William Barnett

1785 - 1827

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister


[I expect with this series to bring my Biographical Sketches to a close. I am satisfied, however, that no general work of the kind, relating to the Cumberland Presbyterian ministry, can be considered complete which does not include notices of William and John Barnett. No two men in the Church attracted more attention than these did in their time, and in their respective fields of labor. I have scarcely any materials for such a work as would be fitting memorial of these worthy men, except what I derive from memory. Nevertheless, I have some, and relying partly upon these, but mainly upon personal recollections, I endeavor to contribute something toward a knowledge of the labors and the leading characteristics of these men. I could not pass them by in total silence.]

WILLIAM BARNETT was born April 24, 1785. Of his early history nothing is known to the writer. It is supposed that he grew up, as ordinary boys in his time did, with limited means of education. He married early; according to the family record, November 17, 1801, when he was in his seventeenth year. His first wife was Jane Owen. The following memorandum, said to have been written with his own hand, has been kindly furnished to me:

"William Barnett professed to be regenerated, or born again, August 2, 1803; was licensed to preach the gospel October 10, 1810; was ordained, or set apart to the whole work of the ministry, in February, 1813."

According to the records of Cumberland Presbytery, which vary from his own account, he was received as a candidate for the ministry March 20, 1810, at the Ridge Meeting-house, in Sumner county, Tennessee. The meeting of the Presbytery at which this occurred was the first after its constitution in the previous month. The text assigned him for trial was John x. 9. The sermon was read at the meeting of the Presbytery at the Big Spring, March 22, 1811. A second text was assigned him--Rom. v. 9. From this he read a discourse at the sessions of the Presbytery held at the Ridge, October 11, 1811. On this occasion he was licensed as a probationer for the holy ministry. At a meeting of the Presbytery held at Mount Moriah Meeting-house, in Logan county, Kentucky, February 13, 1813, he was ordained. His trial-sermon was from John iii. 16. Rev. Thomas Calhoon preached the ordination-sermon--Rev. Finis Ewing presided and delivered the charge.

It will be observed from these data that Mr. Barnett's Christian and ministerial life was one of the fruits of the old revival of 1800. Mr. Smith, in his "History of the Cumberland Presbyterians," mentions him as one of the candidates for the ministry that met the Cumberland Presbytery at the Ridge Meeting-house in March, 1810. It appears, however, from the records of the Presbytery, that he was received as a candidate at that meeting. His own memorandum confirms the truth of the record. He had no doubt been exercising his gifts as an exhorter, under the direction of the Council, previous to that time. He was ordained, as it appears from the records, and from his own memorandum, in February of 1813. His name appears on the minutes of the Cumberland Synod of that year. The meeting was held in October, at the Beech Meeting-house, in Sumner county, Tennessee. The next meeting of the Synod occurred in April, 1814. The sessions were held at Suggs's Creek Meeting-house, in Wilson county, Tennessee. Mr. Barnett is recorded in the minutes as having been present. This meeting of the Synod is memorable from its having been the occasion upon which the present Confession of Faith and Form of Government were reported by the committee appointed at a previous meeting to prepare them. They were examined and adopted in conformity with the report. At the next meeting of the Synod, in October, 1815, at the Beech Meeting-house, Mr. Barnett was appointed Moderator. In October of 1816 he delivered the customary opening-sermon of the Synod from Jer. xxiii. 22. In 1825 he was again the Moderator of the Synod. Its sessions were held that year in October, at Princeton, Kentucky. This meeting is memorable from its having originated our first literary institution. Resolutions were passed, and arrangements were made, which led to the organization of Cumberland College. The organization took place in March following. He delivered the opening-sermon at the following Synod in 1826, from Col. iv. 17.

