Chaplain J. J. D. Renfroe
10th Alabama Infantry Regiment
Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
Confederate chaplains had their difficulties and sorrows as did the men with rifles in the trenches. Some of them were wounded and a few were killed doing the work of the Lord in the Confederate army. Other chaplains were plagued with disease, fighting for their lives from that front. There were few who escaped some grievous issue. They were subject to the same sorrows as others when their loved ones were ill, wounded or killed. The chaplain who has our attention now was such a man with a deeply wounded heart.
Rev. J. J. D. Renfroe was greatly impacted by the death of his younger brother the Rev. Nathaniel D. Renfroe who had joined the 5th Alabama Battalion which was in Gen. A. P. Hill’s Division. The two brothers were exceptionally close. The death of Nathaniel in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th, 1862 occasioned J. J. D. Renfroe’s writing of a commemoration to his brother. He titled it Model Confederate Soldier. This was printed in the South Western Baptist magazine and was also put into tract form in which it was distributed to Confederate soldiers. Renfroe commented to the editors: “I have passed the saddest Christmas of my life, and how lonely and sorrowful the new year finds me! I have to perform the painful task of communicating to you the intelligence of the death of my only dear brother, N. D. Renfroe….”
J. J. D. Renfroe had previously received what was to be the last letter from his brother, and in that letter Nathaniel wrote:
We have just completed another march of one-hundred and seventy miles, crossing two awful mountains in the time. We were twelve days on the march. I had no wagon, or horse, or any other means of transportation, except my feet for myself and baggage; we rested only at night—rising at 4 ½ in the morning and marching until sunset. I suffered much—frequently thinking that I would fall out and rest, but when I would look through the company and see several men barefooted and still keeping up, it would stimulate me, and I would press on. The tramp finished my boots, and both my feet are on the ground, and but little prospect of getting any shoes soon. But it is my duty to bear a little hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ; and I submit to it cheerfully and without a murmur in view of my country’s freedom and the honor of my religion. We are certainly on the eve of a great battle here—it will be a grand affair—I may not survive the conflict; but, brother, if I die, I shall fall at my post and I am ready to go.
Perhaps young Nathaniel Renfroe had a premonition but one thing is certain—he was committed to the Lord and his country. He stressed his readiness for the eternal. The past spring Nathaniel had declared to his brother his weariness and excitement, but he said he desired to look beyond such scenes.
This premonition of death is also evident in a previous letter to J. J. D. Renfroe to prepare him for what might be in the providence of God.
And now, my brother, I have some reason to fear that you have not prepared yourself to meet the news of such a fate as may befall me. I know you feel lonely without me. It seems to me that if you should die first the world would be without interest to me. But I have entered the army to fight for you, and, if need be, to die for you and yours. Let us be prepared for the worst—nay, rather for the best, for though life is sweet, Heaven is infinitely sweeter! I am willing to go when God calls, and I am willing he shall call me in any way that he pleases.
Such was the resolve of the young Baptist minister of Christ from Alabama who chose the army instead of the Chaplains Corps as was the practice of many young Baptist ministers. Such was the desire to comfort his brother in the event of his death.
This author’s paraphrase of the last moments of Pastor/Soldier Nathaniel Renfroe is based on the account left in the Religious Herald. Above the heights of the ravaged and beleaguered City of Fredericksburg, Virginia a young soldier lies in the shadow of trees as his life’s blood slowly seeps into the Lord’s earth. There was a great dying thirst but no friend or foe was near to satisfy it with water. Here lay a young pastor, a preacher of the grace of God, whose congregation in Alabama often prayed for him to return to them and minister the eternal verities of the Redeemer-God. While the stars of the night sky sparkle and his guardian angel prepares to bear his soul to glory this child of God, and preacher of grace, a defender of hearth and home in his final earthly moments remembers his Lord, his family and the congregation to which he had ministered as his soul takes flight to the realms of eternal day. “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.”
J. J. D. Renfroe in his sermon “Heaven” preached on January 11th, 1863, wherein he confessed, “One of my strongest ties to earth has been dissolved, and heaven has gained for me an additional attraction.” These words and this sermon had reference to his brother. In the next paragraph he said, “I … devote this sacred day to the contemplation of ‘The Saint’s Everlasting Rest.’”
The genesis of the life of John Jefferson DeYambert Renfroe occurred in Montgomery County, Alabama on August 30th, 1830. His parents were Nathan W. and Mahala Lee Renfroe. They came to Alabama from Washington County, Georgia. There are some children who do not have a role model in perhaps one or both parents. As a lad J. J. D. Renfroe was faced with an earthly father who sought to keep his children shut off from the Christian faith. Nathan Renfroe was very irreligious. He was a farmer and trader. One writer described this father as “thriftless.” That same writer noted that the father was “A most godless man” who “never attended on preaching, nor did his family.” A visiting preacher to the home on Chunnenuggee Ridge described finding mother Mahala cooking under a shed. In the course of his visit he sought to point her to Christ and found her responsive. Mahala related to the preacher that she had not heard a sermon in twenty years [B. F. Riley, A Memorial History of the Baptists of Alabama, 135-136].
The eldest daughter in the family had two children and she lived in the same area. She confided that she had only heard two sermons in her life; and it seems that her siblings had never heard any preaching. This oldest daughter arranged for a worship service in her home since her father would not allow one in his home. Rev. A. N. Worthy held the first service and thereafter there was an interest in the community for Baptist missionaries to come and preach in the little community school building. J. J. D. Renfroe’s mother and oldest sister professed faith in Christ publicly when Rev. Joel Sims baptized them upon profession of faith. The little school building came into use as a place for the founding of Elizabeth Baptist Church. Here the fledgling assembly met and the building doubled as a school and place of worship. This was quite normal during that era.
J. J. D. Renfroe’s conversion took place under a sermon preached by Rev. Worthy. The sermon was titled “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.” B. Dwain Waldrep wrote, “Despite his irreligious father’s attempts to shield him from Christianity, Renfroe was converted and baptized in 1848.” Dr. A. N. Worthy baptized him August 30th, 1848 [William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia, 969]. The little community school was where he began his elementary learning on two fronts. As a result of his conversion and the manifestation of an interest in the things of God Renfroe was taken to the home of Rev. J. M. Newman. Newman was a Baptist preacher of means who provided Renfroe an opportunity valuable learning. “Rev. J. M. Newman … afforded young Renfroe the first slim advantages of an education” [Riley, 136].
Calling to the Ministry
Not long after his conversion Renfroe believed he was called to the gospel ministry. His desire was to preach and exalt his wonderful savior the Lord Jesus Christ. Like most things in his life there were many difficulties to overcome.
Unprepossessing in personal appearance, he was ridiculed by some when he proposed to become a minister, but undismayed, he mastered one difficulty after another, acquired information where he could, and gradually became second to no other in influence in the Baptist denomination in Alabama [Riley, 136].
This young man began by swimming against the current of opposition and contrary circumstances which only seemed to make him stronger. This would be almost a norm in his life. Riley described that he was very useful in the work of the Lord regardless of his “unfavorable background … and his career was a romance of success.” Before he was ordained to the ministry he began preaching. Also, during this time he married Elsie Lee and the Lord blessed their marriage with eight children. He was ordained as a minister of the gospel at Cedar Bluff, Alabama in 1852.
Entering the ministry when young, with great difficulties in his pathway, he has by persistent and faithful effort made his way to the front rank of preachers in the South [Cathcart].
