A Profile of ‘Raccoon’ John Smith (Part 1)
A Profile of ‘Raccoon’ John Smith (Part 1)

When the Stone Movement and the Campbell Movement united in 1832, “Raccoon” John Smith helped seal the deal. Barton W. Stone represented his contingent of churches at those meetings in Kentucky, while Smith represented Alexander Campbell’s interests.

Here are Smith’s historic words on that occasion: “Let us, then my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stoneites, New Lights or Old Lights, or any other kind of lights, but let us come to the Bible, and to the Bible alone, as the only book in the world that can give us all the light we need.”

We start this week with part one of a two-part profile of “Raccoon” John Smith, which will serve as our June installment of our monthly series of excerpts from Christian Standard, circa 1909. [In a change-up from past months, however, we’re choosing to run S.S. Lappin’s article about Smith from 1925 which, in most ways, is superior to the Smith bio piece from June 1909 that was part of a year-long centennial series.]

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Raccoon John Smith (Part 1)

His Contribution to Evangelism and to the Cause of Restoring New Testament Christianity

An Address before the New Testament Evangelism Rally at Cincinnati

By S.S. Lappin
Jan. 10, 1925; p. 3

Raccoon John Smith, of the early Restoration days in Kentucky, was Peter Cart[w]right and Lorenzo Dow in one, without the emotionalism of the former or the eccentricity of the latter, and with more sanctified common sense than both of them.

He was of sectarian lineage, and groped his own way into the light and freedom of the gospel, being welcomed, merely, by Alexander Campbell when he arrived.

He was born in 1784, and died in 1868, so that his active life covered that fertile and fermenting period, the first half of the nineteenth century. Religious conditions were unique and peculiar in his day. Denominationalism had reached its full growth. Discussions were rife. Every man was a theologian in his own way. The topic uppermost everywhere was religious doctrine.

John Smith was a product of his time, and a servant of his generation. There can never be another such man, for that time is gone forever, and there need not be another, for there is no call for another such ministry.

But we greatly err if we suppose that the life of John Smith was not a factor of tremendous importance in its time, or that its influence is not still a virile and effective force for good.

I.

George Smith, or Schmidt, and his good wife Rebecca lived in eastern Tennessee at the time of John’s birth. The father was of German, and the mother of Irish, descent. The family faith was of the Calvinistic Baptist variety. The fine-spun theories of that astounding philosophy mingled with the blood-congealing legends of the wild Banshee, from his mother’s lips, and wrought mightily upon the imagination of the growing boy. His daily wonder was whether or not he might be of the elect, and when, if ever, he would hear a clear call from Jehovah.

John Smith had four month’s school in a log schoolhouse when he was but a lad. In that time, he learned to read. Later on he was again enrolled in one of the private schools of that period of crude beginnings. As it happened, the teacher of that school was profligate, and John, after a time, expressed his contempt for such a master by pouring a shovelful of hot embers in his coat pocket while he sat before the pupils in a drunken stupor. This broke up the school. Later, when a man grown, he had a year of reading and intermittent instruction under a man named Ferril.

It was in the days of his later teens that the remarkable series of religious revivals that came to a climax at Cane Ridge visited Kentucky. John Smith attended many of the meetings. He was skeptical of the performances he witnessed there. He doubted that they were from God. He felt strongly inclined to be religious, but held back from the popular outbursts then thought to be of spiritual origin.

His native seriousness, that had always been veiled by a certain blitheness of spirit, was drawn out to its normal expression by the death of his father in 1803. The patriarchal frontiersman called John to his bedside as the end approached, and said to him: “And now I know, my boy, that a heavy burden will rest on your young shoulders; but do right, and the Lord, to whose care I commend you, will give you wisdom and bless you in all your undertakings.”

II.

It was not long after this that Smith was baptized, for, though he had no remarkable experience of conversion, such as was expected and often related among the early Calvinists, his neighbor theologians, by unanimous vote, declared him a converted man. Isaac Denton, who baptized him, cherished the hope that his young convert might preach. But to preach without a distinct divine call would not do, so Smith waited. In due time he persuaded himself that there were indications sufficient to justify him in beginning a public ministry, but he did, laboring, of course, as a Calvinistic Baptist.

He was zealous from the first, studying as he worked in the clearing by day and assembling the people wherever he might on Sundays and week-day nights. His biographer, John Augustus Williams, says of him that:

His voice was deep, rich and heavy; his utterance deliberate and distinct. His cant was finely modulated, for he loved melody, and the taste of the times demanded that the sermon should be rendered in solemn, chantlike tones. When he stood up, broad-chested, in the forest on some rude platform or the trunk of some fallen tree, and spoke to the multitudes around him, his deep-toned, ponderous words rolled along the hollows . . .