In the division of the Cumberland Presbytery into the three Presbyteries, with a view to the formation of a Synod, he became a member of the Logan Presbytery. He remained in Kentucky, and a member of that Presbytery, until 1823. Whilst in Kentucky, he lived first in Christian county, near Salubria Spring. After some years, perhaps about 1821, he moved to the town, or county, of Henderson, and remained there about two years. In Kentucky he lost his wife and the mother of his children. He afterward, August 17, 1820, married the widow of Colonel Shelby, of Montgomery county, Tennessee, a lady of some property and of great personal worth. His last wife survived him a number of years. In the fall of 1823 he moved to Western Tennessee, and settled about twelve or fifteen miles above Jackson, where he remained to the close of 1825. In January, 1826, he moved again, and settled in Hardeman county, twelve miles west of Bolivar. He there collected a congregation around him at Mount Comfort. In August of 1827 his annual camp-meeting occurred at Mount Comfort. He was taken from his home to the camp-ground sick. At the close of the meeting he was removed home with increasingly unfavorable symptoms, and in a few days died of the common fever of the country. This occurred on the 29th of August, 1827. His death was felt to be a heavy blow on the infant Church in that country, as the ministry who were left were all young men. Still it was found that seed had been sown which produced a rich harvest. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has up to this time held a strong position in Western Tennessee. How much of this is due to the influence of Mr. Barnett, and to his few years of labor in that country, none of us can tell. Certainly he labored with great earnestness, power, and apparent success.

My personal recollections of Mr. Barnett go back to 1812. He attended the camp-meeting at the Ridge Meeting-house in August of that year. I received my first distinct impressions of the Church at that meeting. Several ministers, of whom sketches are presented in this and the preceding series, were present on that occasion. As I have said, the meeting was held in August. In the fall of that year he had an appointment for preaching at a private house in the neighborhood one evening. The reader will recollect that our second war with Great Britain commenced in 1812. My father and myself attended the appointment for preaching. After reaching the place of preaching we heard for the first time of the first great reverse of the American arms in that war. I allude to the surrender of General Hull. The event had just occurred, and the intelligence spread with great rapidity over the country. I was but a boy, but was very much of a patriot, as boys usually are. The intelligence of the surrender distressed me very greatly. It made me sad. The hour for preaching came on, and the preacher was sick, and could not preach. The meeting was converted into a prayer-meeting. Several of the old brethren prayed. Mr. Barnett came out of his room to close the meeting. A song was sung, and he prayed. I had never heard any thing like it, and I have certainly heard very few such prayers since. Perhaps I was in a favorable state of mind just then to hear a prayer. It seemed to me that the very heavens and the earth would come together. He was at that time a young preacher, and full of spirituality.

In 1817 Mr. Hodge, pastor of Shiloh Congregation, which had been greatly blessed in the early part of the revival, projected a union meeting at Shiloh. Mr. Hodge, and the men who constituted the Cumberland Presbytery, and originated the Church, had separated in 1809, and he had given in his adhesion to the Synod of Kentucky. Still he was a good man, and his heart remained warm with the old fire of 1800. The Cumberland Synod was in session somewhere in Kentucky within convenient distance from Shiloh. Mr. Hodge sent to the Synod for help. He called in a prominent Methodist minister, Rev. James Gwynn, of the neighborhood, and Rev. Dr. Blackburn, and one or two other Presbyterian ministers, and so we had the first union meeting that I ever attended or heard of. William Barnett and David McLin were sent by the Synod to cooperate with Mr. Hodge and others at the union meeting. Mr. Gwynn and a young Presbyterian minister preached on Saturday. Mr. Gwynn preached a fitting sermon from the prophet's prayer, "O Lord, revive thy work." On Sabbath Mr. McLin and Dr. Blackburn preached, and on Sabbath-night William Barnett filled the pulpit. He preached on the shortness of time, from a familiar text. He did not succeed so well. His friends said that his manner and spirit seemed to be cramped. Indeed, it was thought that all the preachers of the occasion suffered in that way, except Mr. Gwynn and Dr. Blackburn. They were old heroes in the war. Mr. Barnett, however, had some mourners and a considerable movement at the close of his sermon. But the good old pastor did not realize his hopes from the meeting. It was well intended, but was considered a failure.

In the winter of 1819 and 1820 I was attending a school at Suggs's Creek, in the course of my preparation for the ministry. On a certain Saturday evening Mr. Barnett came into the neighborhood. He expected to spent the Sabbath with the Suggs's Creek Congregation, of which Rev. David Foster was pastor. It turned out that a Baptist minister had an appointment for preaching at the house of one of his brethren in the neighborhood that day, and Mr. Foster and his people had thought proper not to interfere, but to worship with the Baptist brethren. Mr. Barnett came to the meeting, and worshiped with the brethren in like manner. He was not known to the officiating minister, and of course was not invited to preach. But an appointment was made for him for Sabbath-night at old James Law's. It was one of the most convenient and roomy houses in the neighborhood. Expectation was excited, and a large crowd attended. The house was filled to its utmost capacity. Among the rest was a young man who had recently come into the neighborhood, very wicked and thoughtless. He anticipated a crowd, and something of a stir, and came to meeting with his coat turned wrong side out to attract attention, and to have some fun. Mr. Barnett preached also on that occasion on the shortness of time: "But I say, brethren, the time is short." It was a terrific sermon. The young man's fun was all spoiled. Mourners were invited forward for prayer, and he was among the first. He fell upon the floor with bitter cries for mercy. A great many others followed the example. I have never witnessed a more solemn night. These things occurred fifty-three and a half years ago, but the recollections have all the vividness of recent events. Our young friend professed religion in a short time. He thought himself called to preach, but he was very illiterate, and could not endure what we thought the necessary discipline connected with a preparation for the work, and transferred his relations to another Church. It is probable, however, that the sermon of that night was the means of saving his soul.

