William McGee

1768 - 1817

Presbyterian Minister (Ordained 1795 or 1796)

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister (1810-1817)

A Funeral Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of the Late Rev. William M'Gee: By the Rev. Robert Donnell.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Pulpit. Vol. I, No. 4 [April, 1833], pages 45-56.

REV. WILLIAM MCGEE was born in Guilford county, North Carolina, in 1768 or 1769. His father was a merchant, and originally a member of the Church of England. His mother was a Presbyterian. After their marriage, however, the father joined the Presbyterian Church, and, with his wife, became a member of a congregation under the care of Rev. David Caldwell. They had five children, of whom William was the youngest. The father died when the son was quite young; but the mother, being an efficient and pious woman, took care of his morals and education. He was kept at school from the time he was ten years old until he was near twenty. He obtained his education, it is supposed, mainly, if not entirely, under the instruction of Dr. Caldwell, pastor of the congregation to which the family belonged.

From the pious instructions which he received, both at home and at school, his mind became early impressed with the necessity of religion. An older brother also in the meantime professed religion, and took pains to direct his mind to that subject. His impressions became very deep. His mind was thoroughly aroused. Says his brother: * [The late Rev. John McGee] "His distress was unspeakable, under a conscious sense of the frowns of an angry God which hung over him. This may seem strange to some, when they are informed of the manner of his life prior to this time. I do not believe he ever drank a pint of ardent spirits, or swore a profane oath, in his life. He was the most moral youth I ever saw. It might truly be said of him, as Paul said of himself, 'As touching the law, he was blameless.'"

Notwithstanding his morality, his distress of mind continued for some time. His experience of the bitterness of sin seems to have been very deep.

It is not known at what time he professed religion; nor have we any means of knowing when he was received as a candidate for the ministry, or licensed. In the first public or written notice which we have of him, he appears to be a licentiate, under the care of the Orange Presbytery, in North Carolina. In a record of the proceedings of the Synod of the Carolinas, held at New Providence, in October, 1795, we have the following:

"It appearing to Synod that an ordained missionary was required in the Western Territory, and it being stated that Mr. William McGee, of Orange Presbytery, was willing to take an appointment for that purpose, ordered, that the Presbytery be directed, and they are hereby directed, to ordain Mr. McGee as soon as may be convenient, agreeably to the permission granted to this Synod, in such cases, by the General Assembly at their sessions of last May."

Either before or after his ordination, which is supposed to have taken place in the latter part of 1795, or early in 1796, in conformity with the preceding order of the Synod, Mr. McGee is said to have traveled and preached in Guilford, Orange, and the adjacent counties, with approbation, for some time. He then moved to Holston, and took charge of a congregation, which he served one or two years. He then came to Cumberland, and took charge of a congregation, which was afterward greatly distinguished--the congregation of Shiloh, in what is now Sumner county. The old meeting-house in which he preached stood about a mile from where Gallatin now stands. Here he labored two or three years. Some of the members of the congregation were dissatisfied with the earnest and searching manner in which he held forth, and urged the necessity of a spiritual birth, and wished him to change his mode of preaching. He gave them to understand that he could not do so with a good conscience. The dissatisfaction, however, became so great, that he asked an honorable dismission as a condition of his leaving them and settling elsewhere. The condition was complied with, and he relinquished the charge of the congregation. It is proper, in justice to the memory of all concerned in this unpleasant transaction, to state that the leading persons who opposed Mr. McGee at this time were sympathizers with the Rev. Thomas Craighead, who afterward became distinguished for his opposition to the revival in this country, in 1800, and some of the following years. The congregation was at length divided. A part followed Mr. Craighead, and a part (and much the larger part) remained with Mr. Hodge, the successor of Mr. McGee.

After leaving Shiloh, Mr. McGee settled on Drake's Creek, in the lower end of Sumner county, and took charge of the Beech and Ridge congregations. Whilst he was ministering to these, the Great Western Revival extended into Tennessee. It is understood that he, with his brother, Rev. John McGee, of the Methodist Church, assisted Mr. McGready at the sacramental meeting at Red River Meeting-house, in June, 1800, where the revival first developed itself in full power. At this meeting there seems to have been an extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit of God. "On Monday"--of the meeting--"many had such clear and heart-piercing views of their sinfulness, and the danger to which they were exposed, that they fell prostrate on the floor, and their cries filled the house. In all quarters, those who had been the most outbreaking sinners were to be seen lying on the floor unable to help themselves, and anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved. In a word, persons of all classes, and of all ages, were to be seen in agonies, and heard crying for redemption in the blood of the Lamb. Twelve precious souls, during the occasion, professed to have passed from death unto life; and many left the place pungently convicted of their sin and danger."

