Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


(pages 459 - 462)

James Sterling, son of Thos. J. Russell, was born in Jefferson County, Tennessee, October 10, 1822. His grandfather, William Russell, was born in Virginia, but in an early day moved to Georgia, thence to South Carolina, and about the beginning of the last century moved to Tennessee, settling in Jefferson County. His great-grandfather, John Russell, came over from Ireland in the times of "persecution" in the old country, and fought as a soldier in freedom's cause in the Revolutionary War. His grandfather, on the maternal side, was a Green, a native of Scotland. The subject of our sketch, therefore, is of Scotch-Irish descent.

While still an infant James Russell moved with his parents to Monroe County, where, in his fifteenth year, he was converted under the preaching of Elder George Snider, and was baptized by him into the fellowship of Hopewell Church.

In 1842 he was married to a Miss M. C. Cate, daughter of Gideon Cate, of McMinn County; and in 1891 was married to Mrs. Maggie McCarter.

Young Russell was brought up on the farm, acquiring a taste for farming, trading and handling live stock, enjoying such educational advantages as were common to farmer boys in the community where he was reared.

Shortly after his marriage he moved to McMinn County, settling down, in 1850, near the town of Athens, where he built up a "handsome estate," consisting of some seven hundred acres of valuable land and "bank-and-woolen-mill stock" to the amount of several thousand dollars.

His "call to preach" was to him an occasion of considerable perplexity and trouble of mind. He had a "taste for making money," and thought his "talent" lay in that direction. After some resistance and delay, he finally yielded to the impressions of the Spirit and his convictions of duty, and in 1856 answered the call "Here am I, send me," and commenced preaching. He was ordained by Zion Hill Church, the third Sunday in April, 1857 - Elders John Scruggs, H. C. Cooke, T. J. Russell and H. M. Sloop serving as the ordaining council.

His first charge was the Chestnua Church, Monroe County, which he served as pastor for eighteen years. He was also pastor of Spring Creek, in Polk County, and Mount Harmony,  Zion Hill, Shady Grove and other churches in McMinn and Monroe counties. For twenty-six years he was pastor of Shady Grove Church, successor to his father, Elder T. J. Russell - father and son serving the church for a pastoral period of fifty-one years. He was also successor to his father in the pastorate of Zion Hill Church, where he long held his membership and in whose cemetery he was buried, when his life work was ended.

Though entering the active ministry rather late in life. Elder Russell proved to have more than ordinary "preaching Gifts." as well as a "talent to make money." In a ministry of nearly forty years he was instrumental in building up many good churches and witnessed the conversion of hundreds of souls.

He was generous and open-handed to the poor, and gave liberally of his means to all good causes. In the erection of a house of worship for Zion Hill Church he was a leader, and the largest contributor to the building fund. He was chiefly instrumental in building the new Baptist meeting house in the town of Athens. He superintended the burning of the brick and the erection of the building, kept the accounts, paid the bills, and turned over the house when finished to the church "free of debt," and in his "will" gave to the church the full amount of the claim he held against it -some $2,500.

As a speaker he was "fluent, fiery and forcible. He was earnest and sympathetic, more of an evangelist than a doctrinal preacher.  His manners were simple, his actions lively and energetic, his principles firm; his character was solid, his life consistent. All who knew him had the utmost confidence in the integrity of his character and the purity of his motives." In doctrinal belief he counted himself a "landmark Baptist," and did not affiliate with men or countenance measures not bearing the distinct stamp of the Scriptures.

May 3, 1895, being in his seventy-third year, he closed his earthly career, dying as he had lived, securely "sheltered in the Rock." His funeral services were conducted by Brethren Calvin Denton, Joseph Janeway and Dr. N. B. Goforth, who bore beautiful testimony to the character and life of a "fallen friend and brother, and the affectionate devotion of his churches to him as their pastor". His memory is cherished, and the grass grows green over his grave at Zion Hill, where his body rests till the resurrection morning.

The honored and lamented W. T. Russell, of Jefferson City, erstwhile Professor of Mathematics in Carson College, for twenty-five years Superintendent of Mossy Creek Baptist Sunday School, for many years Senior Deacon of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City was a son of Eld. J. S. Russell.


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


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