September 10: Rev. Robert M. Cunningham, D.D. [1760-1839]

Aiming ever to bring sinners to Christ, and Christians to higher attainments in holiness.

When I commenced the collection of facts respecting the life of this distinguished minister I made very slow progress. This was not strange, for he was called by the Presbyterian Church, in Moulton, nearly sixty years ago, was eighty years old when he died. and had been dead more than forty years, so that the space of time to be investigated extended as far back as 120 years. I had known Dr. Cunningham, personally, for about a year; admired him as a man and a preacher and felt satisfied that he had a history of much interest, provided it could be brought to light. I first applied for information to the Alabama State Historical Society, at Tuscaloosa, and obtained valuable items as to the latter part of his life, which closed near this place. From Maj. H. B. McLellan, president of Sayre Female Institute, I received important information as to his long pastorate at Lexington, Ky. Rev. F. B. Converse, of Louisville, editor of the Christian Observer, was written to. He promptly supplied what he could, remarking “that it was too long ago for us to furnish any information respecting him from personal knowledge,” and suggested that, possibly, the Presbyterian Historical Society, at Philadelphia, might contribute some items. I felt discouraged, but early nearly fifty years of his valuable life remained unaccounted for, and I addressed an inquiry to that society, who referred it to Rev. Henry E. Dwight, D.D., of Philadelphia. The doctor promptly sent an account of Dr. Cunningham from his birth, covering fully and circumstantially the blank in his history, and shedding much light on the subsequent part of his career. The authorities cited by Dr. Dwight were Revs. J. D. Shane, Nathan S. Beman and S. McCulloch. This forms the staple of the following sketch of the life of Dr. Cunningham. I have interwoven, in their order, such facts as I have ascertained, so as to present at one view the principal events of a long and useful life. I have made this preliminary explanation for the purpose of showing how it happened that I am able to present so circumstantial an account of events of so ancient a date, the reliable resources for which they were derived, and the importance of historical societies.

Robert M. Cunningham, a son of Roger and Mary Cunningham, was born in York county, Pa., September 10, 1760. In his fifteenth year, his father removed his family to North Carolina, where he bought a plantation, and reared his children. White quite a youth he served as a soldier in the revolutionary war. At the close of the war, he entered a Latin school, taught by the Rev. Robert Finley, in the neighborhood of Rocky River, N. C. He remained here a year, and then went to Bethel settlement, York county, N. C., to be a pupil of Mr. Robert McCulloch, for two years. Then he removed to an academy on Bullock’s creek, taught by Rev. Jos. Alexander. In 1787 (being 26 years of age) he entered the junior class in Dickinson College, Carlisle; and graduated in 1789.

On leaving college, he returned to his parents. While studying theology he taught school for a support. He soon joined the First Presbytery of South Carolina, by which he was licensed to preach, in 1792. Here he married his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Charles and Mary Moore, of Spartanburg District. She died on November 3, 1794; issue, a daughter who died early.

In the autumn of 1792 he went to Georgia and organized a church in a part of Green county, now called Hancock; and ordained elders to a church called Ebenezer. He settled in the neighborhood, opened a school, and preached alternately at Ebenezer and Bethany and subsequently removed to Bethany, where he remained until he left the State. On October 15, 1795, he married Betsy Ann, daughter of Joseph Parks, of Prince Edward county, Va. By this marriage he had five sons. In 1796, he, with four other ministers, were sent off from the Presbytery of South Carolina, to form one in Georgia, called Hopewell, which was constituted the March following. On October 14, 1805, he married, as a third wife, Emily, daughter of Col. Byrd, of Augusta, Ga., who survived him. Here was a family of distinction. Her sister, Caroline, married Benj. C. Yancey, a lawyer of great promise in South Carolina, who died in the morning of life. Wm. L. Yancey, the great Southern orator was her son, by this marriage. She married a second time, Rev. Nathan S. Beman, a Presbyterian minister, who occupied the pulpit in Augusta for many years; and had great reputation for learning and eloquence. A strong proof of this was given in the fact that his Northern anti-slavery opinions were tolerated. Another sister of this family marred Jesse Beene, of Cahaba, Ala., a distinguished lawyer and politician. At the time of this marriage, we judge that Mr. Cunningham had won distinction in a ministerial and social respect.

