GEORGE DONNELL was born on the 9th of August, 1801, in Guilford county, North Carolina. He was the son of George and Isabella Donnell. The maiden name of his mother was Kerr. George Donnell, senior, the father, was a ruling elder in Alamance congregation, which was under the pastoral care of Rev. David Caldwell, D.D. Dr. Caldwell was for near sixty years pastor of Alamance congregation. George was the third son and seventh child of a family of twelve children. His parents were of Scotch-Irish descent. He was baptized in his infancy by Dr. Caldwell.
In the fall of 1804 George Donnell, senior, with his family, moved from North Carolina, and settled in Spring Creek congregation, in Wilson county, Tennessee. The Spring Creek congregation was then, and for many years continued to be, under the pastoral care of Rev. Samuel Donnell.
Nothing seems to have occurred in the boyhood and early youth of George Donnell to indicate that he would ever arrive at distinction. His parents attended church with punctuality, and took their children with them. This was a Presbyterian usage in those days. They otherwise instructed and trained their children with care.
When the son was six years of age the mother died. Such a loss is almost always irreparable, and young George seems to have felt the blow in his case very sensibly. After two years of widowhood his father married a second time, but the affections and respect of the son had lost their natural object. Still, he is represented as having been obedient and respectful to his second mother.
He acquired his early education at the school of Rev. Samuel Donnell, pastor of the congregation. In this school he is said to have acquired rapidly the rudiments of an English education. He was also a fine companion, "prominent in every sport, expert at every game, full of hilarity, humor, and wit; ever pleasant and affectionate, the favorite of all his companions." One of his companions says of him, that he "was a warm-hearted, manly, honorable boy; mischievous and wild, but he never did a mean thing; was never profane; and always abhorred a lie."
His father was a farmer; but as the son grew up he exhibited some mechanical tact, and was accordingly placed under the care of a wheelwright in the neighborhood, for the purpose of learning the trade of wheel-making. This, by the way, was a very important business at that time, when all families manufactured their own clothing. About this time, too, he received his first abiding religious impressions. The immediate occasion, however, of those impressions is not known. But his convictions were deep and earnest. They impaired his health, depressed his spirits, and changed his former buoyancy and liveliness into thoughtfulness, melancholy, and gloominess.
At a camp-meeting at Sugg's Creek, in Wilson county, Tennessee, held in August of 1819, he professed religion. He had had a long and painful struggle of mind. His friends had feared derangement. The struggle was succeeded by corresponding peace and joy. "The height of his joy was proportionate to the depth of his despair. His convictions had been agonizing--his transport was rapturous; darkness had long enveloped his mind--the light of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus, shone upon his heart. Though prostrate upon the ground, he seemed to be at the gate of heaven."
By permission of his father, he attached himself to Bethesda congregation, which had originated in a secession of some persons who favored the old revival of 1800, from the Spring Creek congregation, of which his father was an elder.
He immediately became very active and efficient in his neighborhood in promoting prayer-meetings, in exhortation, and in various ways endeavoring to promote the salvation of his friends and neighbors. He was an excellent singer, and became at once altogether useful.
On the 5th of April, 1821, Mr. Donnell was received as a candidate for the ministry by the Nashville Presbytery. The sessions of the Presbytery were held at Moriah Meeting-house, in Wilson county. Soon after becoming a candidate for the ministry he reentered the school of his uncle, Rev. Samuel Donnell, where he studied those branches of science required by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church preparatory to licensure and ordination.While at school he kept up prayer-meetings one or more nights in every week; prayed, exhorted, and labored otherwise for the promotion of religion in the neighborhood. In the fall of 1821 he accompanied some old ministers to what was called the "Mountain District," to aid them in holding camp-meetings. The following winter was passed at school.
In October, 1822, he was licensed to preach at Bethesda Meeting-house, by the Lebanon Presbytery, which had previously been stricken off from the Nashville Presbytery. He was appointed to ride the Lebanon Circuit, in conjunction with Rev. Robert Baker. His labors were greatly blessed. The next twelve months he spent on the Overton Circuit--"the Mountain District."
In the spring of 1824 he was sent, in company with another licentiate, Samuel M. Aston, to East Tennessee. Here he encountered Old School theologians, of the strictest sort, together with Hopkinsianism in full maturity. He labored principally in East Tennessee for twelve months. A good deal of opposition, many trials, but great success, attended his labors.
At the spring sessions of the Presbytery in 1825, at Big Spring Meeting-house, in Wilson county, Mr. Donnell, in company with Abner W. Lansden and Samuel M. Aston, was set apart to the whole work of the ministry, Rev. Samuel McSpadden preaching the ordination-sermon, and Rev. Thomas Calhoon presiding and giving the charge. The following year he spent in East Tennessee. Shortly after the spring sessions of the Presbytery in 1826, by the appointment of the Synod, he visited the Charity Hall Missionary School, located among the Choctaws, then residing in Mississippi. His colleague in that visit was Rev. David Foster. Mr. Foster was much the older minister of the two, and was considered the principal in the appointment. The following was also spent in East Tennessee.
Early in the summer of 1827 Mr. Donnell was married to Miss Elizabeth E. McMurray, eldest daughter of Mr. David McMurray, of Big Spring congregation. The union was in all respects a suitable and happy one.
About the beginning of the year 1829 he commenced his labors in Lebanon. His work here proved to be the great work of his life. When he commenced his labors there was but one house of worship in the place--that belonged to the Methodists. There was also a regularly organized Methodist Society. There was no other organized Christian congregation in the place. He commenced his labors in the court-house. He encountered the usual discouragements, embarrassments, and opposition, from wicked men and sectarian influence, but at length succeeded in collecting and organizing a congregation of seven members--all of these were females. A house of worship was also built in due time. The congregation increased from year to year, gracious revivals were enjoyed, and the good man saw the pleasure of the Lord prosper in his hands. At the time of his death, it was the largest and most influential congregation in the denomination to which it belonged.
In the year 1820 Mr. Donnell commenced preaching to the New Hope congregation, situated about nine miles from Lebanon. He labored here a number of years, in connection with his labors in the Lebanon congregation.
The General Assembly of 1838 was dissolved according to order, and another Assembly appointed to meet in 1840. Of course there was no Assembly in 1839. In the intermediate time between the two Assemblies, however, it appeared that the Cumberland Presbyterian, the weekly organ of the Church, was about to be suspended. The result was, the meeting of a convention in Nashville, in May of 1839, for the purpose of considering the question of a Church paper. A plan was adopted for the publication of a paper, and Mr. Donnell was assigned prospectively to the editorial department. For reasons which need not be mentioned here, the plan was not carried into execution, and the paper was not published.
He continued his labors in the Lebanon congregation up to 1845. His health, however, had become impaired, by insensible degrees, until the early part of that year, when, after severe labor at a protracted meeting in Columbia, and a fatiguing ride home, he was prostrated. At first no serious apprehensions were felt, but his disease soon developed itself in a threatening form. After lingering for some time, on Saturday night, March 22, 1845, he closed his earthly career. His afflictions were borne with patience and quietness. His mind was at peace, "occasionally rising to a rapturous transport that made him long to soar away to visions of God." On the following day, "Sabbath, Dr. Cossitt preached a funeral-sermon to a Church and community overwhelmed with grief; and on Monday his remains were committed to the silent tomb, there to repose till the dead in Christ shall arise to appear with him in glory."
The following is the testimonial of the session of the congregation to the worth of their departed pastor. The preamble and resolutions were adopted on the 25th of March, three days after his death:
"Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, since the last meeting of the session, to remove from earth to heaven our much-beloved pastor, Rev. George Donnell; to this inscrutable decree of Providence we mournfully bow with Christian submission, knowing that the great Head of the Church can do no wrong. Yet, as the session of the Lebanon Church, of which he was the spiritual father, we cannot refrain from placing upon the records of our Church an expression of our estimation, as well as that of the members whom we represent, of the great, if not irreparable loss, which we have sustained in this afflictive dispensation of Providence.
"He whose death we now so deeply deplore was the founder of our Church in this place, and has sustained to it the endearing relation of pastor since its organization in the year 1830. By him its members, every one, were received into the Church, and all of its elders ordained. By his fostering care, and efficient instrumentality under God, it has grown up from infancy to its present size and condition. He had watched over its growth and progress with a solicitude and interest which could only be equaled by that of a good and tender father toward his children. During the fifteen years he has occupied the pastoral relation to our Church, he has been the first and only choice of its members. At no time would they have willingly submitted to a change. He was indeed a good shepherd, loved by his flock, and respected by all. As a minister, he was able, zealous, and devoted, occupying his position upon the walls of Zion with dignity, efficiency, and untiring perseverance. As a Christian, he was ever seeking to do good, pouring the balm of consolation into every wounded heart, and illustrating by his walk and conversation the beauties of the Christian character. As a member of society, he was lovely and pleasant; his wife was blameless, and his conduct beyond reproach. This session do therefore resolve--
"First. That in the death of the lamented Donnell, the widow has lost a husband, the orphans a father, society one of its most valuable and exemplary members, the Church one of the best of pastors, the ministry one of its brightest ornaments, and the Christian cause one of its most efficient champions and vigilant watchmen.
"Secondly. That a copy of this preamble and these resolutions be furnished by the clerk to the widow of the deceased, and to the editor of the Banner of Peace for publication."
[A copy from the Minutes.]
Dr. Cossitt thus testifies, in the Banner of Peace, of March 28, 1845:
"It becomes our duty in this number to communicate to the Church and public an event which will fill many hearts with mourning and many eyes with tears. Rev. George Donnell, pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, has rested from his labors. * * * The Church for whose interests he has devoted the best years of his life, which has flourished almost beyond example under his pastoral labors, and for which he seemed only to live and labor, will no more hear his instructive voice. The unconverted will no more hear his affectionate warnings, nor the mourning penitent enjoy his faithful guidance to the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. The people of Lebanon will no more have the benefit of his fervent pleadings in their behalf, nor will his closet longer be a Bethel sacred to the remembrance of their spiritual interests and the conversion of the world. The bower of prayer near his country residence will no longer witness his heart's agony and his spirit's groanings for those who despise God's law. * * *
"During his sickness he seemed entirely to trust his all with the Saviour whom he loved, and most strikingly exemplified the power of sustaining grace under the severest trials. The blessed gospel which he preached to others was his consolation when earthly comforts failed, and at times filled him with exceeding great joy and rapturous emotion. He expressed his resignation to the Divine will, whether to live or to die.
"When we remember his career of surpassing usefulness, the confidence with which all who knew him regarded him, the tender affection with which his people loved him--when we reflect that he had arrived only to his forty-fourth year, and was filling one of the most important stations in his own Church, or perhaps of any other in the South-west, it seems to be a mysterious providence which has removed him. Well are we assured that our loss is his gain. But we are led in inquire, Why was such a father called from a most interesting family, when his continuance with them seemed to mortal minds so necessary and desirable? Why was a pastor so able, faithful, and successful, called from so wide a field of usefulness? Why was the Presbytery and Church to which he belonged deprived of a counselor so valuable--one whose mind was sufficiently capacious to pass beyond mere local interests, comprehend all the parts of a great whole, and regard with equal interest all members of our body? Why was this community to lose one of its brightest ornaments, and this generation a burning and shining light?"
