“Raccoon” John Smith
Smith’s story is well told by June Baldwin Bork,
In 1814, after much thought, John took his wife and four children to Alabama with dreams of settling and farming a large farm and eventually becoming a prosperous landowner. But, as we will see, God had other plans for this man. The Smiths settled into a house near Huntsville and rapidly found new friends. Then tragedy struck. When he was away from home on a preaching mission and his wife was visiting an ill neighbor, a fire broke out in the Smith cabin and was totally destroyed. Inside, fatally trapped, were the two Smith children, seven-year old Eli and two-year old Elvira. Grief stricken, Anne went to bed, unwilling to acknowledge the tragic loss of her children. She sank into deep depression and refused to eat. Slowly, in spite of all efforts to save her, she weakened and died within months and was buried in Alabama.
The deaths of his two young children caused him to question the Calvinism of the day, as under the doctrine he’d been taught, the children were surely lost.
Stone moved to Kentucky, where he remarried.
While preaching at Bethel Baptist Church in Parmleysville, John began to question some of the tenets of his own church. The doctrine which expressed eternal damnation of infants disturbed him powerfully. He did not want to believe that his own two children after suffering a particularly painful death, would be condemned by a malevolent God to eternal suffering. When John was given a copy of The Christian Baptist by Alexander Campbell, his doubts multiplied. For several years, Campbell had been worried over the many divisions within the Protestant Church and wanted to restore Christianity to what it had been at Antioch. Campbell had acquired a reputation as a “reforming Baptist” as he sought to unite all Christians on scriptural grounds. Most hard-liners though looked upon Campbell with suspicion and sought to discredit his teachings. John Smith wisely kept his doubts to himself. But when he learned that Alexander Campbell would be conducting a revival at Crab Orchard, Kentucky, he had to attend.
John borrowed a horse, who had seen better days, and a suit of clothes that didn’t fit well and were faded and course, but those were small matters for John Smith. He would have gone to Campbell’s revival even if he had to walk. So, from Parmleysville, a ragamuffin preacher rode off into the pages of frontier history.
At Crab Orchard, John found an assemblage of hundreds of people who were gathered in and around a small church. He found a place on the doorstep and listened intently to the proceedings inside. It was apparent that Alexander Campbell was not at the revival and John was disappointed, but the old spirit of revival was rising within him. So many spectators arrived that there were more outside the church, straining to hear the messages being delivered, than there were inside the building. The crowd outside became irritated at not being able to hear the ministers. To placate the people in the church yard and to head off a possible religious riot, two divinity students were sent out to conduct a separate meeting in a nearby grove of trees. The two students took turns on the platform that was hastily erected, reciting verses from the Bible and long prayers to repent. The crowd sensing it was being preached to by amateurs, began to drift away.
John Smith decided to seize this opportunity. He stood up, straightened his coat and stepped to the pulpit. Raising his hands, he shouted to the milling crowd: “Stay friends and hear what the great Augustine said. Augustine wished to see three things before he died: Rome in her glory and purity, Paul on Mars Hill, and Jesus in the flesh. Will you not stay and hear what the great Cato said? Cato repented of three things before his death: first, that he had ever spent an idle day; second, that he had ever gone on a voyage by water when he might have made the same journey by land; third, that he had ever told the secrets of his bosom to a woman…” By the time John had finished talking about Augustine, Cato and Thales, the milling crowd had settled down and the drifters were returning to the grove of trees. John continued: “And now friends, I know you are ready to ask: ‘Sir, who are you?” “I am John Smith from Stockton’s Valley. In more recent years I have lived among the rocks and hills of the Cumberland. Down there, saltpetre caves abound and raccoons make their homes. On that wild frontier we never had good schools nor many books; consequently, I stand before you today 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 ever-lasting gospel of the Son.”
John Smith began to preach in his unique and captivating style and the crowd became quiet. As he continued, some who had remained at the church left that service and joined the worshipers under the trees. The power of the Holy Spirit had descended upon John and he composed sentences he did not know he was capable of doing and called forth from memory verses and parables that he had not used in months. From his lips echoed the warnings of Ezekiel, Elijah and Isaiah, the praises of the psalmist and the promises of the risen Christ, our Lord. With each passing hour, the crowd became larger, listening to the country preacher who said he lived among the coons on the Cumberland. As evening approached, John delivered a final plea of salvation and by the time he finished, there was not a dry eye in the audience. Exhausted, he stepped down into the arms of an overwhelmed audience, who showered him with embraces and professions of faith.
His reputation as a preacher spread as word of his marathon sermon at Crab Orchard was passed from town to town. When he casually made reference to his having lived among the coons on the Cumberland, he unwittingly became known as “Raccoon John Smith.” Other ministers sought his friendship and advise and his presence at their own revivals. The name of Raccoon John became a guarantee of a large turn-out at camp meetings.
By 1820, Raccoon John had become a living legend in the state of Kentucky. Many regarded him as the greatest preacher of the day. As his fame grew, he found himself more and more frequently called away from his ministry in the South Fork country and spent much time in central Kentucky.