Theologically Renfroe was a Calvinist like most of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopal men of God in the South. “While diligently engaged in leading sinners to Christ, he was earnest and aggressive in his defense of ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.’” [Cathcart]. Because of his strong convictions regarding God’s revealed truth Renfroe found himself in some very heated controversies with other preachers and other denominations. He became recognized by many of his peers as a defender of their cause. In his own denominational conflicts he did not practice a hand-off approach. This was evident when J. B. Hawthorne wrote an article which was a direct attack on Landmarkism. This attack appeared in the South Western Baptist periodical and Renfroe marshaled his pen and gave a defense for the Landmarkers [Riley, 130].
Renfroe became a pastor of a local flock of his Lord. He was described as being unusual in his native ability, a dedicated student of the things of God and quickly gained the attention of his denomination. From 1852 to 1857 he pastored several churches in Calhoun and Cherokee counties. But in the fall of 1857 he was extended a call from one of Alabama’s most influential pulpits which eventually became known as the First Baptist Church of Talladega, Alabama. He entered this pastorate on January 1st, 1858.
Pastor Renfroe was busy ministering the Word of God, distributing tracts and literature. However, there was a storm of conflict about to break out in these United States that would end the Founding Fathers’ interpretation of the Constitution. The Southern States came under an attack set forth by the agnostic New England transcendentalists who sponsored John Brown in the killing of citizens in their homes until he was executed for his crimes. This group from New England perpetuated their final solution which would entail the death of hundreds of thousands of people either in the military or civilian life, even infants and the elderly would fall prey to tactics unlike civilized warfare. This was due to Lincolns “total war” concept.
The end result would be the coercion of a centralized government essentially robbing the individual states of their rights and the Constitution of its original intentions. Perhaps Renfroe should speak to this issue which he did in his sermon “The Battle is God’s” preached to Wilcox’s Brigade on a fast day:
Yes, we are in the midst of war, not of choice but necessity. No other alternative was left us at the beginning, and we have no choice now, but to realize, the fact that a great war is upon us, and confront it like freemen, unless we can tamely submit to the yoke of slavery, and surrender every indefeasible right guaranteed to us by the God of our being, and sell our posterity into a state of vassalage more cruel and merciless than that suffered by the Hebrews in the land of Egypt, or the subjugated parties under the reign of terror. Surely there is no man—I know there is no patriot in all our land, who has watched the developments of Yankee character for the past two years, but will rejoice in the idea of national and social separation from that people. Certainly, all men have seen that separation from them was necessary and inevitable. It was necessary for the preservation of our institutions and social systems; it was necessary for the maintenance of that form of government transmitted to us by the patriots of the first American Revolution; it was necessary for the defence of our own Constitutional liberty, and the liberty and happiness of our posterity for generations to come. Our enemies were fast fixing the manacles of despotism upon us, and some of us knew it not. We were astonished when aroused to a sense of our danger. And when we attempted to leave them, we asked to be allowed to go in peace. As Abraham said to Lot when they separated, so said we to them;—“Let there be no strife between us.” But they replied, you shall not go in peace, you shall not go at all. We will enforce our laws; we intend that your States shall remain obedient and true to our government. The very act of refusing us peaceable separation shows that they had already learned to regard us as subject to them, and bound to obey their laws and submit to their rule, however prejudicial to our rights and liberties those laws and that rule might be. And when they denied us peaceable separation, Liberty called for her Sons in the South to come to her rescue and defence; and those sons rose up in every town and city, in every hill and valley, and came forth from almost every hearthstone and sacred altar throughout the land;—leaving their peaceable avocations, forsaking for the time—and many of them forever—the unspeakable joys of domestic life, they rushed with heroic enthusiasm to their country’s standard, and there they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, to the defence of the heritage handed down to them by the fathers of American independence! Nobly have they kept that pledge! With almost superhuman energy, endurance and courage, have they toiled and suffered and battled, at the altar of liberty. And prominent among this mighty host of gallant men, stands Wilcox’s Brigade. Sirs, do you regret that you obeyed your country’s call? Are you ashamed of what you have done? Is there a single man here who would retrace the honored steps he has taken for the defence of his native land? No, there are none of that class here. Your proud record vindicates your unrelenting courage. I feel that I am not talking to one of those faint-hearted whiners, who cry peace, peace, when there is no peace, and who would sell his country or desert his country’s flag. We have to fight on! We cannot make peace. We cannot even propose peace. Our government has done all that could be done in that line. A proposition for peace going from us, now would be the essence of cowardice, and could but have the effect of causing our enemies to believe that we were about ready to yield everything. Propositions for peace must emanate from them; and until then, we must stand by our arms, and be ready to strike at all times for our country and our country’s honor.
