Nativity and Early Life.
His parents, Jeremiah and Mary Kirtley, were brought up under Episcopal influence; but in 1788, under the earnest ministry of Rev. George Eve, were awaked and converted to God, and united with the Baptist Church worshiping at what is called "the Rapidan Meeting-house." In 1796 they emigrated to Kentucky and located in Boone County, one mile from the Ohio River, in the growing settlement in which, two years previous, the Bullittsburg Church had been organized, with seven members, by Joseph Redding, William Cave, and John Taylor. They at once became members at Bullittsburg, which, by this time, had been much strengthened and enlarged by the strong tide of Baptist immigration from Virginia.
Jeremiah Kirtley was a man of excellent character, of genuine piety, and of such sound, practical, discriminating good sense. He was soon chosen, with William Cave, to fill the office of elder, an office then recognized by this church, and subsequently licensed to preach. For sometime he exercised a gift of exhortation very judiciously and acceptably; but in the midst of his usefulness as an active member, a judicious counsellor, and good exhorter, he died in 1806, comparatively a young man. During the summer of 1796 Robert, then a boy of ten years of age, was left by his parents in the neighborhood of Lexington to attend school. He continued in this school but a short time. He was subsequently a few months under the tuition of the famous Parson Stubbs, an educated Englishman; at another time under the tuition of Absalom Graves, whose character and spirit exercised a very marked influence over him. He still attended another school for a short time. At these several schools, which perhaps, in all, did not exceed eighteen months in duration, he received the mere rudiments of an English education. From the scarcity of books in this new and remote settlement, his reading was necessarily restricted. But being of a inquisitive turn of mind, possessing a quick and retentive memory, and a rare faculty of penetration and discernment, he was an apt and accurate student of men and things. His observations of persons, transactions and events, at this early period of his youth, were characterized by a remarkably sound and practical judgment. At the age of twenty he was united in marriage with Mary Thompson, eldest daughter of Asa Thompson, Esq., who for many years was a useful and honored deacon, in Bryant's Station Church, in the vicinity of Lexington. Nine sons and one daughter were the fruit of this marriage, — some of whom died in infancy and early youth. Of these, but four survive. The early years of his manhood were industriously employed in agricultural pursuits. He labored hard in removing the heavy forest, and in opening up and cultivating his farm. His neighbors were similarly situated, and they felt a mutual dependence for assistance in raising their houses, rolling logs, and other hard labor in preparing their lands for cultivation. Robert Kirtley was behind no one in such neighborly acts. He has rolled twenty-odd days in succession, Sundays excepted. Few men were his equals in muscular strength and powers of endurance. Naturally, he was of a very popular turn. Besides being of an obliging, he was particularly generous to the poor; quick witted and humorous in social intercourse; always respectful to religious persons, and especially to the aged; he was, even when an irreligious man, much respected by all classes of the community.
In January, 1811, the companion of his youth, with, many others, embraced the way of salvation. With meekness of spirit and with her characteristic firmness and decision, site confessed "Christ before men;" and not withstanding her feeble health, and the inclemency of mid-winter, followed her Lord in the ordinance of baptism. Her prompt and faithful submission to the requirements of conscience, was made a blessing to him. His mind was ill at ease. He was aroused, in some measure, to a sense of sin, but not to a hatred of it. He was restive and unhappy, and sought relief in the multiplication of home cares and labor on the farm.
