The Pioneer Preacher

Written by Jay Guy Cisco
From Historic Sumner County, Tennessee

Retyped with some revisions for the Sumner Co. TNGenWeb page by Diane Payne

Dr. McDonald, in his "History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church," paints a woeful picture of spiritual matters in pioneer times. He says: "Orthodoxy, the catechism, a deathless attachment to principles and to ecclesiastical rights, a holy horror of any innovations on the traditional methods of work, singing Rouse's Psalms, and hearing sermons three hours' long on election, made up religion of many of the best citizens.

"But after the revolution, mainly through the influence of the French soldiers who had aided us in that struggle, infidelity swept over all this western frontier, and threatened for a while to carry all the population. All the historians are agreed in their testimony to this vast prevalence of infidelity. Some say that nine-tenths of the people were infidels. The general lack of preaching, and the bad character of many who did preach, helped to sweep faith away from the face of the country . . . Most of the preachers were bad men. Drunkenness, wrangling, licentiousness and heresy brought the most of them to grief sooner or later."

This may have been true of some sections, but not of the Cumberland country, where there was but little lawlessness, and few crimes committed against God or man.

Carr names several preachers who had arrived in the Sumner County settlements before 1795, calls them "eminent men of God," who " warned the people to flee the wrath of God." The pioneer preachers were, as a rule, good men, and they exercised an influence for good. They were not men of learning, but what they lacked in education they made up in enthusiasm.

The pioneer preacher was one of the people, one who, in early youth, was noted for his great piety, and for frequent prayers in public. He was the pride and the joy of his mother, the hope of his father, and the model to which all the mothers for miles around pointed their sons. He was a general favorite with all the pious girls, and frequently the butt of the bad young men. He felt that he was called to preach. There could be no doubt of it, he had heard the summons and had no choice but to obey. He usually married while quite young, and the general verdict was that he had made a grave mistake in not marrying some other girl. But mistake or no mistake, in due course of time he was surrounded by a numerous brood of children, which, if rumors were to be credited, were the worst children in the whole settlement. And to this day we sometimes hear the same report of preachers' children. But it is not always true.

The worldly possessions of the Pioneer Preacher were few. They consisted of a horse, bridle and saddle, a pair of saddle bags, a pocket bible and a hymn book, the last two being well worn, dog-eared, thumb-marked and greasy from constant use. If he was married, he also owned a meager lot of household furniture and fixtures, only such as was absolutely necessary for his family. More would have been extravagant in piety and prayer, but in nothing else.

The circuit embraced many settlements, some of which were miles from the abode of the preacher. He traveled on horseback, sometimes on foot, from one appointment to another, stopping at night at any friendly cabin when night overtook him. He sometimes camped in the woods, sleeping with his back to a tree, while his horse grazed about. Sometimes he was overtaken by storms, rain or snow, for which he was illy prepared. Swollen streams were frequently encountered, and the good man was put to great inconvenience, his health and even life being endangered. But he put his trust in Providence and landed safely on the other shore. He had a sublime faith in Providence. He trusted Providence to provide food for his family during itineracy, and there is no authentic record of any members of such family starving to death. Doubtless some of them at times went to bed hungry, but hunger is good for the soul. Providence also provided for the preacher and his faithful horse and supplied them with food at intervals. The Pioneer Preacher did not confine his preaching to Sundays, but he "dispensed" the gospel every time he found a few faithful souls gathered together in the name of the Lord. There were but few roads in those days, and the good man was forces to travel over mountains, across valleys and through trackless forests, without even a blazed tree to guide him on his way.

The Pioneer Preacher had no vacations with full pay, such as the modern preacher enjoys. If he had any leisure it was spent wrestling with the Lord and fighting the devil back from his little flocks. Satan was aboard in the land, and he did not then, as now, take a vacation during the heated term, nor did the preacher.

In those days there were but few church edifices-they were called "meeting houses," and were constructed of logs, with puncheon floors and benches, the latter without backs of cushions. These buildings did duty as school houses as well as places of worship. Sometimes cattle, hogs, and sheep resorted to them for shelter from the storm. One "meetin house" sufficed for a while settlement, all worshiped together regardless of church affiliations. The circuit riders, exhorter, prayer meeting and sperience meetings all attracted the saint and the sinner, the good and the bad. The congregation was usually limited by the number of settlers in the community. In sparsely settled districts, where there were no meeting houses, the people assembled at the cabin of some one of the neighbors for worship. There were no organs, pianos, nor violins in the churches of that day. The only music was the mingled voices of the multitude singing, often out of harmony, but vociferous, some in a high key and some in a low key, each doing his or her best for the glory of God.

