Cumberland Presbytery - March 22, 1810
Robert Donnell received as a candidate by Cumberland Presbytery.
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, March 20-22, 1810]
Cumberland Presbytery - October 23-25, 1810
Robert Donnell - candidate - Cumberland Presbytery
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, October 23-25, 1810]
Cumberland Presbytery - March 21, 1811
Robert Donnell licensed by Cumberland Presbytery.
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, March 19-22, 1811]
Cumberland Presbytery - October 9-11, 1811
Robert Donnell - Licentiate
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, October 9-11, 1811]
Cumberland Presbytery - April 7-9, 1812
Robert Donnell - Licentiate
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, April 7-9, 1812]
Cumberland Presbytery - November 3-6, 1812
Robert Donnell - Licentiate
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, November 3-6, 1812]
Cumberland Presbytery - February 20, 1813
Robert Donnell - Ordained
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, February 19-20, 1813]
Cumberland Presbytery - April 6-9, 1813
Robert Donnell - Minister
[Source: Minutes of Cumberland Presbytery, April 6-9, 1813]
October 21, 1817 - Mt. Moriah, Kentucky
Moderator of Cumberland Synod - Rev. Robert Donnell
May 16, 1837 - Lebanon, Tennessee
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church - Rev. Robert Donnell
With pain, we lay the following communication before our readers.
A great, a good, a useful man has ceased from his labors. His
work is done. He has gone to his reward.
HUNTSVILLE, ALA., May 24th, '55.
I have just arrived here, on my way from the meeting of the General Assembly of our church; and in haste I drop you this note, to inform you, and the church, that our beloved Father Donnell is gone to his rest.
I have just been informed by Capt. David, Pastmaster at Athens,
that he departed this life at an early hour this morning, at his
own residence in Athens, and will be interred on to-morrow, in
his family cemetery.
G. W. MITCHELL.
[Source: The Banner of Peace and Cumberland Presbyterian Advocate, May 31, 1855, page 2]
"Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of the man is peace."
That class of men, who have demonstrated their compassionate love for mankind, by their self-denial, and labors for the salvation of the world, are entitled to a far more exalted reputation, than the most renowned Heroes, Statemen, Poets, or Sages; inasmuch as, they more closely resemble Jesus Christ, the real embodiment of all pure morality and true greatness.
To this class belongs the Rev. Robert Donnell, one of the Father's of the Cumberland Presbyterian church; and as an humble tribute to his memory, this sketch is presented to the church, and the world, at the request of his bereaved family.
Rev. Robert Donnell's ancestors were originally Scotch; but migrated to Ireland previous to 1688; and being Presbyterians, took part in the bloody conflict between the Protestants, under William, Prince of Orange, and the Papists, under James the Second. From that period the family has been characterized for its adherence to the principles of civil and religious liberty, which forms so distinguished a trait in the history of Scotch Irish Presbyterians, especially as manifested on this continent, during the war of the revolution.
And it is a fact worthy of remark, that from such ancestors, the great body of the Cumberland Presbyterian church, and especially its ministers, are descended.
Rev. Robert Donnell was the son of William and Mary Bell Donnell, who were married about the year 1760, and resided in Guilford county, N.C.
William Donnell was one of that noble patriot band, who under General Green, at Guilford courthouse in 1781, fought that memorable battle, which so effectually checked the desolating career of Lord Cornwallis. His wife, Mary Bell, was the daughter of Samuel Bell, great-grand-father of Hon. John Bell, who has been for many years a distinguished member of the United States Sentate from Tennessee.
The Donnell family, in its several generations, has furnished a large quota of ambassadors for Christ; and in this respect has been much honored of God.
Rev. Robert Donnell's parents at an early day were members of that branch of the great Presbyterian family, commonly called Seceders; but previous to 1794, joined, what is now called the Old Presbyterian church.
In the month of October 1789, when Father Donnell was in his sixth year, his parents started for the Cumberland country, as Middle Tennessee and Southern Ky. was then styled, expecting to join an emigrating party, which it seems was to rendevous near or at Abington, Va. But being too late to effect this object, they remained in the vicinity of Abington until the following October, when they joined another party, and proceeded to Sumner county, Tenn. But owing to the hostilities of the Indians, they spent the first year after their arrival, in Capt. Bell's Fort, situated about one mile from Smith's Fort, afterward called Hendersonville, on Drake's creek, some 7, or 8 miles from Nashville, on the North side of Cumberland river. Sometime in the next year, (1792) they settled on Spring creek, in the adjoining county of Wilson, not many miles from where Lebanon now stands. Here they soon assisted in erecting a house of worship, and in organizing a church. Here their pilgrimage on earth was ended; and here sleep their bodies in the tomb, awaiting the resurrection morn. Whatever good they may have otherwise accomplished, doubtless, the greatest blessing, they were instrumental in confering upon the church and the world, was presented in their their son Robert, who was born in Guilford county, N. C., in April --, 1781, and who after preaching the gospel, with slmost unparalleled success, for near half a century, terminated his life, at his own residence, in Athens, Limestone county, Ala., on Thursday, the 24th of May, 1855, at 4 1/2 o'clock A.M., the the 72nd year of his age.
It was in Wilson county, Tenn., Father Donnell was reared from childhood to manhood. It was here he received, under great privation, the elements of an English education, which he greatly improved amidst the pressing, active duties and employment of after life. We were shown, but yesterday, a copy of Flavel's works, including his "Husbandry Spiritualized." &c., which was presented to Father Donnell's mother, by her father, when she was married in which he inscribed some verses, all of which are lost, except the following lines.
"Mary to you this book I give,
For your behavior while you live."
This book, and his father's pocket Bible, were his only school books when learning to read. They, together with a copy of "Ressell's seven Sermons." were packed over the Cumberland mountains when the family came into Tennessee. Although Father D. never enjoyed the advantages of a classical education, yet from close reading and study, he became truly an educated man; for his capacious mind was well stored with a large fund of useful knowledge.
His pious parents, being well instructed in regard to their duty, as well as their privilege, and firmly relying upon the covenant promises of God, made to Abraham and his seed, like the primitive christians, dedicated their "household" to God in baptism. Father D. was baptized in infancy by Rev. David Caldwell, D.D., a distinguished minister of the Presbyterian church, who, according to his Biographr, was offered the Presidency of the University of N. C., when it first went into operation, but declined acceptance on account of advanced age.
The principles of the christian religion were early instilld into the mind, and exerted a restraining influence upon the life of young Robert, before he experienced their saving power in his heart. He professed religion and joined the communion of the Presbyterian church, in the year 1800, in his 17th year, in that ever memorable revival of pure experimental religion, which occurred under the labors of Rev. James McGready, and in which the Cumberland Presbyterian church had its origin. His own relation of his experience of pardon, to sister Donnell, as about as follows. "I had been for some time in great distress of soul on account of my sins, and after having spent some time, late one after noon, in the secret grove seeking rest, and finding none, I returned to my father's house, and just as I set my feet on the threshold, I was enabled to put the rope around my own neck, to prostrate myself before the cross divested of all self-dependence, and to rely alone on the merits of Jesus Christ." Young Donnell soon became an efficient help in holding prayer meetings, in which frequently, "with the word of the Lord as fire shut up in his bones," with melting heart and streaming eyes, he would exhort his friends "to flee the wrath to come." Feeling assured that he was called of God to preach the gospel of Christ, he prsented himself in 1806 before the "council," composed of the ministers and elders, generally known as the "the revival party," and against whom an act of suspension had been pronounced by a "commission of Kentucky Synod--a most high-handed, and unconstitutional act,--by whom he was advised to labor in a more public capacity, as an exhorter and chatechist. We know but little as to his history for a few years, except that he spent much of time riding and holding meetings in various places. As early as 1809, he extended his itinerant labors to Madison county, Ala., while crossing Elk river in company with him at the ferry at Fayetteville Tenn., in 1853, he said to the writer, "I was the first while man ever ferried across this river in a flat boat. It was down at this place, by old Mr. Norris, in his unfinished boat, at I was on my way to an appointment in Madison." We know not the full extent of his field of labor at this time, but this we know, that it embraced a portion of North Alabama and Middle Tennessee. He was not yet licensed, nor was the Cumberland Presbyterian church yet organized. But he was laboring with great success in winning souls to Christ. With his pocket-Bible, Hymn-book, Wood's Bible-Dictionary, and Fenelon's Attributes of God, his portable, and only Theological library, he made his way through the cane brakes, and wide-spread forest, in wet and cold, as well as warm and dry weather, from settlement to settlement, in search of poor lost sinners. He was in Madision county when the news reached him, the the Cumberland Presbytery was organized; which took place on the 4th day of February 1810. And at the next regular meeting thereof, which embraced the 3rd Sabbath of March following, he with six others, according to "The Life and Times of Ewing," were received as candidates for the ministry. When he was licensed, we do not know; but learn that he was ordained in October 1811.
