Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
(pages 528 - 533)
James Whitsitt was a son of William and Ellen (Maneese) Whitsitt. He was born January 31, 1771, in Amherst County. Virginia. At the age of ten he moved with the family to Henry County, Virginia. He was born and reared in the Episcopal Church, at that time the established or state church of Virginia but he knew nothing of an experience of grace. In 1789, in the providence of God, there was a great revival of religion in the neighborhood of the Whitsitt family, conducted by Elder Joseph Anthony, a Baptist minister of evangelistic fervor and spiritual power. Young Whitsitt came under the influence of the meeting, was converted, and, making a profession of his faith, was baptized by Elder Anthony. On the occasion of his examination and baptism he made an address, it is said, which was "characterized by great fluency, appropriateness and fervor." He entered into the revival with great zeal for the salvation of others, praying, exhorting and holding prayer meetings, with such marked success that his church in a very short time voted him a formal "license" to preach. He was then in his nineteenth year. About this time there were glowing reports from the "great West," and the family of an uncle and a part of his own family had moved to the "valley of the Cumberland," in what is now known as Middle Tennessee. James had been left behind to wind up the business. This done; he, too, following the migratory instinct so common to the people of those early days, set out for Tennessee, and at the end of a hard and perilous journey found himself in the bosom of his family. Here he met, courted and married his cousin, Jane Cardwell Maneese, a daughter of James Maneese, a most estimable and godly woman, who became the mother of his eleven children. By this marriage he came into possession of a large body of very fine land on Mill Creek, which he well knew how to cultivate and upon which he established himself for independent living the rest of his days.
Before leaving Virginia young Whitsitt, like many another youth, yielding to the pressure of unfriendly environment and anti-Baptist views, allowed himself to drift into skepticism and to doubt his religion, even going so far as to request exclusion from the church. But now, with a change of environment and a renewal of his hope, he writes to his former pastor requesting restoration to fellowship in his church, and a letter of dismission. His membership was transferred to the little church on Mill Creek (1794), where he was ordained to the gospel ministry, in which he labored with untiring faithfulness and distinguished success for more than fifty years. "From this time onward, till near the close of his life, the history of Elder Whitsitt's labors would be the history, in large measure, of the Baptist denomination in the valley of the Cumberland." He took the pastoral care of four churches: the church at Mill Creek, Concord Church, in Williamson County, and Rock Spring and Providence churches, in Rutherford County, exchanging Rock Spring for Antioch Church, when that body had been organized, in order to locate his work nearer to his home. He continued his labors with these churches from thirty to forty years, up to the time when the infirmities of age compelled him to give them up, one by one, and confine his ministry to his home church.
Elder Whitsitt was present at the organization (1796) of the Mero District Association, the first association formed in the Cumberland Valley, including! all the churches in Tennessee, west of the mountains, being five in number. Mero District is but another name for the territory now known as Middle Tennessee. Upon the organization of the Cumberland Association (1803) Elder Whitsitt and his churches were transferred to that body. Later (1810) at least two of his churches were constituent members in the formation of the Concord Association, composed of twenty-one churches lying east of Nashville. This body, for the year 1812, reported 866 baptisms, 350 of which were performed by Elder Whitsitt. In a list of twelve "prominent ministers" who were in the organization of this Association, all men of "ability and sterling worth," the name of James Whitsitt stands at the head. For years his influence in the Association .was paramount, and the proceedings of the body bear much of the "impress of his views and opinions."
After the death of his first wife he was married to Mrs. Elizabeth Woodruff, a member of his Mill Creek Church and a mother in Israel. For four years his life was brightened be her ministry and devotion -- he was then left to live with his youngest son, to whom he gave the homestead. The infirmities of age were now pressing heavily upon him. Mill Creek, the only church of which he was now pastor, allowed him an "assistant," but the relation soon became unsatisfactory to the old pastor, who resigned his charge, and, taking a letter of dismission, united with the First Church at Nashville, where he retained membership till the close of his life. After retiring as pastor he continued to preach funeral and other sermons, here and there, supplying for his preacher-brethren, occasionally, writing articles for the religious press, and rendering other service, as his strength would permit. He supplied the Second Church in Nashville, in the absence of the pastor, to the edification and delight of the church. On the second Lord's day in October, 1848, he was with his church in Nashville at their communion. His address on this occasion was peculiarly tender and affecting: "And now, brethren and sisters, farewell. This is our last interview. I am old and rapidly failing. The winter is almost upon us, and I can not be with you. Before spring comes I shall be gone, Farewell." This, indeed, was his last meeting with them. He died in perfect peace on the 12th of April, 1849, in the seventy-ninth year of his age.
Elder Whitsitt was a man of "striking personal appearance and manners - frame tall, combining elegance and strength, hair black, eyes dark, calm and shaded by heavy brows, countenance regular, manly and intellectual, uniting great benevolence and unyielding firmness; his whole demeanor evinced a dignity which repelled every light reproach and a self-possession which never forsook him. He was a man whom no one could imitate, and whose style and manner could never be forgotten by those who had once heard him. He was the uniform and earnest friend of missions, and had a primary agency in originating and sustaining the missionary operations of our State. He left a broader mark upon his generation than almost any of his associates in the ministry" (His pastor, Dr. R. B. C. H.).
"As a minister of the gospel he held a very high rank. His sermons were always able, and had the appearance of being elaborately prepared. His conceptions were clear and accurate. His reasoning faculties were unusually strong, and no metaphysical subtleties ever confused him. In the latter part of his life his sermons became less argumentative and more practical. He was also occasionally intensely pathetic, and the effect of his utterances at such times was well-nigh overwhelming" (Reporter to Cathcart).
I am citing a foot-note to Benedict's History of the Baptists, which will be of interest on account of its local reference and coloring as well as its touch and thrill of sentiment always to be found in the mutual friendship and admiration of two great souls, such as existed between the author of our great denominational history and one of the great makers of that history; and with this citation our sketch must close. Speaking of "Elder James Whitsitt" Benedict says: "I am pleased to put Elder against such ancient names. The hospitable mansion of this old friend was my home while I was exploring this region in 1810. He resides on the same side of the Cumberland River on which Nashville is situated, a few miles up that noble stream, and but a short distance from the seat of the late Gen. Jackson. Then there was no more appearance of a Baptist Church in Nashville, than as if the old English Five Mile Act had been in full force, which forbid all dissenters from settling within that distance of any city, town, borough, etc. At my instance, this aged minister has given me a brief statement of his pastoral services and relations, which I will relate in his own language: `Since I saw you (1810) I have aided in building three brick meeting houses for the three churches I attended last; they are all on Mill Creek. The one nearest me, and where my membership is, is one of the best in the country; it is 60 feet by 40, with galleries on three sides, and is well finished. The other two are of the same dimensions, without galleries. The first one named (Mill Creek) is far the oldest church now standing on the south side of Cumberland River. This church has branched out into five respectable churches; for the main body, I officiated as pastor forty-eight years; I have now resigned the pastorship of all the churches formerly under my care. I am now (1846) in my seventy-sixth year, having been in the ministry more than fifty years."'
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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