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The Life and Ministry of Samuel Porter Jones

by Ed Reese (1928-2015)

Born: October 16, 1847—Oak Bowery, Alabama
Died: October 15, 1906—Perry, Arkansas
Life Span: 58 years, 11 months, 29 days

Sams JonesHe had many titles, "Sam Jones, lawyer," "Sam Jones, the drunkard," but the one most prized was "Sam Jones, the evangelist." And, evangelist he was, with some 500,000 decisions made out of estimated audiences of 25,000,000.

His father, John J. Jones, felt the urge to follow four other brothers into the Methodist ministry but decided that he could make a more secure living as a lawyer and businessman. His mother, Nancy, died in 1856 saying to her nine-year-old son, "Sam, I will never be able to return to you, but you can come to me." He was greatly touched and never forgot her dying words. For three years he, and his two brothers and sister lived with their pious grandparents, with his godly grandmother exerting more influence on his life than any other member of his family. When Sam's father remarried and settled in Cartersville, Georgia, the children relocated there in 1858. Sam's father set up law practice and was a man of outstanding reputation as a Christian. The Civil War broke out and the father became a captain in the Confederate army.

As a schoolboy, Sam was clever at reciting pieces in class. His formal education came through private tutors and boarding schools.

When the Union armies marched through Georgia, the family was separated and in January 1864, young Jones was swept into Kentucky. There he met Laura McElwain of Eminence, whom he later married.

Returning to Cartersville, he concluded his education, graduating from Euharle High School in June, 1867. At the graduating ceremony, he delivered the valedictory address reflecting the outlook of his generation which came of age in the ashes of the Southern Confederacy.

His father intended to give him a college education, but Sam's health broke down. Having nervous dyspepsia, he decided to study law at home. Thinking that alcohol would help his "nervous stomach," he soon became a regular alcoholic.

Sam showed great promise of success in legal endeavors. He was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1868 after only one year of legal study. He married one month later on November 24, 1868. When he was sober, Sam tried cases as a brilliant lawyer; when drunk, he was worthless as an attorney and as a husband. Gambling also helped bring him to the brink of ruin.

During this time he moved to Texas, to Alabama, and finally back to Cartersville. By 1872, the only job he was able to get was that of a furnace stoker in a factory near Cartersville where he shoveled coal for twelve hours a day. The pleas of his wife and the births of two children did not change him. A daughter, Beulah was born October 31, 1869, but died in August of 1871. Mary was born in September of 1871. Other children born to the Jones' were Annie (May 11, 1873), Sam Paul (May 31, 1875), Robert (Dec. 24, 1876), Laura (October of 1881), and finally Julia (April of 1885).

In August, 1872, there was a dramatic change. News came while he was on a six-week drinking binge that his father was seriously ill. On his deathbed, his father's words pierced the heart of young Sam. "My poor, wicked, wayward, reckless boy. You have broken the heart of your sweet wife and brought me down in sorrow to my grave. Promise me, my boy, to meet me in Heaven." Overcome with emotion, Sam fell to his knees and took his dying father's hand, and shouted "I promise, I'll quit drinking and set things straight. I'll meet you and mother in heaven." The father died and Sam kept his vow. He tells about his last encounter with drink:

I went to the bar and begged for a glass of liquor. I got the glass and started to drink and looked into the mirror. I saw my hair matted, the filth and vomit on my clothes, one of my eyes totally closed, and my lips swollen. And I said, "Is that all that is left of the proud and brilliant lawyer, Sam Jones?" I smashed the glass on the floor and fell to my knees and cried, "Oh God! Oh God, have mercy!" The bartender ran to my side and thought I was dying ... and I was. I said, "Just let me alone." I picked myself up and staggered to my cheap rooming house and said to the ladies running it, "Would you do me a favor?" They answered in the affirmative. I asked them to bring me a pot of black coffee. I went through three days and nights of hell, but when the morning came, something had happened to old Sam Jones. I went down to the clothing store and said, "I want you to give me a new suit. I got saved last night. Sam Jones is coming back." Not only did I get a suit, but shirts, ties, coat, everything I needed and as I left, the merchant stuck a $100 bill into my hand. I went to the barber for I had not had a shave in over a month. I asked for a bath, a shave, a haircut. I put on my new clothes, looking pale and weak I left to go to my wife whom I had beaten till she was black and blue. She didn't even recognize her own husband. I said, "Honey, God has given you a new husband and the children a new daddy, and I wonder if you will forgive me and start all over again." She grabbed me in her arms and cried, "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I have been praying for this!" And I have been going round the country bragging about Jesus ever since.

Sam was twenty-four years old. A week later in the agony of keeping his vow, he walked down the aisle of the little country church where his grandfather, Samuel G. Jones was preaching and said, "Grandfather, I take this step today. I give myself, my heart, and life, what is left of it, all to God and His cause." He felt an immediate call to the ministry. A week after his conversion, Sam preached his first sermon in his grandfather's pulpit. In November, 1872, he was licensed as an itinerant preacher for the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He was called "the Mountain Evangelist" in his early days, perhaps because he "put the fodder down low where the poor folks can reach it."

The North Georgia Conference assigned Jones to a rural circuit which had five churches scattered in four different counties. This was the VanWert Circuit, one of the poorest in Georgia. He was soon being asked by nearby pastors to help them with their annual revivals. Because of his growing fame, he was shifted from one circuit to another. By 1880, he was spending only 50% of his time preaching in his own circuit. The other half of the time he was conducting revivals for other pastors in nearby towns.

In December, 1880, the Conference decided to free him from the restraints of pastoral responsibilities and made him the fund-raising agent for the Methodist Orphan Home in Decatur, Georgia. The orphanage had a debt of $20,000 and Jones was encouraged to go anywhere he felt he could raise money for the institution. Starting in small towns, he was soon in the big churches of the State. He preached and took offerings for the orphanage. Sam was also given permission to hold revival meetings for Methodist ministers and even help in "union meetings" if a Methodist church was among the denominations that sponsored him. His fame spread beyond his State. In 1883, he conducted a two week series of meetings for the Methodist churches of Louisville, Kentucky, which received some attention from the secular press. At a meeting for men only in the local Masonic Temple, he delivered a blistering attack on such sins as profanity, Sabbath breaking, gambling, licentiousness and intemperance.

By 1884, Sam Jones, as an evangelist, was well established. It was this year he first attempted a large-scale, city-wide revival in Memphis, Tennessee. Thirteen pastors of five different denominations united to sponsor him. Jones estimated 1,000 decisions for Christ here including 400 public professions of faith and 100 joining the churches by the end of the meetings. Later, a crusade was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee with another 1,000 decisions for Christ. He was invited to Jackson and Knoxville, Tennessee; to Waco, Texas; and to T. DeWitt Talmage's tabernacle in Brooklyn in January, 1885. This crusade was a great success and now the largest cities of both the South and the North were seeking his services.

A campaign that really pushed Jones to the top of his profession, second only to Moody during these days, was the 1885, Nashville, Tennessee meeting. In a city of 50,000, the ministerial association invited him to erect a tent for 5,000 and preach. People packed it three times a day for four weeks, while the evangelist berated them, amused them, and compelled them to come forward pledging their lives to Christ. The meeting opened in May and before it was over a month later, some claimed that 10,000 were converted. This was his largest crusade. He made such an impression that he was invited to address the State Legislature. He told the legislators about the evils of the liquor traffic and also offered them some suggestions on how to reform the prison system. Other 1885 crusades were: St. Joseph, Mo. (2,220 converts); Birmingham, Ala. (1,800 converts); St. Louis, Mo. (1,600 converts). In St. Louis, he came with an invitation from just one pastor, but others soon cooperated once he got there. There was a real revival. The "St. Louis Globe" carried his sermons, sometimes six columns of them!

In 1886, Sam Jones was in Cincinnati, Ohio (2,000 converts); Chicago, Illinois (1,500 to 3,000 converts). In Chicago, he was sponsored by the South Side ministerial association. A renovated skating rink seating 7,000 was used and the five week meeting drew some 260,000 people. He also went to Baltimore, Md. (1,200-2,500 converts) as well as Indianapolis, Toronto, St. Paul, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Omaha.

In 1887, he preached in Kansas City and Boston among many others. In 1889, his meetings included Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, where 1,200 made decisions. 1890-91 saw meetings in Chattanooga, Little Rock, Wilmington, among others.