III.

For a time John Smith was content to defend the faith as it had been delivered to him. But a turning point came when his two children were burned to death in the frontier home during an absence on a preaching tour. When he returned to find his neighbors searching among the ashes and debris for their bones, his theology failed him. He could not think his children as of the non-elect.

This misfortune occurred in Alabama, whither he had moved with his family. He soon afterward returned to Stockton Valley in Kentucky, and made his appearance at Crab Orchard Assembly of Baptist Churches, where he met Jacob Creath for the first time. It was here that he delivered his famous sermon on “Redemption,” and from here that his fame went out as a preacher of unusual power and eloquence.

IV.

“Raccoon” John Smith. This photo is from the Wayne County (Ky.) Museum website (www.waynecountymuseum.com).

It would be a long story were I to tell how, by gradual and almost imperceptible steps, John Smith grew out of the theology of his time into the new light that was already beginning to dawn. He had less aid than did any other of the distinguished leaders of his time who finally became advocates of the New Testament way. When he began to read the Christian Baptist, he had reached practically the same positions taken by its distinguished editor. When he first met Alexander Campbell, he needed not to be convinced of any main contention of the great leader. He had espoused practically every one of them already. Certain false reports had reached him as to Mr. Campbell’s lack of piety. These were at once dispelled. After hearing a single discourse of two and a half hours’ length, Smith said: “I know nothing of the man, but, be he saint or devil, I have learned more from him in that one discourse, concerning the Epistle [Galatians] and the Scriptures in general, than I have received in all the sermons that I have ever heard before.”

John Smith did not need to be “brought into Reformation.” He was already in. His solemn obligation was to bring his brethren in. And that he did. Up and down the land he went, from one Baptist association to another, full of good humor, ready wit, patient with the preconceptions of people, unceasing in his efforts to enlighten, until at the end of his first year’s labors he could say to his wife: “Nancy, during the year I have baptized seven hundred sinners and capsized fifteen hundred Baptists.” He had freely predicted that the new way would not win in his lifetime, but he gladly acknowledged his error as the sweeping changes went on.

V.

It will ever be impossible to give any adequate summing up of the work of this remarkable man. He labored amid the rural scenes of the pioneer day. Much of the seed he sowed was in out-of-the-way places, and it sprang up to bear fruit the world knows not of. He wrote little, save on the plastic tablets of the human heart. But he labored more abundantly than any other, with the possible exception of Mr. Campbell himself.

Some idea of his widespread influence may be had from a single instance that is on record in more than one volume now out of print. In 1827, when returning from the Bracken assembly at Wilson’s Run, Smith preached at a country church near Germantown, Ky., known as Ohio Locust. While in the pulpit one of the brethren called his attention to a distinguished looking stranger in the audience, and told him it was John P. Thompson, of “the White River country in Indiana.” He was a distinguished Baptist preacher and he had come to Kentucky to stamp out the heresy that was corrupting so many Baptist churches. Mr. Smith expressed a desire to be introduced to him at the close of the service. Smith preached exactly three-quarters of an hour, and when, at the close, the stranger was sought, he could not be found. The remainder of the story may be read from “Pioneer Preachers of Indiana” . . .

“I went to Kentucky,” says Thompson himself, “to learn by what means so many of my old friends and neighbors had been turned from the old paths. I heard Elder Abernethy, a leading reformer in Bracken, defend the new heresy, but I saw no reason to distrust the soundness of my faith. I was about to return home when I learned that John Smith, already renowned throughout the land, would preach next day at Ohio Locust. I determined to hear him, assured that, if I was wrong, he could make it so appear. I listened with attention to the introductory remarks of Buckner H. Payne, but when he sat down, my armor was still sound. I rebuffed his arguments with the text which came frequently to my mind: ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.’ When Smith arose and cited that very text, I said, ‘Now, my brother, if you can do anything for me, so be it.’ He began, and, with the skill of a master workman, in forty-five minutes stripped me bare of the armor with which I had long fought the battles of moderate Calvinism. . . . I shall ever believe that God caused John Smith to meet me that day at Ohio Locust.”

When Elder Thompson reached his home in Rush County, Ind., he began the studies that resulted in his renouncing Calvinism forever, and becoming one of the ablest advocates of the Restoration cause. Thus came the great church at Rushville, and the mighty stream of influences that have been flowing out from that center for many decades. All is from seed sown in the heart of a chance hearer by a single discourse from the lips of Raccoon John Smith.

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NEXT WEEK: Part 2 of this article from 1925.

–Jim Nieman, Managing Editor, Christian Standard

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