Retyped for the page by Diane Payne, 2001
In the fall of 1802, the first Annual Conference in Middle Tennessee was held in Sumner county, at Strother's Meeting-house, near the head of Big Station Camp Creek. Bishop Asbury presided, and that was the first time I ever saw that venerable man of God. There was then, I believe, only one Annual Conference in the Mississippi Valley. From this vast scope of country the preachers came and met together, like a band of brothers. They were, indeed, itinerants of the old Wesleyan stamp. They were plain men in dress, their coats all being cut in the same style, and their manners generally showing that they, were not in the least degree inclined to the indulgence of superfluities of any kind. None of them, I will add, wore the D.D. attached to their names for distinction's sake; but brothers in love, as such, simply, they addressed each other. While writing thus, I, wish it to be understood I am not opposed to human learning, provided the cause of God is not injured by that superabundance of it which so often sinks the interests of humble piety. At that Conference, in 1802, I enjoyed the pleasure of shaking the hands of many great men of God, whom I shall never see again on earth, but hope to meet them in heaven. There I saw John Sale, Hezekiah Harriman, Stephen Brooks, Lewis Garret, and Tobias Gibson. The last-named preacher, Tobias Gibson, came from the Natchez country, now the State of Mississippi, where he had been sent some years before, and had sown the first seed of the gospel that had ever fallen upon that soil. He attended the Conference mainly for the purpose of getting help to carry on the good work in that distant country; and upon his return he was accompanied by a young preacher, named Moses Floyd, if my memory does not fail me. Tobias Gibson was an excellent man of God. He died in 1804, in Clairborne County, Miss.
Bishop Asbury visited this country several times after that Conference. Once Bishop Whatcoat came with him, and together they traveled to the different settlements, and preached to the willing people the precious gospel of Jesus Christ. Bishop Whatcoat was a most zealous and lively preacher. It was but seldom, when I heard him preach, that he did not close with shouting on his part, as well as by the people; and this, too, although he was then far advanced in life. I saw him ordain Jesse Walker, that excellent man of God, in Concord Meeting-house, on Goose Creek, in sight of which I lived at that time. John McGee and John Page, I think, assisted in the ordination.
I believe it was in 1815 I saw Bishop Asbury for the last time. It was upon the occasion of an Annual Conference held in Wilson County, at Hickory Ridge, a few miles west of Lebanon. The old soldier of the cross was then nearly worn out in the conflicts of life, and he appeared to me the most venerable man on whom I had ever rested my eyes. The hair of his head was perfectly white, and his natural strength had so far abated, he had to be lifted from his horse and helped into the stand erected for preaching, which was in the open air. He sat in a chair and preached the funeral sermon of Bishop Coke, who had, some time before, died at sea. The text was Acts xi. 24: "For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost, and of faith; and much people was added unto the Lord." Bishop Coke, it is known, had ordained Bishop Asbury in America; and, from the sermon, I presume they were associates in England. Though advanced in life and feeble in health, Bishop Asbury spoke So as to be plainly understood by an immense concourse of people, and the effect of his preaching was very remarkable. The most solemn awe seemed to fill every heart and shaded every face. Really, I thought if the enemy of souls had been present in person, he would have been compelled to behave himself by reason of the impressiveness of the exercises of that day. Upon the adjournment of the Conference, Bishop Asbury turned his course towards the North, with the hope of meeting the ensuing General Conference, to be held the next May in Baltimore. But he died, I learned, before reaching his journey's end, March 31, 1816. Thus passed away from us a great and good man.
I will now notice the early preachers in this country particularly, though I have already mentioned some of them in my narrative. When I recur to the times between 1790 and 1795, the pioneers of the gospel, with whom I used to associate with the greatest delight, appear before my mind with the vividness and freshness of real life;
There was Wilson Lee, a man eminent for his talents, as well as for his usefulness in the ministry.
He was a native of Delaware, and was raised in the midst of high life in the city of Baltimore.
