In 1847 three baby boys were born who ultimately impacted people all over the world. One was Thomas Alva Edison, heralded as the greatest inventor in modern history. He patented 1.093 inventions in his lifetime, and his greatest contribution was the invention of electric lights. Then there was Alexander Graham Bell, who at the age of 29 made his mark on the world when he patented the telephone. But the boy who grew up to be known as “the most famous man in America” was Sam Jones!
“Sam who?” you may ask. During his lifetime no one could have predicted that the most famous man in America would be a lost coin to the future generations for which he gave his life as a sacrificial seed. Sam Jones was the first man to preach the gospel to a million souls a day—before the invention of television and radio. To many, he was just a controversial idealist who envisioned a world where children would not cry for bread, and all would be redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
Sam was compelled by a fire in his heart to preach the gospel. And preach he did, until the day he reported to heaven’s gate, having personally led more than one million souls to Jesus. In doing so, Sam had become, at one time or another, a topic of conversation at virtually every dinner table in this nation. Hated by some, loved and respected by millions, he jolted the nation as he thundered the Word of God to his generation. And then, like the sound of thunder, his voice drifted away into the heavens. Today hardly anyone has heard of Sam Jones. This is why I venture to say that he is now the most famous unknown man in America. Sam was born in Oak Bowery, Alabama—a little known town that doesn’t even exist anymore.
His father, Captain John J. Jones, was distinguished for his intelligence, integrity and social qualities. His mother was a kind, sweet-spirited Southern lady. Both found it a great challenge to harness young Sam’s energy. Even as a child he was a walking circus of entertainment, with a captivating personality and an uncanny wit.
Prophesying His Future
When Sam was five years old, the older students in the one-room school he attended were asked to recite speeches for the parents. Sam insisted on giving a speech as well. While Sam waited his turn, the heat and the boredom lulled him to sleep in his mother’s lap. When his turn came, his mother woke him and the teacher stood him on the top of his desk. Sam straightened himself and boldly declared:
“You’d scarce expect one of my age
To speak in public on the stage,
With thundering peals and Thornton tones
The world shall hear of Sam P. Jones.”
Little did anyone imagine that he was prophesying his future! If they had, they certainly would have lost faith in that word during his younger years. Only a few months after his bold pronouncement, he received a harsh blow when his mother unexpectedly passed away when he was nine. A few years later, his father married a precious Christian lady who did all she could to instill godly principles in Sam’s life.
However, things become more difficult when the Civil War broke out and his father joined the Army of Virginia. As a result of his father’s absence and the disorder in their family, young Sam fell into the wrong crowd. Because of the strength of his personality, he became the ringleader of the delinquent and unruly young people in his community. Sam had physical problems and was encouraged to find “medicinal relief” from drinking whiskey.
Because Sam had a brilliant mind and a photographic memory, his studies were never much of a challenge. Instead he used his creative energy to entertain fellow classmates with clever pranks and ingenious gags. Consequently, he became the center of attraction in every crowd, all the while secretly grieving the loss of his mother and the absence of his father. In addition, his physical pain and the harsh effects of the Civil War also weighed heavily on him. Whiskey increasingly became his escape.
When he was 15, the news came that Sherman and his troops were only a few hours from his hometown of Cartersville, Georgia. The townspeople were forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. Young Sam was good with horses, so he took it upon himself to hide all the neighbors’ horses in order to keep Sherman’s soldiers from stealing them. When he had finished his task, he returned home to find that his stepmother and siblings had fled Cartersville without him.
Left to flee by himself, Sam ran into Union soldiers. Relying on his gift of gab and entertaining wit, he struck up a conversation with his would-be murderers and won their friendship. Finding his storytelling ability an escape from the horrors of war, they took him in as a mascot. He eventually found himself a guest in the Kentucky home of one of the young soldiers, where he fell in love with the young man’s sister. At the end of the war, Sam went home to Georgia, finished his education, and followed in his father’s footsteps. He became a lawyer, which made him confident that he could provide a good living for a family.
Down the Ladder of Success
Sam went back to Kentucky to claim his bride. Miss Laura McElwain became Mrs. Sam Jones and moved to Georgia, anticipating a life of comfort and social prestige. But her dreams of a fairytale life were soon crushed when the reality of Sam’s relationship with the whiskey bottle surfaced. The promising young lawyer was already caught in a downward spiral of alcoholism, physical fatigue, mental anguish, and spiritual bankruptcy.
Sam soon drank himself down the ladder of success. Meanwhile Laura, with courage born out of despair and a faith in God, prayed for him. She asked God to do whatever was necessary to save him from sure disaster. She felt that he was on his way to an untimely death if something didn’t change soon. His health was wrecked, and sleepless nights, restless days, depression and drunkenness were taking their toll.
Then, in August 1872, Sam found himself standing at his father’s deathbed. He grasped his father’s hand to bid his last farewell. The old captain looked his son in the eyes and simply said, “Son, promise you’ll meet me in heaven.” Then he triumphantly shouted his way through the gates of death.
Sam declared, “I yield, I yield,” determining right then and there that every remaining step of his life would be an honest effort to fulfill that promise to his father. But Sam’s father wasn’t the only on shouting that day; his saintly old grandmother was another. She was said to have read the entire Bible from cover to cover 37 times while on her knees, applying the promises of God in prayer for Sam’s wayward life.
The Call to Preach
After peace and pardon came to Sam’s heart, he went to his grandfather’s church for an evening service. Before the service, he told his grandfather that he felt God had called him to preach. His grandfather proudly stood before the congregation and announced that Sam had received “the call.” Sam was shocked when the old man then turned to him and said, “Sam, if you are called to preach, come up here and do it!”
Sam walked to the platform and nervously read a passage of Scripture. “I don’t know much about what I have just read,” Sam admitted, “but I will tell you what I do know. I know that God is good, and I am happy in His love.” By the end of the clumsy message, people were melted to tears, and when the invitation was given, many thronged to the altar to receive Jesus as Savior.
Although God used Sam to bless many that night, nearly everyone was in secret agreement that his newfound “call” wouldn’t stick. One of the biggest skeptics was Laura, because by now she had heard too many empty “I’ll do better” promises. Nevertheless, after the service Sam’s grandfather laid his hand on Sam’s shoulder and said, “Go ahead, my boy; God has called you to do the work.”
Sam was called to preach; and he knew it to the core of his being. But neither he nor God had convinced Laura yet. She had not married a preacher; she had married a lawyer. In a heated argument over the matter, Sam declared, “God has called me to preach, and He will remove every obstacle in my path.”
“In that case,” Laura answered, “He’ll just have to remove me.”
Sam replied, “Well, I’m going to Atlanta in the morning to petition for an appointment in the Methodist Church.”
“If you are going to Atlanta,” Laura warned him, “I’m going home to Kentucky.” But in the middle of the night she became extremely ill. Fearing that the Lord was indeed about to clear Sam’s path, Laura promised God that if He allowed her to live, she would be a faithful pastor’s wife. The next morning Laura was better, and Sam left for Atlanta with her blessing. However, she maintained that she would not do any public speaking, nor would she ever play the piano.
The Unlikely Minister
The Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church had lost many of its pastors to the Civil War. So even though Sam was not educated for the ministry and his personality was a little too crude and aggressive, they accepted him into the ministry because they were desperate. Then they shuffled him off to the most destitute and obscure place they could send him: the Van Wert Circuit of north Georgia. Although it was mostly widows and orphans of war, Sam was excited just to have a place to preach the gospel.
Sam rejoiced all the way back home. In order to pay off their debts, many of which were the result of Sam’s previous alcoholism, he and Laura sold everything they owned. Sam arrived in Van Wert with his wife, one child, a bobtail pony, eight dollars in his pocket and several hundred dollars in remaining debts. He found out from the head deacon that the last preacher was paid $65 for a year’s work, and the deacon was charging Sam $120 a year for rent.
Sam’s faith and bravery enabled him to overcome these obstacles. He took on the task with a heart aflame for God and a bulldog determination to see God’s faithfulness. His preaching style was a challenge to the religious expectations of the day. And when injustice would try to rise up in the church government, Sam’s sheer boldness would prevail.
On more than one occasion, Sam was challenged to back up his convictions with his fists. Once a prominent church member took advantage of an elderly widow in the church. The next Sunday while Sam was preaching—with the man sitting piously on the front row—Sam pointed at him and said, “You old hypocrite! You hired a poor widow to pick blackberries for you and then paid her with spoiled flour.”
The man and his family got up and stormed out, and Sam later found them outside holding a caucus. When the man threatened to whip him, Sam said, “Shucks, I don’t care about being whipped. I can whip any old fellow that would cheat a poor widow, and I can whip all of his kinfolk too.” The man paid the widow what was due.
“I can’t really preach,” Sam admitted, “but I can talk a little.” His conversational style was such a radical departure from the typical 19th century preachers that it created a peculiar sensation every time he spoke. Yet friends and enemies alike believed his abrasiveness would eventually destroy him. Sam hated hypocrisy and shams with a vengeance, and his abrupt and intense manner often divided the congregations where he spoke. The more the “Old Heads” tried to harness him and tone down his preaching, the more daring he became.
The parishioners finally understood the toughness of their preacher when a dying church member called Sam to his bedside and asked him to pray for his recovery. Sam looked at him and said, :I don’t see any good reason for asking the Lord to heal you.”
Despite his prosperity, the man had not given a penny to the church. Sam told him that his membership was expendable: “I can ask him to save you and take you to heaven, but there is no reason why I should ask Him to preserve your life, for you are absolutely worthless to the cause of the kingdom.” Once the amazed man promised to become a faithful contributor, Sam asked God to heal him. The man was healed and proved true to his word.
The Paradoxical Preacher
Sam was a walking paradox. He violently preached against drinking, profanity, gambling and every imaginable sin that was plaguing the church and community. He used the Word as a sword and cut to the heart of hypocrisy and injustice. The hypocrites soon realized they couldn’t force him into submission or drive him out, so they tried to starve him by withholding his pay. When Laura informed Sam that their cupboard was bare, he simply loaded up his family and went to stay with one of the leading members. Upon arriving, he told his hosts that his family was incapable of “getting our grub raw, so we’ll take it cooked.”
Sam dealt ruthlessly with the ruthless, yet a kinder, more compassionate man couldn’t be found. He would weep for hours, and even days, over his sheep—and then walk into the pulpit and call them to repent. He was convinced that the devil had no better servant than “a preacher who is laying feather beds for falling Christians to light on.”
Whatever it took to further the kingdom, Sam was willing to give. On many occasions he gave the last money he had to someone in need. He also had an uncanny ability to discern the hidden motives of people’s actions. Preaching light and truth in the dialect of a common man, Sam deftly broke the yokes of bondage in people’s lives.
Sam’s preaching resulted in approximately 5,000 converts in his first years of ministry. His fruitfulness in sharing the gospel led him to discontinue pastoring and take up the task of a traveling preacher. With his mixture of plain talk and fiery preaching, Sam was quickly becoming a master in the pulpit. God had tempered him with a fire that burned deep—a fire that brought forth the courage, the directness, the sympathy, the faith, the fervor and the humility of a true evangelist. He was igniting flames of revival everywhere he went.
The Nashville Connection
In 1885 Sam was invited to conduct a revival in Nashville, Tennessee. Upon receiving the invitation, he wrote back and consented to come, with one stipulation: He asked the Protestant Ministers Association to provide a tent that would accommodate 5,000 people, since he felt that God desired to do a great work in Nashville.
The ministers thought his request was unreasonable and arrogant. After all, no one could draw a crowd of those proportions in Nashville, especially some “hayseed Georgia cracker” whom no one had even heard preach before. Some of the ministers sided with Sam and voted to buy the tent, while others took great offense and opposed his coming. Sam challenged them to let him come and preach in three churches on Sunday in April; then they could decide whether or not the tent was a feasible idea.
Sam showed up in April to preach in the three largest churches in the city. Immense crowds filled the churches to overflowing, and hundreds were turned away. He jolted the “Athens of the South” to its core. The stiff and solemn church members laughed in spite of themselves. Others were shocked speechless, while some were infuriated.
Those who had never seen Sam before were struck by how physically unimpressive he was. He did not wear a funeral frock coat or a clerical collar. Instead he typically wore a combination of stripes and plaid, an alpaca suit with a limp tie and a wilted felt hat. He never wore cuffs, and said he “hated starch of all kinds.” When he walked up to the pulpit, his rumpled folksiness set him apart from the starchy leaders on the platform, which in turn identified him more closely with the folks in the pew.
Once Sam was introduced, he ambled up to the podium, closed his eyes, and asked God not to convict a single sinner in that service, because “the company in the church ain’t good enough for them yet.” He opened his eyes and quoted Acts 17:16: “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens his spirit was stirred in him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” That was followed by a series of lightning-flashes of wit that captured every ear in the house. His humor, adorned with his “down home” dialect and illustrations was spellbinding.
Sam then completely turned the tide by declaring a ruthless rebuke, which convicted the entire assembly. He started with the church leadership, and held each of them personally responsible for the spiritual climate of the city. When one of the pastors reacted negatively to the onslaught, Sam insisted, “Whenever you see me with a grubbing hoe on my shoulder, I’m out after grub worms. If you ain’t a worm, sit still—I ain’t after you.”
Sam continued, Folks, if I throw a rock into a crowd of dogs, and one of ‘em runs yelping, you know that is the one I hit. When I first started preaching, I was afraid I would hurt somebody’s feelings; now I’m afraid I won’t. The fact is, 68 of the 88 saloons in this city are owned by church members. Nobody but a scoundrel will sell whiskey, and nobody but a fool will drink it. That tells me that we have a church full of scoundrels and a city full of fools. And not one of you pastors has been brave enough to fight the battle at hand.”
