• John Wesley (J.W.) Erwin

J. W. Erwin...

A life of love and service

John Wesley (J.W.) Erwin was born March 15, 1841 in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, close to Shreveport. He was the sixth of seven children; Samanthy, Laurette, Elizabeth, Martin, Annette, John Wesley and Mary. His father, John Alexander Erwin, had moved from eastern Louisiana’s Washington Parish in 1828. His mother, Louisa Annette Bickham, married John Alexander in 1831. He took up politics and was elected to the Louisiana Legislature for some years, after which in 1839, he stood (backed) the bond of the sheriff of his parish who defaulted in the sum of twenty-four thousand dollars. Somehow, he got free of the debt and moved with his wife’s people to Caddo Parish, Northwest Louisiana, about ten miles north of Shreveport, just before J.W. was born.

His father and mother and little Mary died in 1843 leaving J.W. at two years of age along with his five older siblings. The family was split up among aunts and uncles of the Bickham clan. J.W. went to live with his uncle Francis Bickham and aunt Rhoda Roberts Bickham. According to J.W, his aunt Rhoda “raised him hard”. Aunt Rhoda died shortly after J.W. joined the family and he found himself in the care of an older cousin, John Wesley Bickham. They moved first to Linden, Cass County, Texas, and then to Bryan, Brazos County, Texas. He is said to have gotten only about six months formal schooling. We don’t know much more about J.W.’s early life than that. A very dim 1850 census roll shows three of the Erwin children living with Bickham relatives. J.W.’s upbringing somehow steered him to an interest in the Christian Ministry as a teenager. In an introduction to a later sermon, J.W. stated, “I became a Christian in my early teens, and at once began reading the Bible. Having a good memory, a great deal of what I read became permanently fixed in my mind.” So now we see that for someone supposedly so unschooled, he had a great memory and could easily memorize scripture and verse. He learned fast and certainly knew how to use words. When the Civil War broke out, J.W. returned to Caddo Parrish, Louisiana. He was just twenty years old.

J.W. enlisted in Company F of the 17th Louisiana Infantry as a private in the Confederate Army September 30, 1861 at Camp Moore, Louisiana. He served for the duration of the war, records showing him present on all rolls to February 1863. Family legend has him wounded at Shiloh in April 1862, where his unit is shown to have been involved in the some of the fierce fighting from February to June of that year. He was also at Chickasaw Bayou from December 1862 to January 1863, part of the Vicksburg campaign. National Archives records show his commander surrendered at Vicksburg July 4, 1863 after about six months of siege and starvation where J.W. said he often had only horsemeat to eat. After the surrender he was paroled in a prisoner exchange and returned to Louisiana to serve out the war under new command. Family legend says he walked home barefooted from Appomattox, Virginia after Lee’s surrender April 9, 1865, and although possible, we have no proof of this. He was discharged at Shreveport July 7, 1865.

Records show he had a friend, Alan (A.H.) “Billings” Bridges. Alan was killed in the war and J.W. had promised to take care of his wife and child. Just over one year past his discharge, J.W. married Elizabeth Jane (Bettie) Eakin Bridges, the widow of his friend, who had a three year old daughter, Martha Allen (Allie) Bridges.

J.W. and Bettie were married April 11, 1866. Bettie would bear J.W. ten more children over the next seventeen years, an average of one child every twenty months. Elder step-sister Allie was said to have been loved and appreciated by all her siblings and more of a mother figure than a sister.

J.W. and Bettie’s children were the first generation of Erwins to have more than one male child living long enough to bear children of their own since the 1700’s. J.W. was quoted in family history as having said, “My children make the seventh generation and it seems the curse has been lifted and they will no longer die out with but one left to perpetuate the name…”. Ofcourse, there was no “curse”, and the generations that followed would return to the single male child for each generation into the twenty-first century.

The first three of the children fathered by J.W.; Ella Dee, Joseph Martin and Carrie Mona, were born between 1867 and 1870 in Caddo Parish. Land records show him buying land on two occasions. A purchase of 80 acres on January 5, 1870, for $500 cash. On May 12 of the same year he bought an adjoining 160 acres for $1066 to be paid in four annual payments. Today that land is at the intersection of Highway 169 and the Blanchard-Furrh road, northwest of Shreveport. On January 5, 1871 J.W. sold both plots to an F.N. Bickham, quite possibly a relative of his mother, for $1856, a profit of $290.

Family history also states the J.W. began the ministry in 1871. His obituary from 1913 states he was ordained in the ministry of the Missionary Baptist Church at Line Creek in Caddo Parish, Louisiana by Bros. N. Porterfield, H. Sheffield, J.M. Russel and C.A. Mangham. Some records indicate he was a circuit-riding preacher in these early years.

Two more children, Jesse Claude and Georgia Annette, were born between July of 1871 and January of 1873. These were the last two children born in Louisiana. Sometime between 1873 and Samuel Elisha’s birth in March of 1875, the family moved north some miles to the Bright Star community in the “Sulphur Township” of Miller County, Arkansas.

The Enon Baptist Association was organized in 1872. Various churches in three states were within its territory that included northwest Caddo Parish, Louisiana, southwest Miller County, Arkansas and the eastern part of Cass County, Texas. Minutes of an 1879 meeting show J.W. Erwin as Clerk of said Association. Meanwhile, Betty Lou was born in December 1876 and John Milton was born in October of 1878.

J.W. said of this time in his life, “…When I entered the ministry I began studying the Bible by subjects, taking any particular subject and with the aid of Cruden’s Complete Concordance, I hunted out every place where the subject was referred to, even remotely. I also secured a Greek New Testament and the best Standard Greek Lexicon. With these helps I soon learned to find any desired word in the Greek Testament and from the Lexicon could get its meaning in English. I found this a more reliable aid than all the commentaries and books written by our best theologians. After so studying a subject I could preach with some assurance that I knew what I was talking about.”

How he was educated or if he attended any seminary or formal training is unknown. What is known is his intelligence, his fierce love of Scripture and his ability to memorize what was before him. His eulogy also stated, “…he was efficient in conversation and wise as a scriptorian…he was a deep thinker and a forcible debater, and few people understood him as he really was.”

J.W spent some time soul-searching and decided to spend his remaining time reading and writing. This resulted in a sermon column in the newspaper. Many of these sermons were later gathered in booklet form. Soon members of the church and others were coming to his bedside on Sunday afternoons to hear him preach.

Because of his disfiguration, he wore a hat and covered his face with a veil or a handkerchief with holes for his eyes. Sometimes these meetings were moved to the front porch of the Banger home. J.W. said he still felt useful.

The family was all called home as J.W.’s health deteriorated.

J.W. Erwin passed away at home on October 10, 1913 at 72 years of age. His hope for a lasting ministry has been granted through insights into his thoughts and character. His devotion to his family and his faith along with his determination to overcome all hardship and be of service to others is remarkable. He was a farmer, soldier, preacher, journalist and poet, all to care for a large family and pastor a loving congregation. It is the considered opinion of his sole great-grandson that the world could use more men like him.

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