Robert Sloan Reed

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

1830 - 1871

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SEVERAL years ago I asked an excellent lady, who knew him well, what sort of preacher Robert S. Reed had made. The reply was very prompt and pointed. She said: "How could he help being a good preacher? He had the blood of two generations of preachers in his veins, and his name was Robert Sloan." The force of the latter part of the reason assigned cannot be understood unless it were known who the lady was to whom I addressed the inquiry. But the sufficiency of the first part of the reason will be appreciated when I inform the reader that Mr. Reed was the son of a preacher, and was the nephew of the late Rev. Carson P. Reed, of Tennessee, and was the nephew of the Rev. David M. Kirkpatrick, and was also of kin with the Morrows of our Church. Being thus connected, he was "in the line of safe precedents" to become a preacher.

There is something in the bent of mind--in the temperament and habits of thought--which prevails in certain families, that predisposes them to certain pursuits in life. I have referred to this matter in the sketch of the Rev. Eli Guthrie. It is not a general rule that the son follows the profession of the father. If it should so turn out that the father had come to dislike his calling, or to consider that he had made a mistake in adopting that particular profession, he would be very apt to dissuade his son from following it. Again, the children of preachers have brought home to them so conspicuously the hardships and unrewarded labors of a preacher's life, that it would be natural not to see many recruits to the ranks of the ministry from the families of ministers. But sometimes it so turns out that many preachers come from the same family and the same connection. At any rate, in the case of Mr. Reed, he came of preaching stock. His mother was a sister of David M. Kirkpatrick, who was by far the most brilliant young man who had come into the ministry within the first twenty years of the history of the Church in this State. As we shall see farther on, Mr. Reed bore a striking resemblance to his eminent kinsman, in many of his most conspicuous qualities as a pulpit orator.

Robert Sloan Reed was the youngest son of the Rev. John Reed and his wife Sally Kirkpatrick, and he was born in Cooper county, Missouri, on the 19th day of December, 1830.

Being the son of a poor preacher, of course he fell heir to the usual inheritance of poverty, and the destiny of hard labor. But when a boy is born with the grit and pluck of which men are made, it does not make any difference what are the hard conditions of his early years; he will rise superior to them, and will conquer the adverse fates which obstruct his pathway and hinder his progress. Indeed, I don't know if it is not a good thing for a boy to be born poor, if we ever expect him to make a man of himself. Either poverty or an all-controlling ambition is indispensable to make boys and men undergo the long and toilsome years of mental drudgery which must be the experience of every one who achieves either renown or true greatness. The great heights of a lofty summit are not reached by a single leap, or by vaulting-bounds, oft repeated, but rather by slow, regular, and often painful, steps. I have had a great deal of experience in traveling through mountain regions, and have frequently attempted to ascend to those exalted summits where the flower and the grass have never put forth a single swelling bud, but where the snow and the storm hold perpetual carnival; and I have always found it a journey of slow and labored steps, taken one at a time, and with studied care; and so it is with every one who shall reach to the good eminence of a learned scholar or a great professional character.

