There is an admonition in Scripture that instructs us to give honor to whom honor is due and tribute to whom tribute is due. In a world that seems to be filled with people who are more concerned with themselves; giving honor and tribute to others is fast becoming a thing of the past.
In a time that we can only know by reading historical records, a man lived in Pulaski and Wayne County, Kentucky who left his footprints in the hearts and minds of thousands of people. Some of those people were from his own family, some were a part of his church family, some were friends and neighbors, some were strangers.
His influence is not limited to those he knew personally. Some of those he influenced would live over a century after he departed this life and entered into his eternal rest.
This honorable man was Josephus Newton Davis—dedicated servant of God and man.
Granted, his name is not one of those household words spoken by the masses. Sad to say, his name is not even known or recognized by those who have the greatest reasons to know him best.
Josephus Newton Davis was born in Wythe County, Virginia, on June 5, 1818. He was from a very religious family and was named “Josephus” in honor of the great first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus.
Gaining an education consumed a major part of Josephus’ early childhood. In his diary he writes: “I…studied of nights by pine firelight and sometimes by candlelight, after I would finish my day’s labor (for my father hired me from home). I would walk two or three miles home to study at night, and would study until a very late hour…I did not spend the Sabbath as some who went to preaching, nor as others, who would gamble and spend the day badly. But, I would go off to myself and study all day. At that time I was about seventeen years old.”
Josephus also studied to become a very capable surveyor and was able to provide support for his family with this particular trade.
When Josephus decided to marry Virginia Whittiker, he began teaching in small schools in his community to be in a better position to support a wife. He said: “…as I was a poor man and had made a marriage contract, I concluded that I had better teach school a while before marriage in order to be the better prepared to commence housekeeping.”
Josephus studied much more than books on Arithmetic and Geography. In his own words Josephus tells about his conversion to Christ: “…I had read the Scriptures all attentively also to reflect upon the condition in which I was then placed…I concluded that I knew my Master’s will and that if I did not do it I would be beaten with many stripes and that justly. I also knew that life is uncertain as to its duration, and that death is sure, and also, after death the Judgment. I saw that in Judgment I could not stand in my own righteousness. Therefore, I concluded that I must put on Christ that I might stand justified in His righteousness. Therefore, I wrote to Chester Bullard to meet me at Richard Runyon’s on New River and immerse me, which he did the next day on his return from Harmony Meeting house where he had been preaching…I was baptized on the 18th day of January A.D. 1841, just four years and one day after my father had been baptized by the same man in Peek Creek at Brown’s and Aiken’s Papermill.”
Chester Bullard was one of the last of the old pioneer preachers who was a part of the early movement for the restoration of New Testament Christianity and the union of all God’s people.
After becoming a Christian, Josephus’ life entered a new phase. He would now combine his love for teaching and education with a love for preaching the Gospel of Christ and persuading Christians to practice the faith according to the principles of the New Testament.
He was so impressed with the teaching and preaching of another preacher of New Testament Christianity, Alexander Campbell, that he named his second son Constantine Campbell in his honor.
Josephus was soon recognized as a gifted speaker and on May 22, 1847, he was ordained and set apart as an Evangelist by the laying on of hands by A.B. Walthall, Chester Ballard, and Cephas Shelburn.
In the same year Josephus and his family moved to Madison County, Kentucky where he spent much of his time teaching in the primitive schools of the area.
Teaching did not seem to interfere with his preaching.
In 1852, he journeyed to Mount Vernon, Kentucky where he preached resulting in the union of Baptist and Christian Churches, organizing a congregation of Christians, and baptizing from fifty to sixty people.
Josephus and his family made an important move when, on December 24, 1852, they moved to Pulaski County where he “commenced teaching in a few days, having engaged with ten men to teach six months at $2.00 per day…”My school numbered 73 scholars.”
He “preached occasionally in Somerset regularly, once a month at Salem, Union and at Freedom or in its vicinity…” Josephus also preached at Sardis, Caney Fork, and at Antioch.
He and his family eventually moved into a house in the “southern part of the town on Monticello Street…known as the Dr. Elliott place.
The Davis family moved around to different places in Somerset with Josephus teaching, preaching, and surveying.
You should know and understand that not all religious people or religious groups were open or receptive to the preaching of New Testament Christianity. Many of the preachers of the Christian Church were met with strong opposition. Josephus encountered such opposition while he lived in Somerset. He said: “During the…time I lived at Somerset, I had much opposition…The year 1855 was a hard time for me…I did not preach in town for a considerable time on account of their prejudice.”
In 1862, the Civil War was raging and Josephus says: “…on account of the dreadful war and great interruption of the people so as to break up schools generally…I had to quit my avocation of teaching and surveying…”
Being a man of strong conviction, Josephus did not leave us in the dark concerning his position about the Civil War. He wrote: “I have been true in all respects for the Union of the States for many reasons…I have ever been opposed to slavery as it exists in the United States. I have ever preferred our government. I am in favor of Emancipation…I believe Abraham Lincoln to be an upright and honest man. I believe that God has an interest in the happiness and elevation of the black man as well as in the white, and that if He seems it right for them to be free or has any purpose to accomplish for them it will be done in spite of all opposition…I grieve not at the surrounding storm though I am troubled at so much evil and disrespect toward God…I believe the mock Democracy of the present time and slavery are the two greatest political evils of the world.”
A family story told about Josephus is that during the war, Kentucky was a split state having many Union and Southern sympathizers living in the same community. It seems that during church services several people would often argue the merits of both sides, sometimes sending the congregation into fights over who was right and who was wrong.
Josephus had had about as much as he was going to take one Sunday and told the people to come outside the church building with him. When they gathered outside, he drew a line around the perimeter of the building and told his people that once they stepped over that line, there would be no discussing the war and no fighting over it.
It worked and no one disputed his rule!
The Civil War affected the Davis family in a very personal way. On April 7, 1865, Josephus’ son, Constantine, was shot in a battle with guerrillas in Tennessee and was returned home where he was nursed back to health by his family.
In his preaching, Josephus prided himself on being able to “preach the Gospel without charge, that is…never preach[ing] with an understood price.” He followed this practice because he said: “…I have hitherto denied that money shall control me.”
Josephus distinguished himself in the field of education while living Pulaski County and was chosen to be a school commissioner.
Josephus kept a diary for several years and it contains many of his experiences while he lived in Pulaski County. One of those entries reads: “I lately baptized a little boy of eight years old (Halleck Ballou) an extraordinary child, having the discretion of an old person and understanding well what he was doing, who demanded to be a member of the Church. His father, Elder Joseph Ballou, was present and became convinced of the property and baptized him.”
On April 25, 1870, one of the most tragic events in the life of the Josephus Newton Davis family took place. His son, Virginius Newton Davis, died from a murderous gunshot wound inflicted on him by a student in one of the schools being taught by Josephus.
Josephus never recovered from that terrible tragedy. He would never made another entry in his diary that he had kept for so many years.
Josephus was grief stricken and eventually moved from Pulaski County to the Mill Springs area of Wayne County. There, he would build a fine house and a school just across the road. Both the house and the school still stand today.
Josephus and his wife, were pillars in the Mill Springs community. They are both buried on their old home place where markers have been placed to remind generations of the life and legacy of this great old preacher and teacher who was fully dedicated to God and to man.
Josephus Newton Davis was a man called of God to serve. The people of Wayne County, Kentucky have been blessed by his service. The story of his life has the potential to inspire people today to walk in the old paths of God’s righteousness, so that one day, they can be united with all of God’s saints in that Eternal Home He has prepared for His children.
Maybe then we can spend a great deal of time talking to Josephus Newton Davis and listening to his stories about his life in Pulaski and Wayne County, Kentucky.
Until then, we commend to you Josephus Newton Davis, a dedicated servant of God and man.
– Harlan Ogle