Rev. William J. Campbell--His Long and Useful Life--A King among His People.
[Rev. William J. Campbell]
Rev. William J. Campbell was born January 1st, 1812. He was born a slave. He traveled extensively with his master, and thereby had an opportunity of learning much by traveling. He was baptized by Rev. Andrew C. Marshall, about 1830, and licensed to preach by the church on February 4th, 1855. He was assistant to Rev. Andrew C. Marshall, and when Mr. Marshall went North to beg money for the church he left Mr. Campbell in charge of the church. When he died in Richmond, on his return, Mr. Campbell was appointed by the church to accompany his remains to Savannah. Soon after this he was ordained by the Executive Board of the Sunsbury Baptist Association and called to the pastorate of the First African Baptist Church. This was in 1857. He immediately entered upon the work which the venerable Father Marshall had laid down. He tore down the wooden building and erected the beautiful brick edifice which was in the heart of Father Marshall to do before he left the walks of men. The people rallied to him with the same earnestness and love (if not greater) as they did to Father Marshall. No man ever had more influence over a people than Reverend Campbell. He, however, had his troubles, too. He was accused of stealing cotton on the Bay about this time. It had a bad effect upon the church, and gloom once more spread her drapery over this great church. This, however, was proven to be false, and the sun of peace and prosperity again leaped forth from his hiding place and shone with resplendent brilliancy and glory upon a heavy-hearted people, and kissing away their sorrows they went on their way rejoicing.
Rev. W. J. Campbell was a man of keen foresight, iron will, and a wonderful executive ability. He was a good preacher. He had read much, and well remembered what he read. His preaching was on the running commentary order, often taking a whole chapter for his subject. He had a peculiar sonorous voice, and spoke to the hearts of men. If a person once heard him line out a hymn he would not soon forget it. His prayer meeting lectures were sublime. Bishop Holsey said of him: "The grandest lectures I ever heard were Reverend Campbell's prayer meeting lectures." The people were satisfied to see him in the pulpit. His people would rather hear him give out a hymn than hear anybody else preach, let him be never so eloquent. He was as black as he well could have been, but he was neat, handsome, polite, and extremely dignified. Whatever he felt like saying in the pulpit he said. He was not afraid to tell the truth as it was in Jesus. He was for many years a deacon and a member of the choir. He was a good singer, and therefore enforced good singing in his choir. He was as much beloved by the white people almost as by the colored. Sinners quaked before him. The church soon ran up to 4,000 members. He controlled the surrounding country. He controlled from Savannah to Darien, Brunswick, and all the country adjacent to Savannah. His praise was on the tongues of everybody, and especially the saints. His people would do just what he told them to do. When he spoke it was law. If he said a thing was wrong, all the world could not make his people believe otherwise. It would have been an insult to have attempted it.
Reverend Campbell was widely known and equally respected. The church usually gave him three months' vacation each year, and sent a servant with him. He received as a salary $100 per month and everything he wanted. He was a favorite of Northern visitors; they preferred going to his church to any other in the city. He was in the organization of the Zion Baptist Association, the Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, and the Mount Olive Baptist Association. In all of these he played a conspicuous part. The people around the coast would hail his coming among them as a priest. He had twelve or fourteen prayer houses connected with the church, which were as large as many churches. Over these he appointed leaders, who reported to him monthly their condition and collections. To these societies--for by that name they are known--he would go at his leisure and they would always prepare a great feast for him. He was kind and loving to his officers, and controlled the church, absolutely, for twenty-three years with a four page constitution. In most things he was law to the people, and from his decision no one dared appeal. As he grew older, he was troubled with an impediment in his speech. He finally got so he could not speak without much difficulty. About this time a serious trouble broke out in the church; for this emergency too much of his strength had been spent and old age and paralysis had done their work too well. That powerful voice the people had long obeyed was now so palsied that it fell without effect, and the enemies had decidedly the advantage and they never failed to use it. An awful trouble broke out in the church, such, perhaps, as few churches in all ages have ever witnessed, or, need ever have. It was not the fault of Rev. W. J. Campbell. When the trouble started he was in Griffin, Ga. If there is any blame upon Mr. Campbell it is that he left the church. The church never turned him off; the church could not have had the heart to do that. He was accused of taking sides with Deacon Robert P. Young, his spiritual child, who was accused of stealing money from the church. Rev. Mr. Campbell was true to a friend, and if he is chargeable at all it is due to his disposition to be perfectly true to a friend.
Reverend Campbell baptized several thousand persons. He was purely a gospel preacher, and gave his attention to nothing else. His house was a place of peace and comfort. He was brought up with rich white people and had a remarkably good taste. As a ruler he was strict and able. As a pastor he was attentive and loving. He understood men, and there was no fear of them in his composition.
He lived to a good old age, and he will be remembered with tenderest affection while memory holds her place or saints in Savannah live. We will refer to him again in another chapter in considering the church trouble.
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