July 16, 2018

J. W. McGarvey – Author and Scholar of the Restoration Movement(1)

By Ferrell Jenkins

In the early part of the nineteenth century there were various forces at work among the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians for a return to the Bible and the Apostolic order. In brief: James O'Kelley, Abner Jones, Elias Smith, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell were pleading for the restoration of primitive Christianity. They called on their associates to lay aside every human creed and name, to accept the Bible as the only book and "Christian" as the only name.

This movement grew until in 1850 the census showed it to be the fourth ranking church in the nation. The second half of the nineteenth century had hardly begun before tension within the Restoration Movement was evident. One group insisted on the use of a Missionary Society, while others insisted that such was unauthorized by the Bible. The mechanical instrument of music was coming into use. One group used it as an expedient in the worship and the other group insisted that it too was an innovation on the apostolic order.

The tension mounted until 1906 when the two groups were listed separately in the religious census. Now it was evident that the Christian Church or Disciples of Christ would accept the society and the instrument; the churches of Christ will reject both. All except the most liberal element claim that their group did not originate in the nineteenth century, but in the first century. By planting the same seed (the Word of God), they argue, the same plant will be produced.

There were a few men who rejected the organ in worship but accepted and defended the society. Such a man was J. W. McGarvey. He holds the respect of all groups emerging from the Restoration Movement as the greatest scholar and writer of the period. It is about him and his literary work that we wish to devote this paper.

Family Background and Early Life

John William McGarvey had a long useful life. He was born at Hopkinsville, Kentucky on March 1, 1829 and lived until September 12, 1912. As an adult he was a little round-shouldered, although this was not true in his youth. He had dark brown hair, but in later life it was heavily sprinkled with silver. McGarvey was five feet and seven inches tall, of medium weight, and had blue gray eyes. His head was disproportioned to the size of his body, being very large and striking in appearance. In his adult life he wore a beard. He was always neat in dress and appearance. The most outstanding attribute of his disposition was kindness. This man very seldom became angry and was never known to lose control of himself. Women respected McGarvey because he seemed to have an innate and noble chivalry about his nature. In this paper we will sacrifice many of the humorous as well as serious events and present the facts about the man with an emphasis on his writing.

McGarvey's father was from Northern Ireland. He lived in Tawney, Donegal County. His father came to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in America. His mother's name was Thomson and this family had its origin in Scotland. The Thomsons came first to Virginia and then later to Kentucky. John Thomson moved to Hopkinsville with his daughter, Sarah Ann Thomson. Here she met John McGarvey, and in time they were married. Six years after their marriage McGarvey died leaving her with three daughters and one son. That son was John W. McGarvey - at this time four years old. Later Sarah Ann Thomson McGarvey married Gurdon F. Saltonstall, a widower with nine children. This made thirteen children in the McGarvey-Saltonstall family. Six children were born to Gurdon and Sarah, and thus young McGarvey was one of nineteen children.

McGarvey said that his stepfather "was an eminently just man, making no distinction among the children, distributing his estate among them equally." In his will, Saltonstall, a member of the Board of Bethany College, Bethany, Virginia (now West Virginia) named the college his twentieth child.


When J. W. was ten years old the Saltonstalls moved from Kentucky to Tremont, Illinois. Here young McGarvey lived until he was eighteen. He worked on the farm and learned also the manufacture of hemp. This move to Illinois kept the family out of the social conditions that were created by slavery. It also gave young McGarvey access to a superior school. He studied under James K. Kellogg, a man who was far in advance of most teachers of his day. At the age of eighteen, McGarvey was prepared to enter the freshman class in college. He had received training in spelling, reading, geography, arithmetic, English and Latin grammar. This was also, in his own words, of "incalculable advantage to him in all his subsequent literary career." He chose the college that had been founded by Alexander Campbell in 1840. His stepfather was a trustee to this college at Bethany and an older son, James R. Saltonstall, had graduated the previous year.

McGarvey entered Bethany College in April, and was there until he had completed his courses and was graduated on July 4, 1850. The student body at that time numbered 128, but there were only twelve in McGarvey's graduating class. The year before his death, McGarvey remarked to a class of students that when he was at Bethany he said to his roommate: "We are spending the happiest days we will ever know." That roommate said: "Oh!, Why do you think so?" McGarvey answered: "Why, here we are with no cares, no labors or anxieties, but to rise every morning, get our lessons, and recite them. We will never see such a time as this again." He remarked to his students that he believed this to be true.

The prominent personalities of Bethany when McGarvey was here were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, W. K. Pendleton and Robert Richardson, all important men in the Restoration Movement. Thomas Campbell at this time was an old man practically blind

and had no part in the life of the college. He was referred to as "Grandfather Campbell." Alexander Campbell was the outstanding man of the college community. McGarvey's instructor in Greek was Robert Graham. McGarvey graduated with honors and delivered the Greek address. When McGarvey went to Bethany he was not a Christian, but in 1848 he made the good confession and was baptized. Professor Pendleton did the baptizing in Buffalo Creek.

To be continued

Truth Magazine VIII: 2, pp. 10-11, 24
November 1963