by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
Life was not easy for John Smith in Wayne County, Kentucky in 1804. Like many of his fellow Kentuckians, John Smith wanted a better life than those who had gone before.
He was not afraid of hard work, but he had dreams of sharing in the wealth that was to be had by the wise and industrious on the frontier of America. But God and Isaac Denton had other plans for young John Smith.
After his conversion in 1804, Isaac Denton encouraged Smith to preach, but his lack of education and lack of a discernable “call to preach,” which was part and parcel of the Calvinism of the day, made John reluctant.
He was, however finally convinced to say a few words to a group gathered for prayer. When the hour arrived, Smith was prepared, but when the time came for him to speak, he was gripped with such fear all remembrance left him and he fled from the room into the darkness assuming his fear was the Lord rebuking him for presuming to speak to for God.
As he ran, he stumbled and fell to the ground, momentarily stunned. When he arose, he was clear-headed and his thoughts returned to him. He went back into the house and presented his thoughts with clarity and power./1
He continued to exhort in these small meetings much to the delight of those who heard him.
John Smith was beginning to make his mark in the world. He was a young man of 20 years, now respected in the community for his piety and place in the church and the owner of 200 acres of good land.
At one of the meetings of the church, his eye fell on young Anna Townsend. He was captivated and in December, 1806, “he wedded the first and only maiden he ever loved.”/2
Not long afterward, Smith had purchased an ox intending to fatten him for market. As he and a neighbor attempted to rope the animal, it turned on Smith with bellowing rage. Smith fled across the lot, the ox keeping him between its horns and actually pushing him along as he ran.
Smith thought, “If the Lord should be with me in this extremity, and deliver me out of this trouble, I will know assuredly that he wants me to preach, and I will no longer scruple to be ordained.”/3
Smith was able to escape over a fence, and true to his promise, Smith was first licensed as an exhorter and then ordained a Baptist preacher in May 1808.
In a very short time, Smith became one of the most popular preachers in Wayne County. Denton’s confidence was being rewarded. But all was not well with John Smith.
The more he studied his Bible, the more questions he had about the prevailing Calvinism of the day, particularly the doctrine of election.
How could a loving God arbitrarily choose to condemn someone to hell without giving them a chance to believe and be saved? Yet if they were not of the elect, they could not believe.
And how could one of the elect and foreordained ever be condemned and in need salvation by believing the gospel which he so effectively preached? These and other contradictions weighed heavy on the logical mind of Smith.
While John loved the Lord and loved preaching, preachers of the day, if they looked to preaching to support a family, were destined to live in poverty. That would not do for John Smith. He had dreams of better things for his young wife and growing family.
After an 1810 visit to the wealthy bluegrass region of Kentucky, John began to dream of moving from Wayne County to a place where he could make his fortune.
By 1812, America was one again at war with England. Farmers further south in Alabama were getting rich growing cotton. Smith learned that choice lands could be had in Alabama for $1.25 an acre and it could be bought on credit. In the fall of 1814, after months of dreaming and planning, John sold his farm for $1500, loaded all his worldly goods, his wife Anna, and their four children into a wagon and headed to Huntsville, Alabama.
There he met some of his late father’s old friends from East Tennessee and he and Anna were warmly received and they quickly became part of the community. They set up housekeeping in a rented cabin until a more permanent place; a placed of their own, could be built.
He was soon asked to come and preach to a gathering of his father’s old friends some distance from the rented cabin. He gladly accepted and looked forward to visiting those that had loved his father.
As he rode through the beautiful farm country, he thought:
“Thousands of these acres are mine… A few years hence, a mansion will rise for me here, and gardens will smile for me yonder in those woods; farther than the eye can reach, my broad fields will whiten with the wealth of the South, and troops of dusky slaves will gather it and lay it at my feet. The sweat of labor shall soil my face no more.”
He reveled in the thought that soon he, Anna, and his children would no longer know the hardships and privations of his youth. /4
The future was bright and life, at the moment, was good for John and Anna Smith and their four children. Only God knew John’s vision of his future was just a beautiful dream. The reality would not be so pleasant.
1/Williams, John Augustus, Life of Elder John Smith, Reprinted by Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN, 1956, pg. 56.
2/ Ibid., pg. 57.
3/ Ibid., pg. 62.
4/ Ibid., pg. 78.