The visit of the Pioneer Preacher was an event in the lives of the settlers. The fattest chicken was killed, and the best the cabin afforded was put upon the table. The good man said a long blessing before the meal, and held family prayer before retiring at night and before breakfast in the morning. He slept in the best bed, the family occupying the same apartment, as the cabin contained but one room. There was no privacy except in the forest.

The Pioneer Preacher was not paid a stipulated salary, as preachers now are, and often did not receive as much as $5 a year in the "root of evil." Contribution boxes were unknown at that day. Salvation was free. The gospel was not retailed at so much per and perquisites. The preacher and his family subsisted entirely upon perquisites; an occasional peck of meal, a pullet, a ham, a side of bacon, a saddle of venison, a pair of home-made socks or mittens, a few yards of home-made jeans or linsey woolsey and such articles as the people could spare from their limited stores; there were freely given and thankfully received.

The Pioneer Preacher was an oracle; it was through him that news was spread, and this was another reason, aside from his holy calling, why he was always welcome. There were no newspapers, and the mails were irregular and uncertain, so the preacher was the bearer of the news from one settlement to another, and, too, he was the bearer of letters and messages. He knew everybody, and everybody knew him.

He commenced religious services by lining a hymn, in which the congregation joined lustily in singin. This was followed by a long and fervent prayer, then the test was announced and the sermon begun, and it was continued with unabated vigor for two or three hours. Everything in the bible, "from kiver to kiver," was accepted as literally true; it was the revealed word of God, and who did not accept it was an infidel and an outcast. There were no "higher criticism," and doubt did not disturb the minds of the people. All Christians believed the Bible, though different denominations had different interpretations for certain passages, and, as now, furious disputes and debates failed to settle the debatable passages.

Sermons had an extraordinary influence upon their hearers. They were solemn, earnest, and often approached the grotesque. The preacher taught the good, old-fashion doctrine of hell, where fires of brimstone and melted pitch were never quenched, and where the wicked burned forever and were never consumed. Hell was a bottomless and shoreless lake of fire, into the immeasurable depths of which sinners were plunged headlong, that on its burning billows, tipped with flickering flames of damnation, souls were tossed and dashed through all eternity. They believed in a personal devil, with horns and claws and a forked tail, and who laughed with diabolical glee while he shoveled sulphur into the blazing pit of unquenchable fire. The good man held out no hope for those who died in sin. Their punishment would continue throughout all eternity.

These good old preachers vied with each other, in picturing the torments of the dammed, the agonizing screams and writhings of lost souls, the endless throbbing, burning anguish, the blistering fires of unconsuming wrath. Even now, after all these good and devout men have long gone to their reward, it makes one's flesh creep to recall the awful pictures they painted in such frightful colors in their efforts to turn men from sin to repentance. We can see the doomed soul the moment it leaves the body plunge into the depths of eternal perdition, into the lake of torment. It is seized by gloating demons with hooks of red hot iron and is thrust into flames a thousand times hotter than melted iron. A thousand devils scream with infernal delight at the sound and sight of its awful agony and hopeless despair.

"Imagine, if you can, yourself to be cast into a furnace where your pains would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater! Imagine, also, that if your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of pain and all the while full of quick sense, what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a place, and how long would that quarter of hour seem to you, and after you had endured the pain for one minute how frightful it would to you to think you would have to endure it for the other fourteen! But what would be the effect on your soul if you knew that you must lie there enduring that agony to the full twenty-four hours! And how much greater would be the torment if you knew you must endure if for a whole year! And how vastly greater still if you knew that you must endure it for a thousand years! O then, who much your heart would sink if you knew that you must bear it forever and ever; that after millions of years and millions of ages your torment would be no nearer to an end; and that you should never be delivered. Thank God for his tender mercies, and his loving kindness in providing such a place of unrepentant souls."