In the spring of 1824, Alexander Campbell visited Kentucky and met with Raccoon John Smith and Barton W. Stone at Flemingsburg. For John, this meeting was the realization of a long anticipated dream. Although none of the three ministers had met each other, the trio established a foundation which eventually led to the union of the three men of God under a common denomination. Stone was a leader in the Cane Ridge Revival and had become fascinated with Campbell’s ideas. Following this meeting with Alexander Campbell, John openly disavowed the tenets of the Baptist faith. His announcement stunned the Baptist community and struck hard at his old friends in Wayne County. He continued to be their friend, but he was no longer welcome in their churches. Conventional Baptists rejected the Campbell-Smith-Stone doctrines and condemned Raccoon John as a traitor and apostate. The movement grew, culminating in the establishment of the new Christian Church in 1831. One of the first Christian Churches to be organized was in Wayne County. John Smith’s teachings changed the hearts of some of the Hurt and Burnett families, who were loyal Baptists until the Christian Church was organized, when many changed to that church.
During a visit to Frankfort, Kentucky, John was unable to find a single Baptist church that would let him preach. Such treatment did not deter Smith for long. When the citizens of Frankfort learned that Raccoon John Smith was going to hold services in the court house, they filled the gallery and spilled out into the halls. Such was his power to draw a crowd. He was a preacher for all the people. While others identified themselves by denominational titles, Raccoon John carried only one label: Christian. Wherever he traveled, people came to him for guidance and blessing. He was well received in the largest of cities and the very smallest of rural areas.
Elder Smith’s powerful preaching touched thousands all over Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, representing the Disciples or Reformers at the great meetings.
Smith converted thousands and persuaded many more to join in Campbell’s movement. A sense of the man can be found in his unusual methods. Smith was a tall, wiry man. He was known to enter a new town, find the preacher for the local Presbyterian Church, and begin to drag him through the town square, announcing to all that he intended to baptize him in the river. Inevitably, the preacher would sputter that it would do no good to baptize a man against his will! Smith would reply, “But you baptize babies against their will every day, with the poor babies crying out just as you are doing!” He’d then announce the time and place of his preaching that night, and always draw a large crowd.
In 1832 Raccoon John Smith and Barton W. Stone held a large unity meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. There were many towns that had both a Christian Church and Disciples Church, and they taught much the same thing. But there were important differences.
As reported by Leroy Garrett,
As Raccoon laid it before the unity meeting: “Whatever opinions about these and similar subjects I may have reached, in the course of my investigations, if I never distract the church of God with them or seek to impose them on my brethren, they will never do the world any harm.”
He went on to identify the gospel as a system of facts, commands, and promises, and insisted that no deduction or inference drawn from them, however logical or true, forms any part of the gospel. Our opinions about the gospel are not part of the gospel and therefore cannot be held as a threat over those who deny them, he added.
He said he was willing to surrender any opinion for the sake of unity, but that he would not give up one fact, commandment, or promise of the gospel for the whole world. “While there is but one faith,” he told them, “there may be a thousand opinions; and hence if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion.”
It was then that he gave his famous exhortation: “Let us, then, my brethren, be no longer Campbellites of Stoneites, New Lights or Old Lights, or any other kind of lights, but let us all 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.”
With that said, Stone and Smith shook hands, and they urged their congregations to merge — and they did.
It’s remarkable that Campbell was not consulted on this unity meeting. The movement, after all, was built on congregational autonomy. Soon thereafter, Stone and Campbell met, and sorted through several points of disagreement.
As Garrett explains,
The Stoneites saw the Campbell groups as woefully negligent of the work of the Holy Spirit and as too legalistic on baptism, Stone complaining as he did that many of the Campbell people would not accept disciples as Christians unless they are aware of being immersed for the remission of sins. Too Campbell’s coolness toward the name Christian, believing it was but a term of derision applied to disciples by pagans, disturbed Stone no little.
The Campbell wing, on the other hand, saw the Stone folk as far too speculative, and much too enamored with such theological questions as the incarnation and the atonement. And Campbell and Stone even found time to do some debating on these issues. Too, the Campbellites were far too rationalistic for the Stoneites, while the Stoneites were too “heartfelt” for the Campbellites.
They had reasons enough to remain separated, and surely their differences were greater than many of those that keep the Movement divided today. The point is that they loved one another, a love that transcended the differences, a love that binds everything together in perfect harmony, as the apostle Paul puts it. Too, they realized that only a united church can lead the world to Christ, and they believed that their two groups shared in common those principles upon which the body of Christ could preserve the unity of the Spirit.
You see, Stone did not strictly agree with the Nicene Creed, but assured Campbell that he beleived every statement in the scriptures about the relationship among God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. This was enough for Campbell. And Campbell insisted that the Spirit worked only through the word, which Stone strongly disagreed with. Moreover, although Stone taught baptism of believers for the remission of sin, he saw receipt of the Spirit, as evidenced by a transformed life, as the true test of salvation. And yet the men gladly accepted one another as brothers and united their works.
To assure that unity would be realized, Stone agreed to accept John T. Johnson, one of Campbell’s followers, as co-editor of his periodical, and the two men agreed to publish a single hymnal so that they’d not be competing with each other. And they agreed that their congregations did not need to change names, as they weren’t intending to found a new denomination. Thus, some congregations remained Christian Churches, some remained Disciples of Christ, and a few remained Churches of Christ.