John Roland Cantrell

Pastor FBC Hillsborough, 1924-1927
The church extended a call to Rev JR Cantrell on May 25, 1924 and informed him that Mars Hill also extended the call for him to preach at their church.  He accepted and began preaching the 1st Sunday in June.  On June 29th letters were received from Wake Forest Church for him, his wife and daughter miss Letha. Soon after his arrival, the church voted to purchase a new piano and it took many months to pay off the debt.  On October 8, 1925, the membership of the church was recorded as totaling 152.  In November 22nd work began to repair the parsonage roof.  Cantrell tendered his resignation on December 8, 1927 to take effect following the first Sunday in January.  He had decided to take up work with the State Mission Board.  The church accepted his resignation and on December 25th letters of dismission were granted to him, his wife, daughter Letha and son Cletus to join Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.1

Cantrell was born April 24, 1888 in Spartanburg County, SC.  He was one of ten children of David Lafayette Cantrell and Cornelia Elizabeth Cartee.  In 1909, he married Lettie Eulethia Henderson in Cherokee County, SC.  Lettie was born November 16, 1892 in SC and was the daughter of William Jackson Billy Henderson and Mary Jane Mollie Horne.  The Cantrells had four children, Letha V. (born 1909 in Cherokee, SC), Cletus H. (born 1913 in Cherokee, SC), John Wellford (born 1919, Boiling Springs, NC) and Grace V. (born 1929, Washington, NC).  After six years of marriage, Cantrell, a poor country boy with little formal education, was called to the ministry.  He loaded his family into a wagon and traveled to Boiling Springs, NC.  It took him four years to finish the Boiling Springs High School, a Baptist sponsored academy.  He worked hard to make ends meet.  John W. was born the year his father graduated high school in 1919 at age 31.3 While a high school senior, Cantrell is reported preaching a revival at Kidds Chapel and Salem churches in Lincoln County for 10 days.  The pastor, J.W.P. Hill, writes that Cantrell, “gives promise of being one of North Carolina’s foremost preachers” and that, “If any churches are looking for a good helper in a meeting they could do no better than to call Brother Cantrell, a worthy young man.”4 Soon after completing high school, Cantrell entered Wake Forest College determined to be an educated preacher.  He had less than fifty dollars in his pocket.  By preaching and working part-time, he finished Wake Forest in 1924 without debt and began his formal ministry at age 36.2 While in college he preached at South Henderson (1921) and Haw River (1923).

He came to Hillsborough fresh out of college and preached here and at Mars Hill and Haw River. In October 1926, Dr. A.J. Barton, Director of Baptist Cooperative Program, visited Cantrell and the Hillsborough Church.  He noted that the old town had changed since his last visit.  “The cobblestones laid by Cornwallis have given place to paved streets.  Many new buildings have been erected, but the old court house stands as in by-gone days, as does the Baptist Church, except that the basement of the church has been cut up into Sunday-school rooms and the Sunday school is departmentalized.”  He goes on to say that Cantrell, “is the aggressive young pastor of the church and his people are loyally following his leadership.”  He also notes that Cantrell is quite a farmer.  “We noticed back of his home a garden with luxuriant vegetables even at this time of the year, and a stall in which was a cow that gives sufficient milk for the family.”5

In 1928, Cantrell became an evangelist for the NC Baptist State Convention.  After four months of working on the Centennial Campaign in Gaston and Kings Mountain Associations, he held his first evangelistic service the first of May in West Jefferson.3 The Biblical Recorder contains numerous articles describing the meetings he held and the hundreds baptized as a result of these revivals throughout North Carolina.  In 1930, he became pastor of the Baptist church in Newton, NC.  While there, he also pastored the Mount Vernon Church (1933-1938) in Vale, NC.  He left Newton to pastor the Calvary Baptist Church (1938-1939) in Morganton, NC.  From 1939 to 1943, Cantrell served as President of Boiling Springs Junior College (now Gardner Webb University).  Under his leadership, the institution underwent great campus growth, capital improvements and fundraising efforts.  NC Governor O. Max Gardner became interested in the college, contributed a substantial amount of money and the college changed its name to Gardner-Webb in June 1942.  Cantrell resigned the following year to allow the college to find a president with better academic credentials.2 The Cantrell Society is named in his honor and is a fund-raising organization on campus.6

After stepping-down as president of Boiling Springs Junior College; Cantrell continued pastoring churches in the vicinity.  In the 1940s he is listed once again as pastor the Mount Vernon Baptist Church and in the 1950s as pastor of the Lattimore Baptist Church, from which he retired as pastor emeritus.2,7 Gardner-Webb College eventually awarded him an honorary doctorates.2
Lettie died February 23, 1965 and John died on June 25, 1967 in Boiling Springs, NC.  They are buried in the Cleveland Memorial Park cemetery in Shelby, NC.8 

  1. Minutes of First Baptist Church Hillsborough, NC from November 19, 1853 to December 2, 1953.
  2. Powell, William S. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. 1. (A-C). (1981) Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 146-148.
  3. Evangelist J R Cantrell, Raleigh. (May 16, 1928) Biblical Recorder, p. 3, Retrieved at:
  4. News from Churches. (October 02, 1918) Biblical Recorder, p. 5, Retrieved at:
  5. News Notes.  (November 10, 1926) Biblical Recorder, p.2, Retrieved at:
  6. Cantrell Society.  Gardner-Webb University.  Accessed at:
  7. Various Proceedings of the annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention from 1925-1965. Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Presses of Edwards and Broughton, Raleigh, NC,  Accessed at:
  8. Find a Grave Database:  John Roland and Lettie Cantrell.  Accessed on  April 26, 2013 at: 
Compiled by Reginald Carter, Historian, FBC Hillsborough
Last Updated: May 1, 2013

Copyright 2012
First Baptist Church of Hillsborough, 223 West King Street, Hillsborough NC 27278, 919-732-8174