Jacksonian Miscellanies, #9: March 11, 1997

Topic: Calvinism in Frontier Tennessee and Kentucky

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following, another excerpt from The Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross, written by his son James Ross, begins a two-part series of descriptions of Baptist ministers in central Kentucky and Tennessee in the early 1800s.

Chapter 13 of the book (which follows) gives one preacher's plain-talk explication of the Calvinist doctrine of selection and predestination:

Others might say "'A' can give, or not give, to whom he pleases, but if God created us, and is a loving God, wouldn't he, like a good parent, take some responsibility for his creatures or children?" The doctrine was in trouble among a people who saw their leaders, not as lords, but as public servants.

The Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross tells of another Baptist minister, Daniel Parker, who found a new way to solve the "Theodicy Problem":

Elder Parker will be described at length in the next Jacksonian Miscellanies.

Both the Unitarian churches of America, and the Baptist churches, are branches of Congregationalism. The very Congregational nature of Congregationalism; its principal of the sovereignty of the individual congregation, makes it difficult to maintain any form of orthodoxy. Congregations of Baptists, like congregations of Unitarians, formed associations, which might ostracize an unorthodox minister (refusing, for example, the custom of ministers trading pulpits for one or more sessions). This happened, for instance, with the Unitarians and Theodore Parker.

When a strong and charismatic minister, or group of ministers exhibiting the same tendency, took a church, or group of churches, out of their old association, there was no central organization to discipline them. When Elder Reuben Ross came to the conclusion, through his study of the Bible, that the doctrine of predistination and selection was wrong, he and a group of others formed the Bethel Baptist Association, in a peaceful secession from the Red River Association. Later, Ross would fight against defections out of his association of church members attracted to the doctrines of the famous Alexander Campbell.



I DO not know the number of churches that composed the Red River Association when it was organized. But in 1810, they amounted to twenty­seven scattered over a wide extent of country.

The number of members was 1020. Of this session Anthony New was Moderator, Wm. Aingell, Clerk, and Elder Reuben Ross, Assistant Clerk.

During my boyhood and youth my opportunities of forming a correct estimate of these old Baptists were much better than those of most boys of my age, had I possessed the requisite discrimination. Your grandfather always insisted on my attending the meetings, if possible, hoping, I suppose, that at some time my attention might be arrested, and my thoughts take a religious turn. I not only attended preaching with him near home, but often at some distance, both in rude and newly settled districts, and also where society was more refined and polished. At Hopkinsville, Elkton, Russellville, etc., were many fine Baptist families fifty years ago; and the impression left on my mind is that they were worthy of all esteem. Their Christian spirit and reverence for religion were every where noticeable, and, notwithstanding their creed, their hearts seemed to glow with love and gratitude to the Creator for the great and merciful scheme of redemption through the sufferings and death of His Son.

As far back as I can remember, what I considered a fine sermon delighted me very much, and I am even now surprised at the impression that remains on my mind, not only of the spirit of some I heard on those occasions, but in many cases of the words and sentences. Next to the fine sermons I was most interested in the experiences that used to be related among the Baptists. And though I rather considered myself a very good judge of a sermon I prided myself on my opinion of an experience, and thought I could tell whether it would pay or not before the vote was taken.

There were, besides your grandfather, four preachers of notoriety in the Association whom I remember well, and whom I have heard preach many times. Of their personal appearance and the character of their preaching, I have a distinct recollection. These were elder Lewis Moore, Jesse Brooks, Isaac Todevine, and Sugg Fort. I will attempt to describe them, that you may have some idea of the men with whom your grandfather was for many years associated in the ministry.

They were staunch Predestinarians, and gloried in the doctrine they preached. All were of excellent character and some of them of fine talents. In point of ability it was generally admitted that Elder Lewis Moore stood foremost. He was not above medium height, heavily built, with a short neck, large head, full face, and was rather careless in his dress. Out of the pulpit he had little to say, but in it he was certainly no common man. Before coming to this country in 1728, he was pastor of the Reedy Creek Baptist Church in Warren County, N.C. (See Burkitt and Reed's Church History, page 260). When I first knew him he was pastor of the Muddy River Church and of several others in this country. This church was, I think, situated somewhere north of Russellville, Logan County, Kentucky. In his style of speaking he was nervous, vehement, and sometimes startling. He seemed to carry in his memory every text in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation that bore on election, predestination, and kindred subjects; and could apply them with great force and effect. His tact in explaining away, and weakening the force of those texts that seemed to militate against his views, I thought little less than marvellous. His irony, too, was exceedingly sharp and cutting.

