This is the fourth in a series on real historical heroes for racial justice. You can read the introduction this series here.
In his recent book Discipling, Mark Dever defines discipleship as “deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ.”1 He argues that each follower of Christ has been granted a certain measure of influence that we are to intentionally channel toward the end of helping those around us to grow in Christlikeness. The life of Samuel Doak (1749-1830) provides a fascinating example from the Tennessee frontier of a courageous man who used his God-given influence to impact the world.
Samuel Doak was a Presbyterian pastor and educator in east Tennessee. In fact, he organized the first Presbyterian church, Salem Presbyterian Church, near Jonestown and the first known institution of learning in the state around 1780.2 Because there were several churchless settlements on the Tennessee frontier, Doak made frequent preaching tours throughout the area and would go on to organize as many as twenty-five churches in East Tennessee.3 He was also instrumental, along with his son, in the formation of Tusculum College in 1818. The frontier was a difficult place for many reasons, not least of which was the threat of Indian attacks. Doak courageously ministered the gospel in this context and would even go on to famously lead an army of Patriot troops from the region in prayer at Sycamore Shoals on September 26, 1780 as they prepared to fight the Battle of Kings Mountain.
By all accounts, Samuel Doak was a man of considerable influence on the Tennessee frontier. He did not leave voluminous works behind that are still read today and his preaching ministry did not spark revivals. Doak’s focus was less recognizable; as an educator and pastor, he concentrated on molding individual men and preparing them for life and ministry. While Samuel Doak is not today a household name, the world of today would not look the same if not for his immeasurable investment in the men he trained.
Most of the biographical material available on Samuel Doak mentions that over the course of his life and ministry he became convinced of the evils of slavery and became an advocate for immediate abolition. In fact, in 1818 his convictions on slavery led him to free his own slaves and send them to Ohio to enjoy new lives of freedom. In a context where the overwhelming majority of the nation, including the mainstream of professing Christians, justified slavery with unacceptable biblical arguments, Doak’s position would have been considered unpopular and compromising. In the minds of many, Doak was not merely opposing slavery; he was calling into question the legitimacy of an entire way of life. Doak died shortly thereafter in 1830, but we would be mistaken if we ended his story at that point.
Biographer Earle W. Crawford writes that “he implanted his anti-slavery principles in a number of the young men he trained for the ministry, and some of these played no small part in the abolition of slavery.”4 One of these men, Jesse Lockhart, would become a Presbyterian minister and aided escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.5 Another key abolitionist influenced and educated by Doak was John Rankin, who would actually marry one of Doak’s granddaughters.6 Rankin worked tirelessly for immediate abolition, assisting the operation of the Underground Railroad, publishing widely-read newspaper letters known as Letters on Slavery (they were bound as a book in 1826), and even forming the Free Presbyterian Church in 1847, which banned slaveholders and advocates for slavery from membership. Interestingly, John Rankin is the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional character, Eliza Harris, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.7
Something like influence is certainly difficult to measure, but William Birney credits Doak with the anti-slavery sentiments of the entire region:
From about that time (1818) he inculcated upon all his students, theological and literary, the principles of immediate abolition. It was probably due to his teachings that the noted Sam Houston, one of his pupils, gave his vote many years later against the Kansas Nebraska bill and vetoed the Texas ordinance of secession; and that his step-son, Robert McEwen, kept the national flag flying over his house at Nashville during the whole course of the rebellion. It was through his influence chiefly that the Presbyterians of his own and the neighboring county bought two promising young men of color, John Gloucester and George Erskine, freed and educated them for the ministry of their Church, and that the Union Presbytery of East Tennessee licensed and ordained them. They were eloquent preachers. Gloucester became pastor of a colored congregation in Philadelphia, and Erskine had charge for a time of a white congregation.8
Samuel Doak’s life is a story of influence. During his long ministry on the frontier in East Tennessee, he was able to impact hundreds, if not thousands, of lives with truth and conviction. The power of his influence can be seen in the generations of men who followed his lead in opposing slavery in the name of Christ. Like Doak, we have all been granted some measure of influence. Will you use yours to impact generations to come? Will the people who live beyond your life live more faithfully for Christ because of the time they spent with you? May Doak’s powerful example inspire similar heroics.
- Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 13.
- Earle W. Crawford, Samuel Doak (Johnson City: The Overmountain Press, 1980), 24.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 44.
- Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 335.
- Crawford, 44.
- John R. McKivigan, Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, vol. 2, “Rankin, John (1793-1886)” (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2007), 563.
- William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party with Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South Before 1828, vol. 3 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 75.