Before launching into Part 2 of this profile of “Raccoon” John Smith from 1925, we should offer an explanation for how he acquired his nickname. The opening of M.M. Davis’s article about Smith from June 12, 1909, gives this account.
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“Raccoon” John Smith [1784–1868] is the most unique character in our history. . . .
Just why he should have this undignified nickname is not clear, for he was never a hunter of anything, much less of raccoons. But of all names in the world needing a distinguishing prefix, I suppose his stands first. . . . But perhaps Smith himself is to blame for this sobriquet. In a remarkable sermon at Crab Orchard, Ky., by way of introduction he said: “I am John Smith from Stockton Valley. In more recent years I have lived in Wayne, among the rocks and hills of the Cumberland. Down there saltpeter caves abound and raccoons make their homes. On that wild frontier we never had good schools, nor many books; consequently I stand before you to-day a man without an education. But, my brethren, even in that ill-favored region, the Lord in good time found me. He showed me his wondrous grace and called me to preach the everlasting gospel of his Son.”
His personal appearance on that occasion would perfectly harmonize with that of a poor hunter. Williams, his biographer, says: “He reached Crab Orchard on Saturday, with the dust of the journey thick upon him. He wore a pair of homespun cotton pantaloons, striped with copperas, loose enough, but far too short for him—and a cotton coat, once checked with blue and white, but now of undistinguishable colors. His shapeless hat was streakd with sweat and dust. His socks, too large for his shrunken ankles, hung down upon his foxy shoes. His shirt was coarse and dirty, and unbuttoned at the neck; his white cravat was in the coffin of his wife.” And so in this way, or in some other way, this nickname fastened itself upon him, and it refuses to let him go; and the people will always know him, and always will know him, as “Raccoon” John Smith.
—From “‘Raccoon’ John Smith,” by M.M. Davis, Christian Standard, p. 3, June 12, 1909.
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And now, on with Part 2 of S.S. Lappin’s article about Smith.
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Raccoon John Smith (Part 2)
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
The work of John Smith may be judged somewhat by certain characteristics of the man that shaped and colored all that issued from him in the years of his tireless service.
1. He presented the gospel in its simplicity, unadorned by any other embellishment save the attractiveness of truth itself. He carefully avoided, almost despised, any oratorical flight in connection with the preaching of the Word. He became able to bring matters considered abstruse and beyond the ordinary mortals within range of the thinking of the common people. Said one hearer: “Thirty-five years ago I heard him preach in a cabin near Monticello. I was then but a boy, but I could not keep from listening, and to-day I distinctly remember that sermon, the text, the doctrine, the arrangement.”
2. His conceptions and presentations were exceedingly unique and original. On one occasion he set forth that the distinguishing mark of the true gospel is that whosever does not believe it shall be damned. In developing his thought he took up the systems of the day one by one, and, after granting that there was much of truth in each one of them, and without offering any strictures or criticisms, he asked concerning each one: “Now, can it be said of this system that all who do not believe it shall be damned? If not, then that is not the true gospel.” After thus treating each one, he came to that of the Gospels, of which Jesus said, when he sent men out to preach it, that “he that believeth not shall be damned.”
At another time, and in a community where Universalism was being preached, he attended a meeting of Universalists, and announced that he would speak the next night on “Universal Damnation.” The crowd came, and he made out as clear a case for universal damnation as the other speaker had made for universal salvation. Then he said: “I have preached a sermon that neither I nor the Universalists believe, and that you, my good people, do not believe. Now, if you will come to-morrow night, I will preach one that all of us will believe.” On the following night he dwelt at length on conditional salvation through obedience to the gospel, and that was the end of Universalism in that community.
His wife at one time said: “John, would it not be better to let error alone, and just preach the truth?” They were at the dinner table. He answered half absent–mindedly, and presently said to his wife, “Nancy, may I have milk instead of water?” holding up his glass. She took the glass to empty it, and he said: “. . . Why not just pour in the milk and let the water alone?” Who could answer logic like that?
3. His attitude toward error, as may be supposed from these incidents, was positive and uncompromising. He saw in the various diverting isms of the day but so many delusions by which the unwary might be misled and drawn from the gospel plan of salvation. In this he is in radical contrast with many pulpiteers of our day. He believed that those who believe not, or obey not, the gospel of God will be lost. Many now assume that anything will do, and that we ought not to disturb those who are settled in their belief.
An incident that occurred late in his life, when he was sojourning in the home of his daughter, Mrs. Ringo, at Mexico, Mo., fitly illustrates this propensity of his. The spiritist fad was having an inning there. Some were being misled, and many were confused. He said nothing until some one asked him about it, and then he answered: “I stand ready at any time to show that the whole things is of the devil.” Opportunity was soon given for him to do this. A representative audience was assembled. In an earnest address of an hour’s length he brought forth a most astonishing array of Scripture to refute and condemn all such performance. After the discourse he stepped modestly down, as was his custom, and sat in the audience. As he sat down a woman arose in the pew behind him, and, with eyes closed, began a sort of rhapsody somewhat after the séance fashion, rambling on and on. After a few sentences, when every one was wondering what should be done, the old man turned about impatiently, and, without rising, said: “Oh, we don’t want to be interrupted with any of that stuff now.”
The woman said: “I am under the control of spirits, I am not responsible, I can’t obey the voice of any man now.”
