Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 440 - 449)
Twenty years ago, in a published sketch of Asa Routh, the writer characterized the subject of his sketch as "the grand old man eloquent, now in his seventy-ninth year, and, though deaf and stooped with age, still preaching the glorious gospel he has preached so well these fifty years."
Asa, son of Stephen and Sarah Routh, was born July 23, 1818, in Clinch Valley, Grainger County, Tennessee, four miles north of Rutledge. His father was born in Sevier County, Tennessee, and was a soldier in the War of 1812. His paternal grandfather's name was Isaac, of Welsh descent. His mother, whose maiden name was McCluskey, was Irish, as the name indicates. It is from these sources our subject inherits his two most marked characteristics, Welsh fire and Irish wit.
Elder Mouth was converted in his twenty-sixth year, at the Powder Spring Gap Church, Grainger County, in a meeting held by Elders James Kennon, William Hickle, and Joel Aldridge, the last-mentioned baptizing him into the fellowship of the above church. In his twenty-eighth year (1846) he was called of the Lord to preach the gospel. and was licensed by the Puncheon Camp Church to exercise his preaching gift, and, a few months later, was ordained by the same church to the full work of the ministry, Elders James Greenlee and Daniel P. Morris constituting the presbytery.
In Tennessee, Elder Routh was pastor of the following churches: Elm Spring, Puncheon Camp, Buffalo, Tazewell, Little Sycamore, Rob Camp, Independence, Blountville, Holston Valley, Bluff City, Bethel, Johnson City First (which he organized), Old Union, Boon's Creek, Fordtown, Beech Grove, Chalybeate Spring, Liberty and Friendship. In Virginia, he was pastor of Clear Spring, Wallace, Castle Woods, Sulphur Springs, Independence, Bethel, Oak Grove, Mendota, and Lebanon churches.
In 1860 he sold his home at Little Sycamore, and moved to Lebanon, Virginia, where he spent thirteen years of active ministry: First, as missionary pastor of the Lebanon Church, under the Virginia State Board of Missions, and afterward under the auspices of the Home-Mission Society, of New York Scarcely had the pastor begun work on his new field when the terrible war between the States broke out and the Virginia board could no longer carry on its mission operations. It was at this juncture that the old soldier needed the courage of a hero. In the midst of the perils and hardships incident. to war, dropped by the board which could no longer help him, anxious about the support of his large family, and without resources, he thought he would have to go back to his old home and friends in Tennessee, to keep the wolf from the door. But the heroic little "mission" church said, "Stay with us. As long as we have bread and meat you shall have part." At the close of the war the Home Mission Society came to his relief with a supplement to his salary of $300 a year for three years. For this timely help Brother Routh makes the following grateful acknowledgement: "But for this aid I don't see how I could have kept above the waves. I shall never forget the generosity of those northern brethren."
Though the churches served by Brother Routh prospered, as a rule, under his pastoral oversight, it was not as pastor that he was most uniformly successful. Evangelism was his forte. He was instrumental in the conversion of more than 5,000 people. He baptized more than 3,000 converts into the fellowship of Baptist churches. In his palmy days he would not unfrequently [sic] witness more than 100 conversions in a two or three weeks' meeting. In a great meeting with Rev. B. G. Manard, at Bristol, there were 13S converts. At Buffalo, Blountville, Sodom, and Watauga, he enlisted more than 400 soldiers for the King. As missionary of the East Tennessee General Association, his report of work done within the "bounds of the Mulberry Gap Association" shows, among other items, "number of baptisms, 161; number of conversions, 31I." In the early struggles of Baptists for a foothold in Knoxville Brother Routh held at least three successful meetings, assisting Drs. J. F. B. Mays and T. C. Teasdale and Rev. J. M. Walters in establishing Baptist churches in that gem city of the mountains.
Thus gifted as an evangelist and successful as a revivalist and soul-winner, with a limited education, and with little or no opportunity for wide reading and painstaking study, Brother Routh rather regretted in his old age, especially in the light of God's signal blessings upon his soul-winning ministry, that he had not "given himself wholly to the work of an evangelist." He recognized that holding meetings was his "particular calling." In "pastoring churches," as he put it, he was always sensible of a "loss of energy." "If I had my ministry to live over again," he would say, "I would never take the pastoral care of a church."
