Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 359 - 364)
Garner McConnico was a native of Lunenburg County, Virginia born in the year 1771, being the youngest of three brothers. His mother was a woman of unusual piety and firmness of character, who, like Solomon, believed "in bringing up a child in the way he should go." This characteristic crops out incidentally in the story of young McConnico's conviction and conversion, as related by James Ross (Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross), as follows: An old Baptist preacher who had belonged to the British army and had remained in Virginia after the War of the Revolution was over, had made an appointment to preach in the neighborhood of the McConnicos. Garner's mother wanted to hear the preacher, and requested her son to go with her to the meeting. The boy, however, for reasons satisfactory to himself, didn't want to go; he hated the very name, Englishman, having been compelled, many times, by the British and Tories to leave his home and lie out in the woods, when the oppressors would be in that part of the country. Thinking it prudent to comply with his mother's wishes, her request now taking the form of a command, he decided to go, but was determined not to listen to a word the preacher might say. On reaching the place, however, he concluded to go just near enough to look at the preacher. Fitting the action to the thought, he found the preacher to be such a diminutive, unsightly dwarf of a man, that young McConnico felt some curiosity to hear him talk a little. He heard him as he had never heard mortal man speak before; the preacher seemed to "bring the very heavens and earth together," and when he came to himself he was standing near the old man in tears. From this time he never rested until he embraced a hope in Christ, uniting with the Baptist: Church at Tusekiah, on the relation of his Christian experience. In his young manhood he was married to Miss Mary Walker, and soon began the exercise of his public gifts of prayer and exhortation, and received from his church a "license" to preach.
About the year 1795, hearing reports of the "extraordinary attractions of the beautiful valley of the Cumberland, as a place for settlement," and, like many others, being affected by the prevalent "western fever" of the times, Garner McConnico, with his young wife, "fell into the current of emigration that was setting westward," and soon found himself "beyond the mountains" in Davidson County, Tennessee. Here he remained for two years "in a state of great darkness," as he said, on account of a temptation to give up the ministry. In fact, when he left his native Virginia he was "fleeing from the Lord," trying to get rid of his call to be a preacher of the gospel. In the new country of the Cumberland he was, on a memorable day, in search of his horse, that had strayed off in the spring of the year. As he was walking along a narrow path cut through the tall cane, in deep thought on the subject of preaching, he saw a small, venerable-looking man advancing toward him - a man who looked, as he imagined, very much like the apostle Paul must have looked. When they met, after the usual salutations, the following dialogue took place: "What sort of a country is this we are in?" said McConnico. A very rich, wooded country," answered the venerable-looking man. "Any religion in it?" questioned the younger man. "A few professors, scattered about here and there," responded the old man. , "Any Baptist preaching in it?" "There will be Baptist preaching in it next Lord's Day." "And are you the preacher?" "I try to preach here sometimes for want of a better preacher." Here they parted. The old man proved to be Elder Dillahunty, a well-known preacher in that part of the country. "Next Lord's Day" soon rolled round; the old preacher was on hand to fulfill his engagement, and McConnico was there. At the close of the sermon the preacher announced that he would preach at Richland Meeting House on a certain Lord's Day, when young McConnico, a bit nervous, rose to his feet and said. "And I will be with you there." "And who are you?" inquired Father Dillahunty. "The man you met in the canebrake." "A Baptist?" "Yes." "And a preacher?" "Why, yes, I have tried to exercise a little in that way." And now the "secret" he and his wife were going to keep so close is out, and it is really and embarrassingly known that he is a preacher. Preaching day came around. McConnico was present, according to promise, but tried hard to beg off. The old preacher, however, held him to his promise. The young preacher proceeded with the sermon, and when about half through the old man rose from his seat, took the young preacher in his arms, wept aloud, and thanked God that he had found a young Timothy on the frontier both able and willing to assist him in spreading the glad tidings in the wilderness (Reuben Ross, Chapter XV).
