Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 418 - 421)
Eli, son of Phillip Roberts, was born in Sevier County, Tennessee, October 23, 1801. His mother, whose maiden name was Margaret Coonts, was his father's second wife. His father was a native of England, but coming to this country in colonial times and settling in Sevier County, at a time when the county was still largely an unsubdued wilderness and subject to the raids' of hostile Indians, he had the misfortune to lose his wife, the mother of his children, through the hostility and treachery of these savages - the two children, by a good providence, escaping the fate of their unfortunate mother.
March 24, 1823, he was married to Elizabeth Gobble, who became the mother of his ten children, four sons and six daughters.
The first Sunday in March, 1825, he was accepted as a candidate for baptism by the Forks of Little Pigeon Church (now the Sevierville Church) and was baptized the same day by Elder Richard Wood. He was granted license by his church to "exercise his gift in public," in November, 1832, and in May, "first Saturday," 1833, he received his ordination at the hands of Elijah Rogers, Noah Cate, and Johnson Adams, who constituted the presbytery. He was often Moderator of this his home church during the pastorate of "Father Rogers," and succeeded him as pastor in 1840, serving the church for five years. He was also pastor of Red Bank, White Oak Flats. Wear's Valley, Sugar Loaf, Bethel, Dumplin, and other churches.
Like most of the preachers of his day, in this part of the country, Elder Roberts had a limited education. The `three R's," however, in which he was proficient "reading, writing, arithmetic" - gave him good business qualifications; and the citizens of his county (Sevier) made him Trustee, after he had become a preacher, and continued him in office for six years.
Bible and hymn book were his preaching outfit. He got very little from the churches in the way of material support. He was a good farmer, however, and made a good living for his family. However, in his later years, he had the misfortune of having to pay "security debts," and was entirely "broken up" at the time of his death.
"Eli Roberts was the ablest preacher for his culture I ever heard; and was one of the first preachers to take a firm stand on missionary ground in this part of the country. He was a doctrinal preacher; and didn't weave in much exhortation when he preached he preached, expounding the Word" (J. Russell).
Eli Roberts had in him the poetic instinct, and wrote quite a good deal of poetry, religious, and otherwise. He wrote out in verse a pretty fine speech for his son Mark to commit to memory and recite. The subject of the speech was "Learning," and the first lines:
"Good learning seek and strive to gain.
Though it may cost great care and pain."
From that proposition, and good advice, he proceeds with a practical, utilitarian argument in regard to the doctor, the lawyer, etc., reaching in the last lines this conclusion
"Then, learning is the thing for boys -
It makes them men upon the stage,
And has done so through every age."
A sentiment like that, clothed in poetic garb, is calculated to stir the ambition of a boy and give him a start in the right direction. The poem, therefore, is worth while. His religious poems are much after the style of the old-time poetry of the oldest hymn books, and served for ornament in religious discourse as well as teaching.
Reviewing his life and anticipating his death he said to "Uncle Dicky Evans": "I'd love, if possible, to preach one more sermon; if I had the whole world in one congregation, I would like to tell them of Jesus and His love." In his last sickness he was patient and submissive to the Father's will. To the loved ones gathered about him he said, "Weep not, I am going where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest."
During the latter part of his life he held his membership with the Red Bank Church. In one of his last preaching services he prayed most earnestly that one of his sons might be a preacher, and a little later Mark Roberts entered the ministry. This "father in Israel" had two brothers, one son and four grandsons who became preachers.
Having fought the good fight, our brother received his discharge, August 9, 1859. He was buried at Middle Creek Methodist Campground, three and one-fourth miles across the country from Pigeon Forge, Sevier County. For the funeral discourse Elder George Sims took for a text: "For we must needs die, and be as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him" (II Sam. 14:14). A striking and suggestive text, that; I have no notion that the sermon conformed to the homiletical rules laid down in Dr. Broadus' "Preparation and Delivery of Sermons," or to the strict laws of Scripture interpretation nevertheless, one can see how Brother Sims, from that text, could give his hearers a helpful and an edifying discourse. Don't you wish you could have heard it? I do.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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