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John Dagg: The Lame, Blind Preacher Who Looked to God

6 min

Rare in this world is genuine contentment. Very easily we can compare ourselves with others and then grumble and murmur about our difficult lot in life. Covetousness arises very naturally to the heart of man, and it is very easy to envy the blessings that others enjoy. While it may seem that our trials and difficulties are insurmountable, we can always find another man in circumstances that are worse than our own. Today’s biographical sketch looks at the inspiring example of a pastor who not only became blind and lame, but even lost his voice. Still, he remained content with the providence of God.

John Dagg was born February 14, 1794, in Loudoun County, Virginia. He had very little formal education as a boy, but he learned his father’s trade and became a skilled saddler, learning to make saddles and harnesses at his father’s workbench. While still in his youth, John Dagg experienced an agonizing spiritual struggle, alternating between doubt and faith. By God’s grace, he eventually came to a complete trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.

When Dagg was twenty years old, he was drafted to serve in the War of 1812. As he made preparations to report, a kind friend saw the young man’s life as valuable for the Gospel ministry and raised the money to hire a substitute to go to combat in his stead. Afterward, the young man decided to study law, medicine, and theology on his own, seeking to determine the will of the Lord for his life. Although he gained a working knowledge of medicine and had a natural aptitude for law, it was in the sphere of pastoral ministry and Biblical theology that John Dagg became well-known as one of the foremost Baptist theologians of his time.

If a pastor ever had an excuse to quit the ministry because of difficult circumstances, it was John Dagg. As a young pastor, he was preaching in a church when the floor collapsed underneath him and some of the congregation. One of the men directed for him to jump out the nearest window, and he did. However, he was unaware that the window was quite a way higher above the ground below! He severely injured his right ankle from that fall. He recovered, but noted later that was the beginning of his lameness. Five years later, when Pastor Dagg was twenty-nine-years old, he attended a church convention in another city where he had to walk much on his formerly-injured foot. The great amount of walking was more than the ankle could handle and from that point on, he was forced to walk with a crutch for the remainder of his life.

That same year that John Dagg was resigned to a life of permanent lameness, he experienced a second disheartening event—the death of his beloved wife Fanny. His fourth child had just been born. The baby’s mother was taken by God at the very moment when it seemed that she was most needed. The grieving father was left with the care of four little children, the youngest a newborn infant. Later, he would call the loss of his young wife “the severest blow I ever received.” Heartbroken and grieving, Pastor Dagg persevered, trusting God was in control and working His good will.

Around this same time in his life, there was another setback to the hopes and aspirations of Pastor Dagg—his eyesight began to fail. Engaged by a local academy to be their Greek instructor, the father of four had to rise very early in the morning to study the lessons, reading the Greek textbooks by candlelight. His eyesight worsened as the years passed, eventually resulting in almost total blindness. John Dagg wrote, “Lame and blind, how can I be useful, and how can I provide for the wants of my children?”

Pastor John Dagg experienced the truth of the Lord’s gracious promise—“My grace is sufficient for thee”—when the lame, almost totally blind pastor was called to shepherd a Baptist church in Philadelphia. His children helped him with his studies, and his failing eyesight forced him to preach without notes. He memorized huge sections of Scripture and preached the passages from memory. Despite his physical difficulties, he also founded a temperance society (dedicated to encouraging men to avoid intoxication) and was a leader in the Philadelphia area for local support for foreign missions.

During his pastorate in Philadelphia, God graciously provided for the minister and his young family. Dagg wrote, referring to the time before his wife’s passing, “when she [Fanny] spoke to me of the probability of her being taken from me, she expressed a decided wish, that I should seek to obtain Miss Young to become the mother of our children. But Miss Young married a month before my sad bereavement occurred; and the wish expressed by my deceased wife was scarcely remembered . . . .” However, years later and now at the church in Philadelphia, God had the paths of the widowed Mrs. Davis (nee Young) and the widower John Dagg to cross. In his words: “On reviewing the eight years of my loneliness, it seemed to me that an overruling Providence had kept me from matrimonial alliance till the person designed for me, was presented before me. Obeying the indications of the divine will, I sought, and ultimately obtained her consent to become my fellow pilgrim for the remainder of life’s journey.” The two wed, and Mary became Mrs John Dagg, supportive wife and nurturing stepmother of his children.