After all these years have come and gone that favorite text of the Pioneer Preacher still rings in our ears: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlastings fire prepared for the devil and his angels." A favorite illustration of eternity was; "Grind the world into sand, place the sands into an immense hourglass, let these grains of sand drop, one every million years, and when they have all passed eternity will only have just begun!"

"How many years and centuries shall the lost should be imprisoned?" Forever. How many ages shall it groan in tears of regret and despair? Forever. How many years shall it burn in flames? Forever. Will there be no interruption of these torments? Never. Stretch your imagination, add years to years, ages to ages, multiply them by the leaves in the forests, the sands on the sea shore, the drops of water in the immensity of all the oceans, you will not conceive the meaning of ever, never! On the brazen arch of hell forever is written in letters of eternal fire."

Such were the pictures painted by these pious men, and they had their effect in a harvest of redeemed souls. Set the most hardened sinner on a puncheon bench where for two or more hours he must face a preacher with eyes in fierce frenzied rolling, while in stentorian voice he pictures such horrible scenes, and if it don't fetch him to the mourners bench he is surely a goner. When the old-preacher took off his coat, unbuttoned his collar and got down to business in this stain, he usually made the dry bones of sinners rattle. Strong men would groan, women would weep and little children shriek in agony of fright.

Death-bed scenes were favorite themes with the Pioneer Preacher, and here, too, he was an artist. The joys, the exquisite delights of the departure from the corrupt body of the soul of the Christian. The despair, the agony, the terror, the consternation of the dying sinner. They were awful pictures.

Heaven was painted as the very reverse of hell. But possible more souls were induced to flee the wrath to come through fear of torment than through hope of paradise. The Pioneer Preacher was endowed by nature with powerful lungs, and he preached his sermons loud enough to make the women cry and to bring from the male side of the house a sonorious and hearty "amen." Be it remembered that the two sexes did not mingle indiscriminately in houses of worship at that time. The woman sat on one side of the house and the men on the other. The sheep were divided from the goats, as it were. It was not considered bad form for a worshiper to light his cob pipe and enjoy a smoke during the sermon, nor for a mother to give her babe its natural food.

Many amusing incidents might be related of those meetings, but I will forbear. The Christians of that day were earnest and devout. They believed in that good book. If it was not in the Bible it wasn't so, and if it was in the Bible every word and every syllable was true, and he who doubted was damned. They hated cards and had a contempt for fine clothes. A fiddler occupied a low place in society. Silks and broad cloth were deemed worldly and a "biled shirt" was looked upon with suspicion. The preacher was usually a muscular man, and he not unfrequently found it necessary to enforce respect by the application of muscular energy. He was not a college bred man, and his sermons were delivered in pioneer English without frills or Latin quotations. His dress was of home spun, though on state occasions he donned an antique suit of broad cloth, well worn and threadbare and with brass buttons on the coat, which was cut with a forked tail and had an enormous collar. With this suit he wore a hat of uncertain age, probably inherited from a remote ancestor. It was tall, and made of fur, and was the wonder and admiration of all beholders. The gestures of the Pioneer Preacher were vigorous and violent. He would sometimes squat very low, then suddenly, like a jack in the box, rise on his tip-toes, fling his arms, roll his eyes heavenward and shout loud enough to be heard for a mile or more. No mortal could have doubted his earnestness and holy zeal. There was a good deal of hyperbole in his discourse, but he was in dead earnest. He wrestled with the Lord for the salvation of sinners and made the devil take to tall cane. He didn't know whether the world was round or flat, and he didn't care. It was only a piece of temporary abode for weary souls where they were prepared for better or worse after the judgement. He knew the heaven was above and that hell was below, and that was enough. He was absolutely sure that the world was made about six thousand years ago out of nothing; the Bible said so, and no man could doubt it and be saved. Previous to that period the place where the earth had its orbit was an aching void.

In those days the family dog regularly attended divine service, and they often disputed with each other while the good man was warning sinners to flee the wrath to come. Crying babies did not intefere with the devotional exercises, other than to stimulate the preacher to renewed exertion. The children had souls to be saved.

The lot of the Pioneer Preacher was a hard one, but he never complained. He faithfully performed his duties until called by the Master, firm in the faith that he would wear a crown of glory on the other shore.

Return to the Historic Sumner County, TN

Return to the Sumner Main Page