The following is an extract from the records of the Chapman Presbytery, which met in April, 1845:
"Whereas, it hath pleased the great Head of the Church, since our last session of Presbytery, to remove from earth to his rest in heaven our much-esteemed brother, George Donnell; to this most afflicting and inscrutable stroke of Divine Providence we mournfully bow with trembling submission, knowing that the Judge of all the earth will do right. * * *
"The deceased was, in all the relations of life, most eminently qualified to impart comfort, and to aid those with whom he stood connected; able in counsel, eloquent in the pulpit, animating in the social circle, and soothing in the chambers of sorrow and affliction. Truly, he was a 'good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith, and much people was added unto the Lord' through his agency and indefatigable labors.
"Resolved, That this Presbytery most tenderly sympathize with the widow of the deceased in her irreparable loss, and her children, who have lost a most tender and kind father.
"And be it farther resolved, That this Presbytery, in the death of this esteemed brother, has lost one of its ablest counselors, the Church at Lebanon a faithful pastor, society one of its brightest ornaments, and the world a brilliant example of religion and patriotism."
As a farther testimony of their regard for their late pastor, the congregation at Lebanon erected to his memory a beautiful monument, which still covers his remains in the quiet cemetery of the town. On the face of the monument is a suitable inscription.
In 1849 Mrs. Donnell herself died, and was laid by the side of her husband. On the side of the monument next to her resting-place, in addition to the ordinary inscription, we find the following:
"They were lovely and pleasant in their lives; and in death they are not divided."
Mr. Donnell left five children. One of them died soon after his mother; the others still live, and are all members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The eldest, David M. Donnell, has been for some years President of Cumberland Female College, at McMinnville, Tennessee.
Mr. Donnell published two sermons in the Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit: one in 1833, upon "The Gospel Feast;" the second in 1834, upon "The Nativity of Christ."
Of his personal appearance and habits, his biographer gives the following sketch:
"In person he was of about medium stature, slender, and slightly stooped; his head rather under medium size, his hair black and glossy; face rather small and pointed; features delicate; complexion ruddy; eyes clear blue, and ever lighted up with a mild luster; general expression pleasant, but not striking. His bearing modest, retiring, and unpretentious. In society he was easy, affable, and agreeable. Ever cheerful, and abounding in humor and wit, he was the life and soul of the social circle, without seeming to be conscious of his influence. To the young and the old, the gay and the gloomy, he was alike companionable. In the palace of the wealthy, or the cottage of the poor, he was alike at home. His social powers were unsurpassed, and yet he never made an effort to be interesting, or to engross attention.
"In the pulpit, to a stranger, his appearance was not commanding or prepossessing, yet his voice was mellow, and its tones peculiarly tender; and when he commenced speaking, he invariably attracted attention, and as he advanced, he held it enchained. Through the first few sentences his manner was subdued, but soon the heart warmed, and the fire burned, and then, though not vehement or boisterous, his earnestness grew into an agony of spirit while he wrestled for souls, and though he shed not a tear, yet his eyes seemed as liquid as if dissolving in tenderness and sympathy. Or if he discoursed of heaven, or the glories of the Saviour, his whole countenance lighted up with a brilliancy that seemed to be the reflection of the glory he was contemplating. He conquered and subdued, not by the force of popular eloquence, but by a happy mingling of persuasive tenderness and constraining earnestness. He penetrated the hearts of his audience and subdued them, ere they were aware of his design.
"In the preparation of his discourses, he reflected more than he read--relied more upon evolving thoughts from the depths of his own creative mind than upon culling and collecting ideas from books. He kept a good library, and read much when he had leisure; but when he engaged in framing a sermon, he made but little use of books. He used a text as a nucleus around which he grouped his own thoughts, gathered from reflection, experience, and observation. He relied more upon the preparation of the heart, and the elevation of his spirit and feelings to the proper degree of interest and solicitude, than upon the matter of his sermon. And yet his discourses were always fresh and interesting; they came welling up from the inner fountains of thought and feeling, the gushings of a warm heart dissolving with sympathy for souls."
