Jesse Babcock Ferguson is an example of how the sins of one can spiritually injure multitudes. This example should caution us to beware: (1) Men may disappoint; (2) Our actions may affect others.
Ferguson was born in Philadelphia, Pa. but moved over time to various places in Virginia, Ohio, and eventually Kentucky. In Kentucky, Ferguson began to preach and his talents and abilities were soon obvious.
In the early 1840’s, while living in Kentucky, he held a couple of meetings in Nashville, Tennessee. They were so impressed that they tried to persuade him to move to the city and work with them. At first, he declined, but in the spring of 1846, at the age of 27, he accepted and moved to Nashville (approximate population 40,000).
Never had a preacher in Nashville so captivated the city; And he did it so quickly! Rapidly the church grew from maybe 300 to 600. A new building was constructed which would seat 1200. Ferguson was popular with Nashville’s leading citizens (examples: U.S. Senator John Bell, Governor of the State W.B. Campbell; the city’s mayor; and the city’s leading doctor, W.K. Bowling). Also, a young David Lipscomb admired him (he was 15 years of age when Ferguson moved to Nashville). Tolbert Fanning made Ferguson the editor of his paper, The Christian Review (later changed the name to Christian Magazine.)
Ferguson’s ego became enormous while in Nashville. He boasted that he had calls to preach in Memphis, New York City and in the state of Ohio but Nashville “needed constant teaching and oversight.” Tolbert Fanning, looking back on things said later that Ferguson, “Flattered all, and was flattered by all in return.” These things (flattery, ego) seem not to have been seen so clearly at the time.
Unsoundness began to be a concern of some by 1852, and increased through 1856. Ferguson taught/practiced: (1) A view of 1 Peter 3:18-20 that had many believing he was teaching that a second chance existed on the other side; (2) Many, in time, thought he had adopted universalism; (3) In time, he rejected very clearly the concept of a future punishment of the dead;(4) Open membership was practiced – anyone who wished to be considered a member there was accepted as such without question; (5) The last straw for many was when he proclaimed that one could communicate with the dead – and that he had so done himself.
Initially, most defended him saying, “He surely wasn’t saying such” …“He’s being misunderstood”… But in time, the truth was undeniable.
The church split into many parts. Only 15-25 were left in a building which seated 1,200. In 1857 the building burned.
Ferguson left the city and is reported to have gone into denominationalism. He seems to have disappeared from history. H. Leo Boles wrote, “Like a meteor which flashes across the horizon, making a trail of glorious light behind it, and then suddenly disappearing and leaving nothing but darkness in its wake, so Jesse B. Ferguson… perhaps no preacher of the gospel ever stood so high in the estimation of the people and received the plaudits of the populace and then dropped so low as did this man.”
The effect was disheartening on many. Lipscomb later wrote, “When the Ferguson defection hung heavily upon the churches, when many older brethren of promise and prominence throughout the country were discouraged, disheartened and many turned away from the truth – some to other churches, others to sin and infidelity, we too felt discouraged and disheartened.”
THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. Men may disappoint. Our faith should not stand in excellency of speech or the wisdom of man but in the God above (1 Cor. 2:1-5). We should follow a man only so far as they are following Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Keep your eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1-ff).
2. Our actions may affect others. The man or woman who commits adultery or enters into some shocking behavior, might harm not just themselves, but also others. The man or woman who stops attending church services affects potentially numerous others, especially their close friends and family members. The hypocrite, when discovered to be such, causes potentially many not to want to be a Christian (Rom. 2:23-24; 2 Sam. 12:14). Take very seriously your influence on others! (Read Matthew 18:6-7).
Resources for Bio.
1. Crying in the Wilderness: A Biography of David Lipscomb by Robert E. Hooper, page 47-50.
2. The Search for Ancient Order, (Vol. 1) by Earl Irvin West, page 261-265.