Woods McCowan Hamilton

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

1791 - 1865

HAMILTON, WOODS M.--Rev JOEL KNIGHT, of Sullivan, Ill, prepared a memoir, from which this is taken:--After the death of Mr. Hamilton an autobiography was found among his papers, as follows:--"No man of sound mind, and possessing a moderate share of moral principle, would engage in writing anything of an autobiography of himself, unless he had some considerable views of his own importance in some respects, or for the purpose of obliging a friend. The last of these I present as the only reason why I engage in the following scrap:

"I have not, as far as I know myself, ever sought popularity. With the knowledge I have had of myself, I have always chosen to live retired, as much as I could, from the busy, ambitious world, only so far as duty imperiously called me into the busy arena of life. I have generally been delighted with the sentiments expressed by Mr. Pope in the following lines:

"'Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
        Thus, unlamented, let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
        Tell where I lie.'

"The request of a friend, reasonably and earnestly made, has, however, induced me to note some of the events of my life.

"My parents were raised and lived in Virginia till some time near the year 1790, when they started for Kentucky. The Cherokees becoming troublesome and hostile, they stopped on Little Pigeon, in Severe County, East Tennessee, where I was born the 3d of June, 1791. My first remembrance was in Blount County; and the first thing I remember was, hearing my mother pray in secret, and being baptized by Rev. Gideon Blackburn.

"My parents moved to Livingston County, Kentucky; and the same year my father died. I was the youngest of nine children, and one sister younger than myself, made us ten in number. The four youngest of the family and one son, who had come to manhood, remained with our mother and made a living, and would have gotten along very well, had it not been for a want of schools, books and teachers; but these were scarce, and could hardly be obtained at all. I obtained but six months' schooling, and that very irregular. Learned to read fluently, but without much knowledge of orthography. I learned to write on a piece of plank; would write it all over, plane it off, and write it full again. The first knowledge of arithmetic I obtained by using a fire-coal and a clab-board, while attending Sugar Camp.

"My mother died when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, after setting an example of devotion, which I have never seen excelled. The family was at once broken up, and I was measurably alone, on the broad surface of a rough and wicked world: and no one who seemed actively to care for my soul. I soon, became desperately wicked; lost all the feelings and practices produced by parental influences and example; and for my age, was a ring-leader in wickedness.

"When about sixteen years old I got lost, and was out two days in extremely cold weather; and had my feet so badly frozen, that nearly half my toes came off, and I was partly made a cripple for life. This caused me to adopt a different plan of living. I took a school when about seventeen years old, in a neighborhood of Presbyterians; and before I quit the business of teaching, in connection with a young lady, who afterward became my wife, I became deeply convicted, and for six weeks I had no peace, day nor night, under the sense of guilt and condemnation. For a time I thought, when I had repented and prayed enough, I would obtain the blessing I needed. But although I was untiring in my course of efforts, I found no relief. And becoming more alarmed at my condition, and examining more closely the calls and propositions of the Gospel, I came to the conclusion that I was one of the reprobates. Under that conclusion I sank into despair. For a time my guilt and fear became insupportable; finally, I concluded I could not help it; I had done all I could do, and it availed nothing. A malignant opposition arose, and my heart, in all the stubborn opposition to God and his plan, arose, and I only desired that the Almighty would place a mark on me, as he had done on Cain, that no one would, by me, be influenced to go to hell. With this view I retired to a secluded place to pray for that mark. When at the place to which I had retired, I stopped and examined the case anew. I was a sinner--the worst in the world--I had no strength to help myself, and unless the Lord knew some plan, of which I had no knowledge, and as a sovereign would save, I was, and must in justice be forever lost. And with these views and conclusions, I fell down on my knees to pray (for the first time in my life) for saving, unmerited mercy; and in an instant my burden of sin was gone, my fears of hell removed, and I was exclaiming, "I'm happy! I'm happy! O! wondrous account. My joys are immortal! I stand on the mount."

"But temptations suddenly came. This that I had obtained could not be religion; I had looked for something in a very different way; I became perplexed; my conviction was gone, and I had submitted to deception. Sometimes a gleam of joy and light would flash into my mind, but I instantly repulsed it under the determination to have some certain knowledge of the fact of my salvation. For a number of days my mind was tossed and not comforted, until I was led to view the gospel plan, as illustrated by the great supper. By that I saw that provision was made for the needy, unworthy and helpless; and that God could be just and justify the guilty, through and for the sake of what Christ had done. Peace then flowed like a river; for weeks and months the love of god in Christ was my almost constant theme. An anxious desire that all might be saved led me to make efforts to persuade others to seek salvation; believing, too, that I could so direct and persuade them that they would yield. But I found myself painfully disappointed; and began to think seriously of seeking to become prepared for the work of calling my fellow-men to repentance. I joined the Presbyterian Church, and determined, as soon as possible, to obtain an education and devote my life to the ministry. My opportunities were entirely limited and discouraging. Married with a design still to obtain a good education.

"Waiting in vain to obtain an education, and believing that I must, in the exercise of my own agency, adopt and pursue some plan to get my mind at rest on the subject of preaching, in the fall of 1818 I joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the same season was received under the care of Logan Presbytery, when Fathers Ewing, Harris, Chapman, the two elder Barnetts and some younger brethren were members. I was directed to pursue the course required of candidates for the ministry. After reading two trial sermons, was licensed to preach. In the Spring of 1822 was ordained by the same Presbytery, and shortly after removed to Illinois, and settled in Burnt Prairie, White County, where I remained about twenty-five years.

"In 1823, agreeable to an order of Synod, Illinois Presbytery constituted at Bear Creek church, Montgomery County, Illinois, by David W. McLin, John M. Berry and myself.

"I have remained and still remain of the same Presbytery. And although I have always enjoyed a full and free opportunity to being useful, (with one very serious exception,) I know myself to have been an unprofitable servant; have had my discouragements, darkness and doubts, and am less than the least of saints, and not worthy to be called a minister. Yet, by the grace of God, I am what I am. And by his grace I hope at last to finish my course and gain admission, into that 'Temple not made with hands, eternal in heaven,' through Him who has eternal life for all who believe in his name."

The author's signature is not appended to the foregoing, but it is known to be his production, in his own hand-writing; was probably prepared a short time before his death, and unknown to any other person while he lived. But it is a fair expression of the disposition, seclusion and self-retirement, clearly manifested in the spirit and life of the author. But, notwithstanding such a disposition, yet impelled forward by a sense of duty, encouraged by the solicitude and approbation of the Church, and other surrounding circumstances, he pushed forward through difficulties, and made sacrifices such as are only known by those who were devoted in like manner, and about the same period of time, to save souls and to built up the Church in this new State, and other places similarly situated.

The writer, in the early part of his own ministry, was an intimate co-laborer with the deceased, and love him as Jonathan loved David. At. that period his brilliant talents, devoted services and extensive usefulness, both in his active ministry and in the councils of the Church, caused him to rise rapidly in popularity. All eyes seemed to be fixed upon him; he wielded a powerful influence in the Church.

He was the first man that ever introduced the subject of temperance into our Church Judicatures in this State. he, and at least one other member, had agreed in their private councils, in order to promote the cause of temperance, to introduce the subject in Presbytery; and by a preamble and resolutions, call out Presbyterial action; and through the members (ministers, elders,) reach the Churches. They did not know how such an effort would be received in Presbytery; but, if it called out discussion, and opposition, they determined to stand by the effort to the last. The thing called out little or no opposition. This was done at Village Church, White County, Ill.

Mr. Hamilton was connected with the Free and Accepted Masons from early life. He was a respected and devoted member in life; and was buried under the usual honors of the fraternity. He, too, was a fast friend of the Institution of Odd Fellows, and was also a member of that order.

In the account given of his early life, Mr. Hamilton manifested such determined purpose, and such perseverance to obtain knowledge (education) as are seldom found among the youth of the present age. But where they are manifest they never fail of success. And those who feel the want of education in early life, should be encouraged to put forth all their energies in that direction, and that with a perseverance that never yields to discouragements.

Mr. Hamilton was a great student; his prevailing disposition seemed to be mental application and development--his head was clear, his knowledge profound. But he is gone. Yet his wisdom may live to bless the Church and the world.

The last of the three ministers who constituted the first Cumberland Presbyterian Presbytery in this State, (Illinois,) is now gone to his rest and his reward.

He died, of Paralysis, at home, near Jonesboro, Union County, Ill., February 13, 1865, in the seventy-fourth year of his age. He died in the midst of kind and kindred friends, who rendered every possible attention for his comfort and benefit. His widow, with several children, survives him.
[Source: The Presbyterian Historical Almanac, 1866]


His son gives the following:

"Some time in the year 1790 my grand-parents started to move from Virginia to Kentucky, but, in consequence of troubles with the Cherokee Indians, they stopped on Little Pigeon, in Severe county, East Tennessee, where my father, Woods McCowan Hamilton, was born, on the 3d day of June, 1791. He was the youngest of eight sons and one daughter, there being one daughter younger than he. Grandfather died in 1799; and as that part of Kentucky (Livingstone county) was sparsely settled, my father had but little chance of attending school. I think about six months' irregular schooling is about all he ever had.

"After grand-mother died, my father, a lad of perhaps thirteen or fourteen, came to Illinois to live with an older brother, Patrick Hamilton, who was engaged in making salt on the Saline in Gallatin county. While thus engaged he was sent by his brother, in company with another man, on foot back to his old home in Kentucky. It was in the Winter. The waters had been very high and had frozen over. Then it snowed, so that the road could not be seen. They got lost, and were without fire or food for over two days; and when at last they got to a house my father's feet were frozen so badly that it was over six months before he could stand on them, having lost nearly half his toes, which rendered him a cripple through life. During this affliction he obtained books, and made considerable progress in the elementary branches. So strong was his thirst for knowledge, that after he got able to work he spent every night in study by the light of a burning pine knot. In a few years he commenced teaching, which afforded him better opportunities of study and improvement.

"During these years, and while, as he says, he was very wicked, he became acquainted with my mother, Jane M. McCluskey. Through her influence he became deeply convicted, and after a hard struggle of over six weeks was converted, and joined the Presbyterian Church. Afterward in 1811 he and my mother were married. On the 29th of November, 1812, I was born, and was baptized by the Rev. David Dickey, a Presbyterian minister. In about 1818 father, having for a long time been deeply impressed that it was his duty to preach, and, although a pretty thorough English scholar, having no hope of ever being qualified in accordance with the standard of the old Church, withdrew his connection and joined the Cumberland Presbyterians. Soon he was admitted as a candidate in Logan Presbytery, and was sent as a missionary to Illinois. I think he must have spent two or three years in this work before he moved his family, which he did in the Spring of 1822. The first Summer the family lived in Thom's Prairie, on Enoch Beach's Farm, in Wayne county. The next Fall we moved to Long Prairie, same county, lived through the Winter and next Summer, and in that Fall moved to Burnt Prairie, in White county, where we lived for over twenty-five years, and where my mother died in 1832. In 1845 or 1846 the family started to move to Jonesboro, Union county, but on account of sickness had to stop over for one year in Williamson county. My father died at his farm two miles north of Jonesboro station, on the Illinois Central railroad, on February 7th, 1854, and was buried at Jonesboro.

"During his first year as missionary to Illinois I think he was associated with another minister, but I do not know who. Afterward W. H. McCluskey, a cousin of my mother, and James S. Alexander were each sent out with him. Afterward McCluskey went to Indiana, where he labored successfully for many years. In early Spring of 1822, just before we left Kentucky, my father was ordained by Logan Presbytery. of his missionary labors I can say but little, as I was too young to understand much; but from what I have since learned I think he was very successful. In fact, I have met with quite a number who became acquainted with him in those days, and they all seemed to think and speak of him in the highest terms.

"After we moved to Illinois I do not recollect that he spent much of his time in missionary work--at least, not after the first three or four years--but was always engaged in preaching some place on Sunday, and very often the Saturday previous. In thinking back, although it is a good many years, I cannot now remember of my father being idle on the Sabbath, unless he or some of the family was sick, or there was a meeting in our church at which other ministers were present. In fact, I think I may safely say that during his long life he spent it all in preaching and laboring to save men from sin and death. He was always poor, and had to engage in any pursuit which promised a support for his large family. I recollect during my early years that he made all the shoes for his family. Afterward he obtained a set of tools and worked at the carpenter business during the Fall and Winter. We always lived on a farm, and during the Summer were engaged in farming operations as long as I remained at home, and, in fact, until they moved to Jonesboro.

"In those days people never thought of, or at least did not give the preacher anything for his services, particularly money. Sometimes a sister would give a pair of socks, the cloth for a vest, a pair of pants, or some other article, which were always very acceptable. I recollect that once a man in Seven Mile Prairie, a Mr. Anderson, I think, made and gave my father a pair of calf boots, which lasted him several years for Sunday wear.

"I recollect while living at home of seeing and reading quite a number of poems, songs, and other pieces of his composition, only a few of which can now be found. I also remember that I used to think they were very good, and tried to have him get them printed; but on account of his extreme diffidence he would never consent to do so. Later, he wrote out and had printed a full set of questions and answers on the several branches of examination of licentiates preparatory to ordination, some of which I had, but cannot now find. Several other productions of his I have seen from time to time, but none of them can now be found, except the short sketch of his early life already referred to. My brother tells me that in or about 1856 Bro. Logan, then of Alton, published, bound, and shipped a box of hymn books compiled and composed by my father.* [This is a mistake. The writer while in St. Louis published for the author the questions and answers referred to, but not the latter book.--EDITOR.] With the two exceptions, I do not know of my father ever having any of his writings published. He seemed to think or feel that they were not worth preserving or (what is likely the true reason) shrank from publicity. In the short sketch already referred to is found this quotation from Pope:

""' Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
     Thus unlamented let me die--
Steal from the world, and not a stone
     To tell where I lie.'"

The writer had a slight acquaintance with Mr. Hamilton before his death, and had been in his company at the judicatories of the Church several times. He was a man of sterling worth. He had more than ordinary diffidence in his deportment in society. Some of his letters on divinity were published in the Missouri Cumberland Presbyterian, which always denoted more than usual profundity of thought and clearness of statement in his propositions. He was in the General Assembly in 1863 when the war was raging in all its fury, and when the whole country was intensely agitated over the war questions. The Assembly met in Alton, in the church of which the writer was pastor. The questions of slavery and the rebellion were introduced by a memorial from Ohio Synod. A committee was appointed to consider the memorial, consisting of one from each Synod represented there. They made a report, which was adopted with but two dissenting votes. A motion was then made that the Assembly join in prayer, and that the oldest man present lead the devotions. This was done, and Mr. Hamilton led the prayer, which was eloquent, solemn and exceedingly earnest, and seemed to reach the very throne of the Deity. This was the last time we ever met, or that he ever attended the General Assembly. We know that he was greatly esteemed by his neighbors, irrespective of creed or religious opinions. If there was any one mark which distinguished Mr. Hamilton more than another, it was his humility, his self-abasement. He had an exceedingly low opinion of his own efforts. We greatly regret that we have been able to obtain no more satisfactory account of the life and labors of this dear old father of Israel.
[Source: Logan, J. B. History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Illinois, Containing Sketches of the First Ministers, Churches, Presbyteries and Synods; also a History of Missions, Publication and Education. Alton, Ill.: Perrin & Smith, 1878, pages 186-191.]

The Rev. Woods M. Hamilton


It was Woods M. Hamilton who came to the little old log church, in the face of many difficulties, to act as clerk of the first presbytery.

He was born in Tennessee in 1791. He was made an orphan early in life, and was sent to live in Illinois, with his brother, who was making salt in the southern part of the state. One winter he became lost and was almost frozen to death. He lost most of his toes, and it was months before he could walk. It was then that he began to study. He was ordained a minister in 1822, and started out as a missionary to Illinois.

His son says of him that he never remembers any time on Sunday, when his father did not preach. He composed quite a number of poems and songs, which were very good, but were never published. He attended a meeting of Assembly in 1863, when the war was raging. It was moved that the oldest minister present lead in prayer. The lot fell to the Rev. Hamilton. It was said that the prayer was so earnest, eloquent and sincere, that it seemed to reach the throne of Heaven. He left an inspiration wherever he preached.
[Source: One Hundred Twenty Years of Donnellson Presbyterian Church History 1819-1939. Compiled by Olive F. Kaune, page 32]

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