Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Samuel Porter Jones
(October 16, 1847 - October 15, 1906)
Samuel Porter Jones was one of the most celebrated revivalists of his day, at the close of the 19th century. Famous for his wry wit and masterful story-telling, he is credited as a principal influence on Will Rogers. Jones is particularly connected with the history of The Union Gospel Tabernacle, later named Ryman Auditorium. Riverboat captain, Thomas Green Ryman, was converted after hearing Jones on May 10, 1885 at a meeting which he and friends attended with the intention of heckling the preacher. According to the legend, Ryman decided on that day to build a tabernacle in which to hold revival meetings in Nashville, Tennessee (the building was home to the Grand Ole Opry for many years), and he soon approached Jones with the idea.
Sam Jones was born on October 16, 1847 in Oak Bowery, Alabama, the son of lawyer and real estate entrepreneur John Jones and homemaker Queenie Jones, the grandson of Methodist preacher Samuel Gamble Jones, and nephew of four additional Methodist ministers. In 1857, when Sam was ten years old, the family moved to Cartersville, Georgia, where John Jones’ parents had made their home. Jones ended up living there for most of his life. Sam had hoped to attend college, but he purportedly suffered from an unspecified medical condition (his eyes or his stomach, depending on circumstance) and began drinking heavily. Eventually, despite his Methodist heritage which included seven Methodist ministers, Jones decided to become a lawyer. He was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1868. At the age of twenty-one, Sam trekked to Kentucky to claim his bride to be, Laura McElwain (whom he had befriended during the Civil War). Though his reputation as a drunkard had preceded him to Kentucky, and Laura’s father refused to attend the wedding, Laura’s mother convinced her to keep her promise to Sam Jones—the two were wed and became lifetime companions.
Sam Jones did not stay a lawyer for long and, in spite of his hopes that marriage would save him from himself, he continued to drink heavily and destroyed his career. By 1872 Jones was stoking furnaces and driving freight wagons for a living. The death of his infant daughter sobered him for a time, before he fell off the wagon yet again. Then, in 1872, Jones was called to his father's deathbed where his father pleaded with him to quit drinking—Sam promised he would. A week later Samuel P. Jones walked down the aisle of his grandfather’s church, made his confession to God, and became a Christian.
Sam Jones was known for preaching hard against sin and hypocrisy. He preached once at a Church dedication in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in the middle of the service he stopped his message and asked the congregation how much they paid the Pastor. They were unwilling to tell him, but when the appallingly low sum was finally revealed, the congregation was so embarrassed that the next day he was given a substantial raise.
On October 15, 1906, Jones was returning home from a revival in Oklahoma City on the Rock Island Train. While the train was stopped in Perry, Arkansas, Sam suddenly collapsed and died. It is estimated that over 30,000 people came to view him as he lay in state in the rotunda of the Capital in Atlanta. Rev. Samuel P. Jones is now buried at Oak Hill cemetery in Cartersville, Georgia, where a stone monument marks the grave of Sam and his wife Laura.
At the time of Jones’ death, the sanctuary of what was then named Cartersville Methodist Episcopal Church was in the process of being completed. After a unanimous vote, the congregation officially changed the name of the church to Sam Jones Memorial Methodist Church (now known as Sam Jones Memorial United Methodist Church), which is still in existence today.
Jones was accepted by the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and began his ministry with the Van Wert circuit, a group of five churches spread over four counties. Before long his talent for preaching had him doing revivals in large cities before thousands of attendees. He was asked to speak not only for religious organizations but for the likes of state legislatures and President Theodore Roosevelt.