About this time the revival spirit had become general throughout the church. Meetings were multiplied, and held not only at the regular place of worship, but in all the surrounding neighborhoods, at private houses. Thomas Henderson and Christopher Wilson, who were ordained ministers, and members of Bullittsburg Church, usually conducted the services, and preached with great acceptance, yea, "in demonstration of the spirit and power." Absalom Graves and Chichester Matthews, two of the best and most exemplary men in the land, were licentiates, and exercised their gifts very acceptably to the church and profitably to the interests of the meetings. At these meetings, which were often at night, and largely attended, there was much prayer, singing, exhortation, and the relation of Christian experiences. Such a night meeting was appointed to be held at Mrs. Kirtley's, the mother of Robert, and in sight of his own residence. Notwithstanding his serious mood, he angrily refused to attend, but was immediately afterward very wretched. He "repented and went." Under the solemn and deeply interesting exercises of that night meeting, his convictions of sin became more thorough and pungent. He left the meeting overwhelmed with a sense of his guilty distance from God. He became indeed a praying man, searched the Scriptures with much diligence, to see how it was that a sinner was saved; and if so great a sinner as he viewed himself to be, could obtain mercy.
It was at a late hour at night, during that period of heart-sorrow, after reading many times over that portion of the word of God contained in the fourteenth chapter of John, and especially the words "I am the way, the truth, and the life," that a flood of light poured in upon his soul. He saw in the character and work of Jesus, such an exhibition of moral beauty and loveliness as fairly won his soul in the exercise of reciprocal love. He saw in him, as the "way, the truth, and the life," such an all-sufficiency, as a Savior, that he could, in humble trust, commit all the interests of his soul into His hands, and was ready to "count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord." He at once gave to the church "a reason for the hope that was in him;" was received, and on the second Lord’s Day in February, 1811, was baptized by Christopher Wilson. This great revival, which reached through the Spring and Summer months of that year, and extended its influence to the remotest limits of the surrounding settlements, numbered its converts in every family in the whole community, and resulted in the addition to Bullittsburg of one hundred and seventy members. As a fruit of this revival, several young churches were organized, in addition to the five which had previously been colonized; and six young men were raised up to ministry. Among the many monuments "to the praise of the glory of God's grace," displayed in that revival, may be mentioned in this connection, the brief but useful lives of James Dicken and Landon Roberson; the more extended ministerial course of James Gilmore; the long, laborious and useful life of Robert Kirtley; the toils and labors of James Garnette, of Culpepper County, Va.; and of William Whitaker of Boone County, Ky., who only survive, now venerable with age, and "esteemed very highly in love for their works sake."
At the period of his conversion, Robert Kirtley was about twenty-five years of age. With the very beginning of his religious profession, he adopted as a principle of Christian obligation, to attend promptly all the meetings of the church, and to share all the responsibilities of her membership. He loved the services of religion and the society of his brethren. It was no unusual thing for him to walk six or eight miles to a night meeting. During the remainder of this year and the early months of the following, he was happy in the active duties and enjoyments of religion, and in the peaceful employments of rural and domestic life.
The following year, 1812, witnessed the breaking out of hostilities between Great Britain and this country. The savage tribes of Indians became the active allies of England. The Northwestern settlements, comprised in the present limits of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, were in immediate peril. Robert Kirtley was one of that host of Kentuckians who threw themselves into the breach for their country’s defense, and to shield, with their own lives, the families and homes of those exposed settlements. He served in the campaign as lieutenant in a company of Kentucky militia, under General Harrison. He passed through the service, as witnessed by many of his neighbors, with his christian character untarnished. As a private member of the church, during the four or five ensuing years, he made considerable progress in Christian knowledge, and attained to a more than ordinary growth in active usefulness. He had access to few books beside his Bible; this he read studied with diligence. He had a great desire to be useful, and to speak to his fellow-men of those "things which pertain to the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ."
From the integrity of his character; the purity and uprightness of his deportment, his spirituality of mind, and stability of faith, the church was led to select him for a deacon; and accordingly, on the 8th of June, 1817, he was ordained to that office. For two years he discharged the duties of the office with dignity and faithfulness. But during this period Bullittsburg experienced another of those glorious seasons of revival with which she had so often been favored; — beginning about the first of November, 1817, and reaching to the first of August, 1818. Indeed this was one of the most extraordinary periods of peace, spirituality and prosperity ever experienced by the churches of Kentucky. One hundred and sixty-five members, were added to Bullittsburg by baptism, and six hundred and eleven to the churches of the North Bend Association.
