Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 453 - 458)
One of our stalwart veterans and oldest living representatives of our East Tennessee Baptist pulpit is Elder John Russell, of Sevier County, now in his eighty-first year, sweet with age, youthful in spirit.
The subject of our sketch was born in Jefferson County. Tennessee, near Leadvale, December 18, 1845 [sic] (note: I believe this should read "1815" rather than "1845"). He is the youngest of a family of ten children. His father, William Russell, was a native of Virginia, but came to Tennessee during the war of 1812, and married Miss Sarah Moreland. His grandfather, John Russell, was a soldier in the war of the Revolution.
In his eighteenth year, under the preaching and influence of Elder Layman Jones, one of his earliest teachers, and the man for whom Jones' Chapel was named, he was convicted of sin. Not long afterwards, on the north bank of the French Broad River, alone with God, the new light shined into his heart, and he was baptized by Dr. Thomas Hill into the fellowship of Hopewell Church. In his seventeenth year, September 4, 1832, he was married to the "wife of his youth, " a Miss Nancy Patterson, of Sevier County, who was his companion for fifty-five years and the mother of his twelve children.
In 1838 he began to preach, his church having voted him liberty" to exercise his "gift" in a public way. He preached his first sermon at Providence Church, taking for his text John 3:14,15: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness," etc. June 18, 1845, he was ordained by the Hopewell Church to the full work of the ministry, accepting the pastoral care of the church. The preaching of a "missionary" sermon, however, soon got him into trouble with his church, and serious charges were preferred against him. He was charged with "preaching for and associating with other denominations," and with "not answering the calls of churches to attend their communion seasons." The matter coming to a vote, there was a tie, and the Moderator cast the deciding vote in favor of the accused. Bethel, in the exercise of her rights as an independent church, opened her doors, and on the relation of his Christian experience received him into full fellowship, continuing his "ordination." As a specimen of Baptist ecclesiastical documents of fifty years ago I give a full verbatim copy of his credentials from the Bethel Church: "March 17, 1849: Know all whom this may concern: On the day and date above written, John Russell came forward and joined us, the United Baptist Church at Bethel, he being previously a member of the Primitive Baptist Church at Hopewell, and was by them legally ordained to the gospel ministry. We therefore receive him as such, and think a re-ordination unnecessary; believing him to be orthodox in faith and pious in life, and qualified to serve in the ministry. We, therefore, by the power in us inherited, do ratify and confirm said ordination, thereby securing unto him all right and privilege to act as an ordained minister. where God in his providence may cast his lot. Done by order of the church. Eli Roberts, Moderator: Asa Layman, Clerk."
Brother Russell has been preaching fifty-eight years. He has been pastor of the following churches: Bethel, Red Bank, Walnut Grove, Henderson's Chapel, Boyd's Creek, Antioch (Sevier County), Antioch (Jefferson County), Alder Branch, Powder Springs, Pawpaw Hollow, Shady Grove, Millican Grove, Pleasant Grove (Cocke County), Union, Providence, Dandridge, Sevierville, and, for thirty-eight years, his home church, Jones' Chapel. He was missionary of the last Tennessee Association for four years, and two years its Moderator. He has taught twelve schools, married forty couples, and preached about 100 funerals.
In common with the men of his day his educational advantages were poor, but through life he has availed himself of all available materials for the building of a man. Websters "blue back" was his speller; his reader the New Testament. Grammar was not taught in his neighborhood; this he drew from books, "like bees," as he put it, "suck honey from blossoms." He studied arithmetic and penmanship, and, long afterwards, Hedge's logic, which he thought was "calculated to cure most anybody of the big-head, if he had sense enough to be cured at all."
He was a man of two books, the Bible and hymn-book. My notebook styles him "the poet-preacher." Not unfrequently he would use hymns of his own composition in the public worship; and sometimes would close his sermon with a spontaneous outburst of poetic fire that would move and thrill his audience.
Here is a little poem which he composed for the dedicatory by him of a new house of worship for the Jones' Chapel Church - the hymn to be sung to the tune of Old Hundred:
It's in this house we meet today,
The place to preach, and sing, and pray;
May many souls in it be found
To hearken to the Gospel's sound.
May those who labored here to rear
A house to offer fervent prayer,
See all their children and their race
Become the trophies of God's grace.
May love among the brethren dwell,
And oft of Jesus may they tell;
And live in peace, in union be,
Then happy through eternity.
On the fly-leaf of the old family Bible I find lines in the same poetic strain, "written by John Russell, July 6, 1864, for the benefit of his children," some of whom were then unsaved
"This Bible is the book I love -
It points me to a world above,
Where I shall rest my weary head,
When I am numbered with the dead."
Another verse appeals, to his children to "take his place," and in a third verse he prays for his "companion" and their children:
"That all around God's throne may meet,
Where all their joys should be complete."
As a preacher Elder Russell was always Scriptural and methodical, but was a little shrinking, especially at Associations, and on state occasions. If there was "talent" present, or preachers that knew more than himself, he would always let the other man do the preaching. As he grew older, however, he learned, he said, that an educated and sensible audience was more appreciative, and could "make allowance," better than an ignorant audience. The writer heard him preach in his eightieth year. His memory was remarkable. The sermon was fine. It was the essence of the gospel. It was Scripture heaped up, Scripture logic, "linked and strong."
Brother Russell has lived a life above reproach. One of the very greatest assets of his long ministry has been the unbounded confidence the people have always had in his piety and integrity. His word was his bond. He has also grown sweet with the years. Though he felt constrained, some six or eight years ago, on account of advancing age, to give up the pastoral care of all his churches, he is not soured or discontented. He has the spirit of resignation, has an abiding peace, and never "doubts the promises." He has largely acquired the virtue of self-control, and does not get excited and "off his balance" as he once did. He has also realized the desire expressed in the simple couplet:
"I want to live a Christian life,
Free from envy, hate and strife."
His old age has been greatly blest by his marriage, June 5, 1888, to Mrs. Mary Thomas, whose considerate and helpful kindness to him has been a constant benediction.
(The above sketch, in substance, was published in the E. T. Baptist, February 14, 1896).
NOTE: Among the handful of "fragments," gathered by the writer at the Sevier Association and sent to the Baptist and Reflector (October 31, 1901), was this: "Our greatest pleasure was in seeing old Father Russell and hearing him talk and pray. He is in his eighty-sixth year, and has lived above reproach as a minister for sixty odd years. His memory will be a benediction for years to come." The following year he passed to his reward.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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