It was customary in those times for the preachers while arguing their points to call on a brother, or sister even, to say if what they affirmed was not true. They would do so many times during a sermon after becoming heated by the argument, and the brother appealed to would sanction with great energy. After piling text upon text, and argument upon argument, and making his position seemingly impregnable, he would say:

"Tell me now, Brother Todevine, is not this doctrine true ?"

"Yes, Brother Moore, it is true, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

"Sister Owens, is this doctrine true?"

"Yes, brother, and bless the Lord for it."

"And yet," he would continue," there are men in the world, and not a few of them either, who deny the truth of this glorious doctrine of election that has made glad the hearts of God's people for thousands of years. They say, forsooth, it is partial and unjust, and does not give every one an equal chance to be saved. Now just reflect. We are all miserable sinners, conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity; and if we had our just deserts would every one be sent to hell, and that speedily, but God in his infinite goodness and mercy has condescended to elect and save a few of us. And instead of adoring his holy name because all are not lost, they are raising a great clamor because all are not saved. A. has money and chooses to give B. a part of it. The money is his own and he can use it as he pleases. But it is no sooner known that he has bestowed a portion of it on B. than every vagabond in the country denounces him as partial and unjust, because he does not give him some, too. Who is injured by this? I would like to know. Some are benefited, but does that defraud any one else ? One man makes a feast, and invites his friends to come and partake with him. Those who have not been invited raise a howl as if victuals had been taken out of their own mouths. Alas! for the folly and presumption of human beings! It is really past finding out."

"But let me tell you, my friends, what is really the matter. I am sorry to say it, but the truth is the Almighty don't properly understand his business. That is clear from the mistakes he is constantly making. Would it not be a blessed thing if he could have some of our wise men to assist him? Some that have studied Latin Greek, and Hebrew in the colleges and high schools, to help him govern the world? Or might it not be better still as the poet has said to

Then would follow one of his perorations, or conclusions, which I used to think very fine.

"But, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let not your hearts be troubled at these things. Your bread shall be given you, and your water shall be sure. Your house is built upon the rock. Let the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing. Greater is he that is for you than they that are against you. Let us contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. The conflict will soon be over, and we shall be where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest. In those bright mansions not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, crowns and diadems and palms of victory await you, which shall be placed on your brows by the Great King himself."

It was delightful to see how happy the brotherhood seemed to feel on occasions like this. Every countenance was radiant with these inspiring hopes, but no hands would clap or shouts be heard. These preachers would stop instantly in the midst of one of their loftiest flights should any one give way to his emotions,-and wait for him to get composed.

Elder Moore believed that long before the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy at the glories of the new creation, the Almighty looked down upon the ages yet unborn, as it were, in review before him, and selected one here and another there to enjoy eternal life and left the rest to the blackness of darkness forever; and so he preached. I do not think he lived to be an old man. When a youth I used to pass by his dwelling on my way to Drake's Pond Church. His residence was in the extreme southern part of Todd County, Kentucky. The situation was low and flat, and had an air of loneliness and solitude about it even during his lifetime. I regret that I cannot tell you his age or when he died.

Elder Jesse Brooks, though of the same school of theology as Elder Moore, differed from him in several respects. He was more social, cheerful, and pleasant out of the pulpit. His coat was always brushed, his linen clean and white, and his boots or shoes nicely blacked. He wore a broad­brimmed hat, made of the genuine fur of the beaver, which had perhaps been caught by some trapper among the Rocky Mountains. It used to be said that one of these hats, with what the ladies called a "little doing up, now and then," would last twenty years! He like other traveling preachers in those times, used to carry on his left arm his saddle­bags, containing his Bible, hymn­book, and a change or two of linen, if he expected to be from home some time. The umbrella was carried in the right hand, and used as a walking­cane when not needed to keep off the sun or rain.

He was above the medium height, and his frame large, without any unnecessary weight. His complexion was fresh for an old man, and his expression mild and prepossessing. Your grandfather used to admire his manners at home, which were those of a pious Christian who made all around him cheerful and happy.

I think he was a silversmith by trade, but had long since quit the business, except as an amusement. He once put a very pretty silver band around the ivory head of a cane belonging to your grandfather, which had been fractured. I would infer from what I used to hear, that he had saved enough from this business while young to make himself and family comfortable in old age.

Elder Brooks, like other Calvinistic preachers of the day, had but little to say to sinners, as those were called who had never made any profession of religion or connected themselves with any church. Indeed, they seemed at a loss to know what to do with sinners any way. They were tough subjects, and they seemed very much disposed to let them alone. If they were not of the elect, all the preaching in the world would do them no good, so far as salvation was concerned, since they believed Christ died for the elect only. Why then preach to them at all? On the other hand, if they were of the elect, nothing could prevent their being saved. They would be sure, sooner or later, to come into the fold. Many of the Old Order of Baptists still doubt the propriety of making sinners the subjects of gospel addresses, and the late Dr. Watson, who stood high as a man of great learning, benevolence, and zeal in religion, (in a work published after his death called the "Old Baptist Test,") complains of his brethren for not doing so.