This quote is extensive but very succinct considering the ponderous nature of the subject. Renfroe was superb in his reply!
Entering the Chaplains Corps
War is terrible and destructive therefore it must not be entered into lightly. Only “just war” is acceptable to Christian people. What is “just war?” Biblically it is the same as self defense. The South desired to be left to its own governance in accord with the original Constitution. This is why the Confederate States of America Constitution was almost a replica of the Constitution of the Founding Fathers many of whom were Southern men.
Renfroe preached a sermon in the Army of Northern Virginia called “God hath a Controversy with the Nations” and his text was Jeremiah 25:31 dealing with God’s declaration of war against earthly nations. Herein he warned that Southern people “have forgotten our obligations to the God of our mercies.” Waldrep in Alabama Review pointed out the position that Chaplain Renfroe took:
A theological Calvinist, Renfroe believed that nothing happened outside of God’s will; thus the war had to be understood in cosmic dimensions, as an aspect of God’s providential rule in the affairs of men. His explanation began with Adam’s disobedience in the garden of Eden and the subsequent transmission of Adam’s fallen nature to his posterity. “Here,” he asserted, “is the cause of the controversy, of all our woe. Man is a sinner against God…. The effusions of blood that have flowed on the battlefield of every nation in all ages,” he told his audiences, “have resulted from the sinful nature of our race.”
In the eyes of Renfroe since no nation is without sin no nation is without war. War thus is a result ultimately of someone’s disobedience to God.
This biographical sketch began with the death of J. J. D. Renfroe’s brother Baptist minister Nathaniel Renfroe who had joined the 5th Alabama Infantry and served as a lieutenant. Personal correspondence and the deep love he had for his brother was a force in propelling him into the chaplaincy. Renfroe had at first opposed the military chaplaincy as being unconstitutional due to his interpretation of the issue of the separation of church and state, but the death of his brother caused a reconsideration of that position—“It is perhaps no credit to me that I accepted a chaplaincy prejudiced against the system” [South Western Baptist, September 10, 1863; Dwain B. Waldrep, Alabama Review, July 1999]. After Nathaniel’s death he would throw himself into the gap and seek to bring Christ to the Confederate soldiers. There are a series of sermons Renfroe preached in the Army of Northern Virginia that are preserved in his own hand.
Pastors in Alabama were promptly enlisted in the work of taking the gospel to the soldiers, not in a merely perfunctory way, but with the vim and spirit of the country protracted meetings at home. Renfroe, Bailey, Hawthorne, Chambliss, DeVotie, Bell, and many others suspended the work of their pastorates, and went to the front .
It has been said that Renfroe was the best known of the Alabama chaplains. Before he became a chaplain he was an agent for the Colportage Society spreading the Word of the Lord through literature. A. E. Dickinson wrote, “Rev. J. J. D. Renfroe … made known the fact that he had arrived at the conclusion that it was his duty to give himself to the army, his churches were very unwilling to give him up.” Then he gave the following account:
At one church, after several had spoken against his leaving, three of the sisters remarked, that while they valued as highly as any Brother Renfroe’s services, they could cheerfully give him up to labor in the army, for they had sons there for whose conversion they felt very deeply. Each of these three sisters has received a great blessing. The sons of two of them have professed conversion, and the son of the third has been restored to the fellowship of God’s people, from whom he had wandered [J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp, 328-329].