The inherent force of character, and the natural vim necessary to such achievements, must be born with the boy, or they will never be seen in the exhibition of the man; and the ordeal of poverty, and the enforced habits of early labor, are generally required to develop these qualities. If these premises be correct, what a waste of time and money it is to try to make a preacher out of a wooden-headed blockhead! I have seen a great deal of money and labor, both, literally thrown away on such boys. If a man has no brains, let him alone at his plow; don't insult the intelligence of the people by essaying to put him forward as a teacher and spiritual leader. A leather-headed lawyer will soon be hustled away from the bar, and placed where he can do no harm. The quack doctor may kill some of his patients; but his want of skill will soon become known, and people will cease to employ him. And in the case of both lawyers and doctors, they set up for themselves. They don't come backed up and certified to by a great community of men in the same calling; but in the case of the preacher it is different. He is sent out by authority. Every member of his Presbytery practically indorses him as one not only worthy, but competent, to teach and lead. He represents, not only his whole denomination, but also the religion of Christ, as taught in the Scriptures. Now, I ask every minister who reads this page to ask himself how many other preachers he has helped to make, who are utterly unfit for the high duties of their great calling. This is the last of this series of biographical sketches which I have prepared; and I am free to confess that, as I have studied the office of the ministry and the character of the good men of whom I have written, all my ideas and notions of the calling of a preacher have been materially modified. I have come to magnify the office of him who speaks for the great God more than I ever did before. I have come to regard that office as of greater sanctity, and him who fills it as of purer character, than ever before. At least these are my notions of the office, and of what the preacher ought to be. A high order of piety and intelligence ought to be the possession of every man who preaches the gospel. The more I think upon this subject, the more I am convinced that many men have gone into this sacred calling thoughtlessly and with every inadequate preparation. They never dreamed of the true dignity and high responsibilities of their position; and, of course, in so far as they fail to apprehend the true meaning of their office do they fail in their preparations for it. But I return from this episode.

Mr. Reed professed religion in early life, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He was brought into the ministry in the New Lebanon Presbytery, and was put under the training chiefly of the late Rev. F. A. Witherspoon. Before and after he was licensed to preach, Mr. Reed pursued his literary studies with diligence and success. He became a very respectable scholar, a fluent writer, and a splendid preacher.

He was chiefly educated at Chapel Hill, under the care and instruction of that finest of literary, and especially theological, teachers, the Rev. Dr. Morrow. With his fine natural abilities, and his patient diligence under Morrow and Witherspoon, he could scarcely fail to bring himself up to a high standard of qualifications for his sacred office. I have observed the fact in all the different avocations of life, that the higher a man regards his own particular calling the better qualified will he become to discharge its duties.

The man who thinks lightly of the sacred office of the ministry, or fails to apprehend the full scope of his responsibility in that office, will never rise above the multitude of those who throng the vestibule of God's house, and will never be able to see, much less to reach, those dazzling heights which are trodden by all the earnest and able messengers of the cross of Christ.

The first lesson that should be taught a young man looking forward to the ministry is, that the office he seeks is a sacred and holy one; that it should not be touched with irreverent hands; that it should be approached only by the pathway of self-denial and self-sacrifice; that all worldly motives and worldly ambition should be forever crushed out of his heart; that an all-controlling and sanctified purpose to do God's will, and to work for the good of his race, should take possession of his mind, and mold and shape all the acts of his after-life.

Mr. Reed performed a great deal of work in the early years of his ministry on the circuit in the Presbytery where he resided.

He came forward rapidly, however, and was called to important pastorates while still a young man. The pulpit in the town of Arrow Rock, I believe, was the first important position which he filled before the war. When the troubles of that terrible strife were upon this State, but few preachers of any denomination found it practicable to follow their calling. No one was allowed to be neutral on the great question which divided the country; and the military authority, alternating from one side to the other, rendered it impossible for a preacher to do any good in the country.

Accordingly, Mr. Reed, with quite a number of our preachers, went to Illinois, and remained till the war was over, still following their sacred calling, however, whenever it was practicable to find a place to preach.

Soon after the war, Mr. Reed was called to Nebraska City, to take charge of the congregation in that place. This position he filled for some time with acceptability, and with flattering results to his ministerial labors. Upon his resignation, in the fall of 1869, he commenced to labor in the city of Sedalia, in this State, and was progressing with much encouragement, till he was appointed Secretary and General Manager of the Board of Missions at St. Louis. He accepted this appointment, and entered upon its duties with his accustomed zeal and industry.

The value of his labors in this connection cannot be very well estimated, as he filled the position for too short a period to afford any satisfactory evidence of the wisdom of his management. It can at least be said that he was diligent and faithful in the discharge of his official duties.

While still acting as Secretary of the Board, he visited his former field of labor in the town of Salem, in Illinois, and engaged in a series of religious meetings, when he was stricken with mortal disease, and his young and promising life brought to an untimely end. He died 8th July, 1871. He fell clad in full armor, and with his face to the foe. The awful mystery which enshrouds the death of the young, gifted, and eloquent preacher may not be penetrated by mortal vision. Amidst the multitude of afflictions which such an event brings to the household, and to the Church, there is one great consolation--we know that he died as he had lived, a devout and humble Christian--we know that he has realized all the rich promises of the gospel which he so faithfully preached in his life-time. This is the single ray of sunlight which pierces the clefted cloud that flings its mantle of darkness over the hearth-stone and upon the altars of God's house.

As a preacher, Mr. Reed had realized the abundant promise that was indicated in his early years. He possessed more than an ordinary share of the powers of the true orator. His voice was exceedingly flexible, and capable of the most varied intonations. At one minute his delivery was as smooth and flowing as the silvery brook, and anon it would rise to the grandeur of the thundering cataract. His language was fitly chosen, and his sentences of finished symmetry. His utterances would fall on the car like the tinkling of a silver bell, or like the murmur of the rolling waters. The intensity of his emotions, or the power of his passions, were exemplified in the tones of his voice. In a few words it may be said, that he possessed many of the elements of a splendid orator. He was such a speaker as one would love to hear, and love to see often in the pulpit. He possessed the force of the Reeds, and the flowing diction of the Kirkpatricks, so that the characteristics of the two styles were happily blended in the young descendant of the two families.

Mr. Reed may be justly styled a popular preacher in the best sense of that term. His manner in the pulpit and his style of preaching were very attractive to the people; being able thus to arrest the attention, it would follow legitimately that he should be a very useful preacher. I believe this is the testimony upon this point. It was not my pleasure to see much of him, except in the judicatories of the Church, but his reputation as a good and useful man went far and wide over the Church and the country. I know that when he died, a thousand hearts in Illinois and Missouri were made sad by the event. The Church and the country--civilization and Christianity--lost a useful member when his young life was cut short, and the light of that life was extinguished forever.

This very brief and unsatisfactory sketch must suffice in the premises. I was literally without data or material from which to construct a decent biography. I was compelled to rely exclusively on my personal recollections of the man, and on his general reputation in the Church for all that I have been able to say about him. I had relied on using a very excellent sketch of Mr. Reed's life, which had been prepared and published by the Rev. J. H. Houx, but I could not procure the articles.

It is just to the memory of the deceased to place his name in the same category with that band of brilliant young men whose untimely death has caused so much mourning in the Church in this State. Kirkpatrick, Suddath, Davis, Gallimore, Daniel Weedin, and Reed, all went down to the grave in the morning of their lives, and there was buried with them a capacity for a world of good to the Church and to the country at large.

When such a constellation of bright names fades out of existence from the sky which overspreads the Church, not only gloom and darkness supreme, but consternation and dread, fill the hearts of the people from this most inexplicable dispensation of Providence. When the Head of the Church brings this terrible experience upon his own followers, it is designed to teach a lesson which nothing else will impart; and it behooves all Christians to study that lesson, and to bow their heads in submission to the divine will. Although the pall of death may hang over the very altars of the house of God, yet there will always be found a rift in the darkness, and a silver lining to the cloud. A ray of light, as a spark stricken from the eternal Rock, will penetrate the gloom, and illumine the pathway of Christ's humble followers out into the glorious sunshine of his presence. We cannot understand it all, but we can trust him to do right in every thing.

[Source: Historical Memoirs: Containing a Brief History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Missouri, and Biographical Sketches of a Number of Those Ministers who Contributed to the Organization and the Establishment of that Church, in the Country West of the Mississippi River. By Judge R.C. Ewing. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1874, pages 418-428]

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Updated February 12, 2007