Biography - Jasper Lewis Douthit

REV. JASPER LEWIS DOUTHIT. Here we have another of those "high-minded men" who constitute the real strength of a State. A native prophet, sure to have had his share of the usual buffetings, a zealous missionary in the home field, one early inured to poverty and toil, who has never faltered in the onward, upward course, never flinched from his task of battling for the right, without his name no list of the worthies of Southern Illinois would he complete. As a "Unitarian Oberlin," his story has been briefly told in a small pamphlet published in Boston, from whose pages mainly have been gathered the following facts:

Jasper L., son of Andrew E. and Mary Ann (Jordan) Douthit, was born in Shelby County, about four miles east of Shelbyville, October 10, 1834. His great-grandfather, Evan Douthit, a ''Hard-shell" Baptist minister, of Welsh-Scotch ancestry, emigrated with his family from North Carolina to Tennessee, and thence, about 1830, to this county, where he was a pioneer settler and preacher. Two or three years later, accompanied by a number of his descendants, like the patriarch of old, he again journeyed in search of a new home, finding at length a permanent abiding place in that part of Mexico which is now Texas. There continuing his pulpit labors even when so old and feeble that he must needs be supported by a man standing on each side of him as he spoke, he lived to be more than eighty years old. His wife long surviving him attained the remarkable age of one hundred and fifteen years.

Andrew E., grandson of the above named, and son of John D. and Elizabeth (Ellis) Douthit, both members of the "Hard-shell" Baptist Church, was born in Tennessee. He came with his father and grandfather to Shelby County, Ill. The Douthits entered Government land and also bought a tract of Francis Jordan, an early pioneer of Shelby County. Members of the Douthit and Jordan families in Texas took part in the war which secured the independence of that State.

The mother of our subject was a daughter of Francis Jordan. She was born at a fort in Franklin County built for protection against the Indians. Early left motherless, busied with housework, and living in the backwoods where educational advantages were of the slightest, she nevertheless taught herself to read and write. A woman frail of body, but of strong conviction, being accustomed to think for herself, she did not hesitate to denounce the evils of slavery and intemperance at a time when the popular opinion of the neighborhood was decidedly on the other side of these great questions. Her religious views, as they were gradually developed, growing with her growth, and as silently, were of the liberal Christian type, and were such as enabled her with cheerful courage and a beautiful devotion to duty, to perform the labors and endure the trials of a life of constant toil and care.

With the exception of a short stay in Texas, his father and grandfather having been induced to join their kindred in that State in 1843, remaining however through one cotton harvest, the youth of our subject was passed in active labors on the home farm in this county, with but scant opportunity for schooling or even for home study. The family Bible was his first reading book. Other well conned volumes were Robinson Crusoe, Life of David Crockett, Weem's Life of Marion, and Grimshaw's History of the United States. He early set his heart on becoming a minister of the gospel. Such was his thirst for learning, and the inability or unwillingness of his father to indulge him in this direction, that he left home and let himself to work as a day laborer with the shovel on the Illinois Central Railway to earn money to defray his expenses at a boarding-school. Two joyful years were now spent by him at Shelby Seminary, where he paid his way partly by teaching, partly by building fires, sweeping and other work. Uniting with the Methodist Church, though without endorsing all the articles of faith, he was offered a license to preach. This he declined. Next enrolled as a student at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Ind., he continued living on frugal fare and doing janitor's work until he fell sick and was forced to go home.

A brief business experience in a book and drug store, culminating in a failure with the financial flurry of 1857, marriage in the meantime with Miss Emily Lovell, of East Abington, Mass., and a period of school teaching for both, were what the next few years brought to his life.

In 1858 came a new departure. Mr. Douthit felt that he must go forth to seek a wider field of action; he was led to seek a position in the Boston office of Fowler & Wells, famous phrenologists and publishers. He was soon employed as a lecturer on phrenology and hygiene. Traveling in this capacity in Massachusetts, he met many Abolitionists but failed to make the acquaintance of any Unitarians. The anti-slavery sermons and addresses of James Freeman Clark and Theodore Parker were read by him with exceeding interest.

The following year found our subject again in Illinois living with his family on a farm in Shelby County. His first vote for President had been cast in 1856 for James Buchanan. In the winter of 1861 he became associate editor of the Shelby Freeman, the first paper in this part of the State to stand for "Free soil, free labor and free speech." Accepting the appointment of Government enrolling officer, at a time when Knights of the Golden Circle and others were bent on forcible resistance to the draft, his life was often in no little danger. Several shots were one night fired through the open doors of his home. None the less did he discharge his patriotic duties without flinching.

