Father Blackwell, as he was familiarly called, is supposed to have been a native of Breckenridge county, Kentucky. His parents were quite poor, and he was therefore not favored with facilities for an education. What he attained was by dint of application and the aid of a few friends who were at some pains to assist him in consideration of his great desire to do some good. At the organization of Indiana Presbytery he came as a licensed preacher from the Presbytery of Logan in Kentucky. At the next meeting, October 3d, 1827, he was set apart to the whole work of the ministry. In his style of preaching and methods of work, he was adapted to a particular class of people, with whom he was in some degree successful. He made no pretensions to being a great or learned man, and it is therefore not disparaging to say that there was one instance in his life in which was verified the teaching of the apostle. (I Cor. 1:27): "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." The instance was this: A gentleman named James Smith, a Scotchman of considerable intellectual capacity and learning, was making his way northward on the Ohio river, when he became ice-bound, and he determined to walk. When near the town of Boonville he halted, and subsequently arranged to teach school. While thus engaged he went to hear Mr. Blackwell preach. The sermon was a plain, simple exposition of the plan of salvation. By the help of the Spirit it took hold of the strong man's heart. At the close of the service he approached the pulpit and said in substance to Mr. B.: "Sir, if that be the way men are saved, I want to know something more about it." The result of the interview was a promise on his part to attend a camp-meeting soon to be held some distance away. He kept his engagement, and on arriving at the place of meeting inquired if there was clergyman there by the name of James Blackwell. Such was the simplicity of his reliance on Mr. B., that on being informed that he was sick and could not be present, he at once left the ground. Soon afterwards, in great distress of mind, he attended another meeting not far distant, where Mr. B. was present, and under his instruction made a profession of his faith in Christ. Dr. Smith, better known as "Scotch" Smith, became one of the most powerful preachers in the whole church.
It was expected that Father Blackwell would be with us at this meeting, but God called him away some months ago, and he is now assembled with his co-laborers who have been freed from all earthly pain and toil. In his last days he suffered greatly, but never complained. When the invitation requesting his presence at this meeting was read to him by his wife, he said: "I shall not be there; tell Bro. Darby good-bye."
[Source: Darby, Rev. W. J. and Rev. 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, Indiana, 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 55-56]
Mr. James Blackwell was born in Culpepper county, Virginia, in 1800. In early life his parents removed to Kentucky, and settled in the Blue Grass region, near Lexington. They were very poor, and died during his boyhood. He was reduced to great poverty, and began to sell liquors in a neighborhood grogshop, as an agent for a distiller at or near Winchester, Ky. "I did it," said he, "to obtain the necessaries of life; but my conscience smote me, and I resolved that I would sell no more rum, a pledge which, by the grace of God, I have kept inviolate, and I will so keep it till I make my final account, which must be very soon."
This remark was made by him a few months before his death. After giving up this business he was led in God's own way, in his inscrutable providence to Breckinridge county, where he waited upon the ministry of the Rev. D. Lowry, D.D., late of Pierce City, Mo., and regularly attended his preaching. Under the soul-stirring appeals of this man of God, he began to consider the value of his immortal soul, and its price, the blood of the Lamb. He soon made a profession of religion, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Soon after his admission into the church he communicated to Mr. Lowry his impressions of a call to preach the gospel, and his intense desire to save the souls of other men; also modestly alluding to his own intellectual deficiency, both natural and acquired, and his lack of means, etc., for making the necessary and required preparations and qualifications, for this important work. His statement of these things so impressed Mr. Lowry that he assured him that the Lord of the vineyard had a special work for him to perform, and he urged him to accept it, and to do his duty, and the result would be with God. After a short time Mr. Blackwell conversed with the Presbytery of Logan about the work of grace in his heart, and his internal call to the holy ministry, and he was received as a candidate for the sacred office by the Presbytery. This is supposed to have occurred about the year 1823.
Mr. Blackwell stated that he appropriated every available means to prepare himself for the great work; studying all the books accessible to him, and conversing with the leading clergymen of his Church, and receiving instruction from them, especially from Mr. Lowry, with whom he traveled and served as a son in the ministry; also, by the assistance of brethren and friends of the Church, he attended school for a time.