In 1807, Mr. Cunningham removed to Lexington, Ky., and was installed pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, succeeding Rev. Dr. Blythe, who was the first preacher of that church. Lexington was the oldest town in the State of Kentucky, and in the centre of a beautiful and fertile country. Its society was even then celebrated for its wealth and intellectual culture. Of all the pulpits west of the mountains, none required a minster of learning and eloquence more than the one occupied by Mr. Cunningham. Here were the homes of the Clays, Breckinridges, and other families which have since been famous in the history of the country. One would be apt to conclude, that at this early period, the grade of the Presbyterian preachers was much below what it is at the present day, but it is not so. From the progress of the Arts and Sciences the modern preachers may have a broader culture, but I much doubt if any one of them is the equal, in eloquence, of Dr. Samuel Davies, who died a hundred years ago. His fervid, rich, imaginative style, flowing as ample as the current of a great river, was the model for ministers who succeeded him in the early part of this century. Mr. Cunningham’s pastorate there was a long one. The records of the board of trustees show that he was called in 1807 and continued until 1821, inclusive. He became a member of the Synod of Kentucky as early as 1803, and was one of the founders of the Kentucky Bible Society of 1817. The early sessional records of this church can not be found; and therefore we are unable to present as full an account of him as is desirable at this period of his life, when he was in full mental and bodily vigor.

He remained in Lexington until 1822, when he resigned and removed to Moulton, a small town in North Alabama. He was now an old man and had been laboring as a minster for thirty years. He became a farmer, preaching constantly in Moulton and surrounding villages. In the fall of 1826 he removed to the South and bought a farm eleven miles from Tuscaloosa, on the Greensboro road. In Tuscaloosa, and at the neighboring town of Carthage, near his plantation, he built up churches. Here he alternated, occasionally preaching at Greensboro, of which church his son Joseph was pastor. For eight years he preached a free gospel at Tuscaloosa, and then resigned in favor of Rev. Wm. Williams. For several years afterward he supplied the pulpit at Carthage, and preached his last sermon in the summer of 1836. From this time his mental and bodily powers began to decline.

He was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Franklin College, Georgia, in 1827, when Dr. Waddell was President, and Dr. Church, and James and Henry Jackson, were members of the Faculty. In 1836 he removed to Tuscaloosa for the sake of schools for his youngest daughter, and several orphan grandchildren, and partly to provide a comfortable home for his family, in view of his approaching departure; but he still passed the greater part of his time at his retreat near his plantation. Here his favorite authors were Milton, President Edwards and Dr. Thomas Dick. In June, 1839, he attended the meeting of the Presbytery at Tuscaloosa, and was enabled to address that body—his last effort in public. After an illness of a week, he died. His monument stands in the city cemetery of Tuscaloosa, with an inscription on each of its four sides in the Latin language, showing, among other things, that he had been a soldier in the Revolution; that he had been Pastor of Presbyterian churches in Georgia, and in Lexington, Ky., for many years, and that he died on the 11th day of July, A. D. 1839, 80 years of age.

Rev. Joseph Cunningham (above referred to) was one of five sons by his father’s second marriage, and a minister of ability. By his last marriage, he had a son, Robert, a physician, who died in Sumter county, Alabama, and three daughters, viz.: Mrs. Maltby, Mrs. Wilson and Miss Louisa, who it is believed was never married.

Dr. Dwight says: “The exterior of Dr. Cunningham was impressive. His stature at fifty-three years of age was more than six feet, and his form was full and well developed. His face was good, his eye mild but expressive, and his utterances in private conversation, in the pulpit and in social meetings were eloquent. In his preaching he was less doctrinal than experimental, aiming ever to bring sinners to Christ, and Christians to higher attainments in holiness. He was on the best terms will all evangelical Christians, and rejoiced in the progress of Christ’s kingdom under any form, and the glory of God in all events. He greatly rejoiced in revivals of religion, which, in his time, were wonderful in Kentucky, and extended farther South, till they reached Georgia. Here was the hiding of his power, which tinged and colored all his subsequent ministry. His great tenderness in preaching opened many hearts, whilst God’s spirit sealed their souls.

The Presbyterian Church in Moulton had no settled minister for many years after Dr. Cunningham moved away. Early records of the Presbytery have been mislaid, and I therefore can not speak with certainty on this point. I remember that the Rev. —- Morrison filled this pulpit for several years. He was a young man of great dignity, and propriety of deprotment, and an earnest, sensible preacher. After him came Rev. — McMillan, who taught a classical school at the Chalybeate Springs, seven miles northeast of Moulton, and supplied the pulpit in Moulton. He was a good theologian, and a pious, good preacher. I shall have more to say of these ministers in connection with other churches. For several years, also, previous to 1830, a young minister of Tuscumbia, named Ashbridge, occasionally preached in Moulton. He was a man of fine intellect, of high culture, and of a rich imagination. He died early, and his death was very much lamented by people of all denominations. Had he lived to middle life he would have been an orator of the first class.

Source: EARLY SETTLERS OF ALABAMA (Sec 3 ), by Col. James Edmonds Saunders. Lawrence County, Alabama. With NOTES AND GENEALOGIES. By his granddaughter ELIZABETH SAUNDERS BLAIR STUBBS, New Orleans, LA 1899. Transcribed and Submitted by Debra Hudson.

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