Saturday, April 26, 2014

Presbyterians in the Piney Woods: The Legacy of Montrose, Mississippi

South of Newton, Mississippi, is the small town of Montrose in Jasper County. Founded in the 1830s by Scottish immigrants, Montrose was at one time a bustling village and home to a vibrant Presbyterian congregation. Today, the congregation no longer exists but a beautiful church remains. Built in 1910, the Montrose Presbyterian Church is a Carpenter Gothic-styled building with a steeply-pitched roof, an unusually tall bell tower and thirteen Gothic arch windows inside. Because of the church’s architectural design, Montrose Presbyterian Church (above) is listed in the National Register and is a designated Mississippi Landmark property, and there has been a concerted effort in recent years to restore the church. As important as the church building is, though, it’s only part of the story. For a time, you see, Montrose was the home of an academy dedicated to classical education. Although the school long ago ceased to exist, the two extraordinary men who built the school and the congregation went on to much greater endeavors in far-flung fields. This is the story of Dr. John Waddel and Dr. John Gray.

The son of a Presbyterian minister and educator, John Newton Waddel (pronounced “wad-ul”) was named for the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” (and he had a brother named Isaac Watts). John was born in 1812 in Willington, South Carolina, where his father, Dr. Moses Waddel (left), operated a highly respected academy called the Willington School, sometimes known as "Eton in the woods.” Along with strict religious instruction, the school’s regimen required students to memorize, translate, and recite at least 250 lines of Greek or Latin each night. The school record for recitation, held by future South Carolina governor George McDuffie, was an impressive 2,212 lines of Horace. Although he was known for his “severe and almost cruel” discipline and, according to one account, had a propensity for “profane swearing,” Dr. Moses Waddel was considered one of the South’s leading educators of the antebellum period and his academy counted among its graduates such luminaries as John C. Calhoun and Augustus B. Longstreet. 

Because of the academy's success, Dr. Waddel was called to Athens, Georgia, to rescue the fledgling University of Georgia, established in 1785. When Waddel arrived in 1819, he found the college "nearly extinct, consisting of only seven students with three professors." During the next decade, he worked hard to build up not only the enrollment but added several new buildings to the campus, including Philosophical Hall, New College and Demosthenian Hall (above right), all constructed in the early 1820s. During his career in education, Dr. Waddel’s students included two vice presidents, three secretaries of state, three secretaries of war, three foreign ministers, one Supreme Court justice, eleven governors, seven U.S. Senators, thirty two members of the House of Representatives, eight college presidents, five members of the Confederate Congress, two bishops and three generals, just to name a few. Moses Waddel died of a stroke on July 21, 1840, possibly due to “an excessive use of tobacco.” While he no doubt hoped John Newton would carry on his legacy at the Willington School, the younger Waddel by that time had decided to make his livelihood as a cotton farmer and headed west with his growing family.

John Newton Waddel settled in Greene County, Alabama, and moved in next door to his brother-in-law and fellow Presbyterian, Rev. John Hannah Gray. There, the two families built log cabins and began tilling the soil. While in Alabama, Waddel was also called to the ministry and was licensed to preach. Within a few years, both men were given an opportunity to move further west with their families to Jasper County, Mississippi, where they again established roots. John Waddel, though, found that his farming skills were lacking. In fact, he had proved a miserable failure in growing cotton. To that end, he decided to establish a school in sparsely populated Jasper County, a vocation for which he was much better suited, returning, as it were, to the family business of education. The school he founded, called the Montrose Academy, started out small. “The school was opened in a log building,” he wrote, “which was used also for preaching purposes, and located on a gentle eminence, on the highway of travel, distant two miles from my residence, in the midst of an extensive pine forest.” Considering the remote location of the school and the lack of any substantial buildings, operating funds or library to speak of, it might be expected that the academy would be a complete failure. On the contrary, the Montrose Academy prospered and eventually boasted as many as seventy-five students, all engaged in studying the classics, English, algebra, trigonometry, navigation and, of course, regular Bible study. All students were also required to attend the Presbyterian Church. In time, the school attracted students from as far away as western Alabama, Vicksburg and Jackson. With increased tuition, additional buildings were constructed, including a two-story church on campus. Upon graduation, many of the students entered either Oakland College (located at present-day Alcorn State University) or the University of Mississippi. Whether they pursued further education or not, Waddel expressed satisfaction that “many who came in comparative ignorance and with unsettled morals left infinitely benefited.” Almost as soon as he arrived in Mississippi, Waddel was licensed by the Mississippi Presbytery, the Moderator of which was another prominent educator, Jeremiah Chamberlain of Oakland College. * As a minister, Waddel served a variety of churches, including Montrose, where he remained for seven years, during which time he also continued to operate the “Oxford of Jasper County.” When Rev. Waddell left for the real Oxford to serve the Presbyterian Church there and to teach as a professor of ancient languages at the University of Mississippi, the academy at Montrose faded away. Sadly, he left behind a four-year-old son, also named John Newton, who died in 1846. His grave remains today in the Montrose Cemetery.

