Rev. James Thomas Barbee

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

1838 - 1920

Moderator of the General Assembly 1909


Images from the Cumberland Commander: Biography of Rev. James Thomas Barbee 1838-1920
by George B. Simpson


By Rev. J. L. Price

Rev. J. T. Barbee, known in Kentucky as the "Old War Horse" of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, was born at Commerce, Tenn., September 1, 1838. His father's name was Joseph S. Barbee and his mother's maiden name was Delphina Walker. He had three brothers and one sister, two of whom are still living--Robert A. at Alexandria, and William at Hickman, Tenn.

Brother Barbee lived in the Commerce Community until mature manhood. He attended school at the "Old Well" school-house, with such associates as Revs. Henry F. Bone, now of Texas; H. J. Lanham and L. R. Bond, now of Washington, and John T. Oakley, of Hartsville, Tenn. In 1857 he entered school at Three Forks Institute, under Profs. Bancroft and Hitchcock, and remained there until the fall of 1860. During that time, he professed religion and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, under the pastoral care of Rev. Ira W. King.

In the fall of 1860 he began teaching at the "Old Well" school-house, where he had spent the early part of his life. In May, 1861, he enlisted as a Confederate soldier, with the Goodner Guards; was sent to Camp Trousdale, and there his company became a part of the "Seventh Tennessee," with Col. Robert Hatton as commander. They were ordered to the battle of Bull Run, but the fight was over before they got there, and they were sent on to West Virginia to re-enforce Gen. Robert E. Lee. While in this mountainous country, our valiant soldier was seized with acute rheumatism, so that he could not walk, and in December was discharged and sent home.

February 10, 1862, he married Miss Fredonia Polk Foust, of Hartsville, Tenn. But having been restored to health and action of limb, and with the blood of heroism and loyalty and convictions of the just cause of his country's struggle, he crossed the Cumberland mountains to Bridgeport on horseback, and joined Gen. N. B. Forrest's command, and remained with him until Gen. Bragg made his raid into Kentucky. Then he and John Phillips made up a company, and Barbee was elected second lieutenant, and in January, 1865, was appointed Commissary of his regiment. In April, 1875, he surrendered with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Grandsboro, N.C.

In the spring of 1871, he joined the McMinnville Presbytery at old Mt. Union Church, Tenn. That fall he was licensed and was immediately called to the pastorate of Mt. Hebron Church, at Irving College, at a salary of sixty dollars a year. Young men, how does that sound to those of you who complain at your lot, and say, "unless the church prepares better fields for her ministry, we will have to look in another direction." If this young man had so thought and acted, doubtless the name of Rev. J. T. Barbee instead of being a house-hold word, loved and honored by thousands, would have been unknown to the Cumberland Church, and the cause of Christianity.

But now after spending forty-three years in the ministry, filling many of the most important pulpits in the church, he, no doubt, looks back to his pastorate of Mount Hebron and considers it the greatest investment he ever made. Next year he was called to Liberty Church for half time, at a salary of three hundred dollars; Shiloh, one-fourth time at one hundred and fifty; Hebron, for same time and same price. He held this work for seven years. Then was called to Lascassas, Cainsville, New Hope and Mt. Tabor churches, near Murfreesboro. Four years he served this group with great success; then gave up Lacassas, and took Statesville Church, and moved to that town, where he was wonderfully blessed in his work.

In 1885, he was called to Kentucky to take charge of Caseyville and Mt. Ephraim Churches, at a salary of seven hundred dollars. At that time this was a strong work, that had been left vacant by the death of Rev. R. G. McLesky, a man greatly loved by his people, and the church at large. He served these churches five years, and during this time did some of his most successful evangelistic work. Besides these two churches, in old Anderson Presbytery, he was pastor of Mt. Pleasant, Dixon and Providence. In Princeton, he served Princeton, Marion, Blockford, Sugar Grove, Nebo, Rose Creek, Casky Station, and Ashland. In Owensboro Presbytery, Greenville, Bremen, Sacramento, Mt. Zion, Mt. Pleasant and Pleasant Ridge. In Logan, Bowling Green and Mt. Olivet. He is now serving Providence and Mt. Pleasant as pastor for the third time.

As a revival preacher he has been very successful. In many instances having over one hundred conversions to the meeting. He organized the church at Providence, with ninety-eight members, and was pastor when the church house was built. He also organized a church at Dixon, Ky., with fifty-four members. At Ashland he held a meeting with one hundred and four conversions and received one hundred and nine into the church.

His first great bereavement came in 1889, in the death of his oldest child, Rev. Baxter Barbee, at the age of twenty-six. An unusually talented and eloquent preacher, and one whose labors had been signally blessed. In 1890, his devoted wife died.

