Articles & Stories

Dr. Edward O. Guerrant's "Society Of Soul Winners"
Bath County Minister Once Directed Over 100 Churches

By James Clell Neace - 1997

Back issues of The Kentucky Explorer contain a number of references to Dr. Edward Owing Guerrant (1838-1916), who was born and reared at Sharpsburg, Kentucky, in the Bluegrass Region, near Mt. Sterling, Montgomery County.

At a time when church houses and high schools were practically unknown in Eastern Kentucky, Dr. Guerrant took upon himself the stupendous task of producing six of the first church houses in Breathitt County. Furthermore, he helped establish at least three advanced educational facilities; each typically featuring a secondary school with dorms, a church, a hospital, and an orphanage. These included Highland Institute, Guerrant, Breathitt County; Witherspoon College, Buckhorn, Perry County; and Stuart Robinson College, Blackey, Letcher County.

Dr. Guerrant is seen here preaching to the people of Athol, a small community on the Lee-Breathitt County line. Note the man to his right is General O. O. Howard, the famed Civil War soldier. Howard was a Federal soldier, while Guerrant served the South during the Civil War.
Funding for this immense building program was largely obtained from private donations and through fundraising forays of Dr. Guerrant and others. Landowners in a community where a building was being erected would often furnish free timber, stones, and other building materials. Much of the labor was furnished by volunteers.

In our efforts to understand how Guerrant could accomplish so much, let us take a brief look at the background of this remarkable man. Born in 1838, Edward Guerrant graduated from Centre College at Danville in 1860. In 1862, influenced by Rev. Stuart Robinson, a Louisville minister, he joined the Confederate army of Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall, commander of the Fifth Kentucky Regiment. Once encamped at Hager Hill in Johnson County, but then stationed in Virginia, this regiment was largely composed of Breathitt Countians and other Eastern Kentuckians. Later, the Fifth Kentucky joined the famous Kentucky Orphan Brigade (CSA), where Guerrant advanced to the rank of captain and served admirably as adjutant general, in turn, to three different army commanders.

Once, when marching through Breathitt County by way of Troublesome Creek, Guerrant, to his great surprise, did not see a single church house in the entire county. This was etched into his memory and, many years later, became one of the factors that influenced him to return to Breathitt County in 1882 "to serve my former comrades-at-arms."

After the Civil War Guerrant obtained his Doctor of Medicine degree by attending Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and Belleview Medical College in New York. He then began medical practice at Mount Sterling. In 1873 he obtained his Doctor of Divinity degree from the Union Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, and became a minister. In 1881 Guerrant was promoted to crusading evangelist for Eastern Kentucky. There he held religious revivals in a large tent in remote mountain communities. Often he would put on his "other hat" and hold medical clinics there, also.
Guerrant's building program in Eastern Kentucky soon followed. In 1885 he left full-time crusading and relocated at Wilmore, Jessamine County, Kentucky, where he established his headquarters. From this base he continued fundraising, the building program, and the recruitment of missionaries for the Kentucky mountains.

Guerrant's crowning achievement came in 1897 with the founding of "The Society of Soul Winners," with headquarters at Wilmore. At one time he was directing the work of over 100 ministers of various church denominations scattered throughout the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. His objective was to get churches of all the various denominations to work together toward common goals.

Edward Owings Guerrant, seen here in his Confederate Army uniform. He was born February 28, 1838, in Sharpsburg (Bath County), Kentucky, and died November 27, 1916. He is buried in the Lexington, Kentucky, Cemetery.
The Society hired a field secretary, whose duty was to ride horseback hundreds of miles and visit the various 100 or more churches affiliated with the Society; give them encouragement; and coordinate their efforts. This proved to be such a grueling task that the turnover rate was high.

Guerrant often made fundraising forays and/or recruitment speeches at various religious conventions. It was a speech of his at a joint YMCA-YWCA convention in Ohio that motivated Mr. and Mrs. George E. Drushal to join the Society and establish a church/school dorm/gym complex at Riverside Institute, Lost Creek, Breathitt County. When applying for the job the Drushals went to Wilmore. There they were told by Guerrant that the last two couples he had dispatched to Lost Creek directly departed in disgust. The Drushals were not fazed and asked to go.

The Society paid the Drushals a monthly stipend, until their own church became interested in the venture and provided funds. As was the case for the Drushals, many of the missionaries sent by the Society to rural Kentucky mountain communities stayed on and exerted great influence there.

Dr. Guerrant's final major project for "serving his comrades" was the construction of the educational complex at Blackey, which he named Stuart Robinson, for an evangelist friend of his. The project was completed just two years before his death in 1916. Stuart Robinson and the various other educational complexes that Guerrant helped produce served their intended purposes well; but in recent years, having funding problems, they were phased out, one by one. The buildings have been put to use for other purposes.

This brings us back to the question of how Guerrant was able to serve his wartime comrades so well. First of all, he lived in an age of close-knit people of similiar interests and possessed of absolute standards. This contrasts sharply with present-day relativism and multiculturalism; with widely-shifting standards for conduct, faith, morality; and civic responsibility. Secondly, Guerrant had gone through a horrendous war in company with his comrades, and he knew them well. Thirdly, Guerrant had an abiding faith that moved mountain people to join with him in his projects.

Now approaching the century mark in age, a few of the workers who were involved in Dr. Guerrant's programs are still with us. They are a valuable resource, the potential of passing on know-how and wisdom they have gleaned down through the years. Their death is like the burning of a library.

A scene near Elkatawa, Breathitt County, Kentucky, ca. 1910, at one of Dr. Guerrant's tent meetings. These mountain folks are ready for church.
With this in mind, Kentucky Explorer reader James G. Cornett of Burnside, Kentucky, a graduate of Stuart Robinson, searched out the lady who taught him English at Stuart Robinson for an interview. He recorded her autobiography, which he generously shares with us.

The name of this former Stuart Robinson English teacher is Lois McClintock Ellis. She turned 97 years old in October 2000. Well-loved as a teacher, at the time of this writing, Miss Ellis was mentally alert, took walks, and taught a Bible class. She was a typical example of the talented people who were attracted to Dr. Guerrant's programs.

Here is Miss Ellis' autobiography, as it was told to James G. Cornett:

"I was born October 16, 1903, at Day, Arkansas, the daughter of McClintock Todd Ellis (born May 12, 1870; died December 28, 1946) and Lois Adeline Murphy Ellis (born October 7, 1866; died June 16, 1935). I had one brother, William Lelend Ellis (born November 25, 1899; died June 15, 1982).

"My father was a Presbyterian minister, who preached for 50 years. My mother had little formal education and was a very refined Christian lady. I was named for both my father and mother. I have been known most of my life by my nickname, 'Mackie.'

"I attended elementary school at Doraville, Arkansas. After finishing the 10th grade, I enrolled in Linwood College near Gastonia, North Carolina. I then attended Women's College (now Erskine College) at Due West, South Carolina, from 1921 to 1923, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

"I was never interested in teaching in public schools. My interest was always in mountain mission and church-affiliated schools. I taught at the Blue Ridge Academy, a mountain mission school at Ararat, Virginia; at Highland Institution at Guerrant, Kentucky; and at Montreat College in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

"During my summers, I attended several colleges, including: Peabody Teacher's College in Nashville; the University of Southern California; Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina; Biblical Seminary in New York; and Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. I received a Master's degree in English from the University of South Carolina in 1948.

"I started teaching at Stuart Robinson High School in 1948, and I stayed there until the school closed in 1957. After leaving Kentucky, I taught for 12 years at Nacoochee School at Rabun Gap, Georgia.

"I retired in 1969 and moved to Taccoa, Georgia. I then taught evening extension courses from Stuart McConnell College at the high school building in Taccoa.

"After being retired nine years, I went to Brazil at the age of 74 and taught English to missionaries' children for one school year.

"I have travelled extensively. I spent six weeks in Holland, five weeks touring Europe, went to the Holy Land, and to Hawaii. On one trip I saw the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany.

"I fell and broke my hip in 1984. At the request of a cousin, who lived in Abbeville, South Carolina, I moved there. My father was born and reared in this city, and I had been in and out of Abbeville County many times.

"My hair is perfectly white. I weigh about 118 pounds. I get around using a three-pronged walker in the house, and a two-wheeled walker, when I take my half-mile walks each day.

"The population of Abbeville is about 7,000. The store buildings are quaint and interesting. The people are very friendly. The opera house has many plays, and people come from great distances to see these.

"I am a member of the Abbeville Presbyterian Church."

James Clell Neace, 377 Freedom Road, Blackville, SC 29817, shares this story with our readers. Now retired, we continue to feature his work in our magazine on a regular basis.

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