By Ben M. Bogard
Evangelist W. E. Penn, generally known as Major Penn, was born in Rutherford county, Tenn., August 11, 1832. His early life was spent with his parents on a farm, and he worked with the slaves in the fields until he was almost grown.
He was born again near the present town of Milan, Tenn., in 1847, at the age of fifteen years. The story of his conversion can be better told in his own words as follows:
"As he [the preacher] said these things I thought he was looking straight at me. This was the arrow that entered my heart and wrought in me the conviction that my condemnation was just and nothing could save me but the mercy of God. My heinous sins rose up and testified against me; they stood like mountains around me and left no way of escape; and then the sermons, prayers, tears and entreaties of friends and parents, and God's patience, long-suffering and tender mercies poured down upon me like melted lead. In agony of soul I wrestled with God until 2 o'clock in the morning, then I got to the point that I could do nothing myself but turn my case over to Him, bad as I was, and when I did this He saved me for His mercy's sake. Oh, what a change! My heart was filled with love, joy and
peace; the light of the few tallow candles was all we had, but the place was as bright to me as the noonday sun. Only a few old brethren and sisters had remained with me, and their faces were lighted up as with the light of heaven. I had often made sport of them, laughed at their singing; but that night, as they rejoiced over me and sang:
'Tongue can never express
The sweet comfort and peace
Of a soul in its earliest love,'
I thought this was the sweetest music I ever heard. I often think that when I get to heaven, as I enter the pearly gates, I want to see Jesus first, and next to him those good old Christians who watched and prayed with me that night."
In October of the same year he was baptized into the fellowship of the Beachgrove Baptist church by Elder Griffin Wright.
The preacher who preached the sermon under which he was convicted was Eld. James Hurt, familiarly known as "Uncle Jimmie." He was an obscure backwoods preacher. What encouragement is this to brethren in the out-of-the-way places, working for nearly nothing, yet preaching the glorious gospel of the Son of God. We owe a debt of gratitude to that class of men which we shall never pay, but, like Paul, they "have fought a good fight * * * and there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give them at that day." Many of them will receive a greater reward and stand higher in heaven
than any of these great men whose history is given in this book.
Major Penn began life for himself by reading law with the law firm of Williams & Wright, Lexington, Tenn. When in his twentieth year he opened a law office in Lexington and began a career of successful practice. After his marriage to Miss Carrilla Sayle he became somewhat of a politician and identified himself with the Whig party, and he made a great many political speeches, and opposed the secession of Tennessee from the Union.
It is needless to say that Tennessee failed to follow his advice, but when the State seceded he went with his State and raised a company and was elected captain of it, and went into the Confederate army. After suffering imprisonment he was exchanged, and was raised by E. Kirby Smith to the rank of Major, which title he bore to his death.
After the war was over he moved to Jefferson, Texas, and again entered the practice of law. The war had ruined him financially and he went to Jefferson without a law book of any kind, and he had no money to buy any. He borrowed a copy of the Digest Laws of Texas and began work. In less than two weeks he was given a case that paid him $400 in gold. From that time on, as long as he practiced law, he had a lucrative practice.
The Baptists in Jefferson were very weak, and only had preaching once a month. Bro. Penn and wife cast their lot with the little weak church, and he was soon elected Superintendent of the small
Sunday-school. There were only thirty-five students in the school at that time, when Jefferson had a population of ten thousand. He threw himself into the work and the next Sunday there were seventy-five in the school, and in two months' time there were four hundred students — the largest school by far in Jefferson. What Major Penn did, he did with his might.
Professional and business men may learn a lesson here. To join a little, weak, unpopular church, and to engage actively in its work, will not hurt their business. Major Penn succeeded grandly, and yet he identified himself with the smallest and most unpopular church in town.
"While living in Jefferson he was pressed into the -work of the ministry. Dr. J. H. Stribbling, pastor of the church in Tyler, Texas, asked Bro. Penn to conduct a prayer meeting at nine o'clock one morning. There was such an interest manifest that he was prevailed on to remain in Tyler and conduct the meeting again that night. The interest was so great lie could not get away, and he stayed and held a protracted meeting. Scores were converted and added to the church, and Major Penn had become an evangelist without intending it.
Within two weeks he was invited to Bryan, Texas, to hold another meeting; after that he went to Calvert and then to Navasota; afterward to Anderson, then to Waco, and so on to the end of his life. He was never idle. He held meetings in country, town and city, in almost every Southern State, and besides
that he spent several months in England and Scotland, where he met with good success.
Altogether there were about twenty thousand public professions of faith under his preaching. He strengthened the churches, held up the hands of pastors, denounced sin and warned the sinner. A fair sample of his style of preaching may be seen in the outline of a sermon on the "Divinity of Christ," which is published at the close of this sketch.
On Saturday, the 27th of April, 1895, he died. One thousand people attended his funeral, which was conducted May 1, 1895, at Eureka Springs, Ark., where he had moved some years before, and had built a beautiful and substantial stone residence, a picture of which may be seen on another page. Eld. W. P. Throgmorton, D. D., preached his funeral from the text: "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." — Psalm 126:6. ================
[Ben M. Bogard, editor, Pillars of Orthodoxy, or Defenders of the Faith, 1900. — jrd]
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