Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 425 - 429)
I am now standing on historic ground-the ancient site of the Forks of Little Pigeon (now Sevierville) Church, the first Baptist church of Sevier County, constituted in 1789. Just out there stood the old meeting-house, where the Baptist saints worshipped, and where Richard Wood and Elijah Rogers preached the gospel and ministered to them as pastors for more than fifty years. And here in the old cemetery is a tombstone bearing the inscription: "Sacred to the memory of Elijah Rogers; born May, 1774 ; died May, 1841."
Maj. E. E. McCroskey, a descendant of Elijah Rogers, says the Rogers family is originally from Wales. In its later history it was identified with the Puritan stock of Plymouth Rock fame. Two brothers of this name came from over the waters in the "May Flower" with the goodly company of the Pilgrim Fathers. One of them located in Massachusetts, the other in Virginia. The members of the family in the New England states have an unbroken family record back to the year 1300.
Elijah, the son of Henry Rogers, was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, but at the age of 15 came with his father and other members of the family to Sevier County, Tennessee, then a part of the "western territory" of North Carolina. This county at that early date was largely an unsubdued wilderness, infested by the Indians, whose hostile aggressions, for a number of years, involved the races in perpetual warfare or vigilant watching on the part of the settlers against the sudden raids of the hostile and suspecting natives. In all this young Rogers was an "active participant." (S. C. Rogers, in Borum's Sketches.)
Elijah Rogers lived before the day of public schools in Sevier County, or even private ones. But his battle with the wilderness developed in him strength of character as well as strength of muscle. He was in every sense a self-made man. His education, from first to last, was secured by hard digging and persistent application. He possessed the talent of self I helpfulness and acquired in large measure the virtue of self reliance. In his early ministry and even on toward middle life, though not lacking in masculine strength, he was "raw and awkward and unpromising," we are told; yet by dint of effort and perseverance he became, in time, a fairly polished speaker, for his day.
At the age of 20 Elijah Rogers was married to Miss Katherine Clack, daughter of Spencer Clack, a Baptist, and a prominent citizen of Sevier County-one of a delegation of "five members," elected to represent his county in a convention called by the Governor (William Blount) to meet at Knoxville, January 11, 1796, to formulate the first constitution for the government of the new State of Tennessee (Ramsey's Annals, p. 651) ; and was also a member of the legislature for a number of terms. This union was blessed with a family of ten children, five sons and five daughters.
In 1796 he and his companion united with the Forks of Little Pigeon (Sevierville) Church, and were baptized, it is supposed, by Elder Richard Wood, who was then pastor of the church. Subsequently this church licensed him to preach, but he was not ordained to the full work of the ministry till he had reached his thirty-sixth year.
In 1810 Boyd's Creek Church called for his ordination, and he was accordingly ordained, in the usual way, as we may suppose, by the laying on of the hands of a presbytery, presumably by the authority of the old Forks of Little Pigeon Church, of which he seems still to have been a member.
He served Boyd's Creek, Alder Branch, and Sevierville as pastor the greater part of his ministerial life. Of Boyd's Creek he was pastor more than thirty years. He was the first pastor of Alder Branch, he and Augustine Bowers being the joint founders of the church. He was successor to Elder Richard Wood in the pastorate of the Sevierville Church. For more than fifty-two years these two faithful under-shepherds took care of the Baptist flock at Sevierville, each serving the flock faithfully to the close of his life.
These men were present at the baptism of John Hillsman (August, 1825) in the Tennessee River at Knoxville, in the presence of 3,000 people, Elijah Rogers being the administrator. This was the first baptism in the city of Knoxville, and the beginning of Baptist history at this now Baptist city. (Old record.)
These two men were the chief pillars of strength to the Baptist cause in all their part of the country for years, serving the churches, for the most part, at their own charge. They, with other Baptists, had seen and felt the injustice of a compulsory religious (?) tax to support the state church, and the pendulum had swung the other way. Right or wrong, following the Baptist custom of the times, they said little about pastoral support, and "farmed" for a living. "Preacher Rogers" was held in repute as a farmer, and was said to be the "best corn-grower" in Sevier County.
Elijah Rogers was moderator of the Tennessee Association twenty-four years in succession - a fact in itself showing unusual influence and popularity, and an honor rarely duplicated in the history of deliberative bodies.
He was pioneer in missions, and a John the Baptist preparing the way for a missionary movement, even while he was held in fellowship by his anti-mission and anti-effort brethren. While the leaders of the anti-mission school gave their time and energy to discussing "fixed fate, free-will and foreknowledge absolute," Elijah Rogers was one of the first to break the shell of fatalistic belief and declare for missions. His contention was for "free salvation," or a salvation available for all men, a universal commission, and the obligation of the churches to give the "gospel to every creature." In the war with the so-called "Ironsides" he was able and distinguished as a fighter. He had an appointment, I am told, on one occasion between the "missionaries" and the "antis." The appointed day came round, the multitude gathered, the sermon - a "great sermon" - was preached. It was a great triumph for the cause of truth. The opposition was not entirely quieted, but to a great extent was disarmed. The friends of missions were encouraged, and furnished arguments for the defense of their cause. The controversial spirit, however, was not natural to him. He was inclined to be conservative and conciliatory, rather than combative. Churches, rent asunder by strife over the question of missions, sent for Elder Rogers, far and near, to help them settle their troubles; and few men could do more by tact and prudence than he to restore peace and unity to a divided church.
I close the sketch with the relation of the following anecdote, which is vouched for by good authority. Elder Rogers had a small Testament which he was accustomed to carry about with him in one of the hind ockets of his coat. While getting ready to start to one of his Saturday appointments he happened upon a pack of cards about the barn, which some of his boys, as he supposed, had been playing on the sly, and had forgotten to "hide", as they intended to do. He put the cards in the same pocket in which he had previously put his Testament, and went on to church, intending to give the boys a lecture, on his return home. When the time to begin the preaching service had arrived, he had forgotten all about the "cards". Imagine his surprise, when, putting his hand in his pocket for his Testament, he pulled out the cards instead, in plain view of the audience. As soon, however, as he could recover himself from his embarrassing perplexity, he explained the situation and proceeded to give a moral lecture on the wickedness and folly of "card-playing".
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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