The Jones crusade in Memphis in 1892, had 2,500 conversions and this was also the year he gave up his connection with the North Georgia Orphanage in Decatur.

Although he passed the peak of his career by the middle of the 1890's, he continued to return year after year to certain cities. He conducted eighteen revivals in Nashville alone. Between visits to larger cities, he preached in almost every city with a population of over 10,000 in the South. In 1897, Sam, went back to Boston at the request of the Methodist preachers with many Baptists cooperating also once he was there. Some 2,500 decisions for Christ were made.

The 1899 revival in Toledo, Ohio was perhaps his most unique. The city had recently elected a mayor, a man who actually claimed to live and administer the law according to the Golden Rule. The name of the mayor was Sam Jones! (Samuel M. Jones). The battle of Mayor Sam Jones, known as "Golden Rule Jones" against evangelist, Sam Jones, has become a classic event of revival history. The crusade began on March 5, with the next mayoral election to be held April 3. At the opening session in the city Armory, the mayor, Samuel M. Jones, introduced the evangelist, Samuel P. Jones. The mayor, ignored by his party, the Republicans, decided to run as an independent. Although a moral man with good intentions, his "let everything be done with love" philosophy had kept open 700 saloons and 150 gambling dens. On March 12, at a meeting for 6,000 men, the evangelist let them have it, mayor and all! Headlines in the Republican "Toledo Blade, read," "Evangelist's Hot Shot", "Jones batteries turned on municipal authorities; declares if the Devil were mayor, he would not change a thing!" In the Democratic "Toledo Bee," the headlines said, "Sam P. Jones rips up Toledo's administration; he prefers rule of hate to rule of love that keeps saloons open."

Sam Jones usually stayed three weeks in an area, sometimes five. Auditoriums were usually around 5,000 seating capacity with some 150,000 attending for the series. The choirs were around 400 and the ushers around 40. His income averaged around $30,000 per year. Much of it was given away to worthy causes.

He preached with such zeal that his health finally broke. For some years he rested from evangelistic preaching and turned his skill to lecturing, primarily against the liquor traffic. He spoke about the "moral issues" of the day and sought reform in corrupt cities. In some cities, especially in the South, he was able to persuade the citizens to outlaw saloons and drive out the other enemies of the Christian faith.

Eventually he resumed evangelistic preaching. It is said that when Sam preached, liquor stores closed, theaters and jails emptied, and cussing was reduced to whispers. His life was threatened on several occasions. His crude wit, coarse stories, and rural life drollery captured his hearers everywhere. Like Billy Sunday, his eccentricities of speech, his unconventional ways and manner probably contributed to his popularity. Jones spent every summer after 1885 touring Chautaugua circuits. Much of the wit of Will Rogers is traceable to Sam Jones. This wit is illustrated by some of the following stories:

One time a committee complained that they brought him to town to preach to sinners but that he ended up preaching at them! He said, "Never mind, I will get to the sinners. I never scald hogs until the water is hot."

Once, when asked why he didn't attack the Catholics, he replied, "When I get through with the Methodists, it's bed-time."

In one revival, the pastors, feeling Jones shouldn't be so negative in his preaching, gathered for a prayer meeting one afternoon to pray for him. Jones driving by the tabernacle was overjoyed to see a group of ministers conducting a prayer meeting, so he slipped in to join them. He heard their prayers about him..."Help him to have more tact, change his mannerisms," etc. Then it was his turn to pray.

Lord, I hope you won't listen to a one of these preachers. They don't preach against sin. They don't visit from door to door. They don't weep over sinners, and they don't win souls. And they want You to change me until I'm just like them. O Lord, help these preachers to have enough sense to realize that if You were to answer their prayers, I would be just as worthless and no-account as they are. I'd be too lazy to work too. I'd be afraid to fight sin and too cold to cry over sinners and too indifferent to win souls. Please God, don't make me like any of these fellers.

His prayer continued and a great sweeping revival was seen.

In another town, a saloon keeper approached Jones when he was walking down a street and asked if it was true that Jones hated liquor, etc. He held up a ten dollar bill and taunted the evangelist ... "I bet you'd like to have that! I make my money selling whiskey." He was totally surprised when Jones grabbed the ten and said, "Yes, I'll take it! The Devil has had it long enough."