Though everyone was startled by Sam’s message, they knew his harsh honesty was the truth. The anointing on his life arrested hundreds of hearts and brought them to sincere repentance. Needless to say, Sam stirred up a multitude of hornets’ nests. Some wanted him tarred and feathered, while others wanted him to run for mayor.
The next day, the Nashville newspapers blasted him with every insult they could think of. The controversy hit the city full force, not to speak of the resulting conflict in the ministers’ meeting. Some defended him and applauded his bravery and sincerity, declaring that God was giving Nashville an opportunity for true revival. Others were embarrassed to be a part of Sam’s meetings, branding him an embarrassment to the ministry. Nevertheless, he had created a buzz that they felt almost forced to have him back. A local citizen demanded to the ministers’ association, “If you don’t buy the tent, I’ll buy the tent.” So they bought an 8,000-seat tent, and the following month Sam arrived back in Nashville.
Revival at Last
More than 10,000 people gathered for Sam’s first meeting, and he preached one of the most powerful sermons of his life. Thousands turned to God. At the end of the message, he challenged them to pray for their city and put feet to their faith. Together with the 20,000 people he had recruited to intercede for the city, Sam declared, “God will do a great work.”
As he closed the first service, Sam announced that he would preach at 6:00 A.M., 10:00 A.M., 2:00 P.M., and 6:00P.M. —Four times a day, two hours per service, with no PA system, to crowds of more than 10,000. Soon the city was aflame with revival. The power of God moved through Nashville with such a force that every citizen within a hundred-mile radius was impacted to one degree or another.
Churches became united in the effort to save souls. The revival had such an impact on the community that the drunks and prostitutes were literally becoming choir members. Sam was an untiring circus in full swing, as the masses hung on every word, erupting in thunderous laughter one minute and uncontrollable sobs of repentance the next.
An Opponent Is Converted
The most notorious saloon owner and river boat captain in the city came to the meeting one night to execute revenge on Sam for turning his whiskey drinkers and gamblers into “Bible thumpers.” The loss of his clientele to some “rude preacher from Georgia” was more than he was willing to tolerate.
The captain showed up with his thugs, fully intending to physically attack Sam and run him out of town. Sam had been informed through the grapevine of his intentions, and announced at the beginning of the meeting, “I understand some fellers have come here to whup me tonight. I weight 135 pounds, and 132 pounds of me is solid backbone.” He invited the thugs to meet him outside after the message and said that he would welcome the exercise.
At the end of the sermon, the captain walked down the middle aisle and stated, “Sam Jones, I cam here to whup you tonight, but you have whupped me with the gospel.” The captain gave his heart to God and expressed his allegiance to Sam as a lifelong friend. He walked out of the tent a changed man, and then went to his saloon and rolled all the whiskey barrels down the street and into the Cumberland River. He also ordered all whiskey overboard on his 35 steamboats and turned their gambling halls into floating missions.
The captain told Sam that if he would continue to come back to Nashville and preach, he would build him an auditorium in which to hold his meetings. True to his word, he built the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which for years was a lighthouse for the hopeless. When the captain died in 1904, Sam preached his memorial service at the Tabernacle. Before the gathering of some 4000 people, Sam said he felt it would be pleasing to God if the name of the Tabernacle would be changed to honor the captain, who had given unselfishly to the purpose of spreading the gospel to the community. So they changed the name of the building to the Ryman Auditorium (which became the home of The Grand Ole Opry).
The Revival Spreads
Sam went to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, Toronto, Baltimore, Boston, and many other cities. Every one of these cities had two things in common: They were desperately in need of an earthshaking revival—and they got it. In every city, the largest facility was filled with an overflowing mass of humanity. Special trains ran from all over the country, and the crowds in the streets often were logjammed for hours as people struggled to get to the meetings.
The front rows of Sam’s meetings were occupied by teletypists from the major newspapers across America. As Sam spoke, his sermons were wired to the newspaper offices. The next morning his sermon would be the front-page topic of conversation at breakfast tables across the country. An estimated million and a half readers heard the gospel each day after one of Sam’s crusades.
Renowned evangelist D.L. Moody called Cincinnati, Ohio “the graveyard for evangelists.” The municipal life was corrupt, and the churches, meanwhile, were weak and powerless. No evangelist had ever been successful there. Even with the combined forces of great ministries, impressive schemes for evangelism staggered and failed.