I have heard the subject of hereditary depravity discussed many times. The argument was about this:-That we are all parts of our father Adam; and when Adam, who was the whole, sinned, we the parts sinned also in him; and as he deserved punishment, so do we, as being Adam drawn out at length, as they expressed it. I used, when a boy, to try hard to comprehend this mystery, but never succeeded. We know that one can receive a taint morally and physically by hereditary transmission, as in pulmonary consumption, and bad tempers and dispositions both in men and brutes. But how one can be really guilty for this inherited defect is not so easy to conceive Sinners were advised to shun outbreaking sins if possible, such as horse­racing, card­playing, cockfighting profanity, drunkenness, and fiddling and dancing especially.

Election, predestination, the nature and extent of the atonement, the final perseverance of the saints, effectual calling, and the glorious and happy state of the elect after death were the themes on which Elder Brooks and others loved to dwell. In lofty style, like Elder Moore he would exhort his brethren and sisters not to be discouraged or faint by the way, telling them the day of their redemption was drawing nigh, and that they would soon behold the city of the Great King in all its apocalyptic beauty and splendor; their spotless robes, their golden harps, were there awaiting them, which would continue to shine and sparkle in unfading brightness when the sun, moon, and stars shall grow dim with age and pass away.

Elder Brooks also lived in what is now Todd County Kentucky. He was long pastor of the "West Fork of Red River Church" the old site of which is hardly known. He was, I think, a native of Virginia. I do not know the date of his birth or death, though I have taken some pains to learn. He and your grandfather often traveled and preached together, and together assisted in organizing churches and ordaining ministers in the early times.

I have taken unusual pains to recall my early impressions of these two old pioneer preachers, who may be considered representative ministers among the Baptists of those days.

Their preaching was chiefly directed to the defense of their doctrines and the feeding of their sheep; that is, to comfort and encourage the members of their churches; and this was done so much to their satisfaction and delight, that the aged men and women of that generation who are left still look back to those as the palmy days of their church, about which they love to think and speak, though now comparatively few in number.

Of the soundness of their doctrines and the purity of their faith they had the most exalted ideas, and no doubt many of them considered themselves as much superior, in these respects, to the surrounding Christian denominations as did the ancient Jews in comparing themselves with the heathen nations around them.

But there was one dread thought that often brought these old Christians low even unto the dust. "Am I, after all, one of the elect? May I not, after all, be mistaken? And if so, then all hope is gone!" The storm tossed mariner, when his boat goes down, may find a plank or broken spar, and on it may reach the friendly shore; but for him who is not of the elect there is no plank or spar or friendly shore; he must sink in the deep, dark waters. There is ground for believing that by this dread apprehension the reason of many has been dethroned. Cowper, one of England's sweetest poets, was unable to bear up under it, and Cromwell himself, if I remember rightly, whose iron nerves never quailed before mortal foe, trembled at the bare thought of this.

I have heard many, whose minds were filled with doubts and fears on this subject, converse with your grandfather in regard to it. While troubled with these gloomy apprehensions, they might often be heard singing the plaintive old hymn:

Their fear was that Satan, who can transform himself into an angel of light, and deceive the very elect themselves, were it possible, had tempted them to conclude they were the children of God when they really were not, and that they would ultimately be lost after all their fond hopes to the contrary.

Before passing on to our next chapter we will add, that there was one theme of which these old Christians never grew weary, and which filled their hearts with unspeakable love and gratitude. That the Almighty should have loved them with an everlasting love, chosen them to be lively stones in his holy temple, made them the special objects of his regard, vessels of honor, while others, as good by nature as they, perhaps better by practice, were vessels of wrath fitted for destruction, seemed at times to fill their hearts with love and gratitude beyond expression. Had he shown his loving­kindness in this way to all alike, it would not have been so wonderful, since all were in the same lost and ruined condition. But this act of peculiar and special favor, when there was no merit whatever in them, that they should be made kings and priests of the Most High rather than others, was unlike anything known before among mankind, and it seemed to them that their hearts ought to overflow with love and thanksgiving on account of it every moment of their lives. Indeed, there was a simplicity or artlessness in the way they talked on this subject that was really interesting. Is it not possible that many of them, almost without knowing it, thought they were after all just a little better than others, and were chosen or elected on that account?

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