The “Desert Blooming Like The Rose.”

In 21st–century America, it’s difficult to imagine life without the ability to access information at an electronic click or command. But it was not always so. Two centuries ago, outside of New England, many small towns and rural communities lacked the institutions and the formally educated individuals (especially higher-learning institutions and pastors) that might have been expected to provide the middling sort with much of the information and learning that some, if not many, citizens sought. Particularly for some mainline Protestant churches and their members, Church history and theological information and teaching comprised no small part of their fields of interest. Up to at least the mid-nineteenth century, the geographical dispersal of most inland-dwelling Southerners – which tended toward small communities – and the difficulties and slowness of transportation facilitated conditions whereby citizens had only limited means of receiving and disseminating such knowledge and information. As historian Nathan O. Hatch demonstrated three decades ago in his award-winning work, The Democratization of American Christianity, from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century the tremendous increase in newspapers, periodicals, and other printed materials – including denominational or religious newspapers – contributed immeasurably to ordinary Americans’ knowledge of current events and connected them to various trends and movements in places and in ways no other means then available could have. And for some pastors and lay students of Christian history and theology, religious newspapers proved to be important, even indispensable resources. One such pastor was a North Carolina Baptist, Joseph Carson Grayson, who ministered faithfully for more than fifty years but is perhaps forgotten today.

Born in 1804 in Rutherford County, North Carolina (west of Charlotte), Elder J. C. Grayson was “baptized into the fellowship” of the Baptist church at Head of First Broad in 1825. Soon afterward, he began to preach. In 1827, he married Miss Eliza R. Wilson of Rutherford County. Together they had nine children. Ordained to the ministry in 1831, Grayson served Baptist churches faithfully for the next half-century in North Carolina. He labored as the moderator of the Catawba River association for four or five years and of the Green River association for twenty. In one year, he also served McDowell County in the state legislature. Following Eliza’s death from pneumonia on the last day of 1856, her husband wrote, “My heart seems like water poured out. But we sorrow not as those who have no hope, for we believe that our loss is her eternal gain.” In his 78th year, Grayson still was ministering to three churches. He died in April 1884 in his 80th year. In the ministry he practiced expository preaching; his peers judged his counsel “safe and reliable.”[1]

During the several years Grayson served as moderator of the Catawba River Baptist Association, he authored a circular address to the churches of the association that promoted the understanding and observance of the first day of the week, normally referred to as the Christian Sabbath or the Lord’s day. Grayson’s circular was a rare gem in terms of its high quality and demonstrated considerable knowledge not only of the Bible but also of some of the early Church Fathers and their writings. While the former was perhaps to be expected of any worthy pastor regardless of whether he had undergone formal theological instruction, Grayson’s familiarity with the latter was particularly intriguing. Most likely, his familiarity with The Biblical Recorder, the newspaper of North Carolina Baptists (and its brief predecessor, the North Carolina Baptist Interpreter), was largely responsible for Grayson’s knowledge of Church history and many of the theological developments across the centuries. There was little doubt that Grayson read both religious periodicals with considerable interest; he served as an agent for the Baptist Interpreter in the vicinity of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, during 1834; and the following year, for the Biblical Recorder in Rutherfordton and Ebenezer, if not in later years as well (although agents did not appear to be listed from the late 1830’s through 1840). Local agents were asked to “exert themselves as far as may be, to procure new names,” and they collected all dues at the start of each year (“as the money is much needed”), which spared their editors some of the perplexity and losses suffered by those whose agents were less than “prompt, punctual, and efficient” in carrying out their duties![2]

Picking up on a growing concern particularly among Presbyterians and some Baptists in the midst of expanding transportation and market opportunities in Jacksonian America, Grayson’s circular directed the association’s churches “to the nature and proper observance of the Lord’s Day.” Toward the beginning, he offered insight regarding the preferred term for the first day of the week. In doing so, he referred to several Church Fathers, as follows:

