Rev. Thomas J. Earle — outstanding minister, educator

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rev. Earle’s home, called “Earlesdale,” has been recently restored. (photo by Dean Campbell)

One of the rare occasions on which Greenville’s Enterprise and Mountaineer newspaper had very positive statements to make about the Dark Corner area occurred in its May 6, 1891 edition, in reference to the Rev. Thomas J. Earle, who died in August 1889.
It stated: “Gowensville has long enjoyed a high reputation for the education and refinement of its people; and for this reputation the community is indebted almost wholly to one man; the late T.J. Earle, who for 35 or 40 years preached the religion of Jesus Christ to the people while he taught their sons and daughters not only letters, but deportment and propriety, and high moral principles.”

The Rev. Thomas J. Earle. (photo courtesy of First Baptist Gowensville)

It was an apt description of the man who was one of the very few truly outstanding ministers and, perhaps, the foremost educator in the upstate region of South Carolina for over 30 years.
The son of Theron Earle and grandson of Judge Baylis Earle, the second member of the Earle family to come to this area from Virginia in the 1770s, Thomas John was born Dec. 23, 1824.
An exceptional student, he earned all of his degrees at Mercer University. Soon after he graduated with his doctorate, he was highly sought as a pastor. He was ordained by the New Prospect Baptist Church in May 1852, and served Pendleton Baptist Church in Pendleton, S.C., for four years. It was there that he married Janie Kennedy of Georgia.
He was called as pastor of Gowensville Baptist Church in 1856 (it was still called Cross Roads Baptist Church until 1873) and served that congregation until his death in 1889.
During several years of his ministry there, he was a “circuit rider,” pastoring other churches at the same time and preaching a sermon one Sunday a month at each location. Other churches he pastured included Holly Springs, Abner’s Creek, New Prospect, Milford and Wolf’s Creek (present-day First Baptist Landrum), among others.
In 1858, he opened his destined-to-be-well-known and highly regarded Gowensville Seminary, a two-year curriculum institution, which prepared both male and female students to go to major colleges and universities and earn bachelor of arts or science degrees in two years.
The course of studies included reading, spelling, English, history, Latin, mathematics, geography, music and a special emphasis on the Bible.
Students from the entire upper part of Greenville County and adjoining sections of Spartanburg County and portions of two North Carolina counties attended the seminary, as well as students from greater distances, on occasion.
Many of the students boarded in local homes, and others lived in Rev. Earle’s home a short distance from the school. The home (now called “Earlesdale” and recently restored by current owners/residents, Andy and Jimmy Lynn Dykes) was built in 1874 of bricks made on the property. Interior bricks almost one foot thick give the house the strength of a fortress. Even the windowsills are hand-cut stone instead of wood.
Many of the graduates and their parents felt the integrity of the Earle home befitted the integrity of the teacher himself. He was known for his high morals and humble piety. His influence in his community was “that of a strong and silent power, which molded the characters of the young students after truth, uprightness, honesty and integrity,” according to one source.
In addition to his ministerial and educational contribution to the community, he built a major flour and corn mill in the late 1850s to serve people’s needs (it was the last operating grist mill in the Dark Corner, which also has been restored).
After the War Between the States, he went into the mercantile business with Captain Romulus Lee Bowden as Bowden and Earle. They remained in business together in Gowensville for six years, then operated a mercantile store in Spartanburg.
His educational legacy included his own son, Dr. Samuel Broadus Earle, who was born in1878 and died at the age of 100. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Furman University and his masters and LL.D. in engineering from Cornell University.
In 1902, he joined the Clemson University faculty as an assistant professor of engineering. He later became an associate professor, and in 1933 became dean, serving as head of the engineering school until his retirement in 1950.
He also served as acting president of Clemson in 1919, 1924 and 1925.