Uncle Joe Hopper: preach the simple gospel

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.) I recently shared a piece my great grandfather wrote on Uncle Joe in 1935. My grandfather wrote this about his great uncle about 50 years later.

Most widely known in our family tree was my grandfather George D. Hopper’s brother, Rev. Joseph Hamilton Hopper (1829-1915), known as “Uncle Joe” Hopper. He was born in Lancaster, Ky., July 22, 1829, and in his early years worked as a clerk in a store. He united with the Presbyterian Church in 1843 and was made a deacon there when only sixteen years of age. His religious work dated from that time when he began to organize and conduct Sunday Schools and to do whatever work he felt called upon to do in the Master’s cause. For a brief time he was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, Danville, Ky. In 1851 he became a member of the church at Perryville, Ky.2 to which place he had removed. He was ordained as a ruling elder in 1854 at the age of twenty-five, and in the same year was elected clerk of the session and continued in that office until 1875 when increasing duties and frequent absence from home caused him to resign.

“Uncle Joe” never attended college or seminary. On January 13, 1853, he was married to Mary B. Mitchell, daughter of William Mitchell, a wealthy farmer of Boyle County. They made their home in Perryville. Here “Uncle Joe” and “Aunt Mollie” celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary at which time they had with them their eight children and five grand-children. The children were: John Hopper, Margaret Hopper, Fannie Hopper Tucker, Harvey N. Hopper, Dr. Walter O. Hopper, Mrs. W. W. Bruce (Rosa) of Perryville, Mrs. F. E. Montgomery (Emma) of Louisville: and Dr. J. Howerton Hopper of Pleasant Grove, Kentucky.3

While his work carried him over the state and often away from his own fireside, the burden of the duties of the home and family fell on the willing and capable shoulders of “Aunt Mollie,” who was ever a companion of understanding and inspiration to her husband. “Uncle Joe” was an ardent Mason and he stated at one time that he had attended sixty-three elections of officers of his lodge.

About the year 1870 he became Sunday School missionary of the American Sunday School Union, non-sectarian, and took charge of their work in Kentucky until the Synod of Kentucky made him an assistant evangelist for the state. He organized many Sunday Schools in places where the people were without religious services. Many of these Sunday Schools afterwards grew into strong and vigorous churches. By his kindly ways, his cheering words and benevolent disposition he drew to himself hundreds of friends. He had a peculiar charm for children. He drew them about him by the magnetism of his personality. His judging of human nature was almost uncanny at times.

One of the special gifts with which “Uncle Joe” was endowed was the gift of song. Without ostentation, but with an earnestness that was contagious he sang the beautiful songs of Zion and led the congregation in a spirit of real worship in song. His family had many recollections of happy hours spent in choral singing led by their father. In the book “Edward O. Guerrant, Apostle to the Southern Highlands” by Dr. J. Gray McAllister and Grace Owings Guerrant, are the following quotations about “Uncle Joe.”

I was at a meeting in Harrodsburg, soon after Dr. Guerrant had entered upon his work as Synodical Evangelist, and “Uncle Joe” was leading the singing. (P. 92)

A week’s meeting at Combs Ferry furnishes an illustration of the evangelistic work of the year. The “Uncle Joe” spoken of was Mr. Joseph Hopper, a ruling elder in the Perryville Church, song leader in these evangelistic services and ordained to the ministry in 1896 when sixty- seven years of age. The diary records:

Aug. 7, ‘82 . We begin our meeting at Combs Ferry tomorrow on Ky. River. Tired and sore throat. “Uncle Joe” hasn’t come yet. (P. 94).

During August and September I had meetings at our two chapels, Elm Corner and Nonesuch, “Uncle Joe” Hopper and Wm. Crowe, Jr., doing faithful service. Forty-three were added to the two churches. (P. 109)

“Uncle Joe’s” ministry as an evangelist grew out of his interest in Sunday School work. At Sunday School conventions his devotional messages were a blessing to all. As a result he was invited to preach in various churches, and then to hold “protracted meetings” as revivals were often called in those days. As an exponent of “The 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.

One important aspect of these meetings was that almost invariably those who made decisions for Christ became life-long staunch church members. In my earlier days as a missionary doing deputation work while on furlough, occasionally an elderly person would note my name and ask, “Could you by any chance be a member of the family of “Uncle Joe” Hopper? I was converted under his ministry in Kentucky!” My father once wrote:

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 Southern Methodist Church. Upon his hearing my name he said: “Are you any kin to “Uncle Joe” Hopper? I joined the church under his preaching.”

Apparently his ministry was widespread all over Kentucky and he was one of the best known preachers in the whole area. We have a few records describing his work.

Evangelist Joe Hopper preached for a large congregation at the Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church (Lexington, Ky.) last night. This was his fifth night at that church and the results achieved have been highly satisfactory., The sinners get very little consolation from “Uncle Joe,” who is very free in his condemnation of all forms of wrong doing. His urgent appeals to sinners to change their ways have certainly had great effect in this city. (Newspaper clipping).

There has been 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 in a certain place. He writes: “We want you to hold a big meeting there as soon as you can come. A fine opening for a gracious revival and nobody can help like you. Everybody wants “Uncle Joe.” (Article by my father in the Christian Observer).