In October of 1822, the Cumberland Synod held its sessions at the Beech Meeting-house. I was ordained in the July preceding. It was, of course, the first Synod that I attended. There was an unusual number of young men in attendance on that occasion. They were some of the earliest of the third generation of Cumberland Presbyterian ministers. Mr. Barnett was appointed by the Synod to preach a sermon especially to the young men. I have no particular recollection of the sermon, except that it made a good impression. James B. Porter followed with an exhortation, and John Barnett with a general shaking of hands, according to the custom of those days.

It has been mentioned that in the fall of 1823 he settled in Western Tennessee. In the providence of God, I was at that time on a circuit which passed through the neighborhood of his settlement, and had a two-days' meeting at Adley Alexander's, in the neighborhood, including the first Sabbath after his arrival. He attended, and, of course, preached. The sermon was based upon the inquiries which the servant of Elisha was instructed to address to the Shunamite woman: "Is it well with thee" Is it well with thy husband? Is it well with the child?" It may be supposed that it was a good introduction into a new field of labor. It was indeed so.

Mr. Barnett was exceedingly popular in Western Tennessee. He was an extraordinary preacher, and had lost none of his pulpit power when he settled in that country. If any man in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was entitled to the distinction of a Boanerges, I suppose William Barnett, in his time, by common consent would have been considered as holding the highest claim. When in the spirit, as it was customarily said in former times, and ought always to be said, he was very powerful. He had a celebrated sermon on the value of the soul and the danger of its loss, which in those times he preached a great deal, and which always attracted attention. On the subjects of conversion and a call to the ministry he was very searching, sometimes possibly cutting down those that he ought to have built up. If he erred, however, on such occasions, the error was on the safe side. There is more danger of healing a spiritual hurt slightly, than of not healing it at all. He had some of the highest characteristics of the fathers of this Church developed in unusual fullness. He had an iron-like bodily frame, a voice like a trumpet, and the courage of a lion. He was sometimes rough with the "boys," as they were usually called, but the pupils, many of them, were rough as well as the teachers. The writer knows all about the severity of that school; he sometimes smarted under it, but it was the school for the times.

Nearly four years transpired between Mr. Barnett's removal to West Tennessee and his death. These were years of labor. I recollect some of the circumstances of the last camp-meeting at which he performed any labor, with great distinctness. The meeting was held at McLemoresville. He preached on Sabbath upon the choice of Moses, "To suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season." It was a pleasant sermon; of course a testimonial in favor of an experimental and practical Christianity. It made a fine impression. It was, however, as I have intimated, a pleasant, rather than a terrible, impression. On Monday he preached on the subject of the Judgment. It was a sermon of great power, very much of the character of the sermon described which he preached at old Mr. Law's. It was terrific. The crowd trembled under the influence of his awful and overwhelming appeals. Such appeals are seldom heard, and such impressions are seldom made now. He closed with a great movement in the congregation. Many were convicted, and hopefully converted that evening. It was the last sermon that he ever preached. His own camp-meeting commenced the following Friday. He rode home on horseback from McLemoresville, in the heat of August, a distance of seventy-five miles. When his own meeting commenced he was complaining. He went, however, with his family, to the ground, and remained till the close. He had to be taken home in a carriage; he went to bed, and never rose again. The strong man and the iron will yielded to the inevitable call. He fell with his armor on.