The voice within still prompted our subject to preach the Gospel on the lines of the larger hope. To his wife came the happy thought that his words might he acceptable in Unitarian pulpits. At the suggestion of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Robert Collyer was appealed to for advice. His response was a cordial invitation to come to the Unitarian Conference soon to he held at Detroit. Thither he went and was there ordained to the Christian ministry June 22, 1862, Revs. Robert Collyer, Dr. George W. Hosmer, Charles G. Ames and others taking part in the services. In schoolhouses, dwelling-houses and groves of Shelby and adjoining counties, people came together to "hear Jasper preach." Feeling the need of better equipment for his work, he was enabled through the kindness of friends living at a distance, who had heard of his zealous and effective itineracy, to take a three year's course at the Meadville Theological School (Unitarian). where he was graduated in June, 1867. Since that date, with the exception of a brief term of preaching at Princeton, Ill., his ministry has been confined to the towns and villages of his native prairies, mostly within the familiar haunts of his boyhood. At the "Log Church" east of Shelbyville, he preached to a congregation of woodchoppers and their families, receiving for his first year's work a big jug of molasses, given by a pour foreigner. The next year the contributions amounted to about $10. Mrs. Douthit taught a subscription school to eke out a support for the family. The Sunday-school sessions were sometimes disturbed by people angered at the speaker on account of his advocacy of temperance. The first Christmas tree in Shelby County was set up in the "Log Church." And there it is said, was sung, probably for the first time in this county, the hymn, "Nearer my God to Thee."

Mr. Douthit was instrumental in organizing a church at Salem, now Oak Grove, where a house of worship was built for the joint use of the Campbellites and the liberal Christians. Elder John Ellis, of the former sect, being an efficient helper; Unity Church at Matoon, and a Christian Union Church near Mode. Our missionary began regular preaching at Shelbyville, in the old court-house, February 15, 1874. A Sunday-school was soon started, books for a library being received from Dr. James Freeman Clarke's church in Boston. In May thirteen people signed a statement professing "faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the Savior of men," and acknowledged the Bible as the divinely authorized rule of faith and practice. In November a church of twenty-one members was fully organized. Hon. George Partridge, of St. Louis, offered the gift of $500 toward building a house of worship. This encouraged the people to contribute liberally of their humble means to the same end. Orthodox ministers united with the literal in the services at the laying of the cornerstone, November 21, 1875. As the result of a protracted series of evening meetings held in February and March, 1876, by Mr. Douthit, with the help of the good Elder Ellis, the church roll was increased to nearly one hundred members. The 8th of May saw the new house completed and dedicated, Dr. Clarke, of Boston, preached the dedication sermon in the morning and Dr. Eliot, of St. Louis, preached in the evening, when Mr. Douthit was installed as pastor. The building was made to accommodate about four hundred persons, and the church and Sunday-school has since witnessed to a healthy growth and unabated interest in its Christian faith and life.

In October, 1870, Robert Collyer wrote to the Christian Register, "I can hardly tell how much good Mr. Douthit has done in that region. It is simply wonderful. He has wrought with such a manful and Christian valor as to win his way, where any other man, one thinks, must have failed. It is worth my while," he adds, "to say that his best helper and inspirer, after God, is his wife." Elder John Ellis, writing in 1876, reports "Brother Douthit as having exceeded beyond his expectations," and adds: "He is a Channing Unitarian and sails under that banner, and yet is what I would call a real, out-and-out old-fashioned, Orthodox, Evangelical, Congregational, progressive, liberal Christian."

A sketch of Mr. Douthit in the memorial volume of Shelby Seminary, by Hon. George R. Wendling, contains these words of high appreciation: "I will testify everywhere that his whole life-work and example in this county has been an evangel of peace, temperance and purity."

In 1880 Mr. Douthit began the publication of a paper, Our Best Words, a brave exponent of Christian truth and practical righteousness, which grew to be a welcome visitor in many homes. The prospectus for the new series began in March, 1888, is an admirable declaration of lofty principles, worthy to be quoted in full, did space permit. In its commendable endeavor "to translate the dialect of a scholaristic, thought-burdened Unitarianism into the every-day language of the common people," Our Best Words stood without a rival in the West or in the East. Having dropped its denominational character the paper is now continued as a weekly, "independent in all things and neutral in nothing that concerns human welfare." It earnestly advocates the principles of prohibition to the liquor traffic and favors the work of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association.

The children of Mr. and Mrs. Douthit are Helen Maud, married to Joseph Garis; George L., Robert Collyer and Winifred. Robert C. following the footsteps of his father, is now (1891), a student at Meadville Theological School.

Extracted 09 Apr 2018 by Norma Hass from 1891 Portrait and Biographical Record of Shelby and Moultrie Counties Illinois, pages 482-484.

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