Underwood, John Levi

Chaplain John Levi Underwood
30th Alabama Regiment Volunteer Infantry

By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg

Chaplain John L. Underwood is well described in his quotation of the last words of Henry W. Grady, “If I die, I die serving the South, the land I love so well…. I am proud to die speaking for it.” Underwood wrote from Kellam’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia on April 1st, 1906 that he “fought for the South and is now so afflicted that he can no longer hope to speak for the South (lip cancer), but he will be happy to die writing for it.” These words are found in his “Introduction” of The Women of the Confederacy. He had delivered a very heartfelt speech on “Confederate Women” in 1896 for the benefit of the Confederate Monument in Cuthbert, Georgia, and shortly thereafter his lecture work was interrupted by a very serious lip cancer which eventually landed him in the Kellam Hospital in the old capital of the Confederacy.

Early Life

John Levi Underwood by the blessing of God made his way into this world on March 27th, 1836. He was the son of Lancelot Viverett and Martha Thomas Underwood. He was born in Sumterville, Sumter County, Alabama. His father as a lad moved from Nash County, North Carolina to middle Tennessee and shortly moved to west Alabama during the early days of the pioneering of the state. John’s mother was a native of Hancock County, Georgia and was the daughter of F. Gabriel Thomas who had moved to Russell County, Alabama.

The parents of John Underwood were Presbyterian so John during his early days was nurtured by his Christian parents. As a youth he enjoyed the best educational advantages offered by the schools and academies of the time and area.

John Underwood as a lad of ten came to a saving knowledge of Christ as Lord and Saviour in 1846. The next year he made his public profession of faith as he was baptized by Rev. James K. Clinton into the fellowship of the Baptist Church at Black Hawk, Mississippi.

Formal Education and Calling

J. L. Underwood entered Oglethorpe University, which at that time was located at Milledgeville, Georgia. He entered in 1853 and graduated with first honors in 1855. When he returned to Alabama he moved his membership to Newborn Baptist Church, Greene County, by which church he was licensed to preach in 1857. His father was an elder in the Livingston Presbyterian Church at Livingston, Alabama. Young Underwood disappointed his father when he took this step. Instead of taking up law as his father had desired, which was reminiscent of Martin Luther’s father, the young preacher took charge of the Newborn Academy where he taught. He was in charge of the Newborn Academy for two years.

Then in 1857 he entered the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Columbia, South Carolina. Here he had the great joy of studying under Dr. James Henley Thornwell, who was an accomplished minister of the gospel and professor at Columbia Seminary from 1856 until his death six years later on August 1st, 1862. There seemed to be no opportunity that was any greater than the tutorage of the great Presbyterian divine. Under Thornwell young Underwood used John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as his primary text. Some of the students believed that their professor found more in the Institutes than Calvin himself. Theology to Thornwell was “the science of the life of God in the soul of man.” Thus John Underwood studied under one of the most accomplished men ever produced in the South. Here was a Baptist minister being trained in a Presbyterian institution; but this was not unusual in those days for John’s best friend William Curry another Baptist was trained there; James P. Boyce was trained at Princeton Seminary as were Basil and Charles Manly.

After completing the course at Columbia Seminary in 1859 Underwood went to Europe, hoping to spend four years in study, but after one year at the University of Heidelberg, Germany it became obvious that his beloved South was in danger of being invaded. Now that the War of Northern Aggression seemed so imminent he changed his plans and hurried to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne until the declaration of war in 1861.

Upon returning from Europe Underwood landed in New York. Sensing a danger of being taken prisoner by the Federals he began speaking only French until he crossed the Mason and Dixon line into the bastion of Southern safety. The ruse worked and he returned to the waiting arms his beloved Dixie.

The Invasion of the South and War

The first act of the returning student, after reaching the South, was to strike out for the home of his beloved Miss Amy Curry. Yes, he headed to the home of Joel Curry at Currytown in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Not very long after his return he was married to Amy Curry.  She was a sister of his best friend Rev. William Lewis Curry. Curry had been a fellow student at the Columbia Theological Seminary and would become the Baptist chaplain of the 50th Georgia Infantry. John Levi Underwood and his new bride took a journey to the home of the groom’s father in Sumter County, Alabama.

In the summer of 1861, soon after his return from Europe and his marriage, John took charge of a school and church at Homewood, Mississippi, and threw himself into his labors for his King and Saviour. Here he was ordained to the gospel ministry in the autumn of that year.