Among his associates in the ministry I mention Elders W. A. Keen and Thomas Gilbert. Brother Keen was his fellow-missionary, under the appointment of the East Tennessee General Association, and was his fellow-helper in protracted meetings on various occasions. He and Brother Gilbert also were a strong team in many a good meeting.
How do we account for Brother Routh's success? What is the secret of his power? Several things must be taken into the account. 1. The hearer is impressed that he is in the presence of a God-called and God-sent man, bearing a message. 2. The messenger is an original, abrupt, John-the-Baptist sort of man - a striking figure, a unique personality. Who that ever saw the preacher could ever forget the piercing eye, the rugged face, the commanding voice? 3. The directness of his appeals. .4. His consecration to the work of the ministry. He magnified his office as a preacher. "Asa Routh's power," says W. A. Keen, "is in his directness, in his searching, matter-of-fact style of preaching, and his consecration to the work." 5. His generalship. Rev. J . H. Moore, characterizing Brother Routh as a preacher, says: ` Asa Routh is a wonderful commander, a great strategist. If he had been trained at West Point, he would have made a Lea [sic] or a Jackson." 6. A combination of gifts and graces, which the writer has described elsewhere as follows: He is thoroughly sincere, perfectly honest. He has convictions, and produces conviction in his hearers. He knows the human conscience and is' acquainted with the hiding places of guilt, and when he has found the sinner he fearlessly says to him, like Nathan to David, "Thou art the man." He preaches the law as well as the gospel, and has a unique personality. His small black eye pierces you, his trumpet-voice awakes and startles you, his pungent speech takes hold of you - he holds the sinner over the flame till he can smell the brimstone. But to the awakened and alarmed soul, anxious to escape the wrath to come, he can preach like a seraph, telling the wonders of redeeming love. 7. A marked element of power in Brother Routh was his pathos. The first time I ever met him was at the East Tennessee General Association, more than forty years ago. The place of meeting was the mouth of Big Creek (Del Rio). Brother Routh preached in the grove. His text was, "'For God so loved the world," etc. The entire discourse was in a pathetic strain, and had a fine effect. I cannot recall a single division of his sermon, but I have never forgotten the bit of poetry the preacher quoted and the story of its composition. The verse is this:
"Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the sky of parchment made,
And every stick on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To tell the love of God to man,
Would drain that ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though spread from sky to sky."
8. Another by no means inconsiderable element of power in Elder Routh's preaching was his quaint humor and sober wit, which was an enemy to dullness in the pulpit and served to keep his hearers on the alert. Elder Routh was not a "professional" evangelist, counting numbers. On the contrary, he utterly despised hypocrisy and shams. But after his great meeting with the Buffalo Church, Grainger County, in which there were 112 "professions" and ninety-nine approved for baptism, he was heard to say that "if a right respectable hypocrite had offered to join, he might have been tempted to take him in, just to make an even hundred."
On the subject of pastoral support Brother Routh thought he knew a few things, "from not being supported himself." So, when that matter was being discussed before the Holston Association, he told the brethren he had a "staked and ridered" sermon on that important question and would "deliver" it in any of their churches, if they needed it.
Brother Routh had a kindly feeling toward young preachers, and, on a certain occasion, said he would like to "write a book" for their special benefit - a book of "advice." He thought he could say all that would be necessary in "one chaapter."
Brother Routh was married three times, and was the father of twenty-nine children. "How many children have you?" I inquired. "I have booked my twenty-ninth," was the reply. He had been "in pretty close places" on account of having so large a family to support, and was "crowded" at times, but could always "find room for one more." The following anecdote is vouched for by good authority: A stranger once upon a time stayed all night with Brother Routh, it being Saturday night. On Sunday morning the twenty-nine or more children and grandchildren were all together in the family circle. The stranger, surveying the group, inquired of the venerable patriarch, "Who is superintendent of this Sunday school?" "I am, sir," was the laconic reply.
In conversation with the writer Brother Routh made grateful mention of the fact that he had lived seventy-eight years and had never had a "woman tale to follow him." He was quite popular with the "sisters," however, as the following incident will show. He was pastor of a church in what was called "the Dutch Settlement," where the women spun their own cotton and wool yarn and wove their own cloth. It so happened that the "good sisters" of the church made him presents of thirteen jacket-patterns of their homespun check-cotton and turkey-red. His wife made him about two jackets from the turkey-red patterns, and suggested the propriety of her piecing together some of the other patterns to make him a pair of pants to wear, "one time," to the Dutch Settlement, as an object lesson to the sisters, that they might understand that their beloved pastor needed something besides jacket patterns of turkey-red. The wife's plan, however, was not carried out - the husband protesting that he would have been "too distinguished," and that it would not be "in good taste" for a preacher to be arrayed in such gorgeous apparel.
