's servant. They two walked and toiled together in their earthly lot till October 20, 1898, when the Master called him to his heavenly home. He was ready to lay his armor by and go home, for his testimony was, as he wrote to his son in Texas, while waiting his summons: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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