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W. R. Cunningham
Pioneer Washington Gospel Preacher
By Charles Dailey - 2000 Revision 2

William Randolph Cunningham at a Glance:
Born: Near Paris, KY in 1834
Married: Rebecca Walton James in 1865
Emigrated: 1889
Settled: Ritzville, WA
Family:See list
Founded: Town of Cunningham, WA
Died:Ritzville in 1919
Buried:Spokane, WA

William R. Cunningham
William R. Cunningham

William Randolph Cunningham is the only gospel preacher of the Stone/Campbell Churches that had a town named for him during his preaching years. His preaching in northeastern Washington had a profound effect on the growth on the churches in that region.

W. R. Cunningham moved to Adams County from Kentucky. He emerged from a family of nine children. His father, John Cunningham, had been a State Senator. He had been converted to Christ in a meeting held by John T. Johnson in 1855. His home was near the Cane Ridge Meeting House.

After studying engineering in the vicinity of home, William studied at Alexander Campbell's Bethany College in what is now West Virginia. He was 24 years old and became a campus leader in many areas of college life. There was never an important debate but that he was one of the disputants.

Delta Tau Delta sign
Marker erected by the State of West Virginia

While at Bethany, he assisted in founding a Greek name society. Delta Tau Delta has grown far from its Bethany roots and is an important organization yet today. According to his roommate, T. T. Holton, the society began as a joke, but gathered a life of its own.

Years later, W. R. Cunningham traveled from Washington State to attend a large gathering of Delta Tau Delta members, he wrote, "I felt like a goose that had set on an egg and hatched out an Eagle."

Jerry Rushford has written on the life of W. R. Cunningham.

He remained in school two years, but was among the 43 students that left in December of 1860 because of their strong sympathies with the south in the Civil War. He studied as a Law student, not a Divinity student.

Delta Tau Delta home
Birthplace of Delta Tau Delta in Bethany, WV.
Mr. Cunningham was among the signers of The Ordinance Of Secession Of Kentucky in 1861, a document designed to enable Kentucky to leave the Union. He was later captured as a prisoner of war. The document may be available at: documents/secession/KY/index.html.

After reading some writing of Abraham Lincoln, he changed his allegiance to the Union side in the war between the States.

In 1865 he was married to Rebecca James at Zanesville, Ohio. They moved to Kentucky, then Missouri where William farmed and practiced law. Soon he began preaching among the Churches of Christ in Missouri.

W. R. Cunningham wrote his own unpublished autobiography in the third person:

In 1870, in May, beginning the first Lord's Day, he began his labors as a preacher of the Churches of Christ. In his work as a preacher he has been successful in the evangelistic field having immersed a great many people wherever he has labored. He has, as a preacher, always been aggressive and consequently has held several debates with denominational preachers. But his most remarkable work as a debater was developed when he met Professor J. F. Jamison, an Infidel Spiritualist for 28 nights, only resting on Lord's Days during this time.
The church that he mentioned was the Peculiar Church in Cass County, Missouri. He is also known to have preached at Bates City and Odessa in Lafayette County.

Cunningham debated J. B. Box of the Missionary Baptist Church about the design of baptism and the operation of the Holy Spirit. This event was in 1871.

The Cunningham family moved to Ritzville in 1889. They obtained property near Scott's Station and set up the town of Cunningham, 33 miles west of Ritzville. He named the community after himself and the Cunningham Station that was near his home in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Cunningham, WA
Cunningham in the early 1900s. The railroad tracks are in the foreground.
Photo courtesy of Tom Simpson

The town prospered in the era when men and mules worked by the hundreds to get the wheat from the fields. Cunningham at one time had a bank, a jail, three hotels and a newspaper, The Cunningham Gazette.
William R. Cunningham
William R. Cunningham later in life
One observer wrote of W. R. Cunningham, "He dressed Texas style. Big hat and long hair."

Adams County historian Georgia Hays wrote, "Mr. Cunningham preached on Sunday at homes, schoolhouses, or vacant churches, then traded in real estate, mules, etc., during the week." The same writer had a slight memory of Mr. Cunningham from when she was four years old. She mistook him for Santa Claus because of this long, white hair and beard.

In 1892, Cunningham is listed as the preacher at the Hatton Church in Adams County. It had 18 members that year.

We have a direct link to the Hatton Church entry.

From 1894 to 1899 Mr. Cunningham traveled in Idaho and Washington State, preaching "as an evangelist in the field." In 1919 he suffered a stroke and passed from this life.

William R. Cunningham Stone
Only the photo was cleaned for
visibility. We do not clean
Though he died in Ritzville, he and Rebecca are buried side-by-side in Spokane's well-groomed Greenwood Memorial Terrace. (Lawn 15, Lot 47.)

Because Rebecca died eight years earlier, we conclude that W. R. Cunningham himself picked out the beautiful grave sites on the wooded hill on the western edge of Spokane.

More can be learned about W. R. Cunningham from the files of the Adams County Historical Society Museum.

Charles Dailey, February 2000
Northwest College of the Bible

The Honorable John Cunningham  & Mary Beam 
|      William Randolph Cunningham (1834-1919) & Rebecca Walton James 
|      |      Alice Cunningham (1866- )  & Franklin Pierce French 
|      |      William Randolph Cunningham Jr. (1868- )
|      |      Elizabeth Cabot Cunningham  (1870- )

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