In Sigourney, Iowa, three saloons were licensed for $300 each, or $900 in all. The town was only 2,000 in population, so in his speech, Sam declared the liquor dealers might as well walk up to the people and ask, "If you will let us damn this town, we will give you 40 cents apiece." He asked how much a 200 pound hog would bring. He was told $12. "So," replied the evangelist, "hogs $12 apiece and people 40 cents apiece. Say, brother, don't you wish you were a hog? For the pitiful sum of 40 cents each, you turn your boys over to be debauched, the hearts of mothers are crushed, and the town ruined ... all for 40 cents! This is cheap; but I suppose that is all you are worth, eh?"

To a tightwad Christian who complained about being asked to contribute to the church, after being saved out of alcoholism, he lashed out. "Well, you paid the Devil $250 a year for the privilege of plowing with a steer on rented land, and now you don't want to give God, who saved you, five dollars a year for the privilege of plowing with horses on your own plantation. You're a rascal from the crown of your head to the sole of your foot!"

Jones made absolutely nothing of education, would not tolerate stiffness or formality, was definitely informal, was blunt and uncouth in his preaching, direct and child-like in his praying.

His crude mannerisms would include, "I wouldn't wipe my feet on" someone. He made much use of a phrase like, "put the hay down low enough so that both the jackass and the giraffe can get to it." ... "Many a fellow is praying for rain with his tub bottom up," ... "It tickles me to see an old sinner come in and pull out an old, dwarfed member of the church, lay him down and measure by him, and say, 'Look here, boys. I'm as long, as broad, and as good as this man'."

An eyewitness to a Jones revival might put him in his proper perspective. Tom Watson tells about a revival in Thomson, Georgia:

How he did peel the amen corner. How he did smash their solemn self- conceit, their profound self-satisfaction, their peaceful co-partnership with the Almighty, their placid conviction that they were trustees of the New Jerusalem. After awhile with solemn, irresistible force he called on these brethren to rise in public, confess their short-comings, and kneel for Divine grace. And they knelt. With groans, and sobs, and tears, these old bellwethers of the flock fell on their knees and cried aloud in their distress. Then what? He turned his guns on us sinners. He abused us fore and aft. He gave us grape and canister and all the rest. He abused us and ridiculed us, he stormed at us and laughed at us, he called us flop-eared hounds, beer kegs, and whiskey soaks. He plainly said that we were all hypocrites and liars, and he intimated somewhat broadly, that most of us would steal. After the meetings the community settled back to business, but it has never been the same community since. Gambling has disappeared, loud profanity on the streets was heard no more, and the bar-rooms were run out of the country.

D. L. Moody, once attended a service to hear Sam preach. After hearing him, he wrote him a letter:

God has put into your hands the sledge hammer with which to shatter the formalism of the Church and batter down the strongholds of sin, and He is helping you mightily to use it. God bless you.

A year before his death, Jones was called to the speaker's platform in Atlanta by President Theodore Roosevelt, who said to him, "Sam, you have been doing as a private citizen, what I have tried to do as a public servant"

Musicians that traveled with Sam Jones included E. O. Excell, who composed many hymns and Walter Holcomb, who led singing for him and later married his daughter.

Death came suddenly. Coming home on a train from a campaign in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and planning to celebrate his fifty-ninth birthday back in Cartersville, he dropped dead. Early in the morning he complained about not feeling well, drank a glass of water and toppled over. This was near Perry, Arkansas, twelve miles from Little Rock. His funeral in Atlanta, Georgia was a state affair.

Books that came out after his death were, Famous Stories of Sam P. Jones (1908), Popular Lectures of Sam P. Jones (1909), Sam Jones Revival Sermons (1912) and Lightning Flashes and Thunderbolts (1912). His own works included Sermons and Sayings (1883), Music Hall Series (1886), Quit Your Meanness (1886), Sam Jones Own Book (1887), St. Louis Series (1890) and Thunderbolts (1895).

From one of 49 booklets by Ed Reese in the Christian Hall of Fame series. Reese Publications, 7801 Ember Crest Trail, Knoxville, TN 37938.

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