Cooper: Minister to both sides in Civil War

Cooper: Minister to both sides in Civil War

September 21st, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

John B. McFerrin served as a missionary in the 1860s, but it wasn't in Africa, India and China. His charge was the Confederate Army of the Tennessee.

As such, the man described by his eulogist as "of large frame, heavy features and standing squarely upon his feet" was not only with the army during the Battle of Chickamauga, the 150th anniversary of which is this weekend, but later with the troops at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge prior to battles there in November 1863.

While that might be expected for a missionary assigned to a particular army, his 1888 biography -- as pointed out by the Rev. Roy Howard, a retired United Methodist minister in Chattanooga -- indicates he did at least some preaching to both sides.

In this era of increased polarization, would that we could find the same common ground this humble servant did.

"During my whole stay in the army," McFerrin says in the biography, "I was treated with great courtesy by all classes. Not a single word was unkindly spoken to me by any one who knew me."

Prior to the Battle of Chickamauga, McFerrin says, he was "constantly engaged" in preaching, visiting and holding prayer meetings with various sectors of the army.

"At Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Harrison, Tyner's Station and LaFayette, Georgia," he says, "many precious souls were converted during this revival."

On one of those dates, Aug. 16, 1863, McFerrin says he preached in Chattanooga "to a large congregation" at the Methodist Church. That church later became Centenary Methodist Church, one of the forerunners of First-Centenary United Methodist Church, which exists only several blocks from its 1863 location at Fifth and Lookout streets.

Five days after that service, on Aug. 21, 1863, Union artillery bombardment convinced Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg to evacuate the city.

Later, McFerrin, a Rutherford County native, says he stayed on the Chickamauga battlefield for 11 days.

"The sight was awful," he says. "Thousands of men killed and wounded. They lay thickly all around, shot in every possible manner, and the wounded dying every day. O what sufferings! Among the wounded were many Federal soldiers who had been captured in the fight. To these I ministered, prayed with them, and wrote letters by flag of truce to their friends in the North. They seemed to appreciate every act of kindness."

With the approach of what would become the Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge battles, McFerrin says, "we preached almost every night to crowded assemblies, and here many precious souls were brought to God."

Once the Confederate Army was driven out of Chattanooga after the back-to-back defeats, he says, it wintered in Dalton, Ga., until May. While the Army rested, the army of the Lord -- the chaplains and missionaries -- plowed ahead, "preaching, visiting the sick and distributing Bibles, tracts and religious newspapers," McFerrin says.

The preaching, he says, went on every night -- save four -- for nearly four months, with soldiers erecting stands, improvising seats and building log churches.

"The result was glorious; thousands were happily converted and were prepared for the future that awaited them," McFerrin writes. "Officers and men were alike brought under religious influence."

While the Missionary Ridge defeat "dispirited the troops, and they afterward were not flushed with strong hopes of final success," their hopes of final success beyond the battlefield only increased.

"In all of my life, perhaps, I never saw more displays of God's power in the awakening and conversion of sinners," says McFerrin, who numbered among those he baptized Cherokee Chief John Ross and former President James K. Polk, "than in those protracted meetings during the winter and spring of 1863-64."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.