The Life of "Raccoon" John Smith

"Raccoon" John Smith

"Raccoon" John Smith

In the early 1800s, a man appeared on the scene who was destined to play a very important part in the religious history of Wayne County. That same man would make contributions to the Christian community that would eventually influence the lives of millions of people around the world. Elder "Raccoon" John Smith spent much of his life in Wayne County and several of the churches in the county exist today because of his efforts. Elder Smith was an associate of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and as a direct result of their preaching, the First Christian Church of Monticello was the organized. John was a man of humble origins and humble bearing, but he was also a man destined to become one of the South Fork country's noblest citizens and possible the region's most widely known and high respected representative.

Before ever becoming a preacher, John Smith was a pioneer. He was one of that special breed of people possessing the courage to face the hardships of the frontier. In doing so, he cleared the way for the establishment of law, government and a civilization where there were none. The life of John Smith provides a vivid example of the sacrifices and heartbreak our forebears endured as they settled this new land in America.

The father, George Schmidt came from Germany in 1735, settled in Virginia where he married in Botetourt County to Rebecca Bowen and changed his name to Smith. They were pious parents to their children and sought to steer them toward lives based upon the tenants of Jesus Christ and John Calvin. Their son, John was the 9th of 13 children, born 15 October 1784 in the valley of the Holston River in western North Carolina. This section later became Sullivan County, Tennessee (free state of Franklin). Until he was eleven years old, John lived with his parents and a cabin full of brothers and sisters in the Holston Valley. In 1795, the pull of the west became more than John's father could bear and the family moved to Powell Valley. The following spring, when the snow had melted on Powell Mountain and Walden's Ridge, John Smith and one of his brothers accompanied their father over the Wilderness Road to search for land in the new state of Kentucky. By early summer, the Smiths had found Stockton's Valley, near Poplar Mountain, in what would soon become western Wayne County and is now a part of Clinton County. The known brothers and sisters of John were George, Jonathan, Phillip, Rebecca, Mary, Elizabeth, William and Joseph Smith.

John was raised on the frontier and led a free and independent life. He spent much of his time exploring caves and rock shelters; he hunted deer, bear and turkey with friendly Cherokee who frequently camped on his father's land. Growing tall and robust, with dark hair, John was an impressive figure of a young man, full of life and full of mischief, both the pride and the bane of his family. When he became old enough, the young man joined the local militia and spent his share of time drilling and practicing the manual of arms and shooting. When the musters ended, John could always be counted on to share in the jug of whiskey that was passed around and after a few stiff drinks, he sang and danced for the amusement of all, until his comrades led him aside to sleep off the effects of the insidious brew. He was well liked by his peers and missed no opportunity to join them in wrestling matches, foot and horse races. He would not go to church, preferring to spend his Sundays roaming in the woods with his gun and dog or drinking with his comrades. Most of all, he was a disappointment to his parents. He did not do well in school and was frequently truant. On one occasion, John put live coals into the pocket of the snoring schoolmaster, resulting in the closure of the school. It was not until Robert Ferrill started a school in Stockton's Valley that John would become interested in learning to read and write.

In 1804, at the age of twenty years, John's life of frivolity and intemperance came to a halt. His father became ill. Herbs were gathered from the forest and failed to produce a cure and the father died. On his deathbed, the elder Smith beseeched his son to abandon his worldly ways and turn to God for guidance and protection. John tearfully listened to the words of his dying father, but did not know if he could obey them. At the funeral, John listened intently to the consoling words spoken by the minister, Isaac Denton. After the service, John sought out the minister and began what would become a life-long relationship based upon mutual trust, admiration and love. Before the year was half over, John Smith was baptized into the Baptist faith by Brother Denton. Isaac Denton had come to Stockton's Valley in 1799 and built a meeting house on Clear Fork, the first church in this section.

John Smith took his religion as seriously as he had taken his pleasures of the flesh. He was a regular participant in the home prayer meetings that were a mainstay of religion on the frontier and passed no opportunity to testify regarding his religious conversation. He continued to meet regularly with Isaac Denton, receiving both guidance and support as he sought to put aside his old life.

John visited Monticello frequently where he met and married his first wife, Anne Townsend on 9th of December 1806 by Rev. Elliott Jones. James Townsend, father of the bride gave his blessing and consent. Afterward, John and Anna moved into an unfinished one-room cabin on the banks of the Little South Fork River. With loosely chinked walls, a dirt floor and shutterless windows, the cabin provided little more than a roof over the newlyweds' heads. John lost no time in making the cabin livable.

With a wife, a sturdy cabin and fields to tend, John Smith's life acquired new substance and meaning. He became a model citizen and few inhabitants of the Little South Fork valley could complain that he was unneighborly. His door was always open to those in need. As children were born to Anne, John came to understand that he was a man doubly blessed by a merciful God and in 1808, he was ordained a Baptist minister.

On the 3rd Saturday of July 1810, the Bethel Baptist Church in Parmleysville was organized. It was constituted with nine members, to wit: John Parmley and his wife, Philip Smith and his wife, Roland Burnett, Jonathan Blevins, John Smith, Esther Koger, and Steven Vaughn. John Smith was appointed the first pastor of the newly organized church and his brother Phillip Smith was the first clerk. John Parmley gave the land for the erection of the Bethel Baptist Church: "...the said John Parmley out of free good will has generously granted, given and bestowed unto the trustees of Bethel Church for the benefit of said church so long as the Bethel Church continues there...2 1/2 acres from his 200 acre survey on the Little South Fork..." [This deed was never recorded in the Deed Books]. The community had a school, a store and a mill known as Isaac Burnett's Mill. Parmleysville became noted for its race track and fine horses. Horse racing was a monthly event and stakes ran high. The horses were brought from many sections to enter the races.

White settlement of the Little South Fork valley began about 1778 by the Revolutionary Soldier, John Parmley Sr., who built a blockhouse near the river. Parmley's Fort offered protection to the pioneers from the Indians. Due to the Parmley popularity in the community, "Horse Hollow" was renamed Parmleysville after John's son Robert Parmley, whose second wife was a Hurt. John Augustus Williams, in his biography, "The Life and Times of Elder John Smith," states that this area, around what is now known as Parmleysville, was inhabited a long time before the extinction of the Indian title by a band of thieves who used to hide their stolen horses in this secluded spot and was called "Horse Hollow." Before the turn of the 18th century, early settlers from Virginia and North Carolina took the Southern Ridge Trail which ran along near the state line to sections of the South Fork of the Cumberland, Rock Creek and the Three Forks of the Wolf. From this early group of settlers to the South Fork came the first Wayne County families of Adairs, Adkins, Burnetts, Barnes, Barriers, Bells, Burks, Blevins, Denneys, Davenports, Dobbs, Dolens, Elams, Gregorys, Keetons, Kogers, Lovelaces, Parmleys, Parkers, Phipps, Rices, Ryans, Scotts, Sallees, Sanduskys, Smiths, Sharps, Vaughns and Youngs, (etc.).

In his new ministry, John's popularity and influence expanded. Neighbors sought his counsel repeatedly and the mountain preacher from Parmleysville never failed to respond. He performed marriages in and around Wayne County, attended the sick and preached at their funerals. Yet, as John's service to God became more intense and his popularity more widespread, so did his trials and tribulations. 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.

John was stunned at the sudden turn his fortunes had taken. He murmured over and over again, the despairing words of the crucified Jesus and felt that truly his God had abandoned him. But John refused to curse his God, as he was tempted to do. The faith he had embraced following his father's death had tempered his spirit well and after many long agonizing days in the depths of despair, John Smith rose from his sickbed and stepped outside into a world of hope and promise.

He returned to Kentucky, to the solitude of the Little South Fork wilderness that consoled him as little else could. Here, John drew strength and courage. After many weeks, he went back to Parmleysville and to the Bethel Church and was healed. John returned to the pulpit of Bethel Baptist Church and remained there as pastor for several years.

The following year after Anna's death, John Smith fell in love with a very pretty girl named Nancy Hurt and decided he wanted to marry again. Nancy's mother, Mary "Polly" Hurt, the widow of Joseph Hurt Sr. sent a consent note to the Wayne County Clerk's Office saying, "This is to certify that I have no objections to your granting licens to authorize marriage between John Smith and my daughter given under my hand this 22nd day of December 1815." John and Nancy were married three days later on Christmas Day by Elder Richard Barrier probably at Bethel Church.