It was in the midst of this season of activity, growth and spirituality, that the subject of this sketch began to exercise his gifts in a public manner. He evinced such a spirit of devotion to the cause, such a solicitude for the welfare of souls, and withal such an aptness to teach, that the church, on the first Saturday in July, 1819, gave him a formal license "to preach the gospel, wherever God in His providence should cast his lot." For three years he preached as a licentiate in this and neighboring churches, and, in company with other brethren, extended his labors into adjoining counties.
He declined receiving ordination, until the church a second time, with entire unanimity, urged it as a duty. Accordingly, on the first Lord's Day in August, 1822, he was set apart by ordination to the gospel ministry, by Absalom Graves, Chichester Matthews, and James Dicken. Graves and Dicken were his nearest neighbors. With Dicken he had been as intimate as with a brother, from boyhood. They made profession of religion, and commenced preaching about the same time. Graves was their senior by several years; had a very considerable experience in the ministry; and was, indeed, in many respects, both a model Christian and minister. The two younger reverenced him as a Father in the Gospel. These two men were his immediate associates in ministerial conference, and his colaborers in the gospel. For four years, the three jointly served the church in pastoral labors, and otherwise did the work of evangelists, throughout a very extensive boundary, comprising the counties of Boone, Campbell (which then included Kenton), Grant and Gallatin; and extended their labors to the north side of the Ohio River, both in Ohio and Indiana. Their labors were greatly blessed among the churches, which were favored again with another gracious revival of religion, and old Bullittsburg came in for another share in the divine favor. From the Fall months of 1823 to the Summer months of 1824, she received one hundred and eighteen members by baptism. Other churches received large accessions. In the fullest scriptural sense, these three ministers of the word were "true yoke-fellows" and colaborers in the gospel of Christ. To the subject of this sketch, the period just referred to, though one of arduous labor, was also one of ministerial growth and enlargement. The additions made to his stock of knowledge and experience were of incalculable benefit to his future ministry. During this period, also, "the head of the church" had been preparing his companions in labor for another arid higher sphere, and himself for greater trials, weightier responsibilities, and more abundant labors. In the year 1826 James Dicken and Absalom Graves were both removed by death — the former on the 10th of June, and the latter on the 17th of August.
A view of the situation, in some respects, may be seen from the following extract from Taylor's History of Ten Churches, p. 166, second edition — 1827:
"Bullittsburg Church is now in a lower condition, as to the gospel ministry, than at any other time, for more than thirty years past. She has but one preacher in this very large church Robert Krtley — who was baptized among them; a respectable man, and of respectable preaching talents. He is rich in this world; a plenty of servants, and a plenty of children; and a very great plenty of work to do, both at home and abroad. It is very well, that from his looks, he is able to bear it; now about forty years old — a robust, bold appearance; his trunk looks like a sturdy oak — plenty of lung room; and the sound of his voice may be heard afar off; to preach and sing. But, poor fellow, I feel for him; I say, I feel for him; for I have known him from a child. For what man, or son of man, can bear up under all the mighty responsibility that now rests on him? Kind Savior, help him, for thou art able. I don't doubt, but this dear man feels, in the death of Graves and Dicken, who were his near neighbors, that two-thirds of the world was swept from him at once. My dear brother Robert, I commend you to God, and the word of his grace, which can not only build you up, but bestow the everlasting inheritance in the end. May the Lord of the harvest send more labourers."Thus wrote Taylor, shortly after the death of these two beloved servants of the Lord. He of whom he had so tenderly and affectionately spoken in the extract quoted, was indeed desolate; and the feeling of desolation was the more painful, from the fact, that not far front this time, also Landon Roberson, another esteemed and useful neighboring minister, "fell asleep." Others had removed to distant localities; and the beloved and venerated Matthews was now growing very infirm and feeble.
"Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I Corinthians 2:13.
The recent sad depletion in the ranks of the ministry gave a powerful impetus to his struggles for the acquisition of Bible knowledge. Possessing rather an analytical turn of mind, with a quick perception, clear understanding and a sound judgment, he made commendable progress, studying deeply into many of the leading doctrines of the New Testament, attaining in general to very accurate views of Scripture teaching, and becoming a very considerable proficient in their skillful use. From time to time as the years moved on, he made valuable additions to his little library, and extended the sphere of his general reading; took great interest in denominational history, especially the current history of his times. From an intuitive fondness for studying men and things, with the aid of a most tenacious memory, he was enabled to treasure up the facts of history in relation to churches, ministers, and associations; many of which facts the more deeply impressed his mind, from the additional fact that, occasionally in those days, some "wandering star," following in the wake of Daniel Parker, would shoot athwart the moral heavens, with a wind of doctrine, betokening to his observant eye, the coming storm. His observations of men and things were made without censoriousness, or over suspicion. And such was his insight into human character, that he was seldom deceived in the spirit, motives, plans and purposes of men. This gave him a great vantage-ground in the coming years of trial through which he passed. He was forewarned and hence fore-armed. His ministerial associations in those times were highly conducive to his growth and advancement. For many years he was an active corresponding messenger from the North Bend to the Elkhorn, Bracken, Franklin, Concord, Laughery and other associations, and was brought into intimate association with such men as John Taylor, John Scott, Ambrose Dudley, Edmand Waller, Walter Warder, Wm. Vaughn, Buck Dillard, and others of Kentucky, and with Wm. Morgan, Holman, Harris, and others, of Indiana. Of these venerable men he loved to speak till the day of his death.
From 1826 to 1839, a period of 13 years, his labors in the ministry were arduous and unremitting. The churches under his care experienced no extraordinary seasons of revival, but were strengthened by numerous additions from time to time. They continued steadfast in doctrine, discipline and fellowship. The great aim of his labors had been to build up and establish in the faith, fellowship, and spirit of the gospel. His sermons in the general were a judicious compound of doctrinal, practical and experimental truth. His illustrations for the most part were drawn from the Bible. His preaching was highly appreciated, and his labors were much sought among the churches of his acquaintance. The period just referred to was to him a long season of seed-sowing. Through the dreary years, with but few laborers near him, he had "gone forth, weeping, sowing precious seed." His spirit was burdened for Zion, and for the souls of men. Of those times he has often been heard to say, in the language of David, "I had fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the living." (Ps. 27:13).
A harvest time was near at hand.
Elder William Whitaker, of whom mention has already been made, and who was ordained to the ministry in a neighboring church, was at this time a useful colaborer. Many of the neighboring churches shared extensively the revival spirit and greatly enlarged their borders. One fruit of this revival was an encouraging prospect of planting new interests and rearing up additional laborers in the harvest.
The seeds of discord had been sown in years past by "the divider of brethren." A strong under-current of ambitious strife, and a relentless spirit of division, led on by scheming partizans from a distance, had "set in like a flood" against this peaceful and loving community of brethren, this harmonious union of churches. Outcroppings of this spirit were displayed in and addresses at several of the annual convocations of the Association by ministers from abroad. As for instance, in 1834, at Bullittsburg, and in 1836 at Dry Creek. The Pauls and Apolloses of this new school of strife had so diligently watered and nourished the seeds of discord sown by them, that a culminating point was reached, at the meeting of the Association at Sand Run in 1840. The schemes of division were matured. Shortly after this meeting, six churches, with their ministers, withdrew from, the Association and organized themselves into a body, under the title of "The Salem Association of Predestinarian Baptists."
Individuals of the churches under the care of Elders Kirtley and Whitaker, withdrew, organized themselves into a church, and went with their comrades into the new association. The annual gatherings of this little body, and some of the occasional meetings of their churches, were the stated seasons for the coming together of their preachers from North, South, East and West, who seemed to think that the highest aim of teir caling was by vulgar wