PAXSON, STEPHEN, pioneer Sunday-school missionary and organizer in the Mississippi Valley, for forty years was a notable landmark in the West in Sunday-school work, and came to be known and esteemed as a veteran without a peer in Sunday-School service throughout the entire country. The story of his remarkable heroism, moral reformation, masterful oratory, and sublime achievements unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries in any sphere and in any section of the country, or in any line of activity.
Mr. Paxson was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, November 3, 1808. His father died while his children were young, and circumstances forced the mother to seek homes for them among strangers. Stephen, who was next to the youngest of seven, had an impediment in his speech, which, under excitement, was fatal to any effort to make himself understood. His first appearance at school - an event looked forward to through a long summer of toil and lonesomeness - produced such a state of nervous trepidation that, when called upon, he could not give his name or age, or any intelligible account of his mental acquirements. The children laughed and the teacher stamped his foot impatiently, and harshly ordered the boy to go home, and sent by his hand a note requesting the people who had him in charge to teach him to talk before they sent him to school. While yet a lad he was attacked by a painful disease known as white swelling, which rendered him a helpless cripple for a long time, and partially lamed him for life. The circumstance of the boy's lameness made a change in his occupation necessary, and he was apprenticed to learn the trade of a hatter. In his master's shop he became at once the butt of ridicule on account of his stammering speech. The young apprentices showed him little mercy, and invariably called him "Stuttering Stephen." Little did he or any of them think that there was a resolute energy in that young breast which would avail to conquer nature's infirmity; that that very voice, so slow and hesitating now, would one day stir the hearts of multitudes as by the call of a trumpet.
Having an intense desire to learn to read, he began by learning the alphabet from the various signs painted in staring letters over the shop doors and the posters on the fences. Occasionally an old castaway newspaper would serve him well in the effort to learn to read. He also developed a wonderful capability and fondness for singing, which marvelously served him in his work in later years. The spirit of song seemed to subdue his infirmity and inspire him with the power of musical utterance.
In the year 1838, Mr. Paxson moved with his family to Winchester, Ill., at that time within Morgan County. The though of God was not then in his heart. He was fond of worldly pleasures, especially of dancing, in which, in spite of his lameness, he became very proficient. He employed a fiddler, giving him a yearly salary to be ready at any time to supply him with music for that favorite amusement. It is also related that he often appeared on the street barefoot, and when provocation offered, he was ready for a pugilistic tournament. He never entered a church, or paid the least regard to religious observances. Finally, through the persuasive entreaties of his little daughter, he was induced to accompany her to her Sunday-school. That was the beginning of one of the most remarkable reformations and illustrious careers of usefulness that ever occurred. For four years he attended that school, never missing a Sabbath. He was converted and united with the church. At once he became interested in organizing Sunday-schools in other places in the county. He early saw the need of unification of methods of that work, and the better qualification of teachers. With that in view he first held a few mass-meetings of various schools within reach of each other in the woods.
April 20, 1846, having made due preparation therefor, he summoned the teachers of the county to meet in convention in the old Presbyterian church in Winchester. As early as 1832 similar methods had been adopted in some of the Eastern States with excellent results, but later that means of increasing the enthusiasm and the teaching power of those engaged in Sunday-schools appears to have been little used, especially in the West. Mr. Paxson hit upon the same expedient, thus reproducing a comparatively forgotten agency, and made it more widely popular than in former days. From it sprang up the system of County, State, and District Conventions - agencies which have now assumed national and international proportions.
The great trial of Mr. Paxson's life - his stammering speech - had now become almost unendurable to him. He wanted to speak fluently and with effect in behalf of the work so dear to his heart. He began to think of attempting a cure. To this end he determined to study himself and the impediment that repressed the utterance of his thoughts which smothered his heart, in their restless throbbing for expression. Surely he would find some way! For the resolute soul there is ever a path opened. He would watch and pray. He discovered at last, almost by accident, that, whenever he filled his lungs with air and expelled it slowly, accompanying his speech with certain gestures, the nerves seemed to relax and the words came with greater fluency and ease. He acted at once upon this hint, and practiced every day. He found to his joy and amazement that the key to the combination lock set upon his speech lay in his own hands. He felt himself a new man; now he need no longer hesitate about his fitness for the work of the Master. A heart aglow with zeal, and a loosened tongue - are not these sufficient for the work whereunto he was called? Thence forward, from Maine to the gulf; from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains; in the wealthiest and most cultured churches East, West and South; and in audiences of many thousands, assembled in the open air, he addressed vast multitudes who were swayed by his irresistible eloquence; sometimes convulsing them with his drollery to laughter, then melting them into tears by the pathos of his experiences and messages. Where no Sunday-school had before existed, he organized 1,314 Sunday-schools containing 83,405 scholars and teachers, besides encouraging and aiding 1,747 other Sunday-schools with 131,260 scholars and teachers.
It should be remembered that when Mr. Paxson began, and throughout most of his long and extensive itinerant career, the means of public travel were very limited, so that he was forced to adopt primitive methods. In that matter, therefore, he used a horse which he appropriately named "Robert Raikes." In this way he assisted his master in organizing over 700 Sunday-schools, and traveled a distance nearly as great as thrice around the world. He moved form Jacksonville to St. Louis, Mo., in the year of 1868, the Society having kindly given him the easier position of taking charge of the Book Depository in St. Louis, with liberty to travel whenever he felt disposed, to attend missionary Sunday-school conventions, mass meetings, and spend his time in similar work. To business life he brought the same energy and enthusiasm which had characterized him in his Sunday-school work for the church and our country. He died in St. Louis, and is buried in the beautiful Belle Fontaine Cemetery.
A thrillingly interesting biography of Mr. Paxson was written and published by his gifted daughter, Mrs. B. Paxson Drury, from which has mostly been compiled this narrative of one of the most distinguished citizens of Morgan County.
William Pryor Paxson, D.D., son of the preceding, was born in Cherokee County, Ala., September 8, 1837. He received his education chiefly in Illinois College, Jacksonville, Ill., and entered the ministry in early manhood, and at once gave promise of unusual ability and prominence, which was fully realized in his subsequent brilliant career. After a few years of successful pastoral service he entered upon the work of his distinguished father - the missionary work of the American Sunday-School Union - as Superintendent of the Southwestern District. He brought to that work very great executive ability and the gift of extraordinary public address. In order to raise funds for carrying on the work in his district he frequently visited the Eastern and New England States, where he addressed large audiences which were thrilled by his eloquent appeals and moved to great liberality in contributions for his work. It was during the last of such visits, having been especially successful, that he was stricken by fatal illness, dying march 8, 1896, in Orange, New Jersey.