I will now endeavor to give you the great contrast between our former and later preachers. Our former preachers were itinerants in reality. Their whole time was entirely devoted to the work of God. They did not consider their work more than half done when they preached. Under no circumstances did they neglect class-meeting. I will endeavor to show you how class-meetings were then arranged. The names of all the members were set down upon the class paper, with the class-leader's name at the head. Alter preaching, and the doors were closed, the class-leader handed the class-paper over to the preacher. The preacher then commenced his examination, called each name out, and the person either arose or sat, as the case might be, and spoke out so loud that he could be heard by the preacher and all in the house. Very often, before they would get through examination, a Divine influence would descend among the people, and if you had been present, you would almost have thought that heaven had come down to earth. The class-paper was strictly marked, P. for present, A. for absent, and S. for sick, against each one's name. The class-paper was then returned to the class-leader. As our circuits were then at least four-weeks circuits, the class-leader was strictly charged by the preacher to hold class-meeting once a week, and to be particular to mark his class-paper as before described. If any person absented himself three times from preaching, or class-meeting, it then became the duty of the class-leader, by the direction of the preacher, to visit him and know the cause; and very often the preacher went along himself.
The preacher never failed, when he visited a family, to have prayer with them, which frequently had a happy effect. If they continued to absent themselves from preaching and class-meeting, they were either dropped or turned out for their negligence. Very often those visits by the preacher were the means under God of restoring the wanderer.
Another very important duty of itinerant preachers in early times was to pay pastoral visits, which they never failed to do. No member of the Church was too poor for those holy men of God to visit. They went to their houses and partook of their coarse fare, such as bear-meat or venison, or milk and bread; and they stayed all night with us. If we had not a feather bed to put them on, they would take a pallet on the floor; and I never, under any circumstances, heard one of them murmur or complain of his fare. They never left a family without instructing both parents and children in a most solemn manner; and they generally left a heavenly influence behind them that was not soon forgotten. This was deemed a part of the labor of an itinerant preacher.
But few are prepared to estimate the hardships endured or the important services rendered by these itinerant preachers. It is true they got but little money: sixty-four dollars was their disciplinary allowance; and I am very confident that the early preachers never received the half of that; for the money was not among us; they had but little ease and spent no idle time. The good people, who loved the gospel, sometimes gave them homespun clothes; and, if their clothes were ragged, and their pockets penniless, these things did not move them: their way was onward. That zeal and courage which the gospel inspires enabled them to over- lift every barrier. To die in the field of battle was their motto, and God gave them the victory of the cross in this wilderness country.
There was another custom practiced by preachers in early times, that is nearly entirely omitted in these latter days: that is, the manner in which blessings were asked, and thanks returned, when we partook of the comforts of life. If they were seated at the table to dine, or as the case might be, they arose to their feet, when the preacher asked a blessing in a most solemn manner. Then, after partaking of the comforts of life, they all arose again to their feet, and the preacher or some one present returned thanks to God in a most solemn manner. It was viewed very impolite for any persons to leave the table until all were done and thanks had been returned. On one occasion, I recollect, and never on but one, of seeing them kneel down around the table after eating, and a short prayer offered up to God. That was done by Wilson Lee at a quarterly meeting held at Hooper's Chapel, on White's Creek, Davidson County. A large company dined at old Absalom Hooper's, after preaching. As we arose from the table to our feet, Brother Lee gave out one verse of a hymn very appropriate; we then knelt down upon our knees, and a short prayer was offered up to God for the blessings and comforts of life. I have no doubt that it had a happy effect.
It seems to me that there is a considerable difference between the former and the later preaching. Our later preachers preach the same doctrine that the former preachers preached; but yet there is not that Divine power that attends the word that did in former days. When our former preachers prayed, they seemed to pray right up into heaven; and when they preached, they seemed to be clad with the spirit of their Master. Their words were burning words, clothed with the Divine power--came from the heart, and reached the heart of dying sinners. It was not un common, under preaching, to hear sinners cry out, "What shall I do to be saved?" and perhaps never leave the place until the Lord set their souls at liberty. They were frequently converted under the preaching of the word. There was no mourners' bench in those days; nor calling of mourners up to the altar of prayer. The mourners' bench was all through the congregation. I am certain that I never saw mourners called up to be prayed for until after 1800. As before observed, our later preachers preach the same doctrine-repentance toward God and faith in Christ; but somehow it has not the same effect on sinners that it had in former days.
There is a contrast between both preachers and people in former and later times relative to fast-days and quarterly meetings. The people looked up their quarterly meetings with great interest. The preachers enjoined it on the people to meet on Friday before quarterly meeting with a burning zeal for the conversion of sinners. Our presiding elder came clothed with the spirit of the gospel; and our circuit- riders came forward in the same spirit, and the mighty power of God soon came among the people, and many precious souls were brought from darkness to light-from the power of sin and Satan unto the living and true God.