In his early ministry Brother Routh, with W. A. Keen, held a meeting at a place called Sodom, in the extreme upper corner of Hancock County, north of Clinch Mountain. The place was noted for its whisky-drinking, card-playing and rowdyism. There were but two Christians in the community. The Methodists had tried to hold meetings there, but had been run out. So when the Baptist meeting was announced many Baptist friends said, "Don't go." But Routh said, "I will go; the appointment has been made. If they whip me, I'll know how it feels to be whipped for preaching the gospel. I'll not be the first Baptist preacher that has been whipped for preaching." The people had good farms and were good livers, but were rough and profane, and there was no meeting-house in the neighborhood. So that, as they were building the arbor in the woods for the coming meeting, they would swear and and jest, and say, good-naturedly, "Let the preachers come on; they'll soon get tired of us." At last the preachers came - and they stayed. A mighty work of grace was wrought there. Sinners, under conviction, cried aloud for mercy. Strong men bowed in submission to the Lord Jesus, and accepted him as Savior. The power of the whisky business was broken. Decks of cards were burnt in great numbers, or scattered along the highways in all directions. Eighty persons were baptized and a Baptist church was established. It must have been this wicked `Sodom" that he referred to in a sermon afterwards. He told his audience about holding a meeting in a very wicked place, which, he said, was so "near to hell it seemed that he could smell the brimstone." Taking dinner that day with one of the members, a matter-of-fact sort of man, who took everything in a most literal way, his host and old-time friend said to him, in all seriousness, "Asa, did you really think you smelt the brimstone?"
Brother Routh's grim humor would break out in unexpected flashes of wit, on the most solemn occasions. For instance, in telling about his experience at the "mourners' bench," he said he felt like he was a great sinner, still, his conviction, he thought, was not great enough. Hearing one of his fellow-mourners praying for himself and for everybody else, he listened a while, and then said to himself, "Well, old fellow, if you felt like I feel you couldn't pray that way; I've got more than I can do to 'tend to myself."
Elder Routh didn't particularly admire a "fighting" preacher; but, in the providence of God, he was called on to "flog" several Pedo-Baptist preachers, one Campbellite, and one "Anti-mission" Baptist preacher, in public debate. In his debate with the Campbellite, his opponent, affirmed, as usual, that "the Spirit spent himself in giving the Word," and is no more; but, in the opening prayer, forgetting himself, he prayed twice for the Spirit's help in the discussion - Routh in the pulpit behind him taking notes. Routh proved his opponent's position false, first from the Scriptures, and then from his opponent's prayer, which he had noted down. His opponent denied that he had prayed for the help of the Spirit; but Routh threatening him with the "vote" of the audience to decide the matter, his opponent "wilted." Ordinarily Brother Routh was peaceable enough, but when it was necessary for him to put on his war clothes and defend the Baptist cause, he was a "hard fighter."
Brother Routh was greatly handicapped, socially, by an almost total deafness, which he contracted by exposure and excessive ministerial labors during the winter of 1852. To communicate with him you had either to write your message or speak through an ear-trumpet. The saving clause in the unfortunate situation was the fact that, although you could not make him hear you without the trumpet, he could hear himself speak with considerable distinctness. His public speaking, therefore, was not seriously injured by his deafness.
March 10, 1899, in the eighty-first year of his life, Asa Routh passed off the earthly stage of action. A year or two before his death the writer visited Father Routh at his home near Piney Flats, and found him comfortably situated on a farm of his own, consisting of seventy-nine acres.
About the last preaching he did he mentioned in a personal letter to the writer, as follows: "My dear Brother: I am just home from Russell County, Virginia. During October I was on my old field of labor, where I spent thirteen years of my ministry. I preached twenty-two sermons during the month, and had good, happy meetings. I was well paid at nearly every place, and my health improved all the time."
In those brief lines, and the facts back of them, is a gleam of sunshine for old age-an expression of appreciation that must have been gratifying to the battle-scarred veteran of many a hard-fought field.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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