Mr. Barnett's last wife survived him a number of years. He left three sons and two or three daughters. His eldest son entered the ministry, and acquired, I suppose, some respectability. He was a member of the General Assembly from some one of the Texas Presbyteries in 1853. He has been dead some years. His second son, who was named for himself, was educated at Cumberland College, and graduated in 1832. He afterward studied medicine, and after a practice of a number of years, first in Missouri, and then in Kentucky, died in Caldwell county, Kentucky. The youngest son, I suppose, still lives. After spending some time at Cumberland College, he went to Missouri. One of the daughters is the wife of Rev. Samuel Lambert, of Mississippi.

Mr. Barnett was an extraordinary man. He had imperfections, and some of them were striking. Every thing about him was striking. His greatness was natural. His education was very limited. He seemed to live at the proper time, and the theater in which he acted was certainly providential. In all such cases we are deeply impressed with the thought that God, in his providence, selects his own agencies for his own work. If the history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church teaches any thing, it teaches this lesson. We receive it and record it with profound gratitude and humility, that he has condescended to use agencies so unworthy, in the accomplishment of what we cannot call otherwise than a great work. Some mighty men, too, have been engaged in that work.

[Source: Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Second Series. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1874, pages 174-185]

The BARNETTS were an extraordinary family in their time. John, William, and James Y. Barnett were brothers, and all ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. John Barnett lived and labored in Caldwell county. He had a long, and at one time troublesome connection with the financial department of Cumberland college. William Barnett was one of the most powerful and popular preachers of his time. He lived a number of years in Christian county, then removed to Henderson, and finally to western Tennessee, where he died in 1827. James Y. Barnett lived and labored in Christian county..

[Source: Collins' History of Kentucky, vol. 1, 1976 reprint, pages 435-436]

The Fathers JOHN and WM. BARNETT, were both stout, able-bodied men, and men of good minds, improved about as the others whose opportunities then were not such as are now enjoyed. They were also natives of Tennessee, and of the mountains at that. They were rough-looking men, of florid complexion, and dauntless, yet they were men of clear heads and warm hearts, full of energy that knew no flagging. They were both a few times at the other camp-meetings in this State, but their labors were limited to Mt. Zion, McAlister's and Milbourn's. They were usually considered "sons of thunder." There was less of thunder in John. He was often more deliberate, but impressive, and they were both more or less eloquent at times. Wm. was regarded as the more successful in the pulpit, yet both were active, energetic and very useful men. My acquaintance was less familiar with John than William.

A sample of one of William Barnett's sermons is here given. He preached it at Pilot Knob church, Simpson county, Kentucky, on Monday of a camp-meeting. Introducing the subject he referred to all the preceding services of the meeting as to their nature and design, and alluded briefly to their apparent inefficiency. "And now," he said, "since these all have failed to influence many to be religious and go to heaven, I have concluded to tell you the way to hell, and find, if I can, how many of you will go there." His text was Eccl. xi: 9. He read, "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes," and declined to read the remainder until he would explain this much. True to his purpose he enumerated all the vices common among men, such as racing, card-playing, balls, dancing, gambling, drinking, swearing, cheating, lying, stealing, murder, robbery, every species of deceit and debauchery, even hypocrisy in religion, and told them if they were determined to go to hell to stop at nothing. Don't read the Bible, read novels; never go to church, or if you do, go for mischief and fun, and have that at any cost. While this train of thought was pursued, sinners were all attention, pleased beyond measure, and often had difficulty to avoid boisterous laughter. When he had all the wicked thus apparently elated with the pleasure of a life of sin and wickedness, he asked to read the remainder of his text. This he did with awful solemnity: "But know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment." He changed his theme, and you who hear this review of the past may think you anticipate the effect; but hear it. He represented the Son of God as summoning the whole world to the scrutinizing final judgment of the God of all the earth--all to appear before the Judge who himself knew all, and needed to witness to establish any charge, the conscience of none prepared to plead "not guilty." Now, an account must be rendered by every individual, "for all the deeds of the body," aye, for every thought, word, deed, every privilege, every advantage, every opportunity, every reproof of conscience, every admonition of friends, every prayer offered for you, every invitation you have had to come to Christ and rejected. The result was overwhelming. The sympathy of the pious for the unconverted at once drew forth a burst of prayer, the uncontrolled vehemence of which scattered conviction throughout the immense audience that every sinner in the congregation in that awful judgment would be found guilty, and nothing await any but eternal death, or pardon and eternal life by turning to God, and now was the time to avail himself of it. Many did this, and scores of sinners were converted to God during that day and night.
[Source: Darby, W. J. and J. E. Jenkins. Cumberland Presbyterianism in Southern Indiana: Being a History of Indiana Presbytery and an Account of the Proceedings of its Fiftieth Anniversary Held at Princeton, Ind., April 13-18, 1876, Together with Various Addresses and Communications, and a Sermon on the Doctrines of the Church. Published by the Presbytery, 1876, pages 72-73]


