Review: Sam Jones' Own Book
Sam P. Jones. Sam Jones' Own Book: A Series of Sermons. Reissued with a new introduction by Randall J. Stephens. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. 539 pp. ISBN 978-1-57003-827-3.
The title—Sam Jones’ Own Book—points loudly and with wit to the style and manner of the author. It is “Sam Jones’” not “The Rev. Samuel P. Jones’” book, marking Jones’s emphasis on his connection to common folk guided by conscience not book learning or, in Christian matters, doctrine or decree, conference or council. It is his own book, the emphasis on own a subtle rebuke to those who—and there were many—imagined him not up to the task. It is his own story—literally beginning with his autobiography and then moving to sermons that seek foremost to testify to God’s acts in his own life, not to church pronouncements or even biblical exegesis. The title thus bears witness to Jones’s ability to convey so much with so few words.
The University of South Carolina Press has published the first reissue of Sam Jones’ Own Book since its first edition in 1887. At that time, Jones was regarded the “Moody of the South.” After Dwight L. Moody’s death in 1899 and up until Jones’s untimely death in 1906, Jones was the best-known evangelist in America. Jones was born in 1847 in Alabama to a slave owning family of middling wealth that moved to Cartersville, Georgia, in 1857. Jones first studied law and was admitted to the Georgia bar in the 1860s, but finding salvation from sin—his favorite of which was drink—at his father’s deathbed, he became a Methodist minister and by the middle of the 1880s was preaching to overflowing crowds at revival meetings. Randall J. Stephens, author of the book’s new introduction and The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (2008), notes that although widely known in his time, Jones is largely forgotten today. Unlike his contemporary, Moody, Jones did not innovate theologically as did Moody with dispensationalism, premillennialism, and Keswick holiness; neither did he build lasting institutions.
The sermons in Sam Jones’ Own Book offer a window into his ideals and style as well as into the wider public discourse of southern evangelism in the late nineteenth century. Though he preached hell and the devil, he did so with humor and sarcasm rather than fire and brimstone. Primarily a storyteller, Jones captured sentiments with pithy sayings added at the end of each sermon—we are told he coined the phrase, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” (xii). His was a “sunny gospel” that stressed testimony, common sense, sentimentality, and anti-elitism (xiv). This anti-elitism and sentimentality, along with the “coarse” nature of his wit and the common vernacular with which he preached, drew, not surprisingly, criticism from elites like Mark Twain as well as from those favoring their gospel message in the King’s English (xiv). In terms of content, the sermons reveal little interest in biblical exegesis or the exploration of doctrine. Most stress the impact of conversion on the way one should live. “Quit Your Meanness”—his most famous sermon—captures this sentiment, which, as Stephens notes, marked his affinity with the emerging holiness movement.
From Stephens, and also from Kathleen Minnix’s Laughter in the Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones, we learn something of Jones’s wider significance and context. Jones was typical of southern minsters of his station on race. While always claiming “to be friend to the colored race,” he supported Jim Crow, opposed miscegenation, and was ambivalent on black disfranchisement and lynching. Politically he was a friend of Populists like Tom Watson but generally remained committed to laissez faire, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap capitalism that linked financial struggle to sinful living. On other matters he was more unique. According to Minnix, even though he was a staunch nativist, even a xenophobe, he was surprisingly irenical towards Roman Catholics and Jews. Although he opposed evolution, heresy, and especially the manufacture, distribution, and use of alcohol, he did not run in northern Fundamentalist circles, neither did he profess what would become the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, believing instead in “progressive theology,” a position that moved him to be quite forward looking on women’s rights, especially the right to preach.1
Kathleen Minnix, Laughter in the Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 201, 122–27.↩