Nancy Hurt was born 15 November 1792 in Spartanburg District, South Carolina. Before moving to South Carolina, her family had lived in Henry/Patrick County, Virginia in the same neighborhood as Jeremiah Burnett (1740-1816) and his family. Near the turn of the century, the Hurts left Virginia and migrated to South Carolina and by 1804-5, Jeremiah Burnett moved most of his family to Wayne County, Kentucky on Turkey Creek. The South Fork area had belonged to the Cherokee Indians up to 1804 when it was ceded to the United States and opened for surveying and patenting. Apparently, the Burnetts informed the Hurts in South Carolina that Wayne County was an exceptional place with better land and game aplenty, and so from 1808 to 1813, some of the Hurts also migrated to Wayne County. Three of Jeremiah Burnett's children married three of Joseph Hurt Senior's children: Mildred Burnett married 1797 to Joseph Hurt Jr., in Patrick County, Virginia; Roland Burnett married 1803 to Mary Hurt in Rutherford Co, North Carolina and Ursula Burnett married 1810 to James Hurt in Wayne County. Ursula and James Hurt took care of her father in his old age and he died at their home in 1816.

On the 8th of October 1817, John Smith and Nancy his wife sold 80 acres to her brother Joseph Hurt (Jr) for $400.00. The land was located on both sides of the North Fork of the Little South Fork beginning on a black oak and sugar tree on the south side of the said fork in Benjamin Adkin's line.. To a conditional line made with Dary now John Parmley's line crossing the fork to a stake in Parmley's line, with it's appurtenances. Both John and Nancy signed their names (Wayne Co, Ky Deed Book B:453-454). The "appurtenances" suggest there was a cabin on the land and perhaps other improvements.

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. (Alexander Campbell, 1788-1866, founder of the Disciples of Christ or "Campbellites").

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." (Comments from Raccoon John Smith, a fictionalized account of Smith's life, written by Louis Cochran, published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce of New York, 1963).

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. He officiated at many marriages in Wayne County between 1811 to 1818 and again from 1826 to the 2nd of April 1832. The last marriage was between Payton Wheeler and Nancy VanHoozer and it was noted that his signature was very shaky as if by an elderly person, even though he was only 48 years of age at that time. He and his family moved to Montgomery County and then to Mt. Sterling and last to Georgetown, Kentucky.

John's wife, Nancy Hurt Smith died 4 November 1861 and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. She was known as "a woman kindly, patient without ostentation, neat and orderly and was one who lived for her husband and children. To them under God, she consecrated her life." To this union, eleven children were born, but only four survived her. In 1868, while on a visit with his daughter, Reverend Raccoon John Smith died on February 28th in Mexico, Missouri. His body was returned to Lexington where he was buried next to his wife Nancy. Their graves are near the grave of Henry Clay, a man who was greatly influenced by Elder Smith.

The inscription on Elder Smith's monument in the Lexington Cemetery is concise, meaningful and worded so thoughtfully. 'In memory of John Smith, an elder of the Church of Christ. True, genial, and pious, the good loved and all respected him. Strong through affliction and wise by the study of the Word - he gave up the Creed of his fathers for the sake of the Word. By its power, he turned many from error; in its light he walked and in its consolations, he triumphantly died.'

Raccoon John Smith was one of the greatest evangelists of his day. He ministered not just to a community, but to an entire state and to the nation. He accumulated little wealth during his lifetime and most often, had only enough money to buy the essential of everyday living. But spiritually, he was a very wealthy man. From North Carolina, to Stockton's Valley, to the Little South Fork, to the homes of hundreds of unchurched citizens on the trans-Appalachian frontier, the journey of Raccoon John Smith was long and fruitful and tempered with torment and temptation. In spite of obstacles that few men have known, John never departed from his faith and he retained to his death humility and compassion.

(Sources for this article include The Life and Times of Elder John Smith by John Augustus Williams; Raccoon John Smith, by Louis Cochran; A Century of Wayne County, Kentucky 1800-1900 by Augusta Phillips Johnson, South Fork Country by Samuel D. Perry; History of Kentucky by Lewis Collins and Richard H. Collins, Historic Sullivan by Oliver Taylor; Deeds and Records Pertaining to Shearer Valley Church of Christ, Monticello, Wayne County, Kentucky, 1811-1974 by Ala Shearer Vickery and Elizabeth Simpson, 1975; Marriages of Wayne County, Kentucky, Vol. 1 & 2 by June Baldwin Bork; Deed Books of Wayne County by June Baldwin Bork; The Burnetts and Their Connections, Vol. 1 & 3 by June Baldwin Bork; Photographs, courtesy of Mrs. Donald Tabor (nee Kathryn Taylor) of Overland Park, Kansas).