Autobiographical Sketch On The Life Of J.D. Tant
I Have Fought A Good Fight
This is the last sermon in my book. Sixty years have come and gone. Sixty sermons many times I have preached. I now put in book form and send them on their mission, remembering that Paul said, "Some men's works go before to judgment, others they follow after," hoping and praying that long after I cross the great divide, hundreds will read this book, be taught the way of life, and take up their cross and follow Jesus. I am leaving this bit of history that others may know that life was no flowery bed for me but fraught with many hardships all along the way.
In justification of this letter, I can refer the reader to Paul who called to memory his past life, declaring that he had been in perils or waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by his own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, and in perils among false brethren in hunger, in thirst, in colds, and in nakedness (2 Cor. 11:20-30). If Paul could tell his experiences and troubles for the benefit of those who would live after him, I see no reason why my readers should not know something of my past life that it may encourage the poor boy or girl who seeks a higher plane in life, to know that all difficulties can be overcome by the one who will not give up the fight.
I was born in Paulding county, Georgia, 1861. I was only eight days old when my father started to the war, and was four years old when he returned, and I was taught that he was my father, and that I must respect him. When father started to the war we owned eleven farms in north Georgia, and were considered "well-to-do." Our home was on the New Hope church battleground. After the battle nothing was left on the farm but some oak trees. 'My dear mother and oldest brother walked twenty-two miles to where they heard of a wheat field outside of the army's march, and pulled up two bushels of wheat beat it out on a rail the next day, brought it home and for three months we lived under an oak tree, with nothing to eat except boiled wheat with salted water put in it. The salt was obtained by mother's digging up the ground where the smokehouse had stood and boiling the dirt to get the salt from it.
We were on the line of Sherman's march through Georgia, sixty miles wide and three hundred miles long. Not a cow, horse, hog, nor house was left. All were burned or taken. Germany, in her bloodiest days was never any meaner than the Yankee soldiers under Sherman. They not only outraged every girl in our country, but stood guard with their guns and made the negro men commit the same crime on white girls. When my father came home from the war, all deeds and records of our farms were burned. He got Babe Forsyth, a lawyer, to get up other deeds. The lawyer had all the deeds made to himself, sold all the farms, made deeds to them, left the country, and left us at the bottom. Father then moved south four hundred miles, with a wagon of his own make and a pair of broken-down oxen he found wandering around after the war. For nine long years we struggled against the hardships of life.
I had three brothers older than myself, all of whom are still living, and one sister, younger, who was the first convert I ever baptized into Christ, who has long since crossed the dark river. When I was twelve years old a snake bit me, and I was not able to work, and as I kept up a general fuss with my sister at home, I was sent to school. I think I did well, as there were a number of children who had been in school from four to six years, yet in six weeks I stood up with them in all their classes. I have always thought that from four to six years of a child's life was wasted in the school room, by putting them in too young, when they should be out building a constitution for an education. At the age of fourteen, I joined the Methodist church, and began preaching for them when I was nineteen. At fifteen years of age, with my parents, I moved from Georgia to Texas. About this time I became interested in an education, and fortunately we located near a high school, but unfortunately I had only one dollar to supply all my earthly needs. I invested that in three yards of cloth, from which my mother made me a pair of pants. I started to school. There were no free schools in Texas then. I did not have a single school book, and began my education with only one pair of pants. At school I would dodge around the children and study my lessons on their books with them until one day a schoolmate cursed me and told me if my old daddy could not get me any books I'd better quit. This discouraged me, and I stated my troubles to my teacher, who agreed that he would leave one window unfastened each night and for me to come and get all books containing my lessons for the next day, learn my lessons, and put the books back next morning before school. This I did for two years, and many times would three o'clock in the morning find me after my lessons with a little brass lamp to study by.
Days came and went. I was in the school room all day and never looked at a lesson, yet at the recitation seldom missed answering all questions. The children begged me to tell them how I knew my lessons as I never studied. This I kept as a profound secret, and the news soon spread that I was an idiot. As this seemed to be so near my nature, I acted my part well. People often visited the school, anxious to see "old man Tant's idiot boy that learned his lessons without studying." This I kept up for two years, at the end of which time an old lady heard of my desire for an education, sent for me, and loaned me twenty dollars to buy my school books. The last two years I was in school I was in a class alone. I had passed all other students-not because I had more ability but because I used what I had.
In that day and time about four years was the limit for an education. Now it takes from ten to twenty-five years to get through school. After school was out, I worked at home, and each fall helped to gather the crop, and then hire out to pick cotton until my tuition was paid, and I had enough to buy a common snit of clothes to wear to the next school. In the community where I lived we started a Sunday school when I was seventeen years old. One hundred and fifty students and teachers were enrolled, and because I did not have sense enough to see my mistakes and be disheartened by them, I was elected superintendent of this Sunday school, and for the first time in life I stood before a large congregation and read the word of God and tried to pray.
About this time I thought I was up on vocal music and began to teach in different communities. Methodist preachers were easily made, as their demand was for lung power to get up excitement than for brain power to teach the people, and because of this I stood high with them, and passed my examination for a preacher at nineteen.
I then went to southwest Texas, and was teaching music, and breaking wild horses to ride, for a living, and preaching Methodist doctrine to help the people. I helped to hold some big meetings, and to get up a big shout which was the leading feature in a Methodist meeting then. About this time I heard old Brother W. H. D. Carrington preach the gospel, and as I had first heard it preached by John McKinney and Ben Faulkner in north Texas, my conscience was disturbed, and I was shaken into a congregation of Christians on my Methodist baptism when twenty-one years of age. After trying to preach the gospel, and ease my conscience for three years on Methodist baptism, I made up my mind by studying the Bible that the Lord knew nothing of sect baptism. I then got on a Texas pony and rode one hundred and twenty-seven miles and had John Durst to baptize me into Christ. During this time C. M. Wilmeth was state evangelist, sent out by the churches of Christ in Texas, as we had no society then. He wrote me that for some time he had been needing a Timothy to travel with him, and round up the corners, and help along all lines. I started to travel with him, but as he circulated among an intelligent class where people wanted brains instead of lungs, in seven weeks he found out that I was no good for his work, and dropped me from his list. I then taught school two years in east Texas and preached all I could in reach of the school. My preaching up to this time had been a wonderful success, and I was paid nothing for the first three years. I got $9.75 the fourth year I preached and $92.00 the fifth year.
I wonder how this kind of salary sounds to our young preachers who come out of our colleges, demand a location and $1200 a year to start with? Yet I did not falter, but continued in the work. At this time my father's health was gone. He, mother, and sister looked to me for support. Being unable to support them on my preaching salary of $92.00 a year, I went to north Texas and engaged a school, ten months at $60.00 a month, thinking I could teach vocal music at night, and preach during July and August, and including all I could earn $1000 a year, and thereby pay my debts. At that time I was called back to Willis, Texas, where I had been teaching school. Seven counties there had been supporting Brother George Harvey, who was doing the work of an evangelist. Brother Harvey told me he was broken down, could not do the work, and that all eyes were turned on me. I must take up the work. Texas had few preachers then. They told me they had $269 already collected for the work, and if I would take the work, and trust the Lord, it would be raised to $600. I felt unable to sacrifice $1000 a year for $600, but was persuaded to do so.
I worked faithfully that year, preached all the time, often went to my appointment and swam seven times to reach the place. Had to walk when I could not borrow a horse.
On one occasion I started out afoot to my appointment, fifty-five miles away. No brother would loan me a horse, yet a Baptist woman let me ride her saddle horse. Six miles before reaching my appointment I had to swim a creek and got wet all over. I pulled off my clothes, wrung out the water and put them on, but my shoes were new, and with all the work I could do, I could not get them on while wet. So I went on to the church house and found it crowded. I walked down the aisle with one shoe on and the other in my hand, set it on the pulpit and preached the gospel. I went home with a brother, and dried my shoe before I could got it on.
Many times I have ridden forty miles during the night, have laid down and slept on the ground two or three hours, and gotten up and gone on to my appointment. I have gone more times than one without dinner and supper to reach my appointment to preach. On one occasion, I was at Navasota, Texas, at 4 a. m. and had an appointment that night forty miles east. The train ran my way twenty-eight miles to Montgomery but as they had to make no connection, and made one trip a day on their own time, I could not wait for them, so taking my grip in my hand I left the train and, walked down the track to Montgomery, twenty-eight miles, made it in at 4 p. m., borrowed a horse and went on twelve miles, got there on time, and filled my appointment. The train came in at 9 p.m., and when the editor wrote them up for letting passengers get off and beat them in five hours, the people seemed to enjoy the incident.
But that memorable year came to a close. I reported my work. Nearly one hundred people were baptized. Four or five little congregations were put to work. Brethren were all pleased with the work but thought they had done all they could, and paid me $239.75 for the year's work, and the $600 I was to get by trusting to the Lord never came. I then learned it was wise to trust the Lord and J. D. Tant for my support, but to trust him for four or five hundred ungodly brethren who pay cash for their tobacco, and get their preaching on a credit, does not go well with me. I then left east Texas and went to Bell county to do evangelistic work. I found more money and fewer Christians in Bell county than any place I had ever been.
The church of Christ at Holland told me to go out and preach and they would guarantee me $50 per month, provided the people would give it to me. Some subscribed liberally. One old brother, worth $80,000 promised $10.00 to the work and never did pay it. Another brother worth $40,000 promised $10.00 and paid it. One sister worth $600,000 was glad I was in the work, was anxious to help, but on account of a large herd of cattle she had bought, was unable to pay anything.
It was J. D. Tant who held the first meeting at Killeen, Bell county, Texas, bought candles to light the house, stayed at a third class hotel, and bought my horse feed at a wagon yard from Wednesday till Sunday before a single member out of the five families who lived there invited me to their homes. Yet I formed a congregation of eleven members and put them to work. Killeen now has a good house and two hundred members yet I do not suppose they want me to preach the gospel there. I labored five months under Holland at $50 per month as they had promised. They then called me in and heard my report. I had baptized fifty-three and done much good, but they feared they would have a drought. They were pleased with my work, but did not feel able to support me longer for the work. They paid me $96.00 of the $250 they owed me, and let me go. I guess they will pay me at the judgment day.
From Bell county, I drifted to Coryell county, September 1886, and held a great meeting which resulted in twenty-three baptisms. The brethren were carried away with my preaching, and declared I must come and settle among them, and do the work of an evangelist. I told them my trouble. I had a small farm with almost $1000 against it, a father and mother and sister to support. But a negro came to me just before I started from home and offered me $1800 cash for my farm, but I thought it was worth more, but I would take the $1800 for the farm and pay all debts when I returned home if I could do no better. I told them if they would raise $1000 and pay me out of debt I would bind myself to go and preach for them all the time for two years. Nothing suited them better. Ten of them got up a note for the $1000. One brother knew a man who had the money and wanted to loan it to him. They told me to go home and get all my things ready, and they would send me the check the first of December. I could pay all debts and come and be their evangelist for two years. I felt happy to think my debts would be paid and I could continue preaching the word.
I went home and assured all my creditors that I would be able to meet all my obligations when due, for I thought all brethren were true to their word. Just before my debt was due, I wrote for the check, and got a letter stating that they did not go to see the man about the money until they got my letter, and the man had already let the money out, and it would be best for me to make other arrangements, as they did not know where they could get the money. Just two days before my notes were due, I sold my place for $1200 and paid all debts. This was the farm I had refused $1800 for three months before, as I thought my brethren would be true to their word and help a fellow in a tight. But experience has taught me that when in trouble, trust only yourself. During September, 1886, I got up my first debate. Did not have sense enough to get up the propositions, and told the Baptists I would mail them propositions next week. I rode one hundred and forty miles horseback to get McGary and Hansbrough to help me word propositions for debate. Since then I have had experience in debating in seventeen states with thirteen denominations. I have held over two hundred debates, and think I know more about debating than I did then. I have not yet reached the time nor place where I think there is no good in debates. Neither have I reached the plane in preaching where all the churches love to hear me preach, and close their meetings to hear me. But like the Son of God who often offended the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious churches often become offended at my Bible preaching.
It was during the year 1886 that I attended the Austin state meeting where the church of Christ divided, when a small faction pulled off and organized a human society, and introduced instrumental music in worship. I did not go there to attend the meeting, but to hunt for a wife. I found the girl I wanted and told her my business. Four years later we were married. She became the mother of two children. Both of them are now dead. She was called home in 1894. A grander woman for a preacher's wife never lived. I count on seeing her with the redeemed in the city of our God.
In 1896, I married Miss Nannie Yater, who now stands by my side and helps me fight the battles of life. She is the mother of six children, all of whom are members of the church of Christ and if I ever accomplish much good in this life, I want God to give her the glory, for she has not only been the main spring of my life, but my helper and comforter and the power behind the throne in all things. I do not know of a preacher who has her equal for a wife. I rejoice that God gave me such a grand woman. In 1887 I moved to Hamilton, Texas, and did the work of an evangelist. During 1887 I was paid $504. I did the same work in 1888 and was paid $454. During 1889 I was paid $602. During those years, I often think I did my best work. I preached all the time from house to house at least five nights each week. During that three years, seven hundred were baptized, fourteen debates were held, and twenty-one little congregations were put to work. Since that time I have moved many times and held meetings in twenty-five states. I was never paid $1500 for any year's work. I have done much work on the farm, but I am still in the ring preaching, working, and praying that I may get out of debt and spend at least ten years preaching the gospel of the Son of God without being entangled with the cares of this world before I cross to the other side.
I write this bit of history only for the benefit of the young who may come after me so they will not think a preacher's life is all flowers and sunshine. If I had to live life again I know of but few changes I would make. I learned forty years ago that to become a Christian, a man must hear Christ (Matt. 7:24); have faith in him (John 20:30); repent of his sins (Luke 24:47); confess Christ (Matt. 10:32); and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). I have never had occasion to change but still preach it that way today; for I know if a man will do these things God will add him to his church, or the church of Christ, which is greater to me than all earthly gain. If this man then lives the life of a child of God, heaven will be his home.
As I come nearer the river's brink, I am fighting harder and trying to do more that God may welcome me, than ever before. Only a few more miles and I shall rejoice to see the other side. If God accepts me, all will be well with me. If not, I know he doeth all things well and shall humbly submit to his will. As this is my last lesson, I subscribe my name as J. D. TANT.
- The Gospel X-Ray, By J.D. Tant, Firm Foundation c.1933, Lesson 60, pages 283-291