by Michael E. (Mike) Greene
John Smith returned to Stockton’s Valley in Wayne County, Kentucky a chastened man; chastened by the Lord for his desire to be rich, which becomes a danger to many men and costs their faith. Never again would dreams of wealth tempt John Smith.
His first concern was bringing his two children, left behind in Alabama, home to Kentucky. This he did with the assistance of his older brother who took them into his own care for a time.
On December 25, 1815, he married Nancy Hurt who became a true help meet. His family now complete, he and Nancy decided to leave Stockton’s Valley. In 1817, they migrated to Montgomery County in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.
Here John Smith continued to preach and struggled to make a living for his growing family. It was a difficult task to preach and farm at the same time. For the rest of his life, financial difficulties plagued John Smith.
But his reputation as a preacher continued to grow. Yet, John Smith’s concerns and questions about the Calvinism of his youth and the Baptist churches with whom he was laboring, continued to trouble his analytical mind.
The more he studied his Bible, the less satisfied he became with Calvinism and the less the tenets of that doctrine found their way into his preaching. In time, some among the Baptists began to suspect him guilty of some sort of heresy.
In March of 1822, Smith was preaching at Spencer’s Creek Baptist church, urging sinners to repent and to believe the gospel. His mind suddenly became acutely aware of the inherent contradiction of what he was preaching.
“If the elect should not believe, his preaching was false, for they would not be damned; and if the non-elect should believe, their faith would be false, for, according to his creed, Christ did not die for them. Must the non-elect, then, thought he, be damned for not believing what is false? Or the elect be saved, though denying the truth?” /1
Too honest to exhort the people any longer, he closed his address.
“Brethren,’ said he, ‘something is wrong — I am in the dark — we are all in the dark; but how to lead you to the light, or to find the way myself, before God, I know not.'”/2
Such was the state of John Smith’s mind when a friend, Bucker Payne, put into his hands a prospectus of Alexander Campbell’s paper, The Christian Baptist.
Campbell’s plea to find unity by going back to the Bible and restoring the ancient order of things resonated with Smith. Soon, he was one of the most prominent and powerful proponents of the ancient gospel.
Smith met Alexander Campbell in 1824, when Campbell came to Kentucky and Smith and William Vaughn made the day long ride to hear him preach.
After Campbell’s sermon, which to Smith moved “in a higher sphere or latitude than that in which the isms of the day abounded,” the following conversation ensued:
“Is it not hard, brother Billy, to ride twenty miles, as I have done, just to hear a man preach thirty minutes?”
“You are mistaken, brother John; look at your watch. It has surely been longer than that?”
He looked at his watch, and to his surprise, saw that the discourse had been just two hours and a half long. Holding up his watch, he remarked:
“I have never been more deceived. Two hours of my life are gone, I know not how, though wide awake, too, all the time.”/2
As the controversy over what his opponents called “Campbellism” increased, Smith soon publically avowed his dissatisfaction with the doctrinal system of Calvinism.
In 1827, Smith made a formal break with the faith of his fathers and left the Baptist church. Having renounced the faith of his youth, Smith was ostracized by his family and many old friends, such as Isaac Denton.
But Smith could only go where the scriptures led him. His work among the Reformers or Disciples, as those in the Campbell movement were called, met with great success.
Meanwhile, Barton Stone’s Christians were also sounding out a clarion call to find unity by going back to the Bible. Would these two unity movements, preaching the same ancient gospel themselves unite?
In 1831, a meeting to discuss union was scheduled for Christmas Day. The Hill Street Christian church in Lexington opened their new building for the occasion.
A large crowd of Reformers and Christians assembled. It was determined that Stone would speak for the Christians and Smith for the Reformers. Smith felt this was the most importation and solemn occasion that had occurred in the history of the current efforts at unity and reformation.
After both Smith and Stone had spoken, warm handshakes and songs of fellowship filled the room and the union was, for all practical purposes, completed. Smith regarded his part in bringing the two parties together as the best act of his life./3 John Smith continued to successfully work for the cause of restoration for the rest of his life.
Raccoon John Smith’s life came to an end February 28, 1868. His spirit left him while surrounded by friends and family. His poignant story is one that continues to resonate with those who love God, his Son, his church and his word.
The story of his wit, courage, and sacrifice for the cause of Christ continues to endear the man and his memory to generations of those who likewise seek the ancient order of things.
1/ Williams, John Augustus, Life of Elder John Smith, Reprinted by Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN, 1956, pg. 115-16.
2/ Ibid., pg. 131.
3/ Ibid., pg. 374. (For a more complete discussion of the unity meeting of 1831, see the Forthright article “Unity” by Michael D. Greene).