His chaplaincy began in the winter of 1863. The subsequent account was written in January of 1867:
The Tenth Alabama was the regiment of which I was chaplain. The brigade was composed of the Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Fourteenth Alabama Regiments. I reckon this brigade comprised as noble a body of men as ever served in any army. I reached my post of duty while the army was in winter-quarters at Fredericksburg, in the early part of the year 1863…. Very little preaching had been done in the brigade up to that time…. The first Sabbath after I got there I preached twice, and from that time until I left them, I had a large attendance upon worship, and as good order in my congregations as I ever had at home [Jones, 510].
During the Gettysburg campaign he preached thirteen sermons but most of them to other brigades. “I preached several sermons in line of battle,” he confided. He preached at times when shot and shell were flying overhead and had men wounded while he was preaching [Jones, 511]. Chaplain Renfroe said that he saw few signs of revival up to Gettysburg.
When they fell back to Orange Court House after Gettysburg they build arbors and began to preach the gospel. The chaplains in the brigade through the faithful preaching of the gospel began to see the Lord’s blessings in conversions. Chaplain Renfroe described the wind of revival that began to blow:
God greatly blessed our efforts. I have stood at that place (his preaching place in the 10th Alabama) at night and on Sabbaths and preached, as it seemed to me, to a solid acre of men. I think I have seen as many as five or six hundred men, in one way or another, manifest at one time a desire to be prayed for. I have never seen such a time before or since. There were as many evidences of genuine penitence as I ever noticed at home—yes, more. Almost every day there would be a dozen conversions, and there were in the six weeks in the brigade, not less than five hundred who professed conversion…. A most interesting feature was the large number who would retire after the evening ‘roll-call’ in groups, to pray. Walk out from camp at that hour in any direction and you would find them, two, three, half-dozen and a dozen, in a place, all bowed in the dark, earnestly praying for themselves and the conversion of their comrades; they nearly always took some unconverted one with them [Jones, 510-511].
Chaplain Renfroe wrote a letter from the Army of Northern Virginia to a member of his pastorate in Talladega, Alabama:
Were it not for separation from my dear family, I never was so happily situated in my life. I would rather be in the army than anywhere else. O, it is transporting to see the earnestness with which men enter upon the cause of religion, and the primitive familiarity and simplicity with which they approach each other and the preachers on the subject. And then there is scarcely an hour, but some poor inquiring soul comes to my tent to get instruction. I never saw the like of it before [Jones, 346-347].
What a change took place in Renfroe who was so reluctant to join the Chaplains Corps at first only to be overwhelmed by the blessings of God upon his work as a chaplain. He was seeing hundreds of men come to Christ and he administered baptism to many of these.
Chaplain Renfroe was greatly used of the Lord. Chaplain J. William Jones said that on September 6th, 1863 he was engaged to preach for Brother J. J. D. Renfroe in the great revival in Wilcox’s Brigade near the Rapidan River not far from Orange Court House. On the afternoon of that day Chaplain Jones witnessed what he described as “a most interesting baptismal scene in a creek near the railroad … where Dr. Andrew Broaddus, of Caroline county … and Chaplain Renfroe baptized eighty two soldiers…” [Jones, 246]. Then that same day as dusk came Jones who went with Chaplain Renfroe to his place of worship. Those who attended were not just from the 10th Alabama but men came from every direction until at least 5,000 men had assembled. Chaplain Jones preached and around two hundred professed Christ .
Chaplain Renfroe pushed himself in the work to the point of nearly breaking down physically; the toll of intercession and preaching numerous times a day for three weeks was now about to be collected. A visiting chaplain said that he had witnessed those under Renfroe’s ministry and he had never seen men so eager to hear and profit from the preached word of God. Many professed faith in Christ and were baptized.
Chaplain Renfroe’s preaching was very noteworthy. His sermons have been described as “well constructed and powerful in their rhetorical effect” [Waldrep]. Jerry M. Windsor in an article called “Preaching Up a Storm from 1839 to 1889” described our chaplain’s preaching as “earnest, direct, aggressive.” Windsor noted that Renfroe “preached a sermon to General Forney’s brigade of Robert E. Lee’s army entitled ‘The Sin of Stealing.’ Renfroe had been made aware of comrades’ stealing from one another in the front lines of battle, and he attacked the problem directly and forcefully” [The Alabama Baptist Historian, Vol. 29, January 1993, No. 1, 15]. Chaplain Renfroe went to the heart of the matter in his ministry and the Lord greatly blessed his honesty and truthfulness as he held up “thus saith the Lord.”
A very similar approach was seen when Chaplain Renfroe preached the sermon entitled “Jeering the Bald Head.” This sermon had been prepared and preached because a number of enlisted men were mocking and deriding their officers. The chaplain thought this was disrespectful and unscriptural so he went into detail describing incidents which he had seen and heard where men spoke disrespectfully or sarcastically to officers. In this message he reminded the men of Elisha’s words in 2nd Kings 2:23-24 and how he had called down a curse upon the children for mocking him. He described how two she-bears came out of the forest to eat forty-two children who were thus guilty. Chaplain Renfroe in this message declared, “You are soldiers in the hands of superiors who can invoke the aid of the she-bear” [Windsor, 16]. This message no doubt got the attention of the culprits. Thus his sermons aimed at the soul and mind and decorum of the men bolstering the cause in a way most would have overlooked.
Renfroe was requested to have a fast day sermon put in print. This sermon he had preached on August 21st, 1863 and in his prefacing remarks he said he had to “snatch fragments of time from the pressing duties of an extensive and glorious revival of religion.” There was great revival under his chaplaincy as the Lord was pleased to send the Holy Spirit to anoint and apply the sermons which he preached to the hearts of hundreds of men many of whom were to face eternity in hours or days.
The years of Renfroe’s chaplaincy was spent in Virginia with the 10th Alabama. He was true to the end in providing the ministry of the gospel. 1865 was declared by Renfroe to be a year of “woe and lamentation.”
Conflict of Arms Ended
When his work as a chaplain was wrapped up Pastor Renfroe returned to the congregation in Talladega. There he readjusted himself to civilian life and the pastoral scene must have seemed very tame to one who had spent years in the field. Literal bullets were no longer flying but conflict was far from over.
The conflict of arms ended but the conflict in many other ways was about to be revved up by a hate-mongering elite bent on destroying Southern faith and culture. Pastor Renfroe confided to his congregation at the Talladega Baptist Church that there were many things that he wished to say to them but they had to be repressed. Why? There was a sea of brass buttons on blue uniforms sitting before him. Lest there be reprisals against his flock he practiced restraint. However, to make his point Renfroe told a story of an old rebel prisoner being informed by his guards that he could not speak his mind. Finally one of the guards asked what he was thinking, and the prisoner replied, “Damn the Yankees.” Renfroe’s point, “Now, I have not yet come to that in my thoughts, but I have come so near it several times that my conscience is repeatedly operating on the subject every day” [Sermon “Redeeming the Time”].
In the added preamble of his sermon “The Resurrection of the Confederate Soldier” Renfroe related an incident between himself and Gen. Christler (General Morgan Henry Chrysler) after the war at Talladega. Chrysler was military governor of the District of Northern Alabama at the time and attended Renfroe’s ministry.
(I)n the summer of 1865 when the war was over, there was a great revival in my church at Talladega, when the Hon. J. L. M. Curry, now minister to the Spanish Court at Madrid, was a minister of my church and did most of the preaching; and the aforesaid General. Christler (Chrysler) and many of his garrison were regular attendants on the services, and three of his men united with my church. I baptized them in Talladega Creek—a large stream near at hand; it was a pleasant scene to see the whole city on the banks of the creek witnessing the baptism of men of the conquering army and of the conquered, going into the water together…. My Union disciples reported to me however, that they were kicked and cuffed about a good deal in camp on the strength of their “rebel salvation”—not by their officers, but by their comrades of the line [6-7, 9].
Renfroe said of the gloriousness of the final resurrection is that they will be brought “up together.”
When Renfroe preached the funerals for Confederate veterans he honored them as much as he did those he buried during the war. Men who survived the war whose funerals he conducted many were men whom he ministered to as their chaplain in the 10th Alabama. These funerals were in a sense a vindication of their fight for freedom. His sermon “The Resurrection of the Confederate Soldier” began, “The Christian thinks of his Saviour when told that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.’” And he immediately said:
The patriot thinks of his fallen comrades and of the soldiers of former ages, when told that ‘blood is the price of liberty.’ As we stand at the open graves of these our officers and comrades, we feel that we are paying a great price for the boon for which they died….
There is not and never will be dishonor attached to their graves. Following our convictions of an honest patriotism they have laid down their lives for the vindication of these convictions. Let it not be said that it has been a mere sectionalism and not patriotism which has inspired those brave men…. They have died in an effort to prevent the fetters of political slavery which is attempted by an old and scheming sectional enemy. If their survivors should fail, then the effort will be made to hand them down to posterity as traitors, but even in this case the slanderous effort would prove a failure…. (T)hey can no more be disgraced than England can disgrace the graves of the soldiers of Cromwell. The death of every one of them imposes on us the additional responsibility of guarding their honor [10-13].
This was a powerful sermon in which he reminded his hearers,
We fought on the same principles which actuated the forefathers of American liberty…. We fought to maintain the institutions and the liberty which were secured to us in the Constitution of the Country; and we laid down our lives in resistance to a sectional party which had conspired to overthrow the fundamental compact on which the original Government was based .
Some have tried to turn Dr. Renfroe into a New South man but the previous quote looks Old South to this writer! There are those who call him a “Lost Cause apologist” but where will anyone ever find that concept in Renfroe? Modern writers often seem to fear the thought police or politically correct Gestapo so they impose false interpretations to one who bows to God’s providence and recognizes reality. What is the result of such misconceptions? They turn great men into hypocrites. Renfroe always sought to vindicate truth Biblically in spiritual things or Constitutionally in civil things. The Baptist Encyclopedia astutely noted:
Dr. Renfroe is a man of strong convictions, with courage to follow wherever they lead without hesitation and without wavering. An humble man of God, who has spent his life and sacrificed himself in the service of his Master .
Interestingly when Renfroe was working with the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1868 and 1869 his mission reports took the form of “biblically based sermons.” “In the 1868 domestic missions report Renfroe used Acts 1:8 to remind all present that missions were to start at ‘Jerusalem—beginning at home.’” Then when he gave his foreign mission report he “used Isaiah 42:6 to show that the Christian Church must be a light to the Gentiles” [Windsor, 17]. Renfroe’s life was based on the Word of God and so was his view of doing the work of the Lord.
He also returned to the labors of his denomination with its needs and work. His pen was quickly put to use in contributing articles to various Baptist periodicals. As corresponding editor of the South Western Baptist and Christian Index he sought to be a source of encouragement to God’s people. This was true when he was associate editor and then editor of the Alabama Baptist. The Southern people and former Confederate soldiers found a friend as he defended their values, beliefs and customs. He was ever ready to defend the faith once delivered to the saints. There was also the need for rescuing or rebuilding the institutions damaged by the invasion and preoccupation with defense. Pastor Renfroe set to doing what he could which was a great deal. There were many boards that he was requested to serve on during this process.
Many of the sermons of Pastor Renfroe made reference to the Southern cause and those who fought it. “It was J. J. D. Renfroe who constantly used his war experience to begin, end, and illustrate sermons” [Windsor, 19]. This is certainly evident when one reads those sermons.