That Father Donnell was, at an early period of his ministry, regarded by his brethren as one of the ablest expounders and defenders of the system of doctrines adopted by the Cumberland Presbyterian church, is evinced by the fact that, at the first meeting of the first Synod in the church, (commonly called "Old Cumberland") he was appointed, in conjunction with Rev. Messrs. Finis Ewing, Wm. McGee, and Thos. Calhoun, a committee to prepare a Confession of Faith, &c., setting forth the principles of that body.
On the 17th of March, 1817, he was married to Miss Ann E., daughter of Col. James Webb Smith, of Jackson county, Tenn., by whom he had five children, all of whom died in infancy, except his eldest son, James W. S. Donnell, who has been residing for some years past in Courtland valley. After Father D., marriage, he resided in Madison county, until 1819, when he settled Limestone, an adjoining county. During this period of time he had planted many churches, both in Tennessee and Alabama; a number of which are still in a flourishing state.
His first settlement in Limestone county, was on a section of land now owned by Mr. Luke Matthews, about 9 or 10 miles South East of Athens. It was here, on the 3d night of November 1828, his wife died, saying: "Lord Jesus into thy hands I commend my spirit." After remaining here 6 or 7 years, he removed to the farm in that vicinity, on which Mr. Wm. Garrett resides, in view of the place, where now repses his mortal remains. In 1832 he settled in the same neighborhood, on the farm owned by him at his death.
The General Assembly in 1831 appointed five Missionaries to West Pennsylvania; one of whom was Father D. On this mission his labors were specially blest. On the 21st of June, 1832 he was married to his second wife, (who survives him.) Miss Clara W., daughter of Rev. Jacob Lindley, for many years the President of Ohio University. In 1835 he removed his white family to the village of Mooresville, a few miles South of his farm, where he remained about two years and returned home. His labors for many years, were principally confined to Limestone and Madison counties. He went to Memphis, Tenn., in 1845, for the purpose of organizing a church, and to aid in building a house of worship. After having spent some months in that place, and having accomplished the object of his mission, he returned home. In a short time after this he accepted a call to become the Pastor of the church in Lebanon, Tenn., whither he repaired in June 1846, and there remained until February 1849. During the next month he settled in the town of Athens his final residence. Here he built himself a neat and comfortable Mansion, in which, according to his cherished desire, he breathed his last.
Father D. was a true patriot,--was ardently attached to his country, her free and glorious institutions, and took a very deep and lively interest in her progress and developments. He was emphatically a good citizen, and an excellent neighbor. One who has lived by him a long time, a few days since, remarked: "I can say this of Mr. Donnell, he never came to my house but I was glad to see him; he never left, but I wished he had remained longer." Socially, he was at once a gentleman and a christian. He had a most happy art, without appearing rude, or giving offence, of introducing the subject of religion into the social circle; and thus he left a facory influence wherever he went.
His house was the abode of peace, cheerfulness and contentment. There hospitality dwelt unrestrained, as if in her native home.
The humble poor, no less than the opulent, were welcome visitors at his house, and sharers of his friendship.
He was the fast friend and advocate of the great moral and benevolent institutions of the age: such as, the Temperance, missionary, Bible and Tract causes, &c. And at the time of his death, was the oldest Vice President of the American Trct Society.
He, perhaps, was instrumental in the conversion of as many sinners, organized as many churches, assisted in building as many houses of worship, and brought as many young men into the ministry, as any cotemporary minister, in his own, or any other denomiantion of christians.
He seems always to have been about his Master's business; and wherever he went, he was doing good.
Few men, if any, have been more uniform in regard to personal duties of every grade. As an illustration of this, we mention the fact that, he never omitted to have prayers in his family daily, both morning and evening, exept on two occasions, both of recent date. The first was an occasion when he was very ill, a few months before his death, on which a brother promised, late one afternoon, on leaving him, to return and spend the night with him. Father D. said to him, "You will then hold family worship for us when you return!" He soon afterwards fell asleep, and was not apprised until next morning that the brother expected was disappointed in getting back; and remarked frequently, that to his certain knowledge, it was the first time family prayer, at the stated hour, had been omitted in his house, when he was at home. And he seemed much troubled for that omission. The other instance was the last morning before he died, when he was under the influence of sleep all the time. We would here state, that, for months, when unable to sit up, if there was no one present to officiate for him, he would cause some one to read a portionof Scripture and, lying on his back, with his feeble voice, he would offer up prayer to God. Can the history of the whole Church furnish a complete parallel to this?
Again, it is said, notwithstanding his appointments, at times, extended from the Ohio to the Tennessee river, and were made often months in advance; yet he was never known to fail to fulfil them.
He appears to have never lost sight of the instruction the Saviour gave his disciples: "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves." His self-possession and great prudence were prominent traits in his character. On a certain occasion, when in West Tennessee, during some great political excitemetn, being in company with a number of strange gentlemen, there were several ineffectual attempts made to get an expression from him as to his politics. At length he was interrogated directly on the subject. To which he pleasantly responded, "I am in favor of the Missionary Cause." For this very pleasant manifestation of his prudence, (as we have been informed,) he, afterwards, was complimented with a silver-headed hickory walking cane, upon which, extending from one end to the other, in a serpentine form, in fine taste, and with considerable artistic skill, is carved the following inscription: Presented to Rev. R. Donnell, by T. S. Garrison.
He has bequeatd this staff to the Board of Missions of the C.P. Church.
H was ever mindful of the sick and afflicted, and to such he was a minister of consolation by his affectionate counsels and fervent prayers.
In the judicatories of the church, which he seldom failed to attend, his counsels were esteemed as both wise and conservative.
In the Pulpit, it may be said, he was almost peerless. It was here he found full scope for his great mind and heart. Nor did he preach "with enticing words of man's wisdom; but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power."
Often has he been heard to say, that he loved to preach; and that it was to him one of the greatest privileges to be permitted to preach Christ. Also, that he was astonished at those who seemed to preach only by constraint; and those who so seldom preach at all.
It is well known that Father Donnell did not devote much of his time to writing; but he has left a small volume embodying some of his ripest thoughts on the leading doctrines of the cross--and the distinctive doctrines of the C. P. Church, which is worth its weight in gold, and ought to be in every man's library--especially in that of every Cumberland Presbyterian. It is published by the Board of Publication of the C. P. Church, at Louisville, Kentucky, and is styled, "Donnell's Thoughts."
While he had much concern about local interests, he, at the same time, was employed much about the general interests of the Church; and, until his latest day, while oppressed and worn with infirmity and affliction he was, according to his own declarations, burdened with "the care of all the Churches." How appropriately was it often said of him: "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up." As illustrative of this, we mention his letter to the General Asembly, a few days before his death. It was his last epistle; his valedictory to the Church. It will be published with the minutes of the Assembly.
We feel assured that it will but be giving expression tot he universal sentiment, to say, that no minister in the Church has enjoyed a fuller share of the confidence of his brethren, or was more highly esteemed for his soundness in the faith--his strength and clearness of intellect--his burning eloquence--his expansive benevolence--his purity of life--his zeal for God's glory--his devotion to the interests of the whole church--his personal sacrifices--his indefatigable labors--his strength of faith--his honest--his patience--and last, but not least, his power with God in prayer.
On the 2nd Sabbath in August, 1853, Father Donnell preach at the Camp-meeting at Bethlehem, near Huntsville, on which occasion he made extra exertions to be heard by the vast multitude present. In this effort was laid the foundation of that protracted illness that finally terminated his earthly existence. After this, he preached but a few times.
On the 2nd Sabbath in October following, he preached twice in this place. His text for the morning service was 2 Peter 1: 13, 14, 15. It was called by those who heard him, his own funeral. Subsequently, he preached the dedication sermon of the new C.P. Church, in Huntsville. If we mistake not, it was on the 1st Sabbath in November, 1853; and on the 3d Sabbath, the 20th of the month, he preached at McComb's Roads, five miles south of this, the funeral of three aged Christians, from the text, "These all died in faith;" which was his last sermon.
But we may add, that, during all his afflictions, religion was his theme. He admonished all who visited him, in regard to that subject. In all his confinement he manifested, in a pre-eminent degree, the virtues of the christian. He was at no time heard to complain of his lot. Daily would he express his gratitude for kind attentions and the comforts with which he was surrounded. He was ever calm, submissive, happy, and frequently in exstacies of joy. His mind was never the least beclouded, but was at all times perfectly rational. His conversations were often intensely interesting, and many might be related of a thrilling character. He often said "Heaven is not far off; it is." pointing up with his finger, "just there." Again he would say--"I don't know, but it seems to me that the soul might be so filled with the presence and glory of God that it would just leap out and leave the body a lifeless lump. I feel sometimes like I am almost carried away."
On one occasion, last winter, he had a hemorrhage, and was, for some minutes, in a state of suspended animation; yet, he said--"I was perfectly conscious of all that was going on; I could see my lifeless body lying there, while my soul seemed, like the bird just let loose from its cage, instead of at once flying away, was circling round and round its former nest; and I thought if this be death, O, how pleasant it is to die!"
On the morning before his death, he was asked by a brother, what were his prospects now, when so near the end of his course; to which he replied "That business has long since been settled with me; it is too late now to call it in question. I can now say, whether I live I live unto the Lord, and whetehr I die I die unto the Lord; whether I live, therefore, or die, I am the Lord's."
The day before his death, he sunk into a profound sweet sleep, from which he awoke not, only when aroused by some one. In the latter part of the night, sister Donnell awoke him and offered him some medicine, to whom he replied, in a soft, beseeching tone, "Please don't make me take it; don't trouble me now, for I never felt better in my life," and immediately fell asleep and spoke no more; neither awoke again, until he awoke to the glorious realities of heavenly bliss.
"Life's duty done, as sinks the clay,
Light from its load the spirit flies.
While heaven and earth combine to say
How blest the righteous when he dies."
A great and good man has fallen. "Like a ripe shock of corn in his season," he came to his grave in a "good o'd age, full of days, riches and honor."
He has left a bereaved wife, an only son and his family, numerous relatives and friends, and the whole church to mourn his loss.
If this imperfect sketch is not as much extended in its incidents
and details as might be desired, it is sufficient, by way of apology,
to say, that a complete biography of father Donnell will, in due
time, be published by one I suppose well qualified for the task.
Athens, Ala., June 4, 1855.
Nashville Christian Advocate and all Cumberland Presbyterian papers please copy.
[Source: The Banner of Peace and Cumberland Presbyterian Advocate, June 21, 1855, page 1]
Having been privileged to be present on the last Sabbath in May, when the funeral sermon of Rev. Robert Donnell, late of this place, was preached in the Cumberland Presbyterian church, and presuming that a brief notice of the interesting services on that occasion will not be unacceptable to your readers, while it may be gratifying to his numerous friends who were not in attendance, I take the liberty, at the suggestion of one of our most worthy citizens, of forwarding to you such a notice for publication in your columns.
The morning was one of those whose calm loveliness affords a beautiful type of that eternal Sabbath upon whose services and ecstatic joys in the upper sanctuary our beloved Father Donnell had already entered:--a fitting day for a tribute of respect tot he memory of that great and good man. On arriving at the church,--a neat edifice, located in a convenient part of the town; I found already congregated a very large audience made up on persons of all the religious denominations in Athens, every other house of worship being closed out of respect to one whom all revered and delighted to have. The pu;pit, with the Holy Volume resting upon it, the front of the gallery, and various other portions of the house were tastefully draped in mourning; the tribute, as I am informed, of friends who thus appropriately expressed their respect for the dead, and their sympathy with the bereaved. In the pulpit were seated the venerable Dr. Lindley, for so many years the distinguished President of Ohio Univesity; the Rev. Wm. Sellars, the worthy pastor of the Baptist church in Athens; Rev. William Allen, so long known as an eminent minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South; and Rev. J. G. Wilson, of Limestone county, who enjoys so well earned a reputation both as a christian minister, and instructor of youth;--while in the seats from front to rear, and in chairs which filled up the entire space around the altar, as well as standing at the door, unable to procure seats within, was assembled a crowd of hearers, not a few of whom were from the country, whose sad countenance indicated that a great grief and fallen upon the cummunity and upon the church at large.
At the appointed hour the services were commenced by singing that beautiful hymn of Muhlenberg's
"I would not live alway: I ask not to stay,
Where storm after storm rises dark o'er the way,
The few lurid mornings that dawn on us here,
Are enough for life's woes, full enough for its cheer."
The excellent pastor of the church then read, as the scripture lesson for the day, the 2nd chapter of 1st Thessalonians, and as its beautiful and appropriate language fell upon my ear, it seemed to me as the utterance of the sainted dead, speaking back to the living from the spirit land, in intonations of encouragement to the followers of Jesus whom he had left on earth to complete their pilgrimate; and as the exultation of a Father in Israel who had gone up from the Watch-towers of Zion to his reward in the skies, there to be greeted by the hundreds and thousands in whose salvation he had been instrumental, while looking upon these his rapt soul exclaimed in the language of the apostle--"Ye are our glory and our joy!"
This was followed by a fervent address to the throne of grace by the pastor, whose heart seemed to teem with "emotions too big for utterance," as he devoutly acknowledged the Divine Sovereignity in the affairs of earth, and poured out earnest petitions for Divine grace to sanctify the afflictive dispensation to the public good and that of the church; and to sustain, and comfort the weeping relatives and friends. The services were continued by singing
"How blest the righteous when he dies,
When sinks a weary soul to rest,
How mildly beam the closing eyes,
How gently heaves the expiring brest."
Then followed the sermon from Romans 14:8;--the text being suggested, as we were informed in the opening of the discourse by a conversation which Father Donnell had, a little while before he closed his eyes in death, with a brother beloved of his church; and in which he gave as the last expression of his feelings in view of his approaching dissolution, a response to a question asked of him, in the words of the Apostle, slightly altered from their common reading, but fully expressive of his readiness to die. "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's."
The sermon was appropriate, full of deep religious feeling and sentiment, pathetic and eloquent, every way worthy of the reputation of Rev. G. W. Mitchell, the pastor, who delivered it, and of the occasion on which it was preached. It would afford me pleasure to give a sketch of the discourse, for the satisfaction of your readers, but as it is to be hoped that it will be published; and as I have already perhaps occupied too large a space in your columns, I forbear.