I may add to the preceding personal sketch that the printed sermons of Mr. Donnell are not fair specimens of his abilities and effectiveness as a preacher. He was a natural as well as a practiced preacher, but not a practiced writer; and even if he had been a writer of sermons, there were an aptness, and a facility, and a directness in his style in the pulpit which could never have been represented in print. This is the case with all natural preachers: they can preach better than they can write.
This naturalness of which I have spoken developed itself largely, too, in what might be called tact. Mr. Donnell had a great deal of pulpit tact. It showed itself in his style of expression, in his prayers, in his addresses to serious persons, in his selection of songs in a revival. The right word always seemed to be in the right place, the right song was sung at the right time, the right illustration came up precisely where it was needed.
In short, he presented both publicly and privately such a character and such habits of life and labor as we love to contemplate. We linger upon such memories with delight, and should cherish them as an imperishable treasure to the Church.
This brief sketch must not be concluded without two or three practical remarks which it suggests. And,
First. We see what an amount of good can be accomplished by a man of ordinary abilities and ordinary attainments, devoted to a single object. Five years were spent in missionary labor. No doubt during all that time he was receiving souls for his hire. It has been said, however, that his great work was his work in Lebanon. In the course of the fifteen years of his pastorate there, according to the record, he added two hundred and thirty-six members to his congregation. The session say that "its members, every one, were received into the Church, and all of its elders were ordained by him." The most, if not all, of those members and elders, if not his spiritual children, acknowledged his aid and guidance in the great work of their personal salvation. It should be added, too, that many of these additions were from the most intelligent and influential portion of the community. These were no ordinary results. Few men can show such a record.
Secondly. When Mr. Donnell commenced his labors in Lebanon, he had not even the nucleus of an an organized congregation as a basis. He did not, he could not, build upon another man's foundation, because no foundation had been laid. There was material, but nothing more. Still he went to work upon that material; he soon collected and organized a congregation of seven members, all of them being females. To a man of the world this would have seemed a small beginning. Yet earnestness, perseverance, fidelity, and the grace of God carried him forward, and this unpromising beginning became the nucleus of one of the largest and most respectable congregations in the land. There are scores of young men in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church who are standing all the day idle, because no man hath hired them. Why do they not thus go into the vineyard and seek their own hire? The field is wide; openings are numerous; the Lord of the harvest will employ them, and give them wages if they will enter earnestly into the work. Why do they not make the experiment?
Thirdly. The labors and success of Mr. Donnell are an illustration of the importance of the pastoral work as a means of doing good. One who is truly a pastor will live with his people; will see them at their homes; will visit their sick; will bury their dead; will be their counselor and friend in all the exigencies of life. Such a pastorate by an earnest and faithful man will not fail of success. It may be added, too, that such a pastorate is the main reliance of a Christian congregation. It is especially so of a congregation of Presbyterians. Nothing else will serve as a substitute. Mr. Donnell was an earnest and devoted pastor. The impressions which he made still remain. Since his death the congregation have had the services of the best and the ablest men in the Church, and yet after the expiration of near twenty years, when the old members speak of a man after their own heart, they always speak of George Donnell.
Fourthly. I cannot close without an additional remark. The interesting case which we have been considering illustrates another principle. When Mr. Donnell commenced his labors in Lebanon, he had no assurance of a temporal support, or even, I suppose, of the smallest compensation. Yet he entered upon the work; God opened the hearts of the people, and the laborer received even his temporal hire. We have proof enough that in similar circumstances this will always be so. If an earnest and faithful man of respectable ability will give himself up to God and the people, he will receive his reward. The mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn will not be muzzled. Let our young men who are doing nothing, and waiting for assurances, make the experiment. "Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed."
[Source: Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1867, pages 245-262]
See also the biography:
Anderson, T.C. Life of Rev. George Donnell, First Pastor of the Church in Lebanon; With a Sketch of the Scotch-Irish Race. Nashville, Tenn.: Published for the Author, 1858.