Two years after marrying Mary and while still at the church in Philadelphia, Pastor Dagg encountered another challenging difficulty in his life. At the age of forty, while delivering a Sunday morning sermon, his voice suddenly dropped to no louder than a whisper. He had suffered difficulties with his throat before, but now his speech was forever hindered physically. He almost completely lost his voice. Bereft of his reliable, strong voice that had faithfully proclaimed the memorized Word of God from the pulpit, John Dagg could only speak slightly above a hoarse whisper for the rest of his life. While this dedicated preacher could have envied those pastors who were naturally endowed with a strong voice that could powerfully fill the largest auditorium with no amplification, Pastor Dagg realized and embraced that God had a purpose for all things. He was content to trust in God’s will and ways.

Lame, blind, and now hoarse, John Dagg pressed on in his service to Christ, seeking how he might be of use in God’s Kingdom. He could no longer serve from his pulpit, so he sought another avenue of service. He received a stream of invitations to become the president of various colleges and academies throughout the United States. He served as the head of a Baptist women’s academy in Alabama for several years. He then became a professor of theology at Mercer University, and served as the president of that institution for ten years.

In 1857, at the age of sixty-three, he published the book that made him famous as a Baptist theologian. The work was called A Manual of Theology, and was the first work of systematic theology written by a Southern Baptist. Incredibly, the virtually blind professor did not use an amanuensis or copyist, but he wrote the book with his own hands.

In order to write as he was inspired rather than having to hold the inspired thought until an amanuensis was available and able to record the pastor’s dictation, John Dagg had invented his own instrument. This machine, which he called a “writing board,” was a wooden box that had gears which moved paper through the instrument by means of a crank. Each time the crank was turned, the sheet of paper would move down one line. An open space in the wooden face of the instrument guided the blind writer’s hand along one line where he could write text. At the end of the space, he turned the crank, moved his pen back to the left side, and wrote another line. His second wife who had faithfully assisted him in rearing his children, been by his side in his pastoral ministry, and had taught at the Alabama academy now served as his proofreader to catch the little incidentals the machine could not perform, such as dotting an i or crossing a t.

John Dagg went on to publish many more works besides this theological treatise. He wrote A Manual of Church Order, a book defending Baptist teachings on controversial issues such as baptism, church polity, and the Lord’s Supper—presented in a very gracious and non-offensive tone. At the age of seventy-five, completely blind, increasingly lame, and with limited use of his raspy voice, Dagg wrote a book called The Evidences of Christianity, a defense of Christianity against the rising influence of Darwinism and rationalist explanations regarding the origin of the Bible.

This inspiring saint was finally released from his weary body of clay in 1884, at the ripe old age of ninety. Pastor Dagg had lived with weak limbs and weaker vision for more than sixty years, but during those physical limitations was the most productive period of his life! At the time of his death, this patriarch had twenty-six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, with many more to come. Almost all of them were sincere, professing Christians. At the loving urging and encouragement of his second wife and using his “writing board,” he had written an autobiography for the edification of his own family, never knowing that others would read it.

John Dagg, pastor, teacher, writer, theologian, also recognized his calling as a grandfather. Content in Christ and assured that God was good in all His ways, the elderly grandfather wrote these words to his offspring—several of the youngest of whom were not yet converted: “Let us pray fervently that they all may be brought into the fold of Christ, and may serve Him faithfully on earth, and be united with the rest to make an unbroken family in Heaven.”

When we face trials and difficulties here in this life, we can take heart that there is an eternal life ahead for all those who find salvation in Jesus Christ and serve Him. Our greatest investment cannot be taken away by any earthly circumstance when we are living for the Kingdom of God and encouraging our children, grandchildren, and progeny to do the same until the Lord returns.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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