This was a heavy stroke indeed and well-nigh prostrated his manly form, but trusting in the God whom he had worshiped so many years, he rallied and went to his work with renewed vigor. Soon after the death of his wife, he resigned his work at Sturgis, and taking his three youngest children, went to McMinnville, Tenn., and bought a half interest in Cumberland Female College, and became the business manage of that institution. February 10, 1891, he married Mrs. Belle Price Hughes, of Sturgis, Ky., who took the position of matron of the school. In 1894, he sold his interest in the college and returned to Providence, Ky., and served various churches as above named.

When the trouble arose with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., in 1906, his valor as a "Soldier of the Cross" and of his church, and honest convictions of truth and righteousness knew no bounds. He was appointed by Kentucky Synod Superintendent of Missions in the state; and also one of the famous "Twenty-eight" that saved many of our churches from going to destruction. He spent four years in this work, making his home in the city of Louisville. Then on account of failing health, moved to Dawson Springs, Tenn., and took mission work in the bounds of Lebanon Presbytery, and together with his faithful wife, who stood bravely by him during these dark days of struggle, did effective work. With improved health, after a few months he returned to Kentucky and took charge of the work at Bowling Green shortly after the dedication of the new church. Again feeling his strength failing, returned to his home in Sturgis.

He was chosen Moderator of the first synod of Kentucky after the attempted merger, which met at Hopkinsville, Ky. He was elected Commissioner and filled places of honor and trust in General Assembly meetings as follows: Lincoln, Ill, in 1877; Lebanon, Tenn., 1878; Austin, Tex., 1881; Covington, Ohio, 1887; Nashville, Tenn., 1883; Union City, Tenn., 1890; Owensboro, Ky., 1891; Memphis, Tenn., 1892; Marshall, Mo., 1898; Chattanooga, Tenn., 1900; Nashville, Tenn., 1903; Fresno, Cal, 1905; Decatur, Ill., 1906. Offered the constituting prayer in Grand Army Hall at the memorable "Parting of the way,: when Dr. Landreth said the "General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church is adjourned sine die," and Hon. J. H. Fussell said "Somewhere in the sunlight of God's love the Cumberland Presbyterian Church shall live." Again at Dixon, Tenn., 1907; Corsicana, Tex., 1908; Bentonville, Ark., 1909; Dixon, Tenn., 1910, and as retiring moderator preached the Centennial Sermon; Evansville, Ind., 1911 and Bowling Green, Ky., 1913.

An interesting incident in his life deserves a place here. In 1885, in a camp-meeting at Piney Fork, in Crittenden County, Kentucky, where meetings of this kind have been held regularly for nearly one hundred years, he was preaching Monday night to a large audience, introducing witnesses against the sinner, as with sudden impulse he said: "I will introduce one more witness that will testify against you at the judgment." Then deliberately turned around and with his pocket knife cut a notch in a post behind with stand. Such a scene can scarcely be imagined. Seventy-five men and women fell in conviction to the floor, and some of them remained prostrate all night. It was estimated that one hundred people were shouting at one time. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people, have gone and looked at that notch, and many testify that the cutting of that notch convicted them of their sins. The writer will testify that the above incident is literally true. The old house, the shed, and the post, with the notch in it still stand.

The same year he went to Providence, Ky., to hold a meeting. At that time there was only one white church in the town--a Missionary Baptist. There were only four resident Cumberland members--one man and three women, with possibly half dozen in the surrounding vicinity. The meeting was held in the Baptist church, which was not much better than a stock barn. After the first week, his son, Rev. Baxter Barbee, came to his assistance. The meeting lasted two weeks and resulted in one hundred sixteen conversions, and the organization of a church with ninety-eight members. That was twenty-eight years ago. The town was then a small place--possibly eight hundred or one thousand population. Today it will number thirty-five hundred, with seven white and two colored churches.

February 4, 1910, he and his wife attended the celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of our Church at Dixon, Tenn., he preaching the sermon in the town about seven miles from the site of the renowned "Old Log House." Then with a company went out to that historic spot and many prayers were offered on the supposed spot where McAdow prayed till nearly dawn the night before the church was organized.

I have labored with, and heard many of the strong men of the church, but for generalship, faith in God, and sledge-hammer preaching, I have never seen his superior. And let his days be many or few, I shall ever look to him as my elder brother in the ministry, one with whom he has labored for many years, one that could see and think as he saw and thought, on most questions of the church.

Brother, the evening twilight is gathering about us, "deeper, deeper grows the shadows, paler now the glowing West." But I thank God for such men and the sweet assurance that

"The world can never give,
    The bliss for which we sigh;
'Tis not the whole of life to live,
    Nor all of death to die."

[Source: Our Senior Soldiers: The Biographies and Autobiographies of Eighty Cumberland Presbyterian Preachers. Compiled by The Cumberland Presbyterian Board of Publication. The Assistance of Revs. J. L. Price and W. P. Kloster is Greatfully Acknowledged. Nashville, Tenn.: The Cumberland Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915, pages 27-35]

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Updated February 7, 2012