Uncle Joe Hopper

In the late 1800s, a Civil War officer turned physician turned Southern Presbyterian minister left First Presbyterian Church of Louisville to become a traveling evangelist. According to Louis Weeks,1 this Edward O. Guerrant “enlisted others, such as ‘Uncle’ Joe Hopper, an elder from Perryville [KY], and began to hold revivals, health clinics, and organizational meetings to establish Presbyterian churches in the mountains.”

In an unusual turn of Presbyterian events, The Transylvania Presbytery of PCUS ordained Uncle Joe (1850-1925) as a minister, despite him not having any theological training. Uncle Joe was the biological uncle of my great-grandfather Joseph Hopper. (Uncle Joe was the 4th Joseph Hopper in our family line.) My great-grandfather wrote a brief memoir of Uncle Joe Hopper in The Apostolic Message to the Unconverted in the Orient Today, a Th.D. thesis he wrote at Union Presbyterian Seminary in 1935.

“I am debtor–I am ready–For I am not ashamed of the gospel—.” Rom. 1:14-16

In the heart of the bluegrass region of old Kentucky more than two decades ago, there lived a humble preacher, known affectionately throughout the state as “Uncle Joe Hopper.” He never studied in a college nor a seminary. As a young man he became interested in Sunday School work and became a Sunday School evangelist. Later he became associated with Dr. E. O. Guerrant, the apostle to the people of the Southern mountains, as a singing evangelist and personal worker. Thus as a lay evangelist for a number of years he continued in religious work.

At the age of sixty-seven, upon the initiative of Transylvania presbytery, he was ordained to the gospel ministry as an extraordinary case, and his case was indeed extraordinary. As an exponent of “Old Time Religion”, which was the theme song of his evangelistic meetings, he went up and down the state, into the cities, out into the country, over the mountains, singing and preaching the great evangel. Recently there was placed into my hands a letter written back in the eighties by Dr. Guerrant to Uncle Joe Hopper in which he was urging him to hold a meeting at a certain place. He writes, “We want you to hold a big meeting there soon as you can come. A fine opening for a gracious revival and nobody can help like you. Everybody wants Uncle Joe (The babies crying for him).”

As a seminary student, and as a young preacher in Kentucky before coming to the foreign field, it was a common experience for me to meet any number of people who would tell me that they joined the church under Uncle Joe’s preaching, and I was constantly met with the challenge, “If you will become as good a preacher as your Uncle Joe you’ll be all right.”

In 1920, I came out as a missionary to Korea, thinking I had left all of Uncle Joe’s converts back in America. I had not been here long until in the capital city of Seoul I had the privilege of meeting a young medical missionary of the Souther Methodist church. Upon his hearing my name he said, “Are you any kin to Uncle Joe Hopper? I joined the church under his preaching.” What a joy to hear such a statement in faraway Korea, and from a Methodist at that!

Upon a recent furlough, some twenty years after Uncle Joe’s death, I visited church after church in the state of Kentucky. It was quite common to meet people who told me they united with the church under the preaching of Uncle Joe. As I recall, during the meeting of Kentucky synod at Danville, sitting down to lunch, two or three of the elders at the same table told me they united with the church under Uncle Joe. This illustrates what has deeply impressed me, namely, that the effects of Uncle Joe’s type of evangelism have been lasting, and have influenced so vitally so many of the leaders of the church.

If I mistake not, it was he who reached with the gospel message Dr. David M. Sweets, of sainted memory, who did such a monumental work in the field of religious journalism as editor of the Christian Observer; and also his brother, Dr. Henry H. Sweets, former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church in the United States, and our most efficient Secretary of Christian Education and Ministerial Relief. It has been conservatively estimated that three thousand people came into the Presbyterian church in Kentucky as a result of the evangelistic work of Uncle Joe.

I am interested in him as a man. He would be considered by many as unlearned and unlettered. Yet men took knowledge of him that he had been with Jesus. He had no degrees to his name, but I am sure has many stars in his crown. I am interested in his methods. He loved children and won them to become precious jewels for the Savior. Both old and young he won personally, speaking an earnest word, which, used of the Holy Spirit, went direct to the heart. He made large use of the gospel in song, singing, making melody in his heart unto the Lord. Not only the man and his methods, but of special interest in this connection, in his message. It was just what you would expect, the simple gospel truth, Holy Ghost religion.

Among his scent sermon notes, I found the appeal of a sermon on “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”, and these are his words,

Heaven is before you and Christ is the only door. Will you enter? Hell beneath you and Christ only able to deliver. Will you let him save you? Satan behind you and Christ the only Refuge. Will you fly to Him? The law of God against you and Christ only able to redeem. Will you accept Him? Sin weighing you down and Christ only can put it away. Will you let Him?

The only explanation of this man’s successful evangelism is that the Holy Spirit took possession of him, and what gifts he had, and through him spoke the heart of the apostolic message. I am convinced that this is just what the world needs today–both the Occident and the Orient.

  1. The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber ↩︎