The writer, by courteous invitation then gave out Charles Wesley's hymn.
"And let this feeble body fail,
And let it droop or die,
My soul shall quit the mournful vale,
And soar to worlds on high."
And offered the concluding prayer; when the Doxology having been sung, and the Benediction pronounced by Rev. Dr. Lindley, the large congregation retired to their respective homes, many no doubt feeling, that though sad the occasion which had called them together, the place where they had assembled was "none other but the house God, and the gate of heaven." Long may the savor of that morning rest upon the people; and may the gracious truths to which they listened abundantly console the bereaved widow and the afflicted son whom the sainted dead has left on earth to mourn his departure.
My object in this notice has not been to eulogize the departed;--he
needs no such empty tribute from my pen; but to show how generally
and how highly he was esteemed in that community in whose midst
his sun has set with such mellow radience;--there and elsewhere
throughout the wide scope of territory in which he travelled,
and preached, and labored for the salvation of souls and the glory
of God. "Semper nomen suum, landesque manebunt."
J. R. FINLEY.
ATHENS, June 5, 1855.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, June 21, 1855, page 1]
May be obtained by application to Mr. J. B. Hill, Fayetteville, Tenn., at the very reasonable price of two dollars per copy, in neat cases. The cash always accompanying the order.
Rev. G. W. Mitchell speaks of Mr. Hill and his likenesses of Father D. as follows:
Mr. Hill is an Artist of superior skill, and a gentleman of unblemished character. He has an original likeness of Father D., with his "Missionary Staff" in his hand, which he took in the summer of 1853, just before his health began to fail. He has already furnished a number of copies to persons in his own vicinity, and can conveniently, and safely, send them by mail, to any part of the Union.
Those desiring a life-like picture of this great and good man,
are recommended at once, to apply to Mr. Hill; as no other artist
has taken an original likeness of Father Donnell, at least for
a great many years past.--tf
[Source: The Banner of Peace and Cumberland Presbyterian Advocate, July 5, 1855, page 2]
THE parents of Robert Donnell were of Scotch descent, but their ancestors had settled in Ireland previous to the year 1688. The family being Presbyterians, participated in the conflict between James the Second and William of Orange. This was a conflict not merely of persons but of principles--between Protestantism and the Papacy--for the ascendancy in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The family subsequently emigrated to this country, and settled in North Carolina.
Robert Donnell was the son of William and Mary Bell Donnell, who were married about the year 1760, and settled in Guilford county, where their son Robert was born, in April, 1784. The day of the month is not known, owing to the destruction of the family records by the Indians, in the removal of the family to the West. William Donnell, the father, was a soldier of the Revolution, and shared in the battle at Guilford-Court-house, in 1781.
The Donnell family seem to have been originally Seceders, but some time previous to 1794 joined the Presbyterian Church. It also seems likely that William and Mary Bell Donnell were members of Dr. Caldwell's congregation, as Dr. Caldwell is represented as having baptized their son Robert in his infancy.
In October, 1789, William Donnell started with his family for what was then called the Cumberland Country, expecting to join another emigrating party near Abingdon, Virginia. It seems, however, that they were too late to effect the junction, and remained in the neighborhood of Abingdon until the following year, when with other emigrants they made their way to what is now Sumner county, Tennessee, and settled at Bell's Fort, on Drake's Creek, near where the little town of Hendersonville now stands. Some time in 1792 the family moved, and settled in Wilson county, on Spring Creek, about eight miles from what is now Lebanon. Here Robert Donnell grew up to his manhood. In the manuscript which is one of my guides in this sketch, it is stated that the whole of his school education consisted of what he acquired in nine months, and that he acquired this before he was thirteen years of age. The account is not improbable, owing to the condition of the country at that time. Flavel's "Husbandry Spiritualized," his father's Bible, and Russell's "Seven Sermons," were his text-books in learning to read, and these were packed over the Cumberland Mountains when the family came to Tennessee.
When Robert Donnell was thirteen years of age, his father died, and the management of the farm and family interests, as well as the care of his mother and two sisters, devolved on him. The testimony is that he was faithful to his important trust, doing every thing which could have been expected of an affectionate brother and a dutiful son to promote their interest and happiness.
At the age of sixteen he planned and constructed a horse-mill for grinding corn, which proved a great convenience to the neighborhood, as mills were then very scarce. The writer of this sketch, too, once heard a gentleman, who grew up in the same neighborhood with Mr. Donnell, remark that it was understood that Robert Donnell could split more rails in a day than any man in the country around. Those who have known him personally will hardly question the truth of the statement, as he must have been a man of great physical power in his early life. It is said, also, that in those day of dram-drinking, he took a stand against the practice, and argued strenuously for entire abstinence from all intoxicating liquors. It will be observed that there were then no temperance societies, that he himself had not reached maturity, had not yet become a member of the Church, and that the practice of drinking spirits was not only tolerated, but approved generally by good people. It was an early development of the practical good sense which characterized him throughout a long and useful life.
In the year 1800, when he was in his seventeenth year, Mr. Donnell professed religion. His own account of his religious experience, communicated to his wife, is substantially the following: "I had been," said he, "for some time in great distress of soul on account of my sins, and after having spent several hours late one afternoon in the secret grove, seeking rest and finding none, I returned to my mother's house; and just as I was setting my feet on the threshold, I was enabled to put the rope around my own neck, to prostrate myself before the cross divested of all self-dependence, and to rely alone upon the merits of Jesus Christ." This account is characteristic. He soon became an efficient helper in holding prayer-meetings, and in otherwise promoting the interests of religion in his neighborhood. He would often exhort his friends and neighbors "with melting heart and streaming eyes" "to flee the wrath to come."
He seems to have entertained the idea from very early life that he was to be a preacher of the gospel--even before he professed religion. Such cases are not uncommon. The impressions are probably derived from outward circumstances: they may, too, be specially providential, directing the youthful mind into the channel in which the Spirit of God intends to lead it. Why should it not be so? At least, in process of time, after he professed religion, he felt that he was called of God to preach the Gospel of Christ to a perishing world, and in 1806 presented himself before what was then called the Council, for advice and instruction on that subject. The Council did not feel at liberty to transact Presbyterial business, but advised him to labor in a more public capacity than that in which he had been laboring, as an exhorter and catechist. With this authority he entered upon his work, and soon became practically and really an efficient preacher, although he had received no formal license.
In 1809 he penetrated into Northern Alabama, and commenced the work of collecting, and, as far as he felt himself authorized, of organizing congregations in what was then a new, but rapidly opening country. He was in this country when he received intelligence of the reorganization of the Cumberland Presbytery, in 1810. The following is his own account of his labors, fears, and hopes:
"I was traveling," says he, "in Alabama Territory when I heard of the constitution of the first Cumberland Presbytery, by Messrs. McAdow, Ewing, and King. If I ever was free from sectarian feelings, it was at that period. I often thought, For what am I laboring? I am connected with no constituted Church, and know not that I ever shall be. For what, then, do I labor, If I cannot build up a Church? The reply was, Only for the glory of God, and the salvation of precious souls. But what will become of the few so strongly united in the bonds of love? This could only be solved by the great Head of the Church. Of Him I often sought for an answer, and I am persuaded he did answer; as, some time before the Presbytery was constituted, I became quite calm on the subject, under the firm persuasion that the Lord would open a way for us. I was in this frame when the intelligence reached me which caused me to feel truly thankful to God who had thus opened a door for a feeble handful of his followers to become more extensively useful." [Life and Times of Ewing.]
The date of Mr. Donnell's licensure is not known. At the first meeting of the Cumberland Presbytery, after its constitution on the 4th of February, 1810, his name appears on the record as a candidate for the ministry. This meeting was held at the Ridge Meeting-house, in the following month, March, 1810. In October of the following year, 1811, he was set apart to the whole work of the ministry.
On the 17th of March, 1817, he was married to Miss Ann E. Smith, daughter of Col. James Webb Smith, of Jackson county, Tennessee. Several children were the fruit of this marriage, all of whom died in infancy, except the eldest son, James W. S. Donnell, who still survives.
Previous to his marriage Mr. Donnell labored chiefly as an itinerant minister. He traveled extensively, especially over the southern portion of the Church, and I suppose the labors of no man in any of the denominations have been more signally blessed. He possessed vigorous health, a fine constitution, and in all his labors a feeling was manifest that he belonged to God.
After his marriage he settled first in Madison county, Alabama, where he lived about two years, and then removed to the adjoining county of Limestone, and settled about ten miles from Athens. He now became a farmer, but still continued, I suppose, the most active and laborious minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Many congregation were collected through his agency in Tennessee and Alabama. A number of these are still flourishing, yielding fruit from the precious seed sown by his ministry.
While he resided in Limestone his wife died. She seems to have been a most estimable and pious lady. The record is that she died full of faith and hope. Her death occurred on the 3d of November, 1828.
The General Assembly of 1831 appointed, in conformity with several petitions from that country, five missionaries to Western Pennsylvania, of whom Mr. Donnell was one. Their mission was eminently successful, his labors with the others being greatly blessed.
On the 21st of June, 1832, he was married a second time, to Miss Clara W. Lindley, daughter of Rev. Jacob Lindley, of Pennsylvania. Miss Lindley had, however, been some time in the South, engaged as an instructress. In 1835 Mr. Donnell settled his white family in the village of Mooresville, a few miles from his farm. After about two years he returned to his former home. During these years, from the period of his first settlement in Madison county, his labors were chiefly confined to the counties of Madison and Limestone.
Some time about the year 1830 he commenced a series of efforts in the city of Nashville. The result was, the introduction of Cumberland Presbyterianism into that city. As fruits of the seed thus sown, two houses of worship have been built, and two respectable congregations collected.
In 1845 he went to Memphis, for the purpose of organizing a congregation, and aiding in building a house of worship. After spending some months there, and accomplishing the object of his visit, he returned home, and in a short time was called to the pastorate of the congregation of Lebanon, Tennessee, as the successor of Rev. George Donnell, who had recently died in that place. He remained in Lebanon until February, 1849, when he moved to Athens, Alabama, which became, as he expected, his last earthly home. He had now passed half through the seventh decade of life--a period when serious men begin to think seriously of setting their house in order. He built a comfortable mansion, rather then otherwise, as a home for his family, and from this mansion he entered into his rest.
On the second Sabbath in August, 1853, he preached at the camp-meeting at Bethlehem, near Huntsville, to an immense congregation. In order to being heard by the multitude present, great physical effort was necessary. He endeavored to accommodate himself to the circumstances, and in his extraordinary exertions laid the foundation for a protracted illness, which resulted in death. Still, although partially prostrated, he continued to labor as he could.
On the second Sabbath in October of the same year he preached twice in Athens, the place of his residence. His text for the morning was 2 Peter i. 13-15. It was called by many of those who heard it his own funeral-sermon. Still he labored on. On the first Sabbath in November he preached the dedication-sermon of a new church in Huntsville, and on the third Sabbath in the same month attended the funeral of three aged Christians a few miles from his residence. His text for the occasion was, "These all died in faith." This was his last sermon. He lingered to the 24th of May, 1855, when he died. The circumstances of his affliction and death were such as would have been expected from such a life. His pastor gives the following account, which deserves a permanent record:
"During all his afflictions, religion was his theme. He admonished all who visited him in regard to that subject. During his whole confinement he manifested, in a preeminent degree, the graces of a Christian. He made no complaint of his lot. Daily would he express his gratitude for kind attentions, and the comforts with which he was surrounded. He was ever calm, submissive, happy, and frequently in ecstasies of joy. His mind seemed never to be in the least beclouded, but was always rational. His conversation were often intensely interesting, and many might be related of a thrilling character. He often said: 'Heaven is not far off; it is'--pointing with his finger--'just there.' Again, he would say: 'I do not know, but it seems to me that the soul might be so filled with the presence and glory of God that it would just leap out, and leave the body a lifeless lump. I feel sometimes like I am almost carried away.'
"On one occasion last winter he had a hemorrhage, and was for some minutes in a state of suspended animation; yet he said, 'I was perfectly conscious of all that was going on. I could see my lifeless body lying there, while my soul seemed like the bird just let loose from its cage, which, instead of at once flying away, was circling round and round its former habitation; and I thought, If this is death, how pleasant a thing it is to die!'
"On the morning before his death he was asked by a brother what were his prospects now, when so near the end of his course. To which he replied, 'That business has long since been settled with me, and it is too late now to call it is question. I can say, Whether I live, I live unto the Lord; or whether I die, I die unto the Lord. Whether I live, therefore, or die, I am the Lord's.'
"The day before his death he sunk into a profound a sweet sleep, from which he only awoke when aroused by some one. In the latter part of the night his wife aroused him, and offered him some medicine. He replied in a soft and beseeching tone, 'Please do not make me take it; do not trouble me now, for I never felt better in my life,' and immediately fell asleep again, and spoke no more, nor awoke, until he awoke to the glorious realities of heavenly bliss."
Thus he came to his grave in a "good old age," like a ripe shock of corn gathered in its season. He died in his seventy-second year.
Mr. Donnell left but one child, James W. S. Donnell, who still lives a respected planter in Alabama. His widow also still lives, an honor to the memory of both a sainted husband and a sainted father.
The funeral services took place on the Sabbath after his death, in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Athens. They were attended by a large congregation, by the ministry generally of the town and surrounding country, and the venerable Dr. Lindley, the father of Mrs. Donnell. The second chapter of first Thessalonians was read; the beautiful hymn was sung, of which the first stanza is,
"How blest the righteous when he dies!
When sinks a weary soul to rest,
How mildly beam the closing eyes,
How gently heaves the expiring breast!"
A sermon was then delivered by Rev. George W. Mitchell, pastor of the congregation, from Rom. xiv. 8. The whole occasion is represented to have been, as we would have expected it to be, deeply interesting and impressive. At the close of the sermon the hymn was sung, commencing with the stanza,
"And let this feeble body frail,
And let it faint and die,
My soul shall quit this mournful vale,
And soar to worlds on high."
Prayer was then offered by Rev. Mr. Finley, of the Methodist Church.
Some time subsequent to his death the members of the Tennessee Presbytery erected a beautiful monument to the memory of Mr. Donnell.
At the time of his death he was the oldest Vice-President of the American Tract Society. He had been for years a devoted friend and promoter of the interests of the American Bible Society. His views upon the Temperance question have already been noticed. He was a temperance man in principle and practice before there was a temperance society.
Mr. Donnell was unquestionably one of the most laborious and useful ministers that ever labored in this country. Says the writer of the sketch to which I am indebted for most of the facts mentioned here:
"He was, perhaps, instrumental in the conversion of as many sinners, organized as many churches, assisted in building as many houses of worship, and brought as many young men into the ministry, as any contemporary minister of his own, or any other denomination of Christians."
This is no doubt a faithful testimony.
After his first marriage, Mr. Donnell was considered rather wealthy. In the management of his business, however, he never lost sight of the great end of providential blessings of every kind. These blessings made "his house the abode of peace, cheerfulness, and contentment. There hospitality dwelt unrestrained as if in her native home. The humble poor no less than the opulent were welcome visitors at his house, and sharers of his friendship."
Mr. Donnell published two sermons--one in 1833, occasioned by the death of Rev. William McGee; the sermon was, however, first delivered in 1817; the other in 1835, upon the Christian Profession. He also published in the latter part of his life a small volume under the modest title of "Thoughts." The pulpit was his stronghold: he never wrote much. Raised, and spending the first years of his ministry in the wilderness, he was trained to action rather than to the use of the pen.
Mr. Donnell's personal and family religion were of the most exemplary kind. Mrs. Donnell says, that during her whole married life of twenty-three years, she never saw her husband manifest or betray in any single instance a spirit or temper inconsistent with the Christian character, or do what she considered a wrong or inconsistent thing. He evidently lived in great watchfulness, and in the habit of daily prayer. He uniformly kept up domestic worship morning and evening. The account we have is, that he was unusually punctual in this respect. On such occasions he brought all his family around him, including his servants. These were not allowed to leave the house in the morning for their daily toil until after family prayers. The dining-room was used for the purpose, and it came to be considered rather a sacred place in the estimation of the negroes. On a certain occasion, when the white family were absent, some young men came in, and one of them taking the liberty of crossing the room in the manner of a person dancing, an old female servant felt so much scandalized at the unseemly levity of the young man, and the desecration of the place, that she exclaimed, "I shall tell my master as soon as he comes home about your dancing in his religious dining-room."
It was his custom also in the morning at the breakfast-table, immediately after the blessing, to repeat a passage of scripture, and to require the same of all present, even his visitors. On a certain occasion he observed his wife to be in some trouble about some domestic matters, in which she supposed she had failed to come up to his views or taste. The next morning his passage for the breakfast-table was, "Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all." He emphasized the pronoun "thou." Of course she was at once relieved from all anxiety in regard to the matter which had troubled her. This is given as an illustration of the kindness and tact with which he administered his household affairs.
Mr. Donnell preached the opening sermon at the meeting of the first General Assembly. The meeting was held at Princeton, Kentucky, in 1829. His text for the occasion was 1 Kings iii.5-9. The subject was Solomon's choice of wisdom and understanding, that he might be able to judge the people of God, and go out and in before them in a becoming manner. The sermon was characteristic. Of course the General Assembly was Solomon, a little child, placed in the midst of a large people, acknowledging its insufficiency for the great work before it, and asking wisdom, and strength, and grace from God. In 1837 he was Moderator of the General Assembly. Its sessions were also held in Princeton that year.
From the time of Mr. Donnell's maturity in the ministry, he was regarded as the leader of the Southern portion of the Church. No other man contributed so much toward directing its theological inquiries or its practical policy. For thirty years he was the highest authority in these matters. He was a great natural man. Furthermore, by extraordinary application and industry in his early ministry, he had made himself a respectable scholar. It used to be said that he carried his English Grammar and other elementary books in his saddlebags on his circuits, and studied them on horseback between his appointments. I expect what was said was true, as it was the custom of those days. He possessed fine administrative abilities, and could not well have been otherwise than a leader. At the same time it is to be remarked that no man seemed less anxious to be a leader. If he was ambitious, the world never knew it.
Personally, he was a man to be observed any where. His figure was commanding. He was something over six feet in height. His usual weight in later life was about two hundred and twenty. He was always neatly dressed--stood erect in the pulpit, delivering his message in an unusually solemn and impressive manner. He never descended to what is called the arts of elocution. Nature had done enough for him in this respect. His voice was like the voice of a trumpet: he never lacked words, and notwithstanding the defects of his early education, his words were always well selected. His thoughts were very clear, and his method of utterance unusually distinct. No man needed misunderstand him. Above all, there were a spirituality and an unction in his performances which subdued, while his mind and manner led. I have heard him often when he seemed to be absolutely overwhelming. He was not always so, it is true, but was always interesting. Mr. Donnell belonged to a race of men that has passed away. We may not see their like again. I never expect to see it myself. Let their memory be cherished. It is a sacred legacy to the Church. Their mantle has fallen: let us see to it that such a mantle be never desecrated; that it be worn by men at least worthy of them, if not their equals.
I saw Mr. Donnell for the first time in my early boyhood. He called at my grandfather's, with whom I then lived. He was accompanied by his mother, an aged lady of serious and quiet appearance. They had been on a visit to one of his sisters. But one thing occurred in this visit which made any impression on my mind. My grandfather had a large family Bible which he had packed over the mountains from Virginia to this country. This, with the Hymn-book, Confession of Faith, and the Travels of True Godliness, made up the principal part of his library. Mr. Donnell, in walking over the house, found the Confession of Faith, and made some jocular remark about it. The controversy was then raging which gave rise to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. My grandfather replied in an equally jocular, but characteristic manner, that the Confession of Faith was a very good book, but that Mr. Donnell and his party were trying to disembowel it, and that such treatment was very cruel. This occurred whilst the revival party were struggling in the capacity of a Council.
In 1817 he delivered the sermon occasioned by the death of Mr. McGee, at a camp-meeting at the Beech Meeting-house, in Sumner county. Mr. McGee had once lived in that neighborhood, and been pastor of the congregation. My recollection is that it was an exceedingly tender occasion. The preacher himself wept freely, and but few eyes in the great congregation were dry. I was then a very young Christian.
In 1820 he preached at the same Beech Campground. It was late in October, and the weather was unusually cold for the season. He was then in the prime of life, and was certainly a noble specimen of humanity. He preached in the open air. It was cold; there was no shelter, and snow was falling during most of the time of the sermon. But the large concourse of people kept their places, and heard apparently with intense interest. The text was, "That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord." I had been licensed to preach but a few days before, and was, perhaps, in a good frame of mind for hearing. It is certain that I never heard a sermon with more intellectual interest. "Sin has reigned unto death"--in throwing darkness into the understanding; in perverting the judgment; in controlling the will; in impairing the memory; in depraving the affections; in subjecting the body to the power of disease and death. Grace reigns in enlightening the understanding; in correcting the errors of the judgment; in persuading the enabling the will; in rendering the memory more tenacious of what is good; in renewing the affections; and finally, in restoring the body to life and immortality in the resurrection of the just. This is an outline of the sermon which was delivered that cold day. My recollection of it is distinct and vivid after the expiration of forty-six years. It was almost the only sermon of another that I ever tried to make my own, and to use as such.
In 1823 the Cumberland Synod met at Russellville, Kentucky. At the close of the sessions of the Synod, a camp-meeting was held at a place about four miles from town. I believe the name of the place was Moriah. Mr. Donnell preached on Saturday evening. The text was, "I speak as unto wise men; judge ye what I say." The sermon consisted of an exposition and vindication of the doctrines of his Church. On one topic he gave a direction to my thoughts which they have still kept. I had entertained a confused motion that regeneration was a sort of physical change. The sermon of that evening relieved my mind on that subject. It seems to me now that he was very distinct and satisfactory, and the wonder is, that with the means of information which Cumberland Presbyterians then had, he could have been so much so. The next day he preached the funeral-sermon of Judge Ewing. [An uncle of the later Judge Ephraim M. Ewing.] It was a massive discourse.
It has been stated already that he preached the opening sermon
of the first General Assembly. In 1843 he delivered a sermon at
the General Assembly at Owensboro, Kentucky, upon the life, character,
and death of Rev.
Samuel King. In his latter years he showed in his performances
in the pulpit something of the effects of age. He was always heard,
however, with interest. He continued to preach, too, while he
had physical strength for his work. Both nature and grace had
formed and fitted him for the pulpit. It was his forte and his
throne. He loved its labors, and would have stood in the front
rank of preachers in any Christian communion.
[Source: Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. By Richard Beard. Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Methodist Publishing House, Published for the author, 1867, pages 101-119]
REV. ROBERT DONNELL was the son of William and Mary Bell Donnell, who were married about the year 1760, and resided in Guilford county, N.C.
The Donnell family, in its several generations, has furnished a large quota of ambassadors for Christ; and in this respect has been much honored of God.
Rev. Robert Donnell's parents at an early day were members of that branch of the great Presbyterian family commonly called Seceders; but previous to 1794, joined, what is now called the Old Presbyterian Church.
In the month of October, 1789, when father Donnell was in his sixth year, his parents started for the Cumberland country, as Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky as then styled, expecting to join an emirgrating party, which it seems was to rendezvous near, or at Abington, Va. But being too late to effect this object, they remained in the vicinity of Abington until the following October, when they joined another party, and proceeded to Sumner county, Tenn. But owing to the hostilities of the Indians, they spent the first year after their arrival in Capt. Bell's fort, situated about one mile from Smith's fort, afterward called Hendersonville, on Drake's creek, some seven or eight miles from Nashville, on the north side of Cumberland river. Sometime in the next yar (1792) they settled on Spring creek, in the adjoining county of Wilson, not many miles from where Lebanon now stands. Here they soon assisted in erecting a house of worship, and in organizing a church. Here their pilgrimage on earth was ended; and here sleep their bodies in the tomb, awaiting the resurrection morn. Whatever good they may have otherwise accomplished, doubtless the greatest blessing they were instrumental in confering upon the Church and the world was presented in their son Robert, who was born in Guilford county, N. C., in April--, 1781, and who after preaching the gospel with almost unparalled success for near half a century, terminated his life at his own residence in Athens, Limestone county, Ala., on Thursday, the 24th of May, 1855, at 4:30 o'clock A.M., in the 72d year of his age.
It was in Wilson county, Tenn., father Donnell was reared from childhood to manhood. It was here he received, under great privation, the elements of an English education, which he greatly improved amidst the pressing, active duties and employments of after life. We were shown but yesterday a copy of Flavel's works, including his "Husbandry Spiritualized," etc., which was presented to father Donnell's mother, by her father, when she was married; in which he inscribed some verses, all of which are lost except the following lines.
This book and his father's pocket Bible were his only school books when learning to read. They, together with a copy of "Ressell's Seven Sermons," were packed over the Cumberland mountains when the family came to Tennessee. Although father Donnell never enjoyed the advantages of a classical education, yet from close reading and study he became truly an educated man; for his capacious mind was well stored with a large fund of useful knowledge.
He professed religion and joined the communion of the Presbyterian Church, in the year 1800, in his 17th year, in that ever memorable revival of pure experimental religion, which occurred under the labor of Rev. James McGready, and in which the Cumberland Presbyterian Church had its origin.
He soon became an efficient help in holding prayer-meetings, in which frequently, "with the word of the Lord as fire shut up in his bones," with melting heart and streaming eyes he would exhort his friends "to flee the wrath to come." Feeling assured that he was called of God to preach the gospel of Christ, he presented himself in 1806 before the "council" composed of the ministers and elders, generally known as the "revival party," and against whom an act of suspension had been pronounced by a "Commission of Kentucky Synod--a most high-handed and unconstitutional act--by whom he was advised to labor in a more public capacity, as an exhorter and catechist.
We know but little as to his history for a few years, except that he spent much of his time riding and holding meetings in various places. As early as 1809 he extended his itinerant labors to Madison county, Ala. While crossing Elk river in company with him at the ferry at Fayetteville, Tenn., in 1853, he said to the writer, "I was the first white man ever ferried across this river in a flat boat. It was down at this place, by old Mr. Norris, in his unfinished boat, as I was on my way to an appointment in Madison." We know not the full extent of his field of labor at this time, but this we know, that it embraced a portion of North Alabama and Middle Tennessee. He was not yet licensed, nor was the Cumberland Presbyterian Church yet organized. But he was laboring with great success in winning souls to Christ. With his pocket Bible, hymn book, Wood's Bible Dictionary, and Fenelon's Attributes of God, his portable and only theological library, he made his way through the cane brakes and wide spread forest in wet and cold as well as warm and dry weather, from settlement to settlement, in search of poor lost sinners. He was in Madison county when the news reached him that the Cumberland Presbytery was organized, which took place on the 4th day of February, 1810; and at the next regular meeting thereof, which embraced the third Sabbath of March following, he with six others, according to "The Life and Times of Ewing," were received as candidates for the ministry. When he was licensed, we do not know, but learn that he was ordained in October, 1811.
The General Assembly in 1831 appointed five missionaries to Western Pennsylvania, one of whom was father Donnell. On this mission his labors were specially blessed. On the 21st of June, 1832, he was married to his second wife (who survives him), Miss Clara W., daughter of Rev. Jacob Lindley, for many years the president of Ohio University.
In 1835 he removed his white family to the village of Mooresville, a few miles south of his farm, where he remained about two years and returned home. His labors for many years were principally confined to Limestone and Madison counties. He went to Memphis, Tenn., in 1845, for the purpose of organizing a church and to aid in building a house of worship. After having spent some months in that place, and having accomplished the object of his mission, he returned home. In a short time after this he accepted a call to become the pastor of the church in Lebanon, Tenn., whither he repaired in June, 1846, and there remained until February 1849. During the next month he settled in the town of Athens, his final residence. Here he built himself a neat and comfortable mansion, in which, according to his cherished desire, he breathed his last.
Few men, if any, have been more uniform in regard to personal duties of every grade. As an illustration of this, we mention the fact that he never omitted to have prayers in his family daily, both morning and evening, except on two occasions, both of recent date. The first was an occasion when he was very ill, a few months before his death, on which a brother promised, late one afternoon on leaving him, to return and spend the night with him. Father Donnell said to him, "You will then hold family worship for us when you return?" He soon afterwards fell asleep, and was to apprised until next morning that the brother expected was disappointed in getting back; and remarked frequently that to his certain knowledge it was the first time family prayer, at the stated hour, had been omitted in his house, when he was at home; and he seemed much troubled for that omission. The other instance was the last morning before he died, when he was under the influence of sleep all the time. We would here state, that for months, when unable to sit up, if there was no one present to officiate for him, he would cause some one to read a portion of Scripture, and then, lying on his back, with his feeble voice, he would offer up prayer to God. Can the history of the whole Church furnish a complete parallel to this?
On a certain occasion, when in West Tennessee, during some great political excitement, being in company with a number of strange gentlemen, there were several ineffectual attempts made to get an expression from him as to his politics. At length he was interrogated directly on the subject. To which he pleasantly responded, "I am in favor of the missionary cause." For this very pleasant manifestation of his prudence (as we have been informed), he afterwards was complimented with a silver-headed hickory waling cane, upon which, extending from one end to the other, in a serpentine form, in fine taste and with considerable artistic skill, is carved the following inscription: "Presented to Rev. R. Donnell, by T. S. Garrison. 'Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.'" He has bequeated this staff to the Board of Missions of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. On the second Sabbath in August, 1853, father Donnell preached at the camp-meeting at Bethlehem, near Huntsville, on which occasion he made extra exertions to be heard by the vast multitude present. In this effort was laid the foundation of that protracted illness that finally terminated his earthly existence. After this he preached but a few times.
On one occasion last winter he had a hemorrhage, and was for
some minutes in a state of suspended animation; yet he said, "I
was perfectly conscious of all that was going on, I could see
my lifeless body lying there, while my soul seemed like the bird
just let loose form its cage, instead of at once flying away,
was circling round and round its former nest; and I thought if
this be death, O, how pleasant it is to die!"
ATHENS, ALA., June 4, 1855.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, April 27, 1882, pages 2]
At Athens, Alabama, recently, in company with the popular young pastor, Rev. H. N. Barbee, we visited the neat burying ground where sleeps the body of Rev. Robert Donnell, of precious and honored memory. This cemetery is just outside the town, on a slight elevation, and is altogether a worthy spot for a hero's last resting place. Inside the low fence which encloses the Donnell plot, are the graves of the great preacher, his wife and others who were united with them in the ties of relationship.
Over the grave of Robert Donnell there is a plain monument, about twelve feet high. On the west side of this simple but fitting shaft is this inscription:
On the reverse, or east side, of the stone are these words:
On the south side of the monument is this inscription:
The north face of the monument is thus inscribed:
This is the monument's story of a great preacher, whose memory a whole denomination delights to honor, and to whose sacrifices and toil Alabama Synod owes its existence, while more than one other synod remembers him as a chief benefactor. Although he has been nearly forty-five years in his grave, his is personally remembered and revered by the old people of Athens. One of these, Ruling Elder Russell, now an invalid, gave us many incidents illustrating Robert Donnell's deep piety and wonderful pulpit power. The perfect abandon of confidence which the people of his day had in him may be illustrated by the following incident, related by Brother Russell: Near Athens about 1850 a camp meeting was in progress. Success was slow. The preachers were becoming discouraged. Robert Donnell had been expected, but for some reason had failed to come. A leading ruling elder, great of zeal and loud of voice was called upon to pray. He responded in great earnestness, growing more and more vociferous as he proceeded with his petition; finally he closed his prayer with this startling and thunderous appeal, in which there was no suspicion of either blasphemy of sacrilege, for he was terribly serious: "O Lord, come to this meeting and help us; and, O Lord, if you can't come yourself please send us big Bob Donnell!" If this seems to some reader the extreme of man's faith in man, let it be added in all soberness that in these days of doubt and suspicion it is refreshing to learn of a preacher in whose personal piety and spritural power everybody seemed to have absolute confidence.
There were giants in those days, and heroes too, and among
the chief of these was Rev. Robert Donnell, the typical preacher
of this time.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, May 25, 1899, page 642]
In attempting to write something to refresh the memories of our people in regard to some of the preachers who once lived and labored in the bounds of what is now known as the Robert Donnel Presbytery, I feel constrained to begin the undertaking by saying a few things in regard to the great and illustrious Robert Donnel, in honor and memory of whom the Presbytery was named. And appropriately so, as he was among the first, if not the first of Cumberland Presbyterian preachers to preach and organize churches in what is now the Robert Donnel Presbytery.
It is true that he had finished his ministry upon earth before mine as a preacher began. And for that reason, and also that his biography was written and published years ago, it may be thought somewhat useless, if not rather presumptuous for me to attempt to add anything whatever. My apology, if any be needed, is that I know no name outside the sacred scriptures more worthy to be perpetuated and cherished by Cumberland Presbyterians, and whose example is more worthy to follow, as a model Christian and preacher of the gospel than that of Robert Donnel. It is of his character that I wish to write more especially.
I have received my conceptions of Donnel's greatness as a preacher more from my parents, old preachers and others who had opportunities to know, than from his biographer. Some who are well acquainted with his history pronounce him a self-made preacher. But I would much prefer to say God-made and God-given for the time and country where he was born, lived and labored. He was just precisely a chosen man of God to help propagate and defend the doctrine of the then new born church -- the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. And from his history it seems that he could not have been better fitted for the great task, nor could the mission have been better fulfilled. He was so engaging and commanding in his appearance, and his every expression told so plainly that he had been with Jesus and drunk deeply of his spirit.
He was so dignified and yet so humble, kind and gracious; his face so serenely serious and so indicative of profound thought and feeling. His brain was so big, mind so clear and his judgment so exact, his intellect so vastly comprehensive, and its grasp so strongly firm. And best of all, his deep broad heart was so warm and fervent, and so completely full of love both to God and man, and which so constantly yearned to glorify God in efficient service in the comforting and edifying the church and the salvation of souls. All of which sanctified, enlightened and inspired by the anointing and indwelling of the Holy Ghost. The result of his complete consecration, faith and prayerfulness put him in possession of powers of usefulness which few ever equaled, and which perhaps no mere man ever excelled. He faithfully and joyfully used as a good steward, the gifts of God.
With him to be a preacher of the gospel was to realize that it was indeed to be an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ; and that it involves results and responsibilities of the weightiest and most tremendous character.
He was as mighty in prayer as in sermon. He believed God's word fully with all his heart. He knew God's promises, and was not afraid to trust Him to make them every one good. He knew how to plead them and with them in the name of Jesus to prevail at the throne of grace, and not afraid to ask great things of God, lest God could not confer them.
He was the burning and shining light, emerging as it were (like John the Baptist from the wilderness) whom God sent in his all-wise and merciful providence into North Alabama to announce the good news of great joy of the whosoever will gospel, as believed and taught by Cumberland Presbyterians, and it will take eternity to reveal the unspeakable results of the mighty influences which Robert Donnel set in motion under God, in North Alabama. he saw in the gospel a sublime system of divinely revealed truth linked in harmonious unity and perfection, to and for all mankind alike, on precisely the same conditions, exactly adapted to man's needs, and competent to give eternal salvation in a glorious heaven to all who would fully receive it.
I have learned from those competent to know that on great occasions from some place of secret prayer, he was often known to come where he had mightily wrestled with God for help, in full consciousness that he had prevailed, he would enter the pulpit and after a most powerful prayer full of the Holy Ghost, with heart afire and tongue aflame, he would for from an hour to an hour and a half, expound, persuade and exhort with an eloquence and power so great as to be comparable almost in effects to a mighty cyclone upon the trees of the forest, and that under the mighty spell of such sermons, sinners in great numbers overwhelmed with conviction would cry for mercy, and Christians almost become wild with ecstatic joy, in seeing and feeling such wonderful manifestation of God's glory and power. Oh, for such preachers now, and why is it that we have them not?
I feel that we owe it both to the present and future generations to perpetuate his name and deeds, and of others of like spirit with him of his day.
The mortal remains of Robert Donnel lie entombed within the
bounds of the Robert Donnel Presbytery in the Cemetery of Athens,
Limestone County, Alabama, where I have stood with uncovered head
and tried to think of him as he was upon earth, as he now is glorified
in heaven, while my poor heart has swelled with sweet and joyous
hope of meeting him in that world of bliss and glory.
[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 104-108.]
Donnell, Robert. "The Christian Profession." Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit 2 (1834): 113-122.
Donnell, Robert. The Final Perseverance of the Saints. Nashville, Tenn.: Board of Publication of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1861. [1 copy in archives]
Donnell, Robert. The Final Perseverance of the Saints. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1875. [1 copy in archives]
Donnell, Robert. A
Funeral Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of the Late Rev. William
The Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit. Vol. I, No. 4 [April, 1833], pages 45-56.
Donnell, Robert. Thoughts on Various Subjects. Louisville, Ky.: Published for the Board of Publication by Rev. Lee Roy Woods, 1852. [1 copy in archives]
Donnell, Robert. Thoughts on Various Subjects. Louisville, Ky.: Published for the Board of Publication by Rev. Lee Roy Woods, 1854. [2 copies in archives]
Donnell, Robert. Thoughts on Various Subjects. Louisville, Ky.: Published by J. Anderson for the Cumberland Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856. [No copy in archives]
Donnell, Robert. Thoughts on Various Subjects. Nashville, Tenn.: Board of Publication by L. R. Woods, 1870. [No copy in archives]
Donnell, Robert. Thoughts on Various Subjects. Nashville, Tenn.: Board of Publication of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1872. [Two copies in archives]
Lowry, David. Life and Labors of the Late Rev. Robert Donnell: Of Alabama, Minister of the Gospel in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Alton, Ill.: S. V. Crossman, printer, 1867. [2 copies in archives]