Mr. McGee entered earnestly into the spirit of the revival, and is said to have been "particularly active and useful." In July of 1800 a camp-meeting--the first, it is said, which was ever held in Christendom--was held at Gaspar River Church. "A vast concourse of people flocked to the meeting, from the distance of twenty, thirty, fifty, and even a hundred miles. The ministers who occupied the pulpit on that occasion were James McGready, William McGee, and William Hodge." In September of 1800 Mr. McGready assisted Mr. McGee in holding a camp-meeting at the Ridge Meeting-house, and on the following week Messrs. McGready and McGee assisted Mr. Hodge in a similar meeting at Shiloh. Multitudes attended both meetings, and great effects were produced.

When the difficulties arose in the Transylvania Presbytery, in regard to the licensure and ordination of what were called the "young men," Mr. McGee took a decided stand in favor of the measure. It is not proposed to enter here into a discussion of those old and troublesome questions, but it is plain that the favorers of this were the revivalists, and its opposers the anti-revivalists, of the Presbyterian Church at that time. This is so, or both history and tradition are at fault.

When the Commission of the Synod of Kentucky met in December of 1805, for the purpose of adjudicating upon the proceedings of the Cumberland Presbytery, and demanded a surrender of the "young men" for reexamination, Mr. McGee, with the other older members of the Presbytery, resisted the demand. In consequence of this refusal, and the proclamation of common fame that he with others held doctrines contrary to the Confession of Faith--that they, in effect, denied the doctrine of Election, and held that a certain sufficiency of grace was given to every man, which, if improved, would be increased until he arrived at true conversion, they were cited to appear at the next annual meeting of the Synod to answer for contumacy, and to these doctrinal charges. "Messrs. Hodge, Rankin, and McGee handed in a written refusal to obey the citation, on the ground of its unconstitutionality."

After the meeting of this Commission of Kentucky Synod, we hear no more of Mr. McGee until the 4th day of October, 1809, when what is known in Cumberland Presbyterian History as the Council, met at Shiloh. Messrs. Finis Ewing, Samuel King, and William McGee were present--a number of ordained ministers sufficient for constituting a Presbytery. Mr. McGee, however, informed the Council that he was not satisfied of the propriety of constituting a Presbytery at that time. He was a cautious, and, without doubt, a very conscientious man. Having been identified with the Presbyterian Church from principle, and from infancy, it is no wonder that he hesitated. His difficulties, however, are said to have been theological, rather than constitutional. He had not yet found solid ground between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Mr. Davidson, in his history of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, says that in April, 1810, the Presbytery of Transylvania "being made aware of Mr. McGee's distressed state of mind, addressed him an affectionate letter, inviting him to a friendly conference at their next session. Receiving no reply, they repeated the invitation in October; but all their well-meant endeavors were fruitless, for in the fall he joined the independent body." This independent body was the Cumberland Presbytery, which had been constituted in the preceding February. I suppose the "distressed state of mind" to which the historian refers arose from Mr. McGee's theological troubles, from which he seems to have been relieved without the expense and fatigue of a journey to Kentucky.

I recollect very well the accounts given in my early boyhood of his own narrative of his deliverance from these troubles. My recollection is, that the narrative was given at a camp-meeting at Sugg's Creek, in Wilson county, Tennessee. He was silent and thoughtful during the meeting, until the afternoon of Sabbath. After the administration of the sacrament, he called the congregation to the stand, gave them a history of his doubts, fears, and hesitation, which had previously held him back from identifying himself with the new Cumberland Presbytery; his present entire satisfaction that theologically they occupied the true scriptural ground; and that their ecclesiastical course was right, being a necessity imposed upon them. He seemed to be a new man. Many had entertained fears for a while that his usefulness was at an end. The joy was great, and the general impression was overwhelming. He was a great favorite with the common people. The understanding is, that he had not preached from the time the Cumberland Presbytery was organized, in February, up to the time, a space of several months.

Some time after these occurrences, Mr. McGee moved, and settled near the Three Forks of Duck River. There he remained till his death. Mr. Smith, in his history of the Cumberland Presbyterians, says his death occurred in 1814. Rev. Robert Donnell delivered a sermon upon the occasion of his death, at the Beech Meeting-house, in the fall of 1817. My impression at the time was that his death was a recent occurrence. If so, I suppose it took place rather in 1817. The testimony is that he died in the faith and hope of the gospel. On his death-bed, he is said to have repeated almost constantly the following passage of Scripture: "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" This was no doubt an expression of the experience of much of his life.

The following sketch of his character is from the pen of the late Rev. Robert Donnell:

"He was a man of deep, penetrating, clear thought, and would not affirm what he did not know; and what he knew, he could say, or make known to others. He has often remarked to me, that he had heard others say that they knew, but could not communicate; but when he knew, he could always communicate. In conversation, he would often recur to the doctrine of Election and Reprobation, which many would say they understood, and would try to explain, but could not. His belief was, that they did not understand it; otherwise they could explain it. Mr. McGee was profound. He thought soberly, deliberated carefully, and executed promptly. He was extremely cautious until he knew what to do; but when questions were settled, the man of energy appeared.

"It would be vain and useless for me to attempt a eulogy, and therefore I shall conclude by saying, his head was clear, his heart was warm, his language plain; whilst his figures were bold and striking, his arguments were unanswerable, and his applications were as the application of Nathan to David--'Thou art the man!' His moral character was irreproachable, and his piety undisputed. His seals to his ministry were numerous, and some of them yet live to be his organs in the churches; and by them, 'he being dead, yet speaketh.'"

Mr. McGee was, no doubt, an earnest and spiritual preacher. Some anecdotes were told of him which were characteristic. He and another minister, who was not distinguished for spirituality, preached occasionally to the same congregation, which was without a regular pastor. A lady in the congregation became serious on the subject of religion, and applied to the other minister for counsel and guidance. He labored with her for some time, but her mind was not satisfied. She was in the dark, and could find no relief. When he seemed likely to fail entirely, he told her to go to Mr. McGee--that he was a better guide in difficult spiritual cases than himself. She applied to Mr. McGee, was indeed relieved, and became a sincere Christian. She was accustomed to narrate her experience in this respect with great interest.

Again, at a certain large meeting, an old lady had, as she seemed to think, a revelation that Mr. McGee was, under Divine appointment, to perform a particular service. She was, of course, very eager to find him, that she might communicate the revelation, and set him upon the appointed work. When she found him, and made known the object of her mission, his only reply was: "Well, sister, if the Lord did really intend that I should perform this service, why might he not as well have made the revelation to me as to you?" This reply, made in a quiet but dry manner, discouraged the visionary, and she left him.

Mr. Donnell speaks of the boldness of his figures. On of his illustrations is remembered yet. He was preaching at Brown's Ferry, where we now have New Hope Church. The river was, of course, near at hand. He was preaching upon the necessity of combining faith and works. He pointed to the river. "A boatman, says he, "undertakes to cross the river. He uses but one oar. His boat will turn around, but go down the stream. The result is inevitable. But he plies both oars steadily and earnestly. He conquers the current, and makes the desired landing." It will be readily seen that such an illustration, under such circumstances, would be striking.

I recollect something of Mr. McGee's personal appearance and manner of preaching. His complexion was fair, and his hair of a sandy color. He was rather inclined to be corpulent, and I think a stranger would have judged that there was an appearance of indolence in his habits. His eye was dark and piercing, but rather small. He had a good voice, strong and melodious, and well adapted to addressing a crowd. I know the understanding among the old people was, that he preached with great power the experimental and practical truths of the gospel. Thirty years ago, the Christian men and women of this country always mentioned his name with interest. They regarded his memory as a precious legacy to the Church.

Early in life Mr. McGee was married, in North Carolina, to Miss Anna King, sister of the late Rev. Samuel King. His wife survived him, and after his death moved to Missouri, where she died some years ago. They had several children. One son, John McGee, became a candidate for the ministry, and was, perhaps, licensed. He settled in Western Tennessee, in the opening of that country, but soon left for Missouri. From some cause, he did not succeed in the ministry.

[Source: Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Methodist Publishing House, Published for the author, 1867, pages 18-29]

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Updated September 13, 2014