James Bruton Gambrell, Baptist minister, teacher, and editor, the son of Joel Bruton and Jane (Williams) Gambrell, was born in Anderson County, South Carolina, on August 21, 1841. When he was four years old the family moved to northeastern Mississippi. Gambrell enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in 1861 and served as a scout for Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He fought in the battle of Gettysburg and was afterwards commissioned a captain and sent to scout in the western territory around Memphis, Tennessee. On a return trip for a conference with the Confederate War Department, he married Mary T. Corbell, on January 13, 1864. They eventually had nine children.
After the war Gambrell enrolled in the University of Mississippi and became pastor of the Oxford Baptist Church. In 1877 he began editing the Baptist Record, the state paper of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, and in 1893 he was elected president of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served at Mercer until December 1896, when he was elected superintendent of state missions for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Under the leadership of Gambrell and James Milton Carroll the federation of Baptist schools in Texas known as the Texas Baptist Education Commission was developed.
In February 1910 Gambrell resigned as superintendent of state missions to become editor of the Baptist Standard, the state paper of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. At the time Gambrell assumed the editorship, the Standard was owned and operated by George W. Truett, Robert Cooke Buckner, H. Z. Duke, C. D. Fine, and Gambrell, with Robert H. Coleman serving as business manager. During Gambrell's years as editor of the Baptist Record he had advocated private ownership of religious papers, but by the time he took over the Standard he had changed his mind, for he believed that private ownership led to self-aggrandizement of the editor and exploitation of the readers. Thus, when J. Frank Norris resigned as editor and put the Standard up for sale in 1909, Gambrell joined the others to form a denominational ownership of the paper. Under this representative group, the paper was freed of a $30,000 debt, and ownership was transferred to the Baptist General Convention of Texas in March 1914.
In 1912 Gambrell began teaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In December 1914 he was elected general secretary of the Executive Board (missions and education) of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. At that time he resigned his positions with both the Standard and the seminary. He was secretary of the Consolidated Board for four years. He served four terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, from 1917 to 1920. In 1920 he accompanied Edgar Young Mullins, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, on a visit to European Baptist communities. During their European tour the two made a missionary survey of countries devastated by World War I.
After his return from Europe, Gambrell suffered a heart attack in Fort Worth from which he never fully recovered. He died at home in Dallas on June 10, 1921, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.