Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


(pages 535 - 539)

Caleb Witt, a, son of Charles and Lavinia Witt, was born September 2, 1762, in Halifax County, Virginia. His father was also a native of Virginia, born about 1730, and perhaps in the same county as his son. Caleb Witt's mother has never been satisfactorily identified, her maiden name still being a matter of conjecture.

Caleb Witt was in the Revolutionary War; was "drafted from Dobey's Old Store," was in the Yorktown campaign, and saw Cornwallis surrender his sword. After his death (January 27, 1827), his "widow applied for a pension." (Miss Lucy M. Ball).

In 1783, while Tennessee was still the "State of Franklin," the Witts settled near Witt's Foundry, in what is now Hamblen County, Tennessee. Some of the farms in this neighborhood have been in continuous possession of the Witt family for 132 years.

September 2, 1784, the subject of our sketch was married to Miriam Horner, a daughter of William and Elizabeth Horner, and a native of Randolph County, North Carolina. This union was blessed with a family of eleven children. Coleman Witt , the youngest of the family, far up in his 80's when I saw him some twenty years ago, rendered the writer valuable service on a number of his sketches, for which acknowledgment is hereby duly made.

Caleb Witt had at least two brothers, Elijah and Joseph, who came to. Tennessee in the early settlement of the country, and two sisters, Patsy, who married Capt. Thomas Jarnagin, and who was the great-grandmother of Dr. W. A. Montgomery, and Lydia, who married William Maze. Wilson C., son of Daniel Witt, is a near relative of Caleb Witt. He was ninety-nine last June, and promises me a picture of himself, on his one hundredth anniversary, should he live to see it. Elijah Witt, though not a preacher, was a student of the Bible, especially of the "prophets," and wrote a book, or pamphlet, entitled, "The Beast With Seven Heads and Ten Horns."

I have been told that when Caleb Witt and his wife, Miriam, commenced housekeeping for themselves their household effects consisted of a few pounds of feathers for a bed, a board for a table, stools for chairs, a broken pot for boiling vegetables, and a fiat rock for baking bread. In addition to these necessary furnishings be had his "little black mare" with which to plow the fields.

He was a member of the old Bent Creek (now Whitesburg) Church, constituted in 1785. He was likely baptized by the longtime pastor, Elder Tidence Lane. This church licensed and ordained him to preach, and was served by him as pastor for a number of years.

Caleb Witt was a man of plain personal appearance, rather sharp features, high, shrill voice, passionate nature, and high temper; but a man of good spirit and splendid ability. In doctrine he was a thorough-going predestinarian, a strong advocate of the doctrine of "particular election." He was "hard," a plenty, plenty in his doctrine, but was not "anti-missionary." Luther Rice's "list of collections for Judson in Burmah showed Caleb Witt's name as one of the contributors of Bent Creek Church to Foreign Missions. I saw the list, and remember distinctly the name, but not the amount of the contribution." (W. A. Keen).

For a number of years Caleb Witt represented his church (Bent Creek) in the Holston Association, and was fourteen years the Moderator of that body.

He was a stalwart defender of Bible-and-Baptist doctrine, as shown by the following bit of history. Miller and Dodge, "Stone-ite preachers" from Kentucky, claiming to be Baptists, had sown the seeds of dissension in the Buffalo Ridge Church (a church with a membership of 350), subverting the faith of many and carrying them away to the Arian heresy as taught by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell (both of whom denied the deity of Christ) -reducing the church to fourteen members. There was war in the camp and on the field; no political campaign was ever hotter. The Holston Association had met with the Cherokee Church. There was a large gathering of the Baptist hosts, and Caleb Witt was to preach the sermon. His text was Isaiah 9:6, 7: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the Mighty God," etc. His theme was the "Deity of Christ," a doctrine which the enemies had assailed. The sermon was logical and compact, a solid mass of Scripture quotation, exegesis, and argument on the one point in dispute - the divine and eternal sonship and Godhood of the Second Person in the Trinity, the adorable Redeemer and Almighty Savior. Many lawyers were present, and their verdict was that Caleb Witt's defense of a great Scripture doctrine was complete, that his argument was the most convincing and unanswerable argument on that subject they had ever heard from a pulpit. It was a great triumph for the Baptist cause in the old Holston Association. The sermon went a long way toward discrediting the popular Campbellite heresy in the eyes of Baptists, and other denominations as well, and had a powerful influence in unifying the Baptists of the Association and establishing them in the fundamental doctrines of their ancient faith. (`W A. Keen).

As illustrating the divergent views of "predestinarians" and anti predestinarians in the popular mind, Dr. W. A. Montgomery told me the following story of his great-grandmother, a Mrs. Jarnagin, who was a sister of Caleb Witt. Expressing herself in regard to the doctrine of election, on one occasion, she said: "Brother Caleb says, if a body isn't one of the elect, it's no use for him to try; he may weep his eyes out and pray forever, but it won't do any good. I reckon that's so, for Brother Caleb says so. But somehow or other I can't help but feel that everybody ought to try and strive to enter in."

This story comes to me from my correspondent in Illinois Tradition says, that Caleb Witt went into a trance, on one occasion, and was laid out for dead. But, "coming to," he raised himself up and said that he had been to heaven and had heard a song that had never been sung on earth: "Live many years more; increase in store; and preach the gospel to the poor." The vision and the song made a lasting impression upon him, and he did live many years to "preach the gospel to the poor." He died January 20, 1827, near Russellville, and was buried in the old Bent Creek cemetery at Whitesburg.

My attention has been recently called to the will of Charles Witt, father of Caleb. He died in the year 1730, in Halifax County, Virginia, where his will is of record. He willed to each of his children a "cow" and so many pounds "sterling."


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


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