Our love-feasts were conducted differently from what they are now. An early custom was, they came into love-feasts by tickets; and if tickets were not distributed, a prudent, pious man was placed at the door, and no one was admitted into love-feast who wore ruffles, or rings, or jewelry of any description. They were politely told by the door-keeper that they could not have entrance there with those ornaments on. I would just observe at this period of my narrative, if this rule were observed as it was in early times, but few, and very few, of our female friends would enter into the house of God to partake of love-feast. We scarcely ever failed, under these circumstances, of having a glorious feast.
People thought no hardship of riding twenty or thirty miles to quarterly meeting. We had no turnpike roads nor railroads to travel on, nor carriages of any description. We traveled the narrow path, through heavy cane-brakes, where we were exposed to the war-whoop and scalping knife of the red man of the forest; but God mercifully preserved us. When I look back at the scenes that transpired between sixty and seventy years ago, and those holy men of God that I had the honor of associating with, it almost makes me feel as if I were young. All those early holy men of God have passed away to great eternity. They sowed the first gospel seed that was sown in Middle Tennessee. Beware, ye shepherds of this day, how you till the ground and feed the flock of God. You have entered into other men's labors.
Our later preachers, so far as my knowledge extends, attend faithfully to their appointments; that is, they preach to us; but I believe, in a good many places, class-meetings are nearly laid aside. It has been some years since I have been examined in class-meeting by a circuit-rider. True it is, a great many of our later preachers are encumbered with families, which, was not the case with early preachers. But my opinion is this: when a man goes upon a circuit he engages to do all the work of an itinerant preacher; and I view barely preaching as not more than half the work of an itinerant preacher. When he neglects his class-meetings, and does not see to the marking of his class-paper, neglects his pastoral visits, and in particular the poor of his flock and the sick that belong to his church, and many other duties that are incumbent on itinerant preachers, and these neglects originate from the attention he has to pay to his family, I would advise him to locate: let some one fill the place who will do it more faithfully. God will take care of his Church. Let encumbrances be moved out of the way. It is prophesied by the world, and by a good many in the Church, that class-meetings will be finally done away; but I hope better things. I wish this matter brought up before the Annual Conference, and the preachers closely examined on this subject.
Now, my brethren, you that are traveling preachers, feel resolved to come up to the old landmarks of Methodism. I know, and perhaps you know too, that the rules of the Discipline are slackly attended to; and if there is not another course taken in future, the prophecy of the world will come to pass, and our class-meetings will be entirely dropped; then farewell to one among the most useful institutions of Methodism. However, I pray you, as an old man, just upon the verge of eternity, to arouse from your negligence. Row against wind and tide-don't let your oar or paddle go; if you do, you will be beat down stream. You will have to encounter serious difficulties before you get back to first principles in Methodism. I speak to both presiding elders and circuit-riders; train yourselves for the race; have no unnecessary encumbrances about you. If you have been led off into vain and foppish practices, lay them aside, and come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty. No room for mirth or trifling here. You have upon you the badge of the preacher of the gospel. Immortal souls are committed to your charge. You will have to render an account to God for your stewardship. I mean no one personally; but this is to all who may read this scrawl.
I have seen a custom among some of the later preachers that was not among the former ones: that of wearing long beards, to prevent them, they say, from having sore throat. Our former preachers went through double the hardships that the later preachers go through: I never saw one of them with his face or throat covered with hair. The fact is, I have but little doubt, had they arisen in the pulpit in that manner, most of the congregation would have left the house. Now, my brethren, I hope before the weather gets cold again, your throats, if they are sore, will be restored; and if the disease should return, try a piece of flannel, and quit this unseemly practice. I recollect, in early times in Middle Tennessee, of seeing a few individuals with such beards as are worn by some of our preachers. They were said to be gamblers, and some called them blackleg gamblers. I supposed that helped to arouse my prejudice against such a practice.
I have now given, in my broken manner, an account of "Early Times in Middle Tennessee." I have sketched somewhat at length men and things, secular and religious, of those days, according to my recollections of them. In this work, if I have helped to arouse a good deed or a fair name from oblivion, or if I have added to the rational happiness of my readers, I am amply rewarded for the trouble of preparing this narrative. I suppose this is my last effort at sketching the occurrences of early times. In the course of nature, my days are well-nigh numbered, and I shall soon pass away. May you and I, friendly reader, when death comes, be ready for the great change, and enter into the goodly company of the heavenly land!