When General R. E. Lee passed away on October 22nd, 1870 Pastor Renfroe remembered the esteemed Virginian and Southern Christian gentleman in a sermon. The title of this message he preached to the congregation he pastored was “A Star of the First Magnitude of General Robert E. Lee.” His text was—“For one star differeth from another star in glory” (1 Cor. 15:41). He told the congregation:
And now, in harmony with the spirit of the text … we propose to bring forward the name, virtues, and character of General Lee, and if the world were assembled here we would modestly and yet boldly challenge the chronicles of the past and the living present, “match him if you can!” We will not claim that he never had an equal, but that we have known nothing of his superior…. And while one planet in the moral and intellectual heavens differs from another in glory, we assume that our retired and fallen hero is a star of the first magnitude—standing among human luminaries as a “burning and a shining light.
In this message Renfroe dealt with Lee’s noble attributes and character [6-7]. In this message is an encouraging word regarding Lee and those who respected him. He pointed out that the glory of such men as Cromwell, Wellington, Havelock, Washington, etc. was “the glory of success; that of Lee shines out luminously in the hour of defeat in the dark days of subjugation” [14-15]. A bit later he stated, “It seems to your speaker that Gen. Lee … will stand the test for greatness whether tried by the hard rule of success or the harder rule of failure” . Of course Pastor Renfroe used the message to encourage the sheep in the local fold. This encouragement was evident in such declarations as, “A dark cloud drew itself between him and the object of his cherished hopes, but so brilliant was this bright star, that its rays burst through that cloud and throws a flood of light on the dreary pathway of the disappointed and defeated” . He held Lee up to youth as a role model. Renfroe indicated that it did not matter when the stars from the South ascended; they “are our stars still…. Hard by the glories of Lee stands his illustrious Lieutenant General Jackson—the inspiration of the Southern armies and the consternation of the invading forces” .
Howard College (now Samford University) conferred a Doctor of Divinity degree on him in 1875. He diligently sought to raise funds for this institution which was almost put out of existence during the war. He was one of the instruments in its relocation to Birmingham.
There was the frustration and consternation with the results of the war and the conflicts that took another form. Pastor Renfroe never believed the South was wrong in defending herself against a hostile invasion. The outcome of the war was according to God’s providence and thus he accepted it. Theologically he understood but he found it challenging to submit to Yankee masters policing the South and interfering in about every aspect of life after the war during occupation.
Pastor Renfroe preached a sermon to his congregation that he had preached during the war. The title of the sermon was “Bitter Waters Made Sweet.” This was a very practical sermon to men who had seen so much carnage and death, but it was equally practical to a congregation suffering under want, occupation and military coercion.
There were in his life many difficulties from beginning to end but Renfroe trusted the one who saved him by grace and kept him unto glory. His life was one of facing the difficulties head on. The Baptist Encyclopedia recognized these issues:
The latter years of his life have been made bitter by severe bereavements and affliction. Amid repeated sore troubles and hard trials, rapidly recurring, he has made it manifest that he is a trusting child of God, a good servant of Christ, who can endure hardness as a good soldier of the Cross .
During his involvement in supporting Howard College he met others at Birmingham’s First Baptist Church where he became ill. He was taken to his brother-in-law’s home in Woodlawn for care, but the time of his summons had come. Thus on June 2nd, 1888 he closed his eyes to earthly things. Elsie his wife had passed from this earthly scene just nine months previously. J. J. D. Renfroe was interred beside his wife at Oak Hill Cemetery in Talladega, Alabama where he had spent so many years ministering to the Lord’s people. “So shall he ever be with the Lord.”
B. F. Riley gives what could be called Renfroe’s Eulogy:
Dr. J. J. D. Renfroe had died at Woodlawn—a leader whose death occasioned universal sorrow. No one had exceeded Dr. Renfroe in the esteem, honor, and love of the Baptist people of Alabama. Chivalric in disposition, the soul of honor, a great preacher and leader, he was preeminent in the esteem of the people to whom he was, in turn, devoted .