In the fall of 1797, Elder McConnico removed to the neighborhood of Franklin, Williamson County, where, in a beautiful spot of country, he lived for thirty-five years, and reared a large and most estimable family. His mansion, after the old Virginia fashion, was ever the scene of a profuse and generous hospitality. In it was found the best society then in the west; and especially was it the delightful resting place of way-worn ministers of the gospel of Christ (R. B. C. Howell). Here he built up the Big Harpeth Church, the third Baptist church planted (1800) south of Nashville. In this same year (1800) he was ordained to the ministry by the authority of this church, becoming its pastor the day of his ordination, and continuing pastor till the day of his death, a period of thirty-three years. He was largely, if not chiefly, instrumental in organizing (1803) the Cumberland Association, and was Moderator of that body many years in succession. The most noted church of this Association, the Big Harpeth, constituted with twenty members, and so long shepherded by Elder McConnico, became the mother of seven other churches. Benedict, exploring the country (1810) in the interests of his great History, found this church and Association in a flourishing condition, referring in a footnote, to the pastor and Moderator as a "distinguished preacher in the midst of his labors and usefulness."
Elder McConnico, though not a classical scholar, was, nevertheless, a diligent student of the Bible and had an extensive acquaintance with the standard theological works of his day. He prepared his sermons, it is said, with great care, and in his preaching clung with an unyielding purpose to the great doctrines of the cross. He was industrious and indefatigable in his labors, not only in his own church and community, but in sister churches, striving with true evangelistic spirit to preach the gospel in "regions beyond."
Many professed faith in Christ under his ministry, and a great number of churches were founded mainly through his instrumentality. His popularity was almost unbounded. Of his appearance and style, Dr. Howell gave the following description: "His figure was tall and commanding, and in every movement there was a natural finish and grace, of which, however, he seemed himself to be utterly unconscious. His complexion was fair and ruddy, his hair black, his eyes were large and dark, overshadowed by brows not particularly heavy but distinctly marked; his forehead was broad, high and smooth; :in indescribable benevolent smile was ever playing about his mouth; his voice was remarkable for its manly tone and musical sweetness, and his whole finely chiseled face, alike in conversation and in the pulpit, was lighted up by an unmistakable expression of intelligence. His piety was uncompromising. His manner was dignified and attractive. Had you entered into conversation with him or been one of his numerous auditors beneath the deep shade of the gigantic primeval forest, where lie so often preached, you would soon have found coming over you a strange feeling of reverence for his mighty mind. Like an atmosphere, his intellect seemed to enclose you on all sides, and his very modesty and deference to your judgment made his conclusions so much the more resistless. His discourses seemed alike effective with persons of every variety of culture and of character. Though the details of his life have passed into oblivion, his memory can never die."
ANECDOTE: Among the so-called religious phenomena of McConnico's day was a peculiar exercise known as the "jerks;" an affectation revived, of late years, among the "holy rollers," calling themselves The Church of God. Benedict says: "When I was in this country - that is, the valley of the Cumberland, in 1810, it so happened that I did not see this distinguished preacher (McConnico), but heard much of his fame and ministerial success. The following anecdote of him I find in my second volume, page 256. During the great revival in that region, and the unusual gesticulations which in some case attended it, one of the jerkers began his motions at one of his meetings. The preacher suddenly made a pause, and with a loud and solemn tone exclaimed, `In the name of the Lord, I command all unclean spirits to leave this place.' The jerker immediately became still, and the report was spread abroad that McConnico cast out devils."
AN INCIDENT: The following incident, though almost unbelievable, is nevertheless vouched for by a trustworthy author as an actual occurrence. I give the exact words of the author "Garner McConnico, who belonged to the Cumberland Association, used to come down now and then and preach among us. He was a large, handsome man. His voice was singularly rich and powerful, and his talents of the first order. On one occasion he had an appointment to preach under some shade trees on the banks of Big Harpeth River, but there fell a heavy rain the night before, and when he reached the river it was past fording, consequently he could not join his congregation. He spoke to the people, however, from the opposite bank, telling them if they would seat themselves and be quiet they should hear what he had to say. This being done, he raised his voice a little above its usual pitch and preached a fine sermon, every word of which was distinctly heard, notwithstanding the distance and the dashing of the swollen stream against its banks. Elder Todevine used to say, when speaking of him, `Brother McConnico has a voice like a trumpet.' " (J. R.)
"Elder McConnico died suddenly, full of faith and hope, in the year 1833, in the 62nd year of his age."
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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