In his book, “Kentucky Presbyterians” Dr. Louis B. Weeks of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary writes of the close association of “Uncle Joe” and Dr. E. O. Guerrant (page 130 ff).

In early May, he (Guerrant) went to Salvisa with “Uncle” Joe Hopper, who led singing and helped with baptisms. They found that one elder and a few women members still met for worship occasionally, but no pastor had been there for years. In ten days, “fifty-seven were added to the church.” He located some men who would serve as elders, and he assigned a seminary student to meet with them during the summer. Soon the congregation formed a Sabbath school too.

In late May, Guerrant and Hopper rode to Hazel Green, Wolfe County, and gathered forty-six to form a Presbyterian Church there.

A lay leader, who had worked with Guerrant was hired full-time to assist Evans, “Uncle Joe Hopper, a ruling elder at the Perryville Church led singing and Sunday School services when the Presbyterians would first enter a town. In 1884, the Synod commissioned Hopper to oversee the colportage work in rural areas. Subsidized copies of the Bible, of catechisms and Sunday school lessons were sold for the congregations and for devotional reading in homes.

The team of Evans and Hopper was a familiar one in all portions of the state. During 1886, for example, they went together to Mt. Sterling in March, to Somerset in April, where thirty-two joined the church, and to Lawrenceburg and Pisgah in May. They were joined by Guerrant in a successful effort to form a church at Morehead in June. They moved in turn to Franklin, Elkton, and Fredonia. The last-named evangelistic meeting was interesting because at Fredonia the year before they had come at the invitation of a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation. They had reorganized the church and “set it on its feet” as a Cumberland Church. Thus they helped it along as they passed through the area.

The work proceeded, and new churches continued to spring up across the state. The “Christian Observer” kept a running record of events. At “Ford” Kentucky, where the Kentucky Central Railroad crossed the Kentucky River, Presbyterians began evangelistic services with Evans, Hopper and Dr. L. H. Blanton leading them. At the end of three weeks a church of forty-five members had been organized, and they had raised $450 toward the construction costs of a building.

Scottsville, in Allen County, organized a church from a group of “five good women and one dear old brother who was acting as ruling elder.” Evans and Hopper worked to help organize what became in short time a congregation of thirty-five. The sermons by the evangelists helped Methodist and Baptist churches in town too, according to the account.

Dr. E. T. Thompson, historian of the PCUS described the evangelistic efforts in Kentucky as a “movement which soon spread through the assembly, leading to a new era of missionary advance.”

His public ministry as a missionary and evangelist covered more than forty years, although he was not ordained until March 1896, when Transylvania Presbytery, in view of the evident blessing of God upon his labors as a missionary worker, ordained him to the full work of the ministry. At the time of his ordination he was sixty-seven years old, –and perhaps this is the only instance in the Presbyterian Church when a man received ordination at such an advanced age. At the time, however, he was in vigorous health and in the prime of his useful career. For nearly twenty years after his ordination he continued to preached the unsearchable riches of Christ as opportunity offered. The last regular work of his career was supply the Salvisa Church for several months.

In his eighty-seventh year a signal honor was conferred upon “Uncle Joe” Hopper by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. He went to Louisville to attend the General Assembly as an onlooker. At the meeting were noted evangelists from all over the United States, men of learning who were gifted with the golden tongues of oratory. They were on the program to tell the Assembly their methods of evangelistic work, and gave some interesting and finished talks. Rev. M. V. P. Yeaman introduced “Uncle Joe,” the oldest evangelist present, and suggested that he should tell the Assembly the methods he used in winning people to Christianity. The old man, bent with years, his staff in hand, mounted the rostrum and in the simple language which is all he knows, he told the men of learning his way of winning souls, which was to “preach the simple gospel, as he understood.” His talk was short, but as he finished every man in the audience voluntarily rose to his feet, without a suggestion being made, and stood in respect until “Uncle Joe” stepped down from the platform and took his seat. He was the only man on whom such a signal honor was conferred during the meeting.

On Sunday, March 28, 1915, while seated in his chair in his home at Perryville, Ky., death came suddenly to “Uncle Joe” as he was enjoying the worshipful quiet of the Sabbath day with members of his family. He had a short time before expressed to his family his belief that this was the last Sabbath that he would ever spend with them. The mortal body, emaciated and wearied through long years of active service, was tenderly laid to rest in the cemetery in Perryville. A large assemblage of friends attended the funeral service held in the new building of the Perryville Presbyterian Church on Tuesday morning, March 30. This was the first service held in the main auditorium of the building, in the construction of which “Uncle Joe” had taken great interest. During the closing days of his life he would sit in his home, across the street from the lot on which the church was in process of erection, and would often express the wish that his life would be spared long enough for him to witness the dedication of this beautiful new building. Although the building was not entirely completed, it was possible to hold the funeral services within its walls.

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

  2. Perryville is ten miles west of Danville. ↩︎

  3. The only one of these I ever knew was Dr. Walter O. Hopper, a greatly beloved physician in Perryville, Ky. When we were on furlough one time, our family spent a day with him and “Cousin Martha.” Besides smothering us with hospitality, they arranged to have a horse for us children to ride. Unfortunately when I was riding, the horse suddenly stood up on its hind legs, lost its balance, and fell with me underneath. Of course our cousins were greatly alarmed, but the good doctor checked me out and no injuries were found. . .but I have not mounted a horse since! ↩︎