by Dr. Steve Hoskins
I met James Octavius McClurkan in the fall of 1981.
I had started my undergraduate career at Trevecca and went to spend the weekend with my uncle, Bob Mitchell, and his wife, Emmaline. They lived in Erin, Tennessee, about 100 miles from our campus, and pastored one of the several churches McClurkan had started in the late 1890s. On a crisp fall morning, my uncle loaded me in the truck, and we rode around Houston County, while he introduced me to the venerable McClurkan.
By 1981, Jim McClurkan had been dead for 67 years, and he was a gentle companion as most dead people are. He didn’t say much, just grinned as my uncle walked me over what was left of the foundation of the house where McClurkan grew up, then took me on a parade of churches and chapels where McClurkan had preached, some on family farms along the Yellow Creek basin, and pointed out the abandoned three-story building that once housed the fabled Ruskin College—where McClurkan taught classes in preaching and Bible, a landmark in his life.
As I visited these places, I heard about McClurkan’s call to preach, how he learned the ways of Jesus and how to care for others, especially the poor.
Later that fall, I made my first pilgrimage with my uncle to McClurkan’s grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery, just around the corner from Trevecca’s campus. There, I visited the grave of McClurkan’s wife, Martha Frances Rye McClurkan, who is laid to rest beside him and lived the gift of Christian hospitality. She preached with him, cooked meals for Trevecca kids, and entertained the college’s visitors who often lived in their home.
As I got to know Jim McClurkan, I learned the stories of his life and his sacrifice for our school. I walked the beginnings of Trevecca where students trained for the ministry in backyards in East Nashville and held street meetings in the evenings.
I sojourned through downtown streets where McClurkan had walked, doing his daily devotions as he went, and selling his own books to anyone who would buy them to pay the bills of Trevecca and keep students in school.
I did not know then that I would fall in love with those people and their stories, that they would become the life’s work of this church historian, but they have. They provide me with meaningful work. These days I share those memories of our founder and his wife—people who did so much so that we might be inspired to live the Trevecca story in our day and hour—with our students.
The words on the tombstone where the McClurkans are buried, the words I first heard in the fall of 1981, tell the story of the life of J.O. McClurkan as well as the Trevecca story, a story of love and sacrifice: He Lived for Others.
So must we, so must we.
Dr. Steve Hoskins (’86)
associate professor of religion