Thomas Dwight Witherspoon

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This Is How You Say Goodbye : Paying Due Respect to a Beloved Pastor.

When the War ended in 1865, the Rev. Thomas D. Witherspoon answered a call to serve the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, Tennessee. That historic church, founded in 1844, continues to this day and since 1989 has been affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Rev. Witherspoon’s ministry there began on September 3, 1865 and lasted but five years, ending early in October of 1870, when ill health forced him to retire from that pulpit to seek a less demanding post. Some of those years in Memphis had been tumultuous and challenging for a young pastor. Memphis suffered its worst race riot in 1867 and Witherspoon’s sermon logbook records something of his ministry on several occasions at the Fort Pickering mission, where the riot began.

He found that quieter pulpit as the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Christiansburg, Virginia church, though he remained in this post for only one year while restoring his health, taking on subsequent duties as chaplain at the University of Virginia from 1871-1873.

The following resolutions, offered up by his congregation in Memphis and published in The Christian Observer on this day, August 31, 1870, serve as a model of how the Lord’s people might express their love and esteem for a faithful pastor. For a closer look at Rev. Witherspoon’s ministry there at Second Presbyterian, our readers can view an annotated transcription of his sermon logbook by clicking here.

witherspoon04Resignation of Rev. T.D. Witherspoon, D.D.

Copy of Resolutions introduced in the Congregational Meeting of the Second Presbyterian Church, Memphis, by B.M. Estes, Esq., and unanimously adopted.

The congregation of the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, assembled to take action upon the letter of resignation of their beloved pastor, do unanimously agree to adopt the following resolutions, viz:

  1. That in uniting with T.D. Witherspoon, D.D., in his application to the Presbytery of Memphis to dissolve the pastoral relation existing between him and this church, we have discharged a sad and painful duty, and that we have taken such action only at his earnest request, and because we are constrained to concur with him and his physicians in the belief, that on account of impaired health it is necessary that he should remove to a more invigorating and healthful climate and assume ministerial duties less onerous.
  2. Resolved, That we greatly deplore the necessity which compels us to agree to a severance of the tender ties which have bound our beloved pastor to us for nearly five years, and while with bruised and sorrowful hearts we give him up, we tender to him the assurance of profound sympathy for him in his affliction, and of our ardent affection for him personally, of our admiration and reverence for him as a minister of the Cross of Christ, and of our deep concern and interest in his future welfare and career.
  3. Resolved, That to the faithful, loving ministry and labors of Dr. Witherspoon as an instrument in the hands of the Great Head of the Church, we attribute the present peaceful harmonious and prosperous condition of this church and while we collectively and as individuals recall the multiplied instances of his love for us, of his deep sympathy and tender offices in times of bereavement and sorrow, our hearts overflow with emotions of gratitude and affection to him, and of sorrow that we must be separated from him.
  4. Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be furnished to Dr. Witherspoon as a testimonial of the appreciation and affection which the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis entertain for him, and while our earnest prayers for the restoration of his health, and for his future welfare and usefulness will follow him wherever he may go—we beg that his prayers may ascend daily to our Heavenly Father for the peacefulness and prosperity of this church, and especially that the Master will provide for us another faithful minister to watch over the spiritual interests of this church.

Excerpted from The Christian Observer and Commonwealth, August 31, 1870, page 4, column 2. [Readers can view this page of the above newspaper at http://kdl.kyvl.org/catalog/xt7gxd0qs68k_4]

Rev. Witherspoon remained at Second Presbyterian until early October 1870. His final sermon there was on Act 20:32, delivered on 9 October (No. 1106 in his Register)

Words to Live By:
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
—I Timothy 5:17.

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tdw04_75Born at Greensboro, Alabama, January 17, 1836, educated at the famous academy of Professor Henry Tutwiler, in Green County, Alabama, then the University of Alabama, and the University of Mississippi, where he was graduated in 1856, Thomas Dwight Witherspoon had by that time decided to enter the gospel ministry, and took his theological course at the Presbyterian Seminary in Columbia, S.C., where Dr. James Henley Thornwell was the able and distinguished President. While attending Columbia, he fell in love with the seminary president’s eldest daughter, but death took her from him the day before the wedding.

Witherspoon was ordained on May 23, 1860, and installed as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Oxford, Mississippi, where he was exerting a very fine influence on the students of the university located there, and might well have considered it his duty to remain with his Church.

But no sooner had the great war between the States begun in April of 1861 than the young preacher promptly enlisted as a private soldier in the Lamar Rifles. But his life’s calling could not be squelched, and it was not long before he was reassigned as chaplain of the Second Mississippi Infantry, and latter attached to the Forty-Second Mississippi Infantry, Davis’ Brigade.  One who knew him well at that time said of Rev. Witherspoon, “that he was one of the most devoted, untiring, self-sacrificing, and efficient chaplains that we had in the army”.

An able and attractive preacher of the soul-saving truths of the gospel, and an untiring worker in the camp, on the march, on the battlefield, and in the hospital, he was ever found at the post of duty, even when that was the outpost of the army or the advance line of battle.

He bore no insignificant part in the labors of those great revivals which reached nearly every brigade, made nearly every camp vocal with God’s praises, and went graciously on until over fifteen thousand of Lee’s veterans had professed faith in Christ and enlisted under the banner of the great “Captain of our salvation.”

After the war, Dr. Witherspoon spent five years as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Resigning because of his health, he took the post of chaplain at the University of Virginia and served there for two years, after which he became the pastor of the historic Tabb Street Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Virginia. His final pastorate was at the First Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, later moving from that post to serve as one of the founding faculty at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, teaching homiletics and pastoral theology.

In all of these positions he fulfilled the prophecy of his earlier years, won the confidence of his brethren, and wide popularity especially among the young men, exerted a large influence, and was greatly useful.

TDWgrave_75dpiAlas ! I never saw him again.  We missed his genial presence and graceful, effective speech at our reunion, and but three months later we learned that he had closed his labors on earth and gone to receive his reward and wear his “crown of rejoicing.”

Old comrade, colaborer, brother beloved, farewell!  We shall sadly miss thee at our gatherings, but we shall “meet beyond the river,” and meantime we sing with glad acclaim:

Servant of God, well done;
Rest from thy loved employ;
The battle fought, the vic’try won,
Enter thy Master’s joy!

[Freely adapted from an obituary which appeared in The Confederate Veteran, Volume 7 (1899), page 178.]

For Further Study:
The Thomas Dwight Witherspoon Manuscript Collection is preserved at the PCA Historical Center. Details about the collection can be viewed here.

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