In 1834-5 he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Logan, near Bowling Green, Ky., and sent to labor on a circuit with Mr. Lowry, with whom he remained about two years in Kentucky and Indiana, and also a part of the time with the Rev. H. A. Hunter. In 1826 he was transferred from Logan to Indiana Presbytery. He rode a circuit in Southern Indiana, which it required six weeks to complete, for several years, taking as a compensation such donations in clothing, etc., as the Christian generosity of the people prompted them to bestow upon him. It was during this period of his life that the Rev. James Smith, D.D., who became an able and distinguished author and divine in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and afterwards in the Presbyterian Church was converted under his ministry.
Mr. Blackwell was ordained in 1827 by the Indiana Presbytery at Shiloh camp-ground, Dubois county, Ind. After his ordination he labored much as an evangelist, and as a colpoteur for Bible and Tract Societies. Several times during his life he supplied congregations in Indiana and Morgan Presbyteries, making up inadequate salaries by school-teaching and laboring on the farm. He was instrumental in the organization of the Liberty congregation, which afterwards merged into the Boonville congregation.
Mr. Blackwell died October 27, 1875, after an excruciating illness of several months, confiding in him whom he preached, for eternal life and a crown of glory. He waged the conflict bravely, and then laid his weapons aside, and as a war scarred veteran he went home. Now Lowry, Blackwell, and Smith, beyond the surges of human passion, human errors, and human weakness, constitute a noble trio in the Master's crown! Their work is done! What solemn reflections gather about this thought! No, it is doing; it will not be done. They have only run their races. They have kept the faith, and they have finished, perfected their courses--ministry. They rest from their burdensome toils.
Two days after the death of Mr. Blackwell, the Rev. O. P. Galloway, at that time pastor of the Shiloh congregation, Ireland, Ind., preached a funeral discourse from the language of Paul to Timothy--2 Tim. iv. 6-8--to a large and attentive audience, after which the remains of the old pioneer preacher were taken by the Church--its officers acting as pallbearers--and interred in Shiloh cemetery.
The family of Mr. Blackwell have erected modest and suitable
stones over his grave. He sleeps in the same cemetery with the
J. Strain, who so faithfully and earnestly served the
church as pastor at Shiloh for more than a quarter of a century.
Mr. Blackwell was married in early life, and raised a family of
several children. His wife, Mrs. Blackwell, the partner of his
toils and the sharer of his faith still lingers on this shore.
Mr. Blackwell was not a great nor a learned preacher. His intellectual
powers were mediocre, but he was emphatically a good man. His
life, his daily conversation, and his godly walk, was the ablest
sermon that he ever preached. His pulpit efforts were plain and
simple. He believed that vital goodliness and a religious principle
should govern men, and that they do govern Christians. He desired
an able, a pious, and a learned ministry. Among the last words
of his dying counsel he committed this message to the care of
his pastor to bear to the Morgan
Presbytery, and to the Indiana
Presbytery that would convene in Princeton, Indiana, in
April, 1876. Tell them, said he, "To be firm and steadfast
to the end, and do the work of evangelists, and make full proof
of their ministry, and that he would meet them not in an earthly
Presbytery, but in a glorious world of reward. Be careful and
cautious to admit to one to the ministry until they, by rigid
examination and trial, have found the candidate well qualified
for the holy work in all parts of trial--to lay hands suddenly
on no man." To to probationers, said he, "Tell them
to make thorough and extensive preparations--to lay the foundation
broad and deep in preparing for the sacred office, and to build
a grand and extensive and firm superstructure thereon." It
was my expectation to attend the sittings of these bodies, and
deliver this message from our departed father and brother, but
Providence had otherwise decided. Mr. Blackwell was a steadfast
friend of missions. He wished to bequeath his little property
after he and his wife were done with it to the Church for missions.
The message which he left for the Presbyteries it would be well
if all the Presbyteries in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church
would observe and practice. If this was truly the practice of
the Presbyteries we would not hear nor see so much murmurings
and complainings about unemployed ministers, vacant pulpits, and
dying, disintegrating congregations. A good man has fallen, and
a father in Israel has gone, but he has arisen in glory. Corruption
has put on incorruption, weakness has put on power, this mortal
has put on immortality, and death has been swallowed up in victory.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, March 31, 1877, page 2]