Pioneers of Ellis County
Elder William H. Stokes
Contributed by Barbara Knox
William Stokes, minister, teacher and missionary, known throughout the South, died in 1862 in Ellis County, Texas. Although his years there were only a few, a sketch of his life is given because of his outstanding accomplishments during his lifetime.
William H. [Hale?] Stokes was born Dec. 26, 1798, in Laurens District, South Carolina, the sixth of ten children born to John Stokes, a school teacher, and Mary Hale, of Quaker ancestry.
He married Mary Elizabeth Carter March 1, 1823, and was converted and baptized three months later, joining Beaverdam Church in Laurens District. After teaching school for a year, he was licensed and ordained to preach but his ministry had barely begun when Elizabeth died October 11, 1826, leaving three small children.
He continued to teach at the Furman Literary and Theological Institute in Edgefield , but poor health caused him to move to Georgia to live near his brother, Dr. Jacob Stokes.
After his health improved he became principal of the Academy at Forsyth, Ga., and in October, 1829 married his second wife M. D. [Mourning D]. Williams. The years of 1831 and 1832 were spent in missionary work in the frontier settlements of western Georgia and eastern Alabama, as well as preaching at a number of churches whenever the opportunity arose. These were busy and useful years for a man with a frail body but a zealous soul.
In 1833 he accepted an invitation from Rev. Jesse Mercer to assist in editing The Christian Index, and the next year began publication of The Temperance Banner - the first paper of its kind ever published as far south as Georgia. He was a most successful editor for six years, the financial responsibility being borne by Rev. Mercer. Stokes was a better and more scholarly writer than Mercer and no one was more ready to admit this than Mercer himself. In 1834 Mr. Stokes wrote the "History of the Georgia Baptist Association." In addition to his literary work, from 1834 to 1842 he was also pastor for various churches with great success. When he lived at Penfield, Ga. he often preached at the college chapel and was regarded as one of the most methodical and instructive preachers of the day.
His second wife died of consumption and their two children died in infancy. His third marriage in May 1837 was to Mrs. Martha B. C. Watts of Washington Co. Ga., daughter of Francis B. Billingslea. (The Christian Index, May 25, 1837, page 236). who died in February 1841, leaving two sons - one by her first marriage. His fourth marriage in August 1842 was to Mrs. Malissa E. Evans. and they moved a short time later to a farm in Hancock, Ga. Census records indicate that they were the parents of a son and daughter.
In 1854 Stokes moved to Harrison County, Texas and during the next several years was very active in the East Texas Baptist Convention, serving as secretary, member of the Board of Trustees and assistant editor of the Texas Baptist.
The family was in Navarro County by 1860 (per census) where he continued his ministry and taught for a time at a Chatfield boarding school. In 1861 he was moderator at the organizational meeting of the Waxahachie Baptist Church and moved to Ellis County. He also organized Little Bethel Baptist Church of which T. C. Neel and wife, Willa, were charter members. (There appears to have been a relationship between the Neels and Stokes, exact nature unknown).
Wherever he lived, Rev. Stokes was kept busy. An excerpt from a letter [written from Harrison County 7 May 1855] reads: "I am preaching every Lord's Day to crowded audiences and I trust with some good effect. Tomorrow I set out for Tyler for the purpose of siding in the formation of a Convention for eastern Texas." Another reads: "If you could follow me with your eye you would see me pretty often on a mule, trudging along through the woods and swamps of Texas, hunting up the scattered sheep of my Lord and Master....at other times you would see me in a little church surrounded by a few deeply interested hearers, preaching Christ to them....again you might behold me in a brush arbor....and in preaching I tell them of Sinai and all its thunders; we weep together, we pray together, we sing together. And then away to the great meetings - The Association! The Convention! Thus you perceive my life is a busy one, full of toil, full of responsibility."
His will, made Feb. 28, 1862, at Wilton in Ellis County, named T. C. Neel executor and specified that the marriage contract between him and "my present wife Malissa Jane Stokes" remain in full force. To his son, William F. Stokes, he bequeathed all of his property, both real and personal.
Ellis County records show that his son received one Negro man Fed, aged 50 years, one horse, worth one hundred and fifty dollars, and one library "the property due me according to the last will of my father W.H Stokes, decd." Malissa Jane Stokes died in 1866.
As stated above, William Franklin "Bill" Stokes was a son of Rev. Stokes and his third wife, Martha Watts. His half-brother, James, married Aramanta Blackmon in 1866 and died ca 1868. Emma (half-sister) married Joseph Cooke in 1864. (both marriages in Ellis County).
Bill Stokes married Ann Caroline Persons in Navarro County in the summer of 1861, just before leaving for service in the Confederate Army. According to a letter written by her brother, Robert, the couple made the most of the time they had together before the groom's departure......"Carrie and Bill have been gone every night [partying] for a week...." During his army service he was much afflicted with "boils and chills" and died ca 1867 as a result of illness contracted while in service. Survivors were his widow and two daughters, Erin and Virginia.
[Sources: Biographical Compendium compiled for The Christian Index, pub. Franklin Steam Ptg House, Atlanta, Ga. 1881; The Tennessee Baptist (article by R. B. D. Howell re his trip to Texas in 1858); n/d; The Christian Index 1837 and 1862; Ellis County Probate and marriage records; Navarro County census records; personal files of Barbara Knox.]
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