When Sam came to Cincinnati, he not only was faced with the cold indifference of the spiritual climate, but the city was also hit with a devastating snowstorm. Yet it seemed that the colder the weather was, the hotter Sam’s preaching.
The local newspaper read:
The great religious revival conducted by Sam Jones has been spreading like wildfire day by day, until now little else is thought or spoken of in the city. In the hotel lobbies, offices, stores, clubhouses and police circles, the subject of religion and the man who is now so forcibly proclaiming it in this community are the general topics of conversation. The subjects of purity versus impurity, and godliness versus ungodliness, have penetrated places where, before, such thoughts were never dreamed of.
At the height of the revival, D.L. Moody stepped off the train to hear Sam preach. Upon his return to the train, he wrote Sam a note saying: “God has given you a sledgehammer with which to shatter the formalism of the church and better down the strongholds of Satan. The good Spirit is helping you mightily to use it.” By the last night of the meetings, more than 50,000 people were trying to get a seat in the 10,000-seat Cincinnati Music Hall. During the course of his meetings there, more than 300,000 heard him speak and approximately 700 a day were saved.
Every city where Sam preached had its own unique circumstances, but the common thread was that God used Sam to do the unthinkable. Saloons were closed by the hundreds, prostitutes and drunkards were saved by the thousands, and churches were united and ignited as the flame swept the country. Night after night, year after year, Sam pointed the throngs to the cross.
A Soldier Goes Home
October 15, 1906, Sam was returning from a revival in Oklahoma. On the Rock Island train at Perry, Arkansas, as he was laughing and chatting with the porter, he asked for a cup of water. Before receiving it, Sam quietly went to heaven. The voice that had so powerfully preached to the nation did not find strength to utter any “last words.”
Sam’s body was removed from the train at Little Rock and placed on a special train. The nation stood still as the “Sam Jones Special” was given right of way, and thousands of onlookers lined the tracks in silent honor. Church bells were sounded across the nation to commemorate his death. In Cartersville a huge throng heard Judge John W. Akin declare, “The dead soldier of the cross comes home.” Had he lived, it would have been his 59th birthday.
Sam’s body was taken to Atlanta to lie in state under the dome of the capitol building. Massive crowds filed by to take a last look at the man who had done so much for so many. Hundreds of ushers were needed that day to attend to Sam’s body and the thousands of mourners that gathered. The ushers were chosen from among the scores of orphans who had grown up in the orphanages that Sam had established all over the country during his lifetime.
The secret of Sam’s success was said to be that no one in his generation hated sin more than him, and no one expressed it with more fire and fury. Also, no one loved the sinner more than Sam Jones, nor expressed more kindness and compassion. Not only did he have a splendid intellect, but he was a man of deep conviction and unwavering character. Although Sam was continually criticized for his unorthodox style of ministry, he insisted on being himself rather than trying to fit into someone else’s mold.
Nashville was the gateway to national acclaim for Sam, and his meetings there were a turning point in his life and ministry. It was the place where God first seemed to release His anointing. As he went forth to conquer in other battlefields, he always spoke of Nashville as “the most memorable meeting.” Sam recalled it as the place of his greatest persecution and the most remarkable work of God’s grace.
More than 100 years have passed, and Nashville has become the gateway to fame for many others. It is a place where God desires to release the fullness of His anointing upon those He has called. Sam once told Captain Tom Ryman, “If Nashville ever becomes cold and indifferent again, God will do a work of grace in another generation that will warm her to the boiling point once again.” Nashville has now become a collection of the unorthodox, as well as the critical and indifferent. It is a city dominated by an industry whose foundation is built upon self-promotion, insecurity, criticism and greed.
We live in a society where sin is not only acceptable, it’s marketable. Men and women will sell their very souls in order to be exalted to stardom and make a temporal mark on society. Somehow we justify celebrating their carnal and destructive impact on society. Meanwhile, the real heroes, like Sam Jones, are quickly forgotten.
May God arrest the hearts of the “Sams” of today, and may the Ryman Auditorium represent a place where turning points occur. May warriors go forth from this city and conquer in the nation’s battlefields, armed with Sam’s strength of character and his anointing to overcome the critics of the day. May the desire for self-promotion yield to a heart of self-denial. May they use their great giftings to war for righteousness, bravely rebuking the selfishness and sin of our generation.
If you are ever in the little town of Cartersville, Georgia, I would encourage you to visit the cemetery. There on a knoll, overlooking the train tracks that carried Sam and his message across the nation, you will find a headstone that simply reads: “They that turn many to righteousness shall shine as stars forever” (Daniel 12:3). SHINE ON SAM!