Although, there is no express command in the New Testament, to keep the Lord[’]s day as a Sabbath, yet from the practice of the Apostles meeting together for religious worship, so frequently, on the first day of the week, or Lord’s day, it seems that they understood it in the light of a Sabbath, and kept it as such, it is therefore not abusive to the spirit of the scriptures, to call it the Christian Sabbath, but as it is no where called Sabbath, the name Lord’s day, is preferable. Justin Martyr, (who lived within fifty years of the time of John the divine[’]s vision in the isle of Patmos,) tells us “that on the day called Sunday, (by the Greeks,) the Christians met together in one place, and read the scriptures, and prayed together, and administered the ordinance of the supper, and this he adds was the first day [of the week] in which God created the world, and our [Savior] Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” And Barnabas, the companion of the Apostle Paul, calls this day the eighth day, in distinction from the seventh day Sabbath of the Jews, and which he says is “the beginning of another world; and therefore we keep the eighth day, adds, he joyfully, in which Jesus rose from the dead, and being manifested, ascended unto heaven,” and this day was known by the ancients by the name of the Lord’s day; as by Ignatius, Irenaus, Tertullian, Origin and others, for it must be some day that was known by this name, otherwise it is mentioned to no purpose, because it would not be distinctive from others.[3]

While such an in-depth discussion might have been expected from a man formally trained at a theological institution or perhaps some other institution of higher learning, J. C. Grayson was not such a man. By his own words, his “opportunities of an education were very limited.” He “never saw a book on English grammar till after he was married [in 1827, and] . . . most of his education was obtained from books by pine light,” when most people were asleep. Some years later, with a wife and two children, Grayson left home for a time and boarded at a grammar school ten miles away in order to improve his education.[4]

That a country pastor with such limited formal education learned to write in such an edifying manner about the teachings of Scripture, including concerning the Sabbath and the Church Fathers, was due, most likely, to his careful reading of the newspaper of North Carolina Baptists. Edited by the Rev. Thomas Meredith, The Biblical Recorder regularly addressed Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day observance. In 1835, at least seven articles did so, including a substantial piece reprinted from The Sabbath Magazine and another entitled, “Bishop Stone’s Pastoral Letter,” which also dealt with the Christian Sabbath. In 1836 the Recorder printed an article entitled, “The Sabbath Among The Early Christians,” and in 1838, in addition to two pieces on the Sabbath it carried several others on Luther and the Diet of Worms, and one on the doctrines of Augustine, Pelagius, and semi-Pelagians, among others from Church history. In 1839-1840 the paper carried no less than a dozen articles with a Sabbath emphasis as well as pieces on original sin, public worship, and Church history. By 1838 the newspaper had blossomed into The Biblical Recorder, And Southern Watchman, published in Raleigh, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.[5]

Grayson must have taken to heart the counsel of other North Carolina Baptists, such as those in the Chowan association to the east, who, in 1833, promoted the use of religious periodicals with the following statement: “. . . let every one connected with your body become a subscriber to a religious newspaper, and you will soon see the desert blooming like the rose. The clouds of ignorance will be dispersed and every christian will be actively engaged in his master’s service.”[6]

In his 1841 circular, Grayson went on, clearly, concisely, and not unlike many of his better educated contemporaries, to address the purposes of the Lord’s day and the threats to its sanctity:

This institution is wise as to its ends; that God may be worshiped, mankind instructed, nations benefitted, and families devoted to the service of God. The abolition of this day would be unreasonable, and unscriptural, and every way disadvantageous to the body – to the soul – to society, and even to the brute creation. It is however awfully violated by visiting, feasting, indolence, buying and selling, laboring, worldly amusements, travelling, &c. &c.[7]

The long-serving pastor encouraged fellow Catawba River Baptists to devote the day to prayer and meditation, reading the scriptures in the family circle, and keeping “our children in subjection and order, as much as in us lies,” as an integral part of devoting oneself to God on the Lord’s day. The admonition was regardless of whether or not one had the opportunity to attend a public worship service.[8]

In shifting briefly to the first person, let me say that in more than twenty years of haunting various Presbyterian and Baptist archives mainly in the South, I find the following words of Elder Grayson to be among the most insightful and beautiful I’ve encountered, and I have every reason to think they were the fruit of his personal devotions and pastoral labors:

We generally see those christians who are careless of the proper observance of the Lord’s day, careless through the week, and barren and unfruitful, in the cause of religion, and it is commonly the case, that they disgrace themselves, and the church to which they belong, by some disorderly conduct, while those who are humble, careful, watchful, self-denying, and particular in keeping the Lord’s day, are orderly through the week, fruitful in the cause of Christ, and an ornament to the church to which they belong. And in fact, the manner in which the christian observes the Lord’s day, forms a sort of channel, in which the general course of his christian life is apt to run; then O! brethren, remember the Lord’s day to keep it holy, not that we are to expect to live entirely, free from sin on that day, for we find, there is not a just man upon earth, but that sinneth, (Ec. vii. 20.  2nd Chro. vi. 36.  1st. John i. [8]) but let us lay aside the cares and business of the world, (except works of necessity,) and pray to God for his spirit to enable us to spend the day in attending to the duties of our holy religion. . . .[9]

Drawing to his conclusion, J. C. Grayson raised his readers’ hearts heavenward:

Yes brethren, the time draws nigh, when we shall bid farewell to these earthly Sabbaths, and soar aloft on Angels[’] wings, to that Sabbath, or eternity of rest, where the Lord of the Sabbath is. . . .[10]

Then, dear brethren, let us rejoice and be glad on the Lord’s day, and let us remember, that Jesus gained the victory over death on that day, and through him, we shall also gain the victory, “for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality, so when this corruption shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” Wherefore let us remember, that the time draws nigh, when we shall see Jesus, and all our friends that sleep in Jesus, and live forever with him, and them, in that Sabbath that shall never end.[11]

In 1841, Elder J. C. Grayson, perhaps little known outside of the Baptist association he served so well, used to wonderful advantage the Scripture and the excellent Baptist newspaper available to him, to point fellow pastors and their churches toward that Sabbath that shall never end. In 1884, a few days before his death, he said he was “now waiting near the River, not knowing what hour he might be called to pass over” to that promised rest. In 2018, may his words still comfort, edify, encourage . . . and point heavenward.[12]

[1] Green River Baptist Association, published minutes, 1890, pages 72-73 (North Carolina Baptist Historical Collection and Archives [NCBHCA, hereafter], Wake Forest University); John R. Logan, “Sketches Historical, and Biographical of the Broad River & Kings Mtn. Baptist Associations,” pages 390-92, n.d. (NCBHCA); “Eliza R. Grayson,” typescript, extracted from Biblical Recorder, Jan. 15, 1857 (NCBHCA).

[2] North Carolina Baptist Interpreter, May 3, 1834; Biblical Recorder, Feb. 11, 1835; Dec. 7, 1839. In 1835, in only its second year, the Recorder boasted 153 agents in eight states (not counting Florida, then a territory).

[3] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association . . . Oct. 8[,] 1841 and days following (N.p., n.d.), 3-4.

[4] Logan, “Sketches Historical, and Biographical,” pages 390-92; Green River Baptist Association, published minutes, 1890, pages 72-73.

[5] Biblical Recorder, May 6, 1835 (The Sabbath Magazine); Oct. 7, 1835 (Stone’s letter); May 11, 1836; in 1838, Mar. 3 and Nov. 17 (Sabbath); Mar. 10, 17, 24, 31 (Luther); May 12, 1838 (Augustine). Stone was the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Maryland at the time.

[6] Minutes of the . . . Chowan Baptist Association . . . May 17, 18, and 19, 1833 (Edenton, N.C., 1833).

[7] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association, 6.

[8] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association, 6.

[9] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association, 6.

[10] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association, 7.

[11] Minutes of the Catawba River Baptist Association, 7.

[12] “Joseph Carson Grayson,” Biblical Recorder, Jul. 30, 1884, typescript (NCBHCA).

 

About Forrest L. Marion

Forrest L. Marion graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a BS degree in civil engineering. He earned an MA in military history from the University of Alabama and a doctorate in American history from the University of Tennessee. Since 1998, Dr. Marion has served as a staff historian and oral historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Commissioned in 1980, he retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 2010. More from Forrest L. Marion

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