The war then reached such a stage that in order to protect his home and family he believed that it was his duty to enlist in the Confederate Army and take up arms. The day after his ordination he went to Mobile, Alabama where he enlisted as a private soldier in the 20th Alabama Regiment under Col. O. W. Garrett.

In 1863, at Vicksburg, Mississippi he was commissioned as chaplain of the 30th Alabama Regiment, which was under Col. Charles M. Shelly. While at Vicksburg during the siege he contracted typhoid fever which devastated his constitution. His health was so impacted as to force him to resign in December of that year.

A few months later he had sufficiently recovered to take charge of a school and become minister of a local Baptist church in his wife’s hometown. Thus Underwood was once again at work at Currytown in the Edgefield District of South Carolina and as minister of the church at Red Oak Grove. Amy Curry Underwood continued her education under her husband and became especially interested in the study of French.

Pastor Underwood’s health was quickly regained. He therefore believed he had a responsibility to return to the war so he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army fighting under General Ambrose Ransom Wright. General “Rans” Wright had been severely wounded at Sharpsburg after which he was promoted to major-general and ordered to Georgia where he exercised command unto the war’s end. Private Underwood fought under this noble officer. Major-General Wright was assigned the task of fronting Federal General Sherman as the arsonist and destroyer marched through Georgia. At least they sought to impede the progress of the destroyer as much as humanly possible. G. K. Chesterton made a wise remark, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” This was true of J. L. Underwood.

After the War

The young minister and educator made a visit to the southern part of Georgia. Here he found the climate to be very congenial and beneficial to his health so he settled in Decatur County where he was called to the pastorate of the Bainbridge Baptist Church. He eagerly entered into the work of the ministry. He also began preaching to the churches at Milford and Red Bluff, Georgia.

Pastor Underwood served from 1867-1869 as pastor of the Cuthbert Baptist Church, and then went back to his farm in Decatur County. He would also serve as pastor of the Baptist churches of Springvale, Buffton, Cairo, Boston and other churches in the Bethel Baptist Association.

Then in 1871 he was employed as an agent for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board for the purpose of representing the board in Texas. This was to last for four months. His time in Texas was in a sparsely settled area not far from Houston. He traveled on horseback carrying his necessities in saddlebags. Upon completing this task he returned to his farm in Decatur County.

Back home in Georgia he began the process of plowing his fields and caring for his property all the while ministering to small country churches until the fall of 1871. He also labored as an evangelist at his own expense until his call in 1872 to Camilla, Evergreen and Mt. Enon Baptist Churches in Mitchell County where he lived on a small farm in close proximity to Camilla.

Most of Pastor Underwood’s ministry had been in young churches or those enfeebled in various ways, and this meant he had to provide most of his own support for himself and family. Therefore he had been necessity bound to teach school or follow agricultural pursuits to supply the needs of his family. Although he had received a good education his possibilities for continued study was reduced to the bare necessity for pulpit ministry. Personal reading was limited as he tried to provide his own with the necessities of life. However, his vigorous mind was manifested in all his endeavors. Pastor Underwood was a good thinker and skilled in analyzing. His life was consumed with work to insure the survival of his family.

His writing and speaking ability have been described:

Wielding a facile pen and master of a sprightly, nervous style, he might win reputation as a writer if he used his gifts in this respect. He is heard with pleasure as a public speaker, and is clear in reasoning, simple in language, and animated, if not sometimes rather vehement, in delivery. He loves to preach, and loves especially to preach to children. He has shown himself always ready to instruct the colored people, whether from the pulpit or by more private methods.
As a pastor he is devoted to his charges, punctual in the performance of public duties, candid, faithful and affectionate in counsel, and in social intercourse pleasant and attractive. He has much self-reliance, without egotism or vanity, and has learned in whatsoever state the Lord places him therewith to be content. Given to hospitality, and of a generous disposition, he never so much enjoys the bounties spread upon his table as when he shares them with his friends or with those in need.

Underwood’s life and ministry are somewhat depicted in that quotation. Here was a man sure in his faith, active in his service, patient in his ministry and trusting in the kind providence of God. He was content in whatsoever state he found himself.

Around 1876 Pastor J. L. Underwood purchased a farm just south of Camilla as previously noted. On this farm he lived for the next thirty years. His farm was very active in many ways for on it he reared five sons and eight daughters. This large family put the farm right and made it productive. He named this home “Pearland Cottage” for the land was abounding in various varieties of fruits and vegetables at the same time all framed with flowers. His home was said to be one of the happiest in that part of Georgia. A frequent visitor to “Pearland Cottage” said:

Whoever crossed its threshold remembered it with pleasure. It was a place where luxuriant wealth was a stranger, where frugality and economy were practiced but where culture, refinement and the graces of mind and heart were diligently encouraged and cultivated. There was no home in Georgia where the friend received a more cordial welcome or the stranger was made to feel more thoroughly at ease.

