Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


(pages 350 - 353)

J. F. B. Mays was born in Surry County, North Carolina, April 4, 1827. His parents, F. B. and M. (Tharp) Mays, were from Virginia, Pittsylvania County. His mother dying when he was an infant, his father took the infant son and returned to Virginia, where the child grew to young manhood, and was partly educated in the Lexington Military Institute. When eighteen years old he united with the followers of Alexander Campbell; but in studying systematic theology and prayerfully investigating the doctrine of justification by faith, as taught in the Scriptures, he became a Baptist, and united with the Baptist Church, Lexington, Virginia, January 1, 1853. In April of the same year he was licensed to preach, and preached his first sermon in a country church, "under the eye of" his old professor, Dr. Thompson. In 1854 he went to South Carolina. and served as a missionary of Union Association. The neat two years he tutored and studied theology and the ancient languages under Drs. Boyce, Edwards and Royal, and in 1853 got an A. M. degree from Wake Forest College. Finishing his course of study at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, he was ordained the same year by the Greenville (South Carolina) Baptist Church, Dr. James C. Furman, President of Furman University, preaching the ordination sermon. Mount Moriah Church, Greenville, South Carolina, was his first pastorate. He undertook agency work, and raised money to build a house of worship in Columbia, and "paid his debt for tuition." In three months' time, in 1859, he raised in North Carolina from $12,000 to $15,000 endowment money for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. January 10, 1860, he was married to Miss Sarah R. Durham, of North Carolina. The same year he canvassed Mississippi and a part of Georgia for the seminary, raising for the institution, in bonds, about $1,000 a week. In 1861 he was called to the charge of Tuskegee Military Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. The Civil War breaking out, the professors and students volunteered for service, and the institute closed its doors. Just at this time Elder Mays received a call to the church at Talladega, Alabama, where he had marked success in his pastorate, and preached a great deal to the soldiers.

In Talladega his first child was born, and his wife became a hopeless invalid, suffering greatly the balance of her life. At this time he held many protracted meetings in Alabama and North Carolina, having many glorious and never-to-be-forgotten revivals with the soldier boys in the camps of the Confederate Army. At the close of the war he was a Domestic Missionary in Beulah Association, North Carolina. He was next called to do agency work for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. During his campaign for the seminary  he was called to be pastor at Jackson, Tenn., where he built up the church from a membership of. fifty-two to 250. During his five-and-a-half years' pastorate here he organized the church for effective service in every department of its' work, and did valuable pioneer work for the education of women, in the projection and establishment of a Female Seminary of learning. His presence and influence in the West Tennessee Baptist Convention was an inspiration and in every way helpful.

He was called to the First Church of Knoxville in January. 1873, and served the church as a devoted and efficient pastor!, till September 30, 1878. Near the beginning of his Knoxville pastorate he lost his first wife, to his great grief; but three years later (August 31, 1876) he married a second wife, Mrs. Mattie J. Shepherd, of Knoxville, Tenn., whom the writer knew as an excellent Christian woman and a splendid pastor's wife.

June, 1872, Union University, Murfreesboro, conferred upon him the honorary title, Doctor of Divinity. In the early years of his ministry he had read and pretty well digested Brown's Body of Divinity, Fisher's Catechism and Calvin's Institute of the Christian Religion. He was a lifelong student, and kept up a life-long acquaintance with the classics. The first time the writer ever met Dr. Mays was at a Carson College commencement, in the year 1873, I believe, on which occasion Dr. Mays gave the literary address. The address was exceedingly entertaining, instructive and impressive, an intellectual feast, made up almost altogether of striking beautiful passage from his rich stores of classical literature. The boys never forgot the eloquent address, or the speaker and he never forgot them, but kept in touch with them and visited them as ion, as he remained in Knoxville. He was a member of the presbytery (1878) which ordained the writer, and preached the ordination sermon.

Dr. Mays was a self-reliant, self-made man. By his own exertions and perseverance he made his way through eight years of college work, educating at the same time a half-brother and a half-sister. He was always interested in ambitious young men and capable young women, who needed an education, and turned the steps of many such toward Carson College and other Baptist schools.

As to physique and mental and spiritual make-up Dr. Mays has been described on this wise: "He is about 6.2 in height, round and somewhat muscular; very erect, with dark curly hair (it was iron gray when I first knew him) and dark hazel eyes, which are rather small and deeply set; weighs 185 pounds; is sociable and agreeable in manners; is earnest and pious, full of energy and zeal; is an indefatigable pastor; has in him a rich vein of humor which flashes and sparkles at times, never failing to bring a smile."

Dr. Mays went to Florida for the benefit of the climate to his impaired health, and spent the last years of his life in that state. He was living in Apopka at the time of his death, December 21, 1883. The minutes of the Wekiva Association, for 1884, in announcing the passing of "Dr. J. F. B. Mays, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Apopka," bear this testimony: "Our brother enlisted in the service of his Master early in life, and illustrated in his life and death the loveliness there is in the religion of Jesus. All his life and in the dying hour his hope was clear and his faith unshaken. Living he lived for Jesus, and dying he rejoiced in his power to save. He fell in the forefront of the battle."


Burnett, J .J.  Sketches of  Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers.  Nashville, Tenn.:  Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.


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