When he was seventeen years old he embraced the religion of Christ, and not long afterwards
entered the vineyard of his Lord, and began to labor for the salvation of souls. He came to the
Cumberland country in 1790, and at that day our fare was very rough and uninviting to one who
had been used to better things; yet he partook of it not only without a murmur, but as though it
were good cheer, with thankfulness to God. He was one of the sweet singers of Israel. When he
went into the stand for preaching. and arising and stroking back his beautiful black hair, began to
sing his favorite hymn-
If you had been present, you would have almost imagined that "the Judge of all the earth" was indeed then "descending on his azure throne." He preached the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven. His voice was sonorous, and his address handsome; and often his appeals to the consciences of his hearers were tremendous, and overwhelming in their effects. In preaching he frequently directed the artillery of heaven against pride and vanity, particularly in the matter of dress-the wearing of ruffles and feathers, jewelry and costly apparel of any description; and he would boldly declare, that the wearing of these things by professors of religion was sinful in the sight of God. Indeed, in the days of Wilson Lee, and for many years afterwards, no one who wore anything superfluous was admitted into the love-feasts. Then the Methodists were plain, simple-hearted people; and I would to God our preachers now-a- days possessed the spirit which distinguished the conduct of Wilson Lee and his fellow-laborers in reference to the matter of dress and kindred subjects. I must mention an incident that occurred at a quarterly meeting in Sumner County, on Big Station Camp Creek. In those days, it was fashionable for wealthy ladies to wear a small beaver hat, with a large ostrich-feather fastened to the front part of the hat, and extending over the crown upon the lady's shoulders. At that meeting there was present a young lady from East Tennessee, Miss Vicey Shelby, then on a visit to her brother, Mr. David Shelby, who lived and died in Sumner county; and she was dressed in the finest style. Wilson Lee preached against the fashions of the day, and he preached with power, so that Miss Vicey Shelby-who was a young lady of excellent sense-was brought under conviction; and so clearly did she see her wrong, she tore the feather from her hat before she left the meeting; and better still, she never rested till God for Christ's sake had pardoned her sins. Soon afterwards, she returned to East Tennessee. and, I was told, made one of the most shining and useful Christians in all that country. So much for faithful preaching. I would to God our circuits and station were filled with such men as was Wilson Lee. He continued to travel and preach, until at length he was superannuated in 1804; and in October of that year, having broken a blood-vessel, he died in a few hours. Such was the death of one of the best itenerant preachers. Most dearly did I love him in my very soul. He received me into the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1790, and I hope at last to meet him in the Church triumphant in the skies.
James Haw came among us first in 1788. He traveled and preached also in 1790, with Peter Massie; and during that year he married a sister of Gen. Thomas, of Nolen County, Ky., and afterwards he labored but little in the itinerancy. He was a preacher of great zeal and much usefulness for a season. I knew him well, as we lived neighbors on Drake's Creek, in Sumner County, where the people were so taken with him, they purchased for him a six-hundred-and-forty-acre tract of land. He settled on it, and in return promised to serve them as a Methodist preacher as long as he lived. Soon, however, he became dissatisfied with the Methodist Discipline, and began to preach against the Methodist bishops; and besides, he did every thing in his power to induce the whole church to go off to the O'Kelly party. Very few joined with him, and even his wife was firm in her adherence to Methodism. In 1795, he engaged in a public debate with William Burke, whose services on that occasion saved the Church from ruin, while James Haw's usefulness as a preacher was destroyed for ever. After a few years, he joined the presbyterian Church, and died a member of that communion.
In 1791 these eminent men of God came to this Country. Barnabas McHenry was a Virginian by birth, and entered the traveling connection, I think, in 1787. He was a large, square-built man, had a fine face, and was very prepossessing in his general appearance. He was endowed with the first order of talents, and especially was a beautiful speaker, capable of preaching with success before the Congress of the United States. His discourses were a chain of wisdom and divine power. But I cannot portray the character of Barnabas McHenry, who was indeed one of the great men of the day. He died of cholera in 1833, in Kentucky.
His colleague, James O'Cull, had been reared, as he told me, in the Roman Catholic faith; but, when quite a young man, living not far from Pittsburg, he embraced the religion of Christ, and commenced preaching in a very short time. He was an excellent preacher for his age. His zeal was without a parallel within my knowledge, and, of course, he soon broke down in the ministry. But while he continued in the work, the power with which he preached was wonderful, and beyond description. He was living, when last I heard from him, in the northern part of Kentucky, where he had raised a family.
Thomas Williamson, who had traveled and preached among us in 1789, came and took the place of James O'Cull, when his strength had failed him. He was a gentleman and a Christian, a young man of superior talents, and an excellent preacher. He was greatly beloved by all the people, and the Lord owned and blessed his labors. I do not know what became of him.
John Ball was a son of thunder. He smote with his hand and stamped with his foot. He warned the people faithfully to flee from the wrath to come. He was a man of pretty fair gifts. I know nothing of his last days.
Henry Birchett was with us in 1793. He was from Brunswick County, Virginia. He was an excellent preacher, and I do not hesitate in saying I believe he was the most holy, devoted Christian I have ever known. He was a man of great faith, of which I will give an example that came under my own notice. Once on the Sabbath day, at Norris's Meeting-house, on Big Station Camp Creek, he was preaching to a large congregation. The preaching was from a stand erected in the woods. Soon after he had began his sermon, a most fearful cloud, dark and angry, appeared and spread over the heavens, just above the heads of the people, and from it issued most terrific thunder and lightning. The people became alarmed, panic-struck, and were in the act of scattering from the place. But just then, the preacher succeeded in gaining their attention, and told them to stay and unite with him in prayer to God. He bowed, and I have never heard such a prayer. He prayed the clouds to be dispersed, that they might have a peaceable and quiet waiting upon God. At length, when we arose from our knees, the cloud had changed its course, and passed away, and we were not interrupted by rain. This direct answer to prayer, so evident to all, had a most gracious effect upon the congregation, even the wicked believing God had heard the prayer of the preacher. Thus, great good was done on that day. Henry Birchett died in 1794, at the house of Mr. Hoggat, in Davidson County.