Writing from "Camp Retrospect" July 6 Rev. Richard Inge says: "I have just put up a monument over the grave of Rev. William Barnett, who lies at Mount Comfort. It compares favorably with the monuments over Rev. Dr. Moorman, Bryan and Phil Walker. With stones above the graves of others it seemed that there ought to be one for William Barnett, and we have put it there at a cost of $100. The stone bears the inscription, 'Rev. William Barnett 1755-1828. From his Church.' Some two years ago Rev. William Norment and Miss Anne Ferguson donated to this monument fund according to their ability, and I completed the construction. I received $12 and bought the marble, getting the use of tools, etc., and with my own hands completed the work, which the foreman of the shop at Memphis pronounced a first-class job. As the cost of packing and shipping would have been $7.50, I procured a log wagon, hitched my buggy team thereto and hauled it seventh miles, from Memphis to near Bolivar. Brother Ferguson cared for me and the team and helped me set up the stone. When I got back with the wagon I collapsed, fell and broke my ribs over again at the place of a former fracture." With characteristic facetiousness Mr. Inge adds: "The fall would have injured materially my right shoulder had it not been placed in the army museum at Washington City forty years ago."
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, July 23, 1903, page 111]

1810 March 22 - Cumberland Presbytery - Candidate

1811 March 19 - Cumberland Presbytery - Present

1811 October 11 - Cumberland Presbytery - Licensed

1813 February 13 - Cumberland Presbytery - Ordained

1813 August 31- Logan Presbytery - founding member

1813 October 5 - Cumberland Synod - present [Logan Presbytery]

1814 March 4 - Logan Presbytery - Clerk

1814 March 8 - Logan Presbytery - Present, Stated Supply, Westward District

1814 April 5 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Logan Presbytery]

1814 October 4 - Logan Presbytery - Clerk; Stated Supply, Eastern District, Western District

1815 August 11 - Logan Presbytery - Clerk; Stated Supply, Western District, Eastern District

1815 October 17 - Cumberland Synod - Moderator; Present [Logan Presbytery]

1815 November 7 - Logan Presbytery - Absent

1816 April 2 - Logan Presbytery - Clerk

1816 October 15 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Logan Presbytery]

1816 November 19 - Logan Presbytery

1817 April 1 - Logan Presbytery

1817 October 21 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Logan Presbytery]

1817 November 18 - Logan Presbytery

1818 April 7 - Logan Presbytery

1818 October 20 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Logan Presbytery]

1818 November 17 - Logan Presbytery - Clerk

1819 April 6 - Logan Presbytery

1819 October 19 - Cumberland Synod - Stated Clerk, Present [Logan Presbytery]

1819 November 16 - Logan Presbytery

1820 April 4 - Logan Presbytery - Moderator

1820 October 10 - Logan Presbytery

1820 October 17 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Logan Presbytery]

1821 April 3 - Logan Presbytery

1821 October 1 - Anderson Presbytery - Founding Member

1822 October 15 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Anderson Presbytery]

1823 October 21 - Cumberland Synod - Present [Anderson Presbytery

1824 October - Cumberland Synod - Present [Anderson Presbytery]

Resolved, That the part of Nashville Presbytery which lies west of the Tennessee River, is hereby stricken off, and the Rev. Messrs. William Barnett, Samuel Harris, John C. Smith, and Richard Beard, compose a Presbytery in said bounds, to be known as the Hopewell Presbytery, to be constituted at Bethel Meetinghouse, in Carroll County, and State of Tennessee, on the third Tuesday in April, 1825, William Barnett, Moderator, or, in case of his absence, Samuel Harris.

1825 October 18 - Cumberland Synod - Moderator, Present [Hopewell Presbytery]

1827 November 26 - Cumberland Synod

Resolved, That the Synod deeply deplore the late afflicting dispensation of Divine Providence, in removing by death Rev. William Barnett, late a member of this Synod; that they cherish a respectful regard for his memory, and condole with his afflicted family on that mournful event, which took place on the 29th day of August, 1827.

Barnett Family Information

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Updated March 6, 2009