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J. W. Holley (James W.), b. 1848
The Old Faithful Servant: Life History of J.W. Holley: Born and Reared a Slave: After Freedom Became a Worker in the Master's Vineyard
[Columbus, OH]: [Inskeep Print. Co.], 1924.


According to the introduction to The Old Faithful Servant, James W. Holley was an “evangelistic preacher” born into slavery in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on March 2, 1848 (p. 4). Tennessee was greatly affected by the religious revivals of the period from the 1820s to 1860, which includes the early years of Holley’s life. Revivals “usually involved a daily worship service with outside preachers,” and huge crowds attended gatherings at churches as well as outdoor revivals called “camp meetings” (“Age of Jackson”). Upon first reading the title of this narrative, it may seem that Holley is merely referring to life as a slave; however, Holley focuses primarily on serving his divine Master. Very little is known about the publication of The Old Faithful Servant or about the details of Holley’s life outside of this narrative. The narrative was most likely transcribed by an amanuensis, but no editor is identified in the text.

Holley describes the tests he encounters on his journey to becoming a preacher, including that he once nearly drowned in a river and twice was almost killed by a train. Other preachers criticize and laugh at him, yet Holley realizes that “God knew His business” and that his inability to read will not impede his evangelization (p. 4). Holley continuously cites Biblical verses and recovers from three diseases without the help of men by simply asking for the Lord’s healing. He walks up to forty-eight miles a day, traveling and preaching, and travels to 162 different towns throughout his life. During these travels, Holley warns people of impending danger resulting from sin. For instance, he warns people of a riot in Springfield, Ohio, and floods in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio. Holley does not claim credit for this prophetic knowledge but claims that it comes from the Lord, continually reminding us that he “can neither read nor write” (p.5).

Holley journeys on to Kentucky, where he encounters desolate land from Mulleger’s Hill to Cammelville but is greeted by the people at night, and a judge offers him a place to stay. Many people are saved through Holley’s preaching of God’s word (p. 7). In Winchester, Kentucky, Holley’s story is published in the newspaper after he speaks to a crowd of five hundred people, both black and white. Holley prays in people’s homes and runs a revival in the city of Maxville at the Methodist Church. Holley notes the stability that comes with being “anchored in the Lord” after preaching at a funeral to a church full of white people in Washington, Kentucky (p. 8). Recalling his time as a slave, Holley notices that he is the last living slave of whom he is aware—he earlier noted that he was the last one of his family—and Holley feels that this is for a reason: so he can remain to preach the Gospel of the Lord (p. 9). In Lexington, four policemen try to arrest Holley after accusing him of being crazy, but Holley says that “rich white people of Lexington came to my rescue” (p. 10). In court, it is determined that Holley was not at fault in his preaching. In Louisville, Holley is met with joy and respect because the people of Lexington notify them that an important man of God is coming.

Holley then goes to find his older brother, George, who abandoned James in Tennessee years before, after their father had asked George to care for James. God guides James on the train to the correct location to find his brother in Anchwards, Kentucky, but James leaves when George “trie[s] to make [him] preach for money” (pp. 11-12). George dies before James next hears from him, and James also learns that his uncle died two years before George. Holley then encounters a horse who bows to pray with him in Springfield (p. 13). Holley seems to become less nomadic for a period of time, spending five winters in Columbus, Ohio. Returning to his travels, Holley goes to California in 1920, and he cites some of his experiences along the way, noting that he has traveled more than 4,000 miles by that time (p. 14). He returns to St. Louis, Missouri and is deeply saddened by the homeless, suffering people he sees by the depot (p. 15). But Holley closes by recognizing his “gift from God of Divine healing” and resolves that he must help fulfill the Scripture, withstanding these tests along the way (p. 16).

Works Cited: "Age of Jackson: Religion," Tennessee4Me, The Tennessee State Museum online, accessed March 31, 2012.

Megan Salvia

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