Josiah Whitaker was one of the most laborious preachers we have ever known. He was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, November 30, 1779. In November, 1792, be removed, with his parents, to Kentucky, and settled in Bourbon County. In March, 1793, he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, as a seeker of religion, and in the same month, while engaged in secret prayer, was converted.
“But I repeat it, Suky Honey can’t float”
On the 4th of April, 1799, he was married to Susan Honey. In 1802, he was appointed class leader. In 1813, he was licensed to preach, and in 1818, became a probationer in the Conference.
His first appointment was to the Licking Circuit, where he was continued for two years, and on which he had traveled for several months previous to his admission on trial into the Conference. He continued to travel, without any intermission, until the Conference of 1846, when he was placed on the superannuated roll, where he remained until released by death.
A mere recital of the appointments filled by Mr. Whitaker impresses us at once with the vastness of his labors. The Licking, Fleming, Franklin, Mt. Sterling, Licking, Limestone, Shelby, Madison, Mt. Sterling, Cynthiana, Blue Lick, Ohio, Falmouth, Hinkstone, and Carlisle Circuits, Mission to the colored people in Lexington and vicinity, and the Lewis, Crittenden, Sharpsburg, Alexandria, Athens, and Frankfort Circuits, were the fields in which he labored.
He grew up to manhood without the advantages of education, and learned to read after he was married. In entering the ministry, while he did not bring into it talents of a high order, he was always distinguished for his devotion to the Church, and for the boldness with which he defended its peculiar doctrines. In the Annual Conference, he was remarkable for his hostility to Freemasonry, and would not vote for the admission into the Conference of any man who had joined that Order, and was always careful to inquire, upon the presentation of each name, whether he was a Mason.
On the various circuits he traveled, he attracted no ordinary attention, by the severity with which he preached against the peculiar views held by the Baptist Church, and the dangerous dogmas of Campbellism. Ready in his delivery, and well fortified with anecdotes illustrative of every position he either defended or opposed, he was an able champion for the truth, while be dealt the most withering sarcasm on every system that came under his censure.
He spoke frequently on the floor of the Conference, and though often severe and always convincing, he seldom failed to amuse. At the Conference in Lexington, in 1842, some objections were made to him, on the ground that he had always refused to remove his family to the circuits to which he was appointed. Bishop Waugh was in the chair; he knew but little of Josiah Whitaker. In reply to the complaints, after summing up the fields of labor he had occupied in twenty-four years, he added: “In the work of four-and-twenty years, I have lost no day from my work for want of health; and from any circumstance, I have not lost a round on any circuit of all my work, whether I have been sent where money grew or not. For the first fourteen years of my travels, I did not get fifty dollars for each year, in quarterage, and the first four years, not ten dollars for each year — and my wife and ten children at home, doing the best they could. They kept circuit-preaching twenty years in their dwelling-house, and they had eight camp-meetings in sight of their house. Four years I traveled on the south side of Kentucky River, which threw me forty-five miles from my family, and caused the riding in the four years to be fourteen thousand miles. During all this period, my family never said, ‘Do not go to your work.’ Wet or dry, cold or hot, high waters, deep mud, or ice, if I had an appointment, they expected me to fill it. Even when my house was burned down, with almost all that was in it, and my family encamped around the ruins, trying to build a dwelling to shelter in, they a still said, ‘ Go on; for the honor of a preacher,’ they would say, ‘it will not do to stay away from your work. We will do the best we can, and you will feel better, and there will be some way provided for us.’ Who of the Conference ever made a motion to help my family in this distress? Perhaps, if it had been a Freemason’s family, the ease would have been thought of but they had help from above. I have used no dose of medicine in my life, neither has my wife in her life; neither has either of us used tobacco in any way. I have not gone to bed for fatigue, sleep, or sickness, in twenty years; nor have I lost twelve appointments in twenty-four years. During this time, I have tried to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine, that I have thought contrary to God’s word, as our rule directs in our ordination vows. I have been in the habit of lecturing from four to five, and up to seven hours at a time; and in the year 1841, I lectured nine times to average five hours each, and yet my lungs were very strong. I can sing strong and clear after one of my lectures, all the while. With all my plainness and severity in doctrine, I have added to the Methodist Episcopal Church about five thousand members. Without any flattery in regard to doctrine and discipline, there never was an appeal taken to a Quarterly-meeting Conference from the decision of any society that I have had the charge of. I have never been sent to any work because I asked for it in particular. I was never heard to say, ‘Give me a town, or some easy circuit or station;’ but went to my work, whether to the rich or poor, the white or black. And yet, with all my submission, I have maintained an independent spirit. Whatever I think right to say, I will speak it out; for I love every person, and fear no person, so as to be driven from my duty in any work or any vow to my Church and to God. In 1833, one of our old Bishops warned the preachers against vain dress in the Church in their charges. I then remarked, that we would do well to begin with the preachers, even those in charge of work. No wonder the younger preachers, who wish to be great, like the great of the day, wear their staked-and-ridered hats, and heave their bosoms as if they had the white swelling in their breasts, and wear their coat-sleeves so large that they can hardly get in at any common door without rubbing or turning edgewise. With such a sight, how can we say any thing to any common member of the Church? The Bishop then said, ‘O brother, is that possible?’ I replied, `You had better not test that matter, unless you wish to prune the Conference; for we have the articles now in town, both in the preachers and their wives. ‘We have had among us members who are very conscientious about slavery — too much so to own slaves; and they will sell them, and slip over the Ohio River and call us blood-suckers, while they spend their slave-money for land and live on it. What are they but blood-suckers, through a long tube, all the way over the Ohio River? But to the point. Another, brother has but one objection to me. I might be more useful if I would move my family into the bounds of five or six appointments, and say short sketches, and make haste home to my wife — class-meeting neglected, pastoral visiting neglected. No, sir! I go to every work, far or near, and vain do all the work that you give me. But I will not move Suky Honey;* she cannot float. Who of you ever gave Suky Honey any money for her, support? No, sir. I ask no favors; for I have ridden twenty-four years, and have never been superannuated, supernumerated, located, stationated, nor Presiding-elderated. But I repeat it, Suky Honey can’t float.”
During the period in which he sustained a superannuated relation to the Conference, he preached almost every Sabbath.
On the 21st of August, 1850, he died, at his residence, in Harrison County.
“He was as careful to have his own neighbors furnished with the means of grace as to meet his appointment; hence, while he was going about doing good, his family welcomed the ministers of Christ, and for twenty years kept circuit-preaching in their house, and had eight camp-meetings within a few rods of it. A noble example of zeal! Few men have done more hard work as traveling preachers, had larger and more difficult fields of labor, and received so little compensation. During the first fourteen years of his life as a traveling preacher, his receipts did not average fifty dollars a year! Indeed, for the first four years, they did not average ten dollars. He had a wife and ten children to support; but they labored with their own hands, that they might not be chargeable to the Church; and God established ‘the work of their hands upon them.’
“Brother Whitaker was a peculiar man, and, as a preacher, eminently so. His style was his own, and his manner none could imitate. He had a great fondness for controversy –holding himself in constant readiness ‘to drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines.’ For several years he was accustomed to deliver lectures on the peculiarities of the `Reformation,’ varying in length from five to seven hours. Yet, with all his plainness of doctrine, he was the honored instrument, in the hands of God, in adding more than five thousand members to the Methodist Episcopal Church.”**
“His last illness was protracted, but grace triumphed over pain. A few days before his death, he remarked, ‘I know in whom I have believed; I suffer greatly, but my mind rests in peace. The faith I have preached to others now sustains me; there is not a cloud floating in all the horizon. I am ready to die; my work is done.’ In this state of mind he continued until he passed the vale of death.”***
* The maiden name of his wife.
** General Minutes M. E. Church, South, Vol. I, p. 276.
*** General Minutes M. E. Church, South, Vol. I, p. 276.
The History of Methodism in Kentucky
By the Rev. A. H. Redford
Printed by Southern Methodist Publishing House