Pastor Underwood’s dear wife had enjoyed a good education which included music as well as French. She was very active in the education of her children. The Underwood children all became family musicians and enjoyed music along with their other accomplishments.

For many years Pastor Underwood was active as a Trustee of Mercer University. This institution eventually conferred on him the degree of Master of Arts. During the years there were many calls received from larger churches, Pastor Underwood was also offered a college professorship but he remained in his part of Georgia. He was satisfied with the pleasantries of his life and service for the Lord. His was a happy country home. He was where he believed God had called him to serve among the country folks of southwest Georgia; after all they were the salt of the earth kind of people. Underwood certainly was satisfied with this country which he prized for the healthfulness of her balmy breezes.

The Latter Years

The ministry to the Camilla Baptist Church lasted for fourteen years before Pastor Underwood resigned. Necessity in the providence of God brought this connection to a conclusion. Underwood found that he was unable to provide the essentials for the support of his large family. Education was a costly responsibility so John L. Underwood once more became an educator along with the summons of the use his pen. Around 1881 The Camilla Clarion was born and he was the sole proprietor and editor for eight years. The preacher was also busy on the Lord’s Day in needy churches.

Rev. Underwood not being slowed because of age began to read law. When he had qualified for this new endeavor he began the practice of law in 1885. This venture was very successful. Underwood was appointed Judge of the County Court of Mitchell in 1891. The reader needs to remember that Rev. Underwood did not forget his calling and responsibility to preach the gospel. Whether in the circumstances of war or whatever work he was brought to do out of necessity he did not forget the work of the Lord. He was busy during the week in his new profession and practice, but on the Lord’s Day he would be found preaching either to country or village churches. If he was not in a country church he would be ministering to the poor or the Negroes.

Judge Underwood was a fluent speaker and delivered numerous lectures in his part of the state of Georgia. There were requests for his lectures. One of his best known lectures was his “Eulogy on Confederate Women” which was delivered in 1895 for the benefit of the Confederate Monument in Cuthbert, Georgia.

Rev. Judge John L. Underwood was a man of accomplishment who put the Lord at the center of his life and work. Bethel College in Cuthbert chose him as president in 1895. Here he and one of his daughters both taught. Underwood had always been fond of young people and was very useful and adept in his dealings with them. His was an enduring impact for good at every point where his life touched theirs. A number of young men were called to the ministry under his ministry, instruction and living example. He lived a life close to his glorious Savior and Lord. Someone said of him “He was a man of a happy disposition, evidenced in every walk in life, which had its foundation in his unfaltering faith in God, which faith remained the same in the sunshine and shadows of an eventful life.”

John Levi Underwood published his primary book The Women of the Confederacy in 1906 as a result of his heartfelt speech on Confederate Women in 1896. The lecture was delivered as previously noted for the benefit of the Confederate Monument in Cuthbert, Georgia. Shortly thereafter his lecture work was interrupted permanently by a very serious lip cancer which landed him in the Kellam Hospital in the old capital of the Confederacy. Kellam Hospital was a specialized hospital dealing in alternative ways of dealing with cancer; their slogan was “We cure without the use of knife or x-ray.” The book was produced under the severe pain and weakness caused by cancer. This book effort was his final offering for the Confederate Cause and the glory of God. Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, Virginia reprinted this work in 2004. In this memorable volume Underwood embalms the memory of “the heroism of the women of the Confederate States and accounts of their trials during the four years of war and the fourteen years of Reconstruction, with their ultimate triumph over adversity.”

Underwood, even though afflicted with lip cancer, was yet a man of strength and vigor. This affliction led him to move his family to Blakely, Georgia. Most of his final three years of life were spent in Kellam Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He remarked while awaiting his promotion to glory:

In this simple presence of a gracious, living God, this hospital for months of unmeasured pain, has proved a palace to my soul. Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise. Praise God for the anchor, Hope, that entered within the veil and binds the storm-tossed soul to His very throne.

In this final battle it pleased the Lord to remove him from all his earthly labors, for on June 6th, 1907 he was promoted to the divine presence. His earthly remains were buried in the cemetery at Blakely to await the resurrection. A life of labor for the Lord was now over and he had entered into his Lord’s presence which is far better.

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