“Well, then, sister,” he growled, “if you are not responsible, you are in a bad fix; you’d better get home as fast as you can.”
And she did, and spiritism had received its deathblow there.
4. He was not less able to detect errors of his own brethren nor less ready to correct them.
At Harrodsburg, Ky., on one occasion, he ventured to lead Walter Scott and John T. Johnson into a discussion of the names of God’s people, a theme then much before the brethren both in sermon and printed page. He well knew Scott’s preference for the name Christian. Already it had been suggested that at some time after baptism the honorable title “Christian” should be conferred in a formal way. Smith knew an extreme when he saw it, and he knew there was danger that the minds of the brethren be turned from more weighty matters to things merely speculative.
On this occasion at Harrodsburg, he urged the brethren that they quit writing on the name. Scott said: “Why, Bro. John, I am just getting ready to publish an article that proves conclusively that God never blesses His people until they take upon themselves the proper name.”
“If you prove that, you will kill the dearest thing on earth to me,” said Smith.
“What is that?” asked Scott.
“The name ‘Christian’,” answered Smith, “for God certainly did bless His people greatly for ten years before the name ‘Christian’ was ever applied to the disciples, so that, then, would not be a proper name.”
As an upshot of the discussion of that day the article, which, by the way, was by John T. Johnson, was not printed, and the discussion soon stopped.
5. His program for the new congregation was definite. When called to Monticello, Ky., to preach the new way among the Baptists there, nine persons responded to the invitation. When he was about to leave, one of them said to him: “But, Bro. Smith, what shall we do? None of the churches here will receive us into their fellowship?” His answer was characteristic.
Meet every Lord’s Day. If others occupy the meeting house, meet in your own houses, and gather around your own firesides; if you can not exhort one-another, pray together; or, if you can not do that, read the Book and sing.
The congregation followed his advice, and grew in grace and in the knowledge of the truth so that when he came again one of the men had begun to speak in public much to the edification of the little church. It was in this way that the mighty leaders of that day were developed.
6. His aversion to compromise was positive. When the union of “Christians” and “Reformers” was consummated at Georgetown, the question of “open membership,” not then so called of course, naturally arose. The friends of Smith and Campbell were fearful lest something vital might be sacrificed in the desire to “practice Christian unity.” In response to this, Smith said:
It is asked: “When you break bread with those called Christians about Georgetown—that is, the Newlights, as we now might say—do you not sanction all the speculation of those who are called by the same name throughout the United States?” No. . . . I find nothing in the Scripture or reason to make me believe so. . . . When our brethren have seen this, I hope they will be satisfied that we have not laid aside our former speculations to take up those of any other people. They can not think that we wish to amalgamate the immersed and the unimmersed in the congregation of Christ. We do not find such amalgamation in the ancient congregation of Christ. Therefore, while contending for the ancient order of things, we can not contend for this.
John Smith, were he living to-day, we may well believe, would have scant sympathy with that waning demand for the “practice of Christian unity,” by the sacrifice of apostolic practice.
7. The matter of remuneration. John Smith left his earthly concerns for years at a time to go everywhere preaching the gospel without promise or prospect of pay. His wife, Nancy, managed the farm. He returned occasionally to give counsel.
When Smith and [John Rogers] traveled together for a year, they were paid $300 each for their services. Later the amount was increased to $400. It is believed that $500 is the largest amount ever received by Smith for a year’s work.[Editor’s Note: In the preceding paragraph, we changed the name of Smith’s coworker to John Rogers, after this was originally posted, based on information found in Life of Elder John Smith, a biography written by John Augustus Williams. Thank you to Lloyd Pelfrey, professor emeritus of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Mo., for pointing out the error. Pelfrey wrote: “Smith and Rogers traveled together to encourage unity after the famous meeting in Lexington. John Telemachus Johnson was the treasurer for the project. . . . John Rogers worked with Smith as an evangelist for three years, so his contributions were significant in that endeavor.”]
John Smith was a type; he was the outstanding character of a generation of preachers of which this world was not worthy. Their like had never been seen on earth. The type can never be reproduced. The conditions that called the[m] forth have passed to come no more. They laid the foundations of a sane, tangible gospel presentation out of which a full and clear comprehension of the great truths of revelations has been emerging even to our own day. Our debt to these men can never be paid. And yet, if John Smith were living in our time, he might be barred from utterance on the floor of “general conventions: by pedants and prigs and politicians not knee high to him, not of his class, indeed, who have mistaken themselves for the “brotherhood.” . . .
I have spoken of John Smith alone, and very inadequately. He was but one of a race who were giants in faith. And they were descendants, heirs indeed, of a distinguished line . . . (“. . . Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets . . .). And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise” until the coming of Christ, the ministry of the apostles and the work of reformers, until the days when the voices of Campbell and Scott and Stone and Smith were heard crying aloud in the wilderness of sectism, “Seek ye the way of the ancient gospel.”
Modest men they were, untaught in the wisdom of the world for the most part, unambitious to rise, but unfraid in any presence, because armed with that Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword. They labored in the obscurity of a pioneer land and in a distant day, but they have won to themselves a heritage of imperishable renown, a crown that fadeth not away which the Lord the righteous judge shall give, and not to them only, but to all them that love His appearing. Would that we all, who have entered into their labors, were as worthy as they!
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Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard