Benjamin Wilburn McDonnold

1827 - 1889

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

Brother B. W. McDonald a Licentiate from Princeton Presbytery presented a letter of Dismission and recommendation, and was received under the care of this Presbytery.

[Source: Minutes of Hopewell Presbytery, August 30, 1849, page 74]

The committee on Literature & Theology made their report which was adopted, and is as follows. (viz): Your committee report that they are pleased to find a very preceptable improvement, in the progress of the candidates and Licentiates under your care. All of them seem anxious to meet fully the requirements of our discipline and we hope that among them are some who will not be satisfied barely to come up to the Discipline, but who will become ornaments to the church & the world in Learning and science as well as in Piety and Zeal. We have pursued the examination of Bro. McDonald through all those branches required for ordination, and find him fully competent to meet our Discipline in those parts of Trial. The committee think that it would not be out of place to remark that Bro. McDonald is a graduate of C. College, an Institution that has done much for the cause of Letters and learning in our church. They recommend that the order of Presbytery relative to the ordination of Bro. McDonald be carried out. This committee also suggest that the Presbytery by all possible means should foster and encourage the spirit of improvement which is awakening in our young Brethren. Let us open to them both our hearts and our hand, let us follow them with our councils and our prayers, and the time will soon come, when the Zion of our God will appear fair as the moon, clean as the Sun, and Terrible as an army with Banners. Respectfully submitted, J. N. Roach, Chairman.

On motion resolved, that Bro. B. W. McDonald be ordered to preach a Trial sermon preparatory to ordination from 1st Corinthians 6 chapter & 19 v. this evening at 7 o'clock and that the ordination services take place at 3 o'clock tomorrow, That Bro. C. J. Bradley preach the ordination sermon and that Bro. A. E. Cooper preside and give the charge.
[Source: Minutes of Hopewell Presbytery, September 1, 1849, pages 77-78]

Bro. B. W. McDonald preached a trial sermon which on motion was sustained as popular preparatory to ordination.
[Source: Minutes of Hopewell Presbytery, September 1, 1849, page 80]

Sabbath 3 o'clock P.M. Sept. 2nd, 1849 Bro. C. J. Bradley preached the Ordination sermon from 1st Timothy 4 ch. 12 & 16 verses, after which Bro. B. W. McDonald was set apart to the whole work of the Gospel Ministry, by the imposition of the hands of the presbytery and prayer.
[Source: Minutes of Hopewell Presbytery, September 2, 1849, page 80]

BENJAMIN W. McDONNOLD, D.D., LL.D., was born March 24, 1827, in Overton county, Tennessee, and was brought up on a farm. His parents always camped at Cane Spring Camp Ground, and thus from childhood he was trained in Cumberland Presbyterian usages. His mother, another Monica, taught him very early to pray and read. In his sixth year he had memorized the Catechism; in his fifth, he was remarkable for good New Testament lessons; in his tenth, he became a communicant, and commenced preparation for the ministry in his twelfth. Like the famous Felix Grundy, he studied at night by the light of pine-knots. Like Beard and many another true, stout heart, he studied the classic grammars at the plough-handle. In his sixteenth year, he became a candidate for the ministry, and while at school in Wilson county, was the guest of Thomas Calhoun, of precious memory. He then followed his father to West Tennessee, and was a pupil of David Cochrane, a classic teacher of repute. In 1843, he memorized the New Testament, and could repeat it. I have known him to doubt the utility of this work. I do not. It is the best possible preparation for the minister of the Word. And now that Dr. McDonnold is remote from his libraries, and an evangelist in a world-focus, I am sure that he will agree with me. After ordination, he traveled as an evangelist one season with Rev. Collins J. Bradley, holding meetings over West Tennessee. In 1847, he went to Princeton, Kentucky, to college, and was graduated in 1849. He was then elected Professor of Mathematics in Bethel Seminary, and taught one year. He next went to Philadelphia as successor of the eloquent Dr. Porter. His health now showed the effects of imprudent early study, and he returned to the South an invalid. In 1852, he married in Kentucky, and resumed the teaching of mathematics in Bethel College until 1859. He accepted the chair of Pastoral Theology in Cumberland University, and removed to Lebanon in 1860. When the war closed the college halls, he became, for a short time, pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian church at Lebanon, after which he became a chaplain in the Confederate army, and so remained until the armies disbanded. He was now a third time connected with Bethel College, but this time as President, one year. He resigned and took the pastorate of the church at Lebanon. When Cumberland University was in extremis, he became its President, being pressed into the work, much against his inclination, as he greatly preferred the pulpit. No one who has read the history of Cumberland University will be surprised that his arduous though successful labors resulted in complete prostration of his health. After a short respite, he resumed active work as an evangelist, and, for the last year, has been instrumental in doing much good in needy California.
[Source: Lindsley, J. Berrien. "Sources and Sketches of Cumberland Presbyterian History," Theological Medium and Cumberland Presbyterian Quarterly, n.s. VII (October 1876), 413.



Some months ago I was requested by the editor of the Student to write a sketch of Dr. McDonnold for publication in that paper. The request was complied with, and I give here the words beginning that sketch: "In accepting the task of writing a sketch of Dr. McDonnold I confess an incapacity to do the work in so far as a profound admiration and tender love incapacitate one to write about a friend." Since this was written death has claimed the friend of whom it was written. However, his passage from this world into the unseen holy has served but to increase the love had for him.

Dr. B. W. McDonnold was born in Overton county, Tenn., in March, 1827, and died at his home in Lebanon February 27, 1889. His childhood and youth were spent surrounded by the beautiful scenery so characteristic of the mountains of Tennessee. I have before me as I write a few pages of a manuscript in the Doctor's own handwriting, in which is given an account of the way in which these boyhood days were spent. The manuscript is written in story form, and bears this heading:


And Hard Study, being not 'founded on,' but all simple facts except the names." From these pages we get a brief, but not very satisfactory, insight into his early life and training. His boyhood was full of hard labor. At a very early age he seems to have made a field hand regularly along with his father's servants. The evenings after dark came on, and mornings before daylight, were often given to hunting and trapping in the mountains. When a mere boy he became quite skilled in the art of catching game. Several instances are spoken of in which he was in real danger from wild beasts that were common in the deep mountain caves near where he lived. But God's eye was on the adventurous boy, for he had formed him for a mission in the world, and was watching him to put him in the way to fulfill that mission.

From childhood his mind had a religious tendency. This was, perhaps, due to his mother's deeply religious disposition. Her prayers and profound reverence for God left a lasting impression on his mind. Her devotion to the cause of Christ found an intensified echo in the heart of her son. His father was not religious in early life. Stock raising engaged him, and he kept some noted race horses. Misfortune brought him bankruptcy. The stock, the home, every thing, went for debt, for nothing was held back until all was settled. The move from the old homestead brought about by this financial disaster located the family near a "camp ground." The summer following the father and son were both converted to God during the camp-meeting. Before the meeting closed they stood side by side at the altar and were received into the communion of the church in which in after years he was destined to be so useful and honored a member. The fullness of his mother's joy on this occasion lingered in his mind always as one of his fondest memories.

His conscious call to the Christian ministry followed close upon his conversion, although he was only thirteen years of age when converted. On this subject he uses this significant language: "At home, in poverty and toil, Iran (the name given in the story from which I quote) now found new ideas crowding upon him as he followed the plow. Little Samuel's experience over again. God called the child. God wrote upon his sun-burnt brow 'conscript of the cross.' It was in vain to struggle and pray, the voice of duty was clear in his heart. Night after night the boy wanted to go to the neighboring bluffs to pray for divine guidance. He wanted to be very sure that he was right. He was willing to be any thing God might call him to be, but he was very anxious not to run before he was sent." This quotation, I think, contains the key to Dr. McDonnold's whole life. He believed in a divine call to the Christian ministry. He believed also that this call rested upon him. That such a conviction in the heart of an honest man should do much toward shaping his life is a necessity. The conviction was with him an abiding one. In mature manhood he was more completely under its sway than in his youth. Every thing was colored by his consciousness that he was a called messenger of God.

With this conviction so firmly fixed upon him, it may appear singular that so much of his life was spent out of the pulpit. But to those who knew him well the puzzle is unraveled. He was a man singularly open to outside influences, specially open to solicitation from brethren whom he loved and trusted. The condition of our educational institutions demanded scholarly men. In this respect he had a few superiors. He yielded to the pressure of the times. In this he felt himself, specially in his later years, that a mistake had been made. It is not meant to imply that he failed in any field to which he was called. He did not fail. More than the ordinary measure of success was given him everywhere. But his highest degree of success, and certainly his highest degree of joy, were found in the pulpit. Were I to say that he was, in some respects, at certain periods of his life, a restless man, I should only speak what is a necessary inference from what has already been said. No secular employment, no agent's place, no professor's chair could satisfy the heart that felt so profoundly its divine commission to bear to the world the message of life and salvation. He was formed for the pulpit and commissioned of God to occupy it. The highest peaks of his earthly joy were reached while in the pulpit, and the magnitude of his manhood is most clearly seen while he is in the pulpit. I can not forbear uttering here a thought that has been in my mind for years. The church makes a mistake when it takes a man from the pulpit that God has called to it. No difference what the demands or the apparent necessities may be; if God has called him we dare not take him from his work. Given a ministry that is commissioned of God and that honestly adheres to the work, there must be, to the individual success and happiness, and to the church at large abundant prosperity. The prosperity of our church will be increased more than money or education, or both combined, can increase it, by letting God call the preachers and then letting the preachers preach.

From the time that the call became distinct in the heart of the thirteen year-old boy his natural tendency to solitude and contemplation increased upon him. He was specially fond of the sublime solitude of the mountains that were around his home. Here all his leisure hours were spent in meditation and prayer. Very early the desire for full educational equipment for the work before him became consuming. He felt that he must enter the ministry, and that he must enter it well qualified for its duties. But there were no good schools or good scholars near him. He heard of some Greek and Latin books forty miles away, and that they could be borrowed. On a colt that "needed breaking," he made the trip and returned with the books. At night by firelight and between the plow handles during the day, these books were diligently studied. The constant repetition of words and forms that he wished to fix on his mind led one, at last, of the unsophisticated neighbors to think him deranged. This repetition of unknown words could be accounted for in no other way.

The work on these books went rapidly on, and the two grammars would soon have been his had not a mother's watchful eye discovered the decline in health that was surely coming. All his books were taken from him except a New Testament. This became his constant companion. It went with him to the field and on his excursions into the woods and mountains. He determined to memorize the entire book, and entered up the self imposed task with vigor. Of course, with this purpose before him, his studies were unabated, and his health did not improve. To separate him wholly from his books he was sent from home to drive a stage coach. The books were left behind, and he gave himself to the new task. His health quickly recuperated, and at the end of a few months he was at home with strength restored.

During his absence from home a good school had been located near his father's house. At the solicitation of his pastor his books were returned to him, and he was allowed to enter school. The teacher was a fine scholar, but, having no local attachments, moved frequently. Each time he was followed by this earnest student. One of these moves located this school near the home of the Rev. Thomas Calhoun. The subject of this sketch was kindly taken into the Calhoun family, and remained with the family as one of its members, until another school was sought. One of the most ardent attachments of his whole life was that formed for Mr. Calhoun. That attachment lasted through life, and is no doubt now renewed with all the intensity of that life into which they both have entered.

We can not follow the earnest student through all the trials and privations that were his in seeking an education. He finally entered Cumberland College at Princeton, Kentucky, and was graduated from that institution in 1849. In his classes he stood among the very first. This brings us to the opening of his public life. This will be briefly given in the next article. The youth of Dr. McDonald has been dwelt upon with the hope that young men who read this may be encouraged to struggle as he did to fully equip themselves for the work of the ministry.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian May 9, 1889, page 1]



Dr. McDonnold, the third president of Cumberland University, was born March 24, 1827, in Overton county, Tenn. When six years old, under the guidance of a pious mother he had memorized the catechism. He was received into the church in his tenth year, and at twelve began preparation for the ministry, and became a candidate for that holy office in his sixteenth year. Like Felix Grundy, he learned books at night by the light of the fire, and while at the plow handle studied the classic grammars.

As a writer he was remarkable. His history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, recently published, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, bear testimony to his ability as a writer. A distinguished editor, who published many of his articles, said of him that there was a unction about his style which was found in that of few other men.

Dr. McDonnold's ill health compelled him to resign the presidency of the university in 1873. Afterward he became an evangelist, earnest, devoted and successful, laboring with gracious results not only in his native state, but in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Hundreds still living are ready to rise up and call him blessed. He died at his home on the 27th day of February, 1889,--Extract from "Echoes From Caruthers Hall."

Part I. Of Dr. McDonnold's History is issued separately in paper cover.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, December 3, 1903, page 710]



BENJAMIN W. McDONNOLD, D.D., LL.D., was elected President of the University near the close of the year, 1866. Owing to ill health and the greatness of the task before him, President Anderson had resigned on August 24, 1866, and the Board had accepted the resignation. The presidency was then offered to General A. P. Stewart, but this offer was declined by him, because he felt that his usefulness would be greater if his labors were devoted to some other task.

In the summer of 1866, Dr. McDonnold, who in 1860 was made Professor of Pastoral Theology in Cumberland University and who was during the early period of the Civil War pastor of the local Cumberland Presbyterian Church, was recalled to Lebanon to teach mathematics in the College of Arts. So, when Dr. Anderson resigned, Dr. Richard Beard, Dr. McDonnold, and Julius Blau were left to carry on the work of the College of Arts. The Trustees, however, had recently employed Dr. T. C. Blake to raise a building fund, and he had been pushing that work with much energy and success. He was kind and generous enough to give Dr. McDonnold much assistance in advertising the schools, in interesting fathers and mothers in the matter of sending their sons to Cumberland, and in providing the proper facilities for those students who came. These two devoted men worked long and late, and were tireless in their labors. Dr. McDonnold advanced his own money in order to get things done, and earned the gratitude of students and friends of the University. The College of Arts matriculated one hundred and twenty students during that year. Much of this work was done before Dr. McDonnold became President, and when the institution was without a head.

The friends of the University felt that Dr. McDonnold had come upon the scene for such a time as this, the period which came almost immediately after the ravages of the Civil War. He was born on a farm March 24, 1827, in Overton County, Tennessee, less than a hundred miles east of Lebanon. When six years of age he could repeat the Church Catechism; he began to prepare for the ministry in his twelfth year; became a candidate under the care of the presbytery when he was sixteen; and memorized the entire New Testament when he was seventeen. He studied by the light of the pine-knot, or while following the plow. After studying under Thomas Calhoun, of Wilson County, and under David Cochrane, a distinguished classical teacher of West Tennessee, he became a student in Cumberland College, Princeton, Kentucky, where he received the A.B. degree in 1849, seven years after the establishment of Cumberland University. After teaching mathematics in Bethel Seminary a year, he succeeded Dr. Herschel S. Porter as a pastor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he remained only a short time. In 1852, he went back to Bethel and taught there again for several years. His work in Lebanon in 1860 and 1861 has already been mentioned. During a part of the Civil War he served as a chaplain in the army.

When Dr. McDonnold was recalled to Lebanon in the summer of 1866, he was thought of at first as a teacher only. But finally, after weeks of fruitless effort in the search for a president, the Trustees turned to Dr. McDonnold, who was not only teaching in the College but was also serving as pastor of the local Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The pastoral relations continuing, the church paid the greater part of his salary. The Trustees were able to pay only about four hundred dollars for his services as President. "There was no endowment, and there was no money belonging to the institution," so one said who knew the facts. The Trustees, teachers, and other friends of the University were almost filled with despair. Some one, in writing too strongly of them, says: "They were stunned and bewildered, heartbroken and without hope." It is true all endowment and other money, all buildings, with their contents, and all real estate, were gone. Only debts remained. But the institution still lived in the hearts of men, and evidence of that is given here.

It was about this time, that Dr. W. E. Ward, an alumnus of the College of Arts, and later President of Ward Seminary, of Nashville, visited the ruins of the buildings destroyed by fire in 1863 and wrote on one of the columns still standing at the time the word "Resurgam" (I will arise). He was voicing the faith in his own heart, and the incident gave birth to the watchword, "E Cineribus Resurgo" (I arise from the ashes). This Latin motto, coupled with a figure of the phoenix, the bird of immortality, was placed upon the seal of the University, where it still remains, ever reminding the students who go out from the institution of the immortal influence of their alma mater.

While at first the situation was most discouraging and enough to try the heart of the strongest man, yet President McDonnold and others cooperating with him, shared the hopeful spirit of Dr. W. E. Ward. The President did not eat idle bread, nor did he wait for someone else to prepare an easy place for him. He worked as a man of faith who had heard the call of God; enlisted the aid and cooperation of a great many pastors and churches; and cultivated the friendship of a great many people in a wide territory. Through his wife and energetic activities, the parents of many young men to be educated had their eyes turned toward Cumberland University. In the midst of the after-the-war confusion and desolation, Dr. T. C. Blake, '54 A.B., went out into the field and secured $30,000 in notes and cash.

But Dr. McDonnold had much more than a will to work. Men were attracted to him as soon as they heard him speak. He had a clear voice and very distinct enunciation. One easily understood and remembered what he said. His convictions easily became his hearers' convictions so clear was the impression made, the late Chancellor Green tells us. Then, too, Dr. McDonnold was a man of extensive learning and a speaker of ability and persuasive power. He sought in every way to qualify himself for his responsibility as an educator and for the office he occupied. He was satisfied with nothing less than the best in methods of education and in gathering funds for the institution.

Chancellor Green once said that perhaps no one ever connected with the University labored for its prosperity more than did Dr. McDonnold. He collected cash for running expenses; provided buildings for all departments; and put the entire institution in working order. In 1870-71, there were 335 students in attendance, and there was a good attendance also in the other years. In other ways also the institution was making substantial gains.

The year 1866-67 was one of the most difficult years for the University as well as for the new president. It was more difficult than 1842, the year of the beginning, when it was much easier to secure gifts for salaries and building purposes. As to the Faculty for 1866-67, the catalogue shows that the President was also Professor of Mental and Moral Sciences; Dr. Richard Beard, Professor of Latin and Greek; Julius Blau, Professor of Modern Languages; A. H. Buchanan, Professor of Mathematics; Eli G. Burney, Assistant Professor of Latin and Greek; H. S. Kennedy, Principal of the Preparatory School; Newton Jefferson Finney, teacher in the Preparatory School; T. M. Thurman, tutor. N. Green, Jr. and Henry Cooper were Professors in the Law School. Dr. Richard Beard taught the six students in the Theological School. Professor A. H. Buchanan evidently declined to serve, for, after the close of the war, he was teaching in Arkansas until 1869. After the printing of the catalogue of 1866-67, a printed slip was inserted to the effect that General A. P. Stewart had been added to the Faculty, and would teach Mathematics, and also that Professor J. M. Safford would teach the Natural Sciences. Professor Stewart remained with the Faculty for two years, or until the summer of 1869, when Professor A. H. Buchanan came back to the University to become Professor of Mathematics. Judge R. L. Caruthers, who was always ready to help in the time of need, guaranteed the payment of Professor Buchanan's salary. General Stewart, on retirement from the work of the University, went to St. Louis to live. Later, he became the President of the University of Mississippi.

In President McDonnold's administration, no printed code of by-laws was used, such as had been used previously. The students were required, however, to be gentlemen and prepared to recite. When a student was not doing well, the parent was advised to withdraw him from the institution.

The necessity of securing permanent endowment was not forgotten. Some gifts for this purpose were secured. But they were not many, nor were they ever very large. The largest gift was from the Finley estate in 1869 and amounting to about $15,000. In 1858 Judge Ephraim Ewing, of Russellville, Kentucky, made a donation of a piece of property in Chicago to the University for the Theological School. It was a dead expense to the University until it was sold during President McDonnold's administration. The proceeds of the sale amounted to $12,000. When the property was first donated, the Ewing Professorship was established in the Theological School.

About the time when Dr. McDonnold became president, the Trustees decided to buy, for $16,000, the Abram Caruthers property (later known as Divinity Hall) consisting of a large brick residence and sixty acres. They made a first payment, using a part of the building fund raised by Dr. T. C. Blake. This created some dissatisfaction, for the College of Arts was still without a permanent home. The Trustees then turned the property over to the College of Arts for its use. But there was still a mortgage on the property; and when it was about to be sold for $8,760, the balance due, the property was bought for the Theological School with $8,760 of the money received for the sale of the Ewing property in Chicago. The building, known as Divinity Hall, was used by the Theological School until 1896.

Besides the subscription made in Lebanon for the current expenses of the University, President McDonnold raised $2,000 or more each year by a plan called by him "Cash Endowment," which was nothing more than annual subscriptions for current expenses. It was only a temporary measure, but was nevertheless a means of carrying the institution through a difficult period. It was during this period that the University was hurt by an insurance scheme, known as the "Ball Endowment," a plan of life insurance, taken for the benefit of the University, a total of $169,000, to be paid in ten years. By this plan some of the good friends of the University, one hundred and fifty, or more, lost some of their money, through the insolvency of an insurance company. The plan was opposed by President McDonnold, and also by Judge Nathan Green, Jr., who became his successor.

In 1869 Dr. George Tucker Stainback, a friend of the University and a pastor at Columbus, Mississippi, visited one of his parishioners, Col. Abram Murdock, and secured his promise to donate to the University the library of his father, Dr. James Murdock, formerly a Professor of Oriental Languages in Yale College. It was a library of two thousand volumes, and some of them were of ancient date and rare value. The gift was made through the General Assembly of the Church, and the Theological School of the University established the Murdock Professorship of Church History in recognition of the gift. In fact, the gift was made on the condition that the professorship be established. It was in this period also that the libraries of Dr. A. M. Bryan, Dr. G. L. Winchester, and Dr. J. C. Bowdon were presented to the institution. In the meantime, Dr. L. C. Ransom, of Memphis, Tennessee, and Dr. J. S. Grider, of Kentucky, were doing some effective work in securing funds for the University.

In July, 1871, the Medical College of Memphis, which had been operating under its original charter for nineteen years, at this time in a building of its own, donated by the City of Memphis, became the Medical Department of Cumberland University. It had been reorganized in 1868, after some interruptions made by the Civil War. When it became a Department of Cumberland, it had only a contractual relation with the University. It had a faculty of nine professors, with Alexander Erskine, M.D., as Dean. It had a separate Board of Trustees, twelve in number, with Hon. Henry G. Smith as President. In 1871-72 there were twenty-six students, from the six states of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia, with ten graduates for the year. The connection of this Medical School with Cumberland University continued for two years, 1871-73, when it was terminated by mutual consent.

After the Civil War, it was more difficult than ever for candidates for the ministry to secure sufficient means to attend either the College of Arts or the Theological School. Concerning this difficulty and how it was met, President McDonnold said:

"The citizens of Lebanon were no longer able to give free board to candidates for the ministry. Dr. T. C. Blake suggested the establishment of a camp for them similar to the quarters or barracks occupied by soldiers. Provisions were solicited from the surrounding churches. As many of the probationers had been soldiers in the war, this plan was the more readily adopted. A former boarding house, with several small buildings surrounding it, was purchased for $5,000 and named Camp Blake. The money to pay for this property was secured, and an ample supply of provisions was also obtained."

This arrangement continued for a period of five years, and each year there were from fifty to seventy young men who were provided for in this way. It had the general supervision of Nathan Green, Jr., whose sympathy for such young men was unfailing.

The physical strength of President McDonnold was not equal to the strain he was under for seven years of arduous toil. Breaking in health, he resigned his office in 1873, but continued to reside in Lebanon. After a period of rest he gave himself to evangelistic work in Texas, California, and Pennsylvania. The present writer, during his student days, 1884-86, heard him preach and lecture on several occasions. By his contemporaries he was looked upon as a distinguished scholar, educator, preacher, evangelist, and writer. At the request of the Church Board of Publication he accepted the task of writing a History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He died at his home on North Cumberland Street in Lebanon February 27, 1889.
[Source: Bone, Winstead Paine. A History of Cumberland University, 1842-1935. Lebanon, Tennessee, published by the author, 1935, pages 103-111]

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