We furnish a brief sketch of this excellent Christian minister, prepared by his fellow-laborer and former student, Rev. R. S. Reed.
It will be remembered by the Church in Missouri, that Mr. Reed was one of the most promising young ministers in the Church. He survived his former instructor and friend but a few short years, being cut down in the morning of his life, and in the midst of great usefulness.
Finis Anderson Witherspoon, son of Isaac and Lurena Witherspoon, was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, June 3d, 1826. Here he lived until the fourteenth year of his age, then removed with his father's family to Henry county, Missouri. He received his education principally at Chapel Hill College, situated in La Fayette county, Missouri, under the supervision of Missouri Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He was early the subject of serious impressions in relation to his soul's salvation; but, like most young people, deferred it for a time. During the progress of a camp-meeting held at Old Post-oak Camp-ground, in Johnson county, Missouri, embracing the third Sabbath in September, 1842, and under a sermon preached by the Rev. J. B. Morrow, he was fully awakened to a sense of his lost condition; and, with many others, subjects of this serious awakening, promptly yielded to the heavenly call; prostrated himself before a throne of mercy, sought earnestly, and obtained pardon and peace by faith in Jesus Christ.
He promptly made public profession of this faith, by uniting with the Church of his choice, the Cumberland Presbyterian, and soon began to labor under impressions that the great Head of the Church designed him for the sacred office of the ministry.
In the fall of 1843 he, with characteristic promptness, presented himself before the Lexington Presbytery, then in session at Independence, Missouri, and was received under her care as a candidate for the ministry.
He was licensed to preach by Lexington Presbytery, in session at Rock Spring Church, Johnson county, Missouri, in March, 1846. In April, 1847, he joined New Lebanon Presbytery, as a licensed preacher, by regular transfer from Lexington.
At Salt Fork Church, Cooper county, Missouri, in April, 1847, he was by the latter Presbytery set apart to the whole work of the ministry, by the laying on of hands and prayer.
On the 18th of September, 1850, he was united in marriage to Miss A. McCutchen, of Mt. Vernon Congregation, Cooper county, Missouri; a lady possessing all those mental, moral, and social qualifications which admirably adapted her to the important position of a minister's wife.
Brother Witherspoon now settled as pastor of Mt. Vernon Congregation, where he labored for seven years; then removed to New Salem Congregation, in the same county, where he lived and preached for four years; thence to Otterville, on the Pacific Railroad, with which congregation he lived and labored as their pastor, until the unhappy condition of our country, amidst the fearful surges of civil war, forced him to seek a quiet home, where he could preach in peace.
His church at Otterville being occupied as a military hospital, the troubles and excitement of the country being so great, and his health rapidly failing, he determined to leave Missouri. Accordingly in August, 1862, he left Otterville, as Abraham left his country, "not knowing whither he went." He first went to St. Louis, then traveled through various parts of the State of Illinois, and receiving a cordial invitation from Rev. J. H. Nickell, of Salem, Illinois, he concluded to remove his family to that place for the time being. Soon after arriving at Salem he received a regular call to take charge of the Church at Kinmundy, Marion county, Illinois. He accepted, and immediately removed to the latter place, and entered upon his pastoral work. Here he labored faithfully, earnestly, and with great success, until called to his reward on high. His devoted companion marked the zeal, devotion, and entire consecration which now characterized him in his Master's work, thinking that he was preparing anew for more extensive usefulness; little dreaming that he was but making "full proof of his ministry;" that he had already fought a good fight, finished his course, kept the faith, was ready to be offered, and the time of his departure was at hand.
On the 4th of May, 1863, at the house of Brother Miller Sweeney, an elder in Kinmundy Congregation, after a severe illness of seventeen days, of typhoid pneumonia, he fell asleep in Jesus. His death was peaceful. Almost his last words were--"All is well with me." "And I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them."
His remains were taken to Missouri and deposited in the family burying-ground, at Mt. Vernon, Cooper county. Before starting, his funeral was preached in his church, at Kinmundy, by the Rev. J. H.Nickell, from the words, "He being dead yet speaketh." (Heb. xi. 4.) And after his interment, by request of friends, the Rev. R. D. Morrow, D.D., preached his funeral at Mt. Vernon and New Salem, from the text: "For we know that, if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." (2 Cor. v. 1.) I heard the sermon at Mt. Vernon. It was an able discourse, setting forth the frailty of human life, the Christian's experimental knowledge of acceptance and pardon, and the glorious home of the redeemed in heaven. The congregation was large, and the flowing tears from almost every eye fell as balm to the memory of him who had so long and faithfully labored in their midst.
I sat in the pulpit where our lamented Brother Witherspoon and I had labored conjointly for three or four years, when I was but a boy in the ministry. My heart, too full for utterance, could only find relief in tears. Brother Compton offered up the closing prayer. We sang--"My buried friends can I forget?" etc. The congregation was dismissed, and we took our leave of the last resting-place of our dear Brother Finis.
And what shall I say of the many virtues, private and public, which adorned the life of Brother Witherspoon? If I know my heart, I do not wish to speak his praise, merely because he is gone, and it is customary to write in eulogistic strains of the departed. I would hide beneath the waves of Lethe his faults, for he was man, and hold up his virtues to provoke my brethren in the ministry to love and good works.
Brother Witherspoon was deep-toned. He was and every-day Christian, adorning in all the relations of life the doctrine of God our Saviour--everywhere the same independent, high-minded, Christian gentleman.
As to his private character, as a Christian, a citizen, a neighbor and friend, his virtues shone forth so as to win for him an almost universal popularity. A plain, outspoken man about every thing, he would not dissemble. I believe he was as clear of all dissimulation as any one I ever knew. This was a prominent trait in his character, in all his private dealings, in the social circle, in the pulpit, and in ecclesiastical councils.
He was emphatically a man of truth and candor. As a husband he was devoted. Ah! that is a trite word, but I know no better by which to express his undying attachment to the companion of his bosom. He seemed too to have thorough conception f the importance of the early religious training of children, as was evinced in the culture of the two little ones committed to his care. In the domestic circle he was hospitable and kind, providing honestly, in the sight of all men, a full competency to meet the desires and wants of his family, and in connection with his amiable and much-respected wife, so ordering the affairs of his household as to render his home agreeable, attractive, and instructive to all who might be disposed to share their kindness and hospitalities. A poor afflicted woman, to be near medical aid, found a home for months in their house. She never saw an unkind look or action, or heard an unkind word; but peace, harmony, sympathy, words of comfort and encouragement, were the ruling principles of the household.
I have frequently thought, if ever he lost his balance it was in the social circle; and if so, it may be accounted for in the fact that, whatever his hands found to do, he did it with his might, shutting himself out from any and every thing that would have a tendency to interrupt his exercises or enjoyments; and to-day he is shut in from all undue influences, "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest."
As a preacher, Brother Witherspoon was evidently a man of God--sound, logical, and earnest.
His preaching was characterized by originality of thought, simplicity of style, with plain and forcible address--whether doctrinal, experimental, or practical--commanding the attention and respect of all who heard him.
It was heart-searching. He did not labor to charm the ear, or feast the intellect; but addressed himself to the understanding and the heart, and his soul-stirring appeals were not made in vain, for many, very many, were brought to a knowledge of the truth, through his instrumentality, who will be stars added to his crown of rejoicing. One writes: "I have seen signal displays of divine power under his ministrations, in the edification of the Church and the awakening of sinners. He was regarded by many as one of our ablest and most efficient ministers."
Another writes: "His preaching was well received wherever he went; his efforts always characterized with dignity and solemnity, delivered with courtesy and mildness, and with a warmth and persuasiveness that rarely failed to engage the attention, enlist the sympathies, and convince the mind. As a legitimate consequence, his preaching was attended with good results." I will give one or two incidents, illustrative of the character of his preaching, and of its effect.
One of his first sermons in the bounds of New Lebanon Presbytery, and while he was yet a licentiate, was preached at Heath's Creek Campground, Pettis county, Missouri; and being rather a superior sermon for a boy of his age in the ministry, he was caressed and petted a good deal, and appointed the next day to preach at a popular hour--all of which naturally had an undue effect upon his mind. He thought he must make an extra effort, or disappoint the expectations of the people. A short time before preaching-hour the next day, he took the Bible and went to a retired place to make preparation. A text presented itself to his mind; but he thought it too deep a subject, and if he attempted to preach from that, he would certainly fail. He refused it. and began turning the leaves of his Bible in search of a text, but could find none on which he had a thought, except the one first presented; this he utterly refused, feeling confident that if he undertook it he would forever disgrace himself. His mind was suddenly led off in a singular train of thought. He first began to doubt his call to preach, then his religion, then the truth and reality of all religion; and finally settled down in the feeling, There is no God, no heaven or hell, and no such thing as immortality. By this time the congregation had assembled, and were waiting for him; singing had commenced at the stand. His first impulse was to get on his horse and leave, but conscience smote him, and he could not do it. O what dread suspense for a few moments! He finally resolved to make one honest effort, believing if there was God he would help him; but if he got no help from on high, he would conclude the whole thing a farce, throw down his Bible, go home, and never try to preach again. By this time the audience was becoming impatient. He arose--still no text; and could think of none save the one first presented. He ascended the pulpit, read and sang his hymn, still feeling it was all mockery; and began to pray, almost saying, "If there is a God." But as he advanced he became interested in prayer. The Lord assisted him. He read his text--the one which he at first refused. The Lord Almighty helped him, and a wonderful work of grace followed. A brother who was present writes: "I never heard such a sermon from a boy of his age."
He often referred to that day as the happiest of his life; and from that to the day of his death, never had a serious doubt as to his religion and internal call to the work of the ministry.
I remember attending a camp-meeting with him at Hopewell, Morgan county, Mo. Religious interest rather dull until Monday evening, when he preached from the text, "And the door was shut." It was a powerful, heart-touching sermon, and its effects were manifest. Many came forward pleading for mercy. As he came down from the stand, the only sister of a poor, wicked young man, who was an old acquaintance and school-mate of the writer,met him, took him by the hand and led him to her brother, away at the outskirts of the congregation. That young man came forward, and when the writer went to talk with him, he asked me to go with him to the woods. I did so. He dated his conviction to the sermon that evening, and said that preacher told him all about himself--more than he ever knew himself. A glorious work of grace commenced; many were the happy converts, among them this young man of that awakening.
As a Presbyter, Brother Witherspoon had but few if any superiors. On this subject a brother writes: "As a Presbyter we regarded him as second to none, because, First, He was well posted. Second, Always at his post. Third, Would scrutinize every motion and action of the judicatory, no matter whether he was in the chair, at the table, or in his seat; advocating what to him appeared to be of interest to the Church; repudiating every thing contrariwise. I have thought I have not seen his equal in the chair in the dispatch of business."
I remember on one occasion when he was chosen Moderator of Synod, the retiring Moderator, one of our oldest ministers, remarked to me, "We will not have a tardy session, for we have one of the most efficient men of the Synod in the chair."
Another writes: "He stood in first rank as a Presbyter, both in New Lebanon Presbytery and Missouri Synod, in point of ability; had an influence in Presbytery and Synod second to but few."
Still another: "As a Presbyter, not a superior in the country; was prompt in his attendance, and would have business carried on systematically and with celerity, if it were in his power so to do. Did any measure come up in any of the judicatories of which he was a member, which he thought wrong, he seemed to have no timidity whatever in attacking it and fighting it until the last, or defeat it; and, what is a little remarkable, he always seemed to be well furnished with arguments for or against any measure, at the moment it came up. All join in saying he was an excellent Presbyter; was always at his post." I believe he was never absent from his Presbytery or Synod but once, and was then on a tour for his health in Texas, and perhaps one other time, when providentially hindered from attending Synod. What an example for all his surviving brethren in the ministry!
While he felt a deep interest in all the great enterprises of the Church, it was especially for young men preparing fro the ministry that his zeal burned with a holy ardor. Nor did he, in his liberality in this respect, sound a trumpet before or after him. He felt deeply the great importance of a thorough education on the part of those who would enter the sacred office.
A worthy young brother writes: "In my struggles to prepare to preach the riches of Christ, in him I found a true friend and my principal counselor--one who was always ready to give encouragement and advice. Immediately after I was taken under care of the Presbytery, he came to me and told me that I was welcome to make his house my home; that my board should cost me nothing; that I should have the use of his library, and he would assist me all he could in my studies."
During our national troubles he often wrote me: "Give me encouragement and advice, exhorting me to be quiet, and put my trust in God." Surely in his death the young man preparing for the work of the ministry has lost a good counselor and a true friend.
Through his efforts, mainly, two young men were kept for some time at Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tennessee. If ever the writer of this sketch has been or is likely to be worth any thing to the Church, he and the Church are more indebted to Brother Witherspoon than any other man. At his home he received me, when but a boy, as a brother, and bestowed upon me material aid, prayers and counsels, which can never be forgotten; and thus was formed a friendship like that of David and Jonathan--nay, more, an affection which death itself cannot dissolve. I still see him, in my imagination, in his own quiet home, as he sits in his well-furnished library, searching for hidden truth, or as he with all the strength of the whole man takes recreation in innocent amusements.
I shall ever remember with pleasure my last visit to his dear cottage-home in Otterville, and the pleasant fishing-party, of which he was the life and ruling spirit. He had just returned from the General Assembly at Owensboro, Kentucky, and we had so much to talk about. O my heart is sad to this day when I think of him! I shall meet him no more on earth, but I hope through the grace of God to meet him in heaven.
Brother Witherspoon was ardently attached to the Church. Says his bereft companion: "I have often heard him say there was no sacrifice that he could make but he was ready to meet it, if he conceived that it would turn to the good of the Church." This he confirmed by his actions, in disposing of a valuable tract of land containing every improvement necessary to render it a luxurious and comfortable home, for the sole purpose of devoting his whole time and talents, and his all, to the service of God. He likewise ever manifested a deep concern for the institutions of the Church, with those young men who have looked forward to, and preparing for, the ministry. On these, as on other subjects, he was not crazy, but kept his balance, rendering unto God the things that are God's. I have seen him rejoice with flowing tears at seeing Zion move forward. In a letter written to me, dated Kinmundy, February 20, 1863, he says: "I have done better preaching this winter, and learned more about it, than ever before in the same length of time; the reason--I had nothing else to do or think about. In addition to which I determined to let the war take its course, politics the same, and as far as possible 'know nothing save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.' The people here nearly all indorse this course, and what is better still, I think the God of heaven indorses it. My position is, that the Church and State are separate, and the officers of the Church cannot dabble in politics except at the expense of their ecclesiastical duties." What a glorious record!
A short time before his last illness he was waited on by a lady, and urged to define his political status from the pulpit. He listened respectfully to her representations, and then with characteristic candor replied: "Madam, I would suffer my throat cut from ear to ear before I would do it."
His known abilities and tact for business frequently placed him in the Moderator's chair, both in Presbytery and Synod, where he always presided with dignity and impartiality. He was a member of the General Assembly which convened at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1851; Princeton, Kentucky, in 1853; Louisville, Kentucky, in 1856; Nashville, Tennessee, in 1860; Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1862. He was appointed to go to Huntsville, Alabama, but declined in favour of his alternate, an old brother, who wished, in connection with the meeting of the Assembly, to visit the place of his nativity. He was member elect from McLin Presbytery to attend the Assembly at Alton, Illinois, May 15, 1863, but just before its sittings was, in the mysterious providence of God, called to the "General Assembly and Church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect."
I feel that I cannot better close this brief and imperfect sketch than in the words of the Rev. J. H. Nickell, since deceased, written to our afflicted Sister Witherspoon, not a great while after her irreparable loss: "I would not bid you shed no tears over the grave of your loved husband. I can only find relief in tears myself, when thinking of him. I would love to have the satisfaction of going with you to his grave, and there weeping with you. I feel that I shall never rest satisfied until I visit his last resting-place, and plant with my own hands some flowers and evergreens there to his memory. O I feel like I ought to have some one to comfort my own heart! I think of him by day, and dream of him of night. It seems to me I can never get over it. I loved him with a perfect love. Our last trip to Presbytery and back was the pleasantest time of my life. We rode together, slept together, ate together, and preached together, and were together all the time. I never saw a man enjoy himself better than he did. It was a profitable meeting to us both. He was a fine Presbyter. He was a noble man anywhere."
Brother Nickell was deprived the privilege of weeping over and planting flowers on the grave of Brother Witherspoon. The Master came, and called for him too, and "together" they walk the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem. They rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.
I append the resolutions passed by different bodies on the death of Brother Witherspoon.
WHEREAS, God, in the dispensation of his inscrutable providence, has seen fit to remove from us by death our much-esteemed friend and fellow-citizen, the Rev. F. A. Witherspoon; therefore,
Resolved, That we feel that we have sustained an irreparable loss in his death.
Resolved, That he has, in the short time that he has been permitted to remain among us, greatly endeared himself to all the citizens of Kinmundy.
Resolved, That as a minister of the gospel of Christ he has been very faithful, devoted, and successful.
Resolved, That as a member of the community he has left us an example worthy of our imitation.
Resolved, That the cause of Christ has lost one of its ablest ministers, the Church a faithful member, the community one of its brightest ornaments, and his family a devoted husband and father.
Resolved, That his life, labors, consistent and Christian character, as well as his patient suffering and triumphant death, all admonish us that our loss is his eternal gain.
Resolved, That though intensely afflicted, we feel to bow with humble reverence to that hand that has snatched him from us--knowing that the Judge of all the earth must and will do right.
Resolved, That we deeply sympathize with the bereaved and greatly afflicted family in this their hour of sadness and sorrow.
Resolved, That we here publicly pledge ourselves that his family shall never want friends or the necessaries of life, if within our power to relieve them.
Resolved, That we will fondly cherish his memory and labor of morality and religion in our midst.
Resolved, That we deeply sympathize also with his congregation in Kinmundy, in their sad and desolate condition.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be published
in the Western Cumberland Presbyterian, and a copy be furnished
his family, and one also his Church and Presbytery.
T. A. SWEENY,
D. C. BEAVER,
S. RUSSELL, Chairman.
M. NELSON, Secretary.
The New Salem Congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, having received the melancholy intelligence of the death of their former beloved pastor, the Rev. F. A. Witherspoon, desire to give an expression of their appreciation of his worth while living, and of their loss in his death; therefore,
Resolved, That in the removal of the Rev. F. A. Witherspoon from his labors on earth to his rest in heaven, we acknowledge the indisputable sovereignty of God, whose dealings with his servants and people are always just and merciful; and therefore we bow with meek submission to this afflictive visitation.
Resolved, That in the character of the deceased we recognize unbending rectitude of purpose, ardent religious devotion, untiring zeal for the cause of Christ, an enlarged spirit of Christian charity, and a general agreeableness of manners which won for him the warm attachment of a large circle of friends.
Resolved, That in his death the Church has lost an able, faithful, and devoted minister, the social circle a bright ornament, and society a useful member.
Resolved, That we earnestly tender the sorrowing widow of the deceased our condolence and sympathy, praying God's grace to support and comfort her, and his Holy Spirit to guide her to that world of life and bliss where the union of fond hearts shall last forever.
Resolved, That these resolutions be recorded in the
New Salem Church-book, a copy furnished for publication in the
Missouri Central Advertiser, and a copy presented to Sister
A. M. Witherspoon.
G. N. PIERCE,
J. B. JOHNSTON,
At the fall session of New Lebanon Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, held at Mt. Olive Church, Saline county, Missouri, the following committee was appointed to draft resolutions expressive of the sentiments of this Presbytery with regard to the death of Brother Finis A. Witherspoon, who died May 7th, 1863, viz: Brothers W. Compton, J. A. Wear, James Martin, R. Marshall, James Scott, and John Sutherlin.
The Committee submitted the following report, which was, on motion adopted:
Your Committee, appointed to draft resolutions expressive of the sentiments of this Presbytery on the occasion of the death of Brother F. A. Witherspoon, formerly a member of this Presbytery, would report that:
WHEREAS, In the mysterious providence of God, our beloved brother has been taken from his labor of love to his rest above; therefore,
Resolved, That the Church has lost an eminently pious, devoted, useful, and self-sacrificing minister and an able counselor, his family a devoted head and husband, and the members of this Presbytery deeply feel the loss of his Christian sympathy and fellowship but we, as a Presbytery, feel to submit to the wise providence of God in his removal.
Resolved, That we, as a Presbytery, deeply sympathize with his bereft companion, his aged mother and relatives, and that we commend them to that God who has promised to be a Husband to the widow, and a Father to the fatherless.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be sent to
the bereaved wife of the deceased, and also that a copy be sent
to the Western Cumberland Presbyterian for publication.
J. A. WEAR,
October 3, 1863.
P. G. REA, Moderator.
W. E. BURKE, Clerk.
[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 274-295]