The Montrose Presbyterian Church was organized in 1841 with similarly humble beginnings. The church’s first pastor was John Hannah Gray, also a native of South Carolina. Gray was a few years older that Waddel and graduated from Georgia in 1823 at age nineteen during the presidency of the elder Dr. Waddel. After graduation, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and moved to Alabama with his brother in law and thence to Jasper County in hopes of improving his health. Two years after becoming the first pastor at Montrose, he left his brother-in-law in charge of the Montrose Church and moved to Vicksburg and then to Memphis in 1845, where he organized the Second Presbyterian Church. Gray remained in Memphis for the next fourteen years, where “his blameless life, his tender sympathy with all classes of sufferers, his fidelity to the duties of his sacred office, his tender, affectionate, and wise pulpit ministrations, all combined to clothe him with an influence and a power for good such as few men have ever wielded in Memphis.” Some of his tenderness as a pastor may have come from Dr. Gray’s own tragic experience with his family: of eleven children, only two survived. In addition, his wife Jane preceded him in death.

In 1857, Gray left Memphis to become president of the LaGrange Synodical College in LaGrange, Tennessee. Located just north of the Mississippi state line, LaGrange was chartered in 1829. From the beginning, the town attracted colleges for both male and female students and in 1855 preparations were made for a new college sponsored by the Memphis Presbyterian Synod. Dr. Gray was selected by unanimous vote to head the new institution. The academic regimen was stiff. Just to apply for admission to the school, students had to pass an examination in English grammar, geography and arithmetic, plus be proficient in the first five books of Caesar’s Commentaries, the Eclogues, Virgil’s Aeneid, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the Greek Reader, the first four books of Xenophon’s Anabasis, algebra and be generally well versed in Greek and Latin grammar. In addition, applicants were required to “present a certificate of good moral character from some reliable source.” If accepted, students at the college were expected to complete a rigorous course in classics, philosophy, science, mathematics and grammar. Among the faculty members at the college was a familiar face – John Newton Waddel, who left the University of Mississippi to join the faculty at Lagrange College. There, he taught a course in “Ancient Literature,” while Dr. Gray taught “Ethics, Metaphysics and Sacred Literature” in addition to acting as president. With the two reunited, the future of the new institution seemed bright indeed. They also shared ministerial duties at the LaGrange Presbyterian Church.

Unfortunately, the LaGrange Synodical College did not survive the conflagration of the Civil War. Located on the line of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, LaGrange was occupied by Union forces from June 1862 onward. In April 1863, Union Col. Benjamin Grierson used LaGrange as the starting point for his raid into Mississippi. Aimed at Newton Station on the Southern Railroad, Grierson’s Raid threw a panic into Confederate forces in central Mississippi and served as a diversion to distract attention from Grant’s army as it searched for a landing place on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Grierson led his 1,700 cavalrymen south from LaGrange on April 17; a week later, on April 24, his men rode into Newton and wrecked the railroad there and then rode further south to avoid Confederate cavalry in pursuit. Oddly enough, Grierson’s men camped at the Bender Plantation near Montrose that night, the same little town settled by Dr. Gray and Dr. Waddel more twenty years earlier. From Montrose, Grierson’s raiders continued to elude Confederate cavalry until they reached the safety of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. [For more on Grierson's Raid, please read]

After the collapse of LaGrange College, which was burned during the Civil War, John Gray and John Waddel finally parted ways for good. During the war, Waddel served as an agent for the Bible Society and as a missionary to the Confederate Army, while Dr. Gray remained in LaGrange to tend to his congregation. Over time, his health failed and he died in 1878 and was buried beside his wife in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Meanwhile, Dr. Waddel returned to Oxford after the war to become Chancellor of the University of Mississippi. During his nine-year term, which coincided with Reconstruction, he continued to preach at several area Presbyterian churches. After leaving Ole Miss in 1874, he returned to Georgia to take a post as Executive Secretary for the Georgia Commission on Education, and then served as Chancellor of the Southwest Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee. At each place, he continued to preach. He was also during this time very active in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S., where he was known as a "conservative by age, wisdom, and experience." In one instance, for example, he opposed a move by the General Assembly to allow the use of collection plates instead of "greasy slouch hats" because, as Dr. Waddel argued, hats had always been used for collections. The proposal failed at the 1868 General Assembly with Dr. Waddel casting the deciding vote to continue "passing the hat." With his health beginning to fail, Waddel was forced to retire in 1888. He remained in Clarksville, Tennessee, until his death in 1895. He is buried in Clarksville's Greenwood Cemetery (above), while his wife, who died in 1851, rests in the College Hill Cemetery near Oxford.

During their long and productive lives, both John Newton Waddel and John Hannah Gray remained committed to the twin pillars of faith and learning and excelled in both endeavors. Their contributions in education and religious instruction are an enduring legacy of the little town of Montrose deep in the piney woods of Mississippi. 

* On September 5, 1851, Chamberlain was brutally murdered on campus. His death created a sensation throughout Mississippi. For more on that story see:

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Montrose Presbyterian Church: From the National Register of Historic Places file at MDAH
(2) Moses Waddel:
(3) Domosthenian Hall:
(4) John N. Waddel: From Memorials of academic life (1891) in Google Books 
 (5) John H. Gray:
(6) LaGrange College:
(7) Grierson's Raid:
(8) Waddel grave: 


  1. Thank you for this post. I am currently researching LaGrange College for my own blog. I have information on a fraternity at LaGrange as well as a letter home about about the cost of boarding there. Do you by chance have any information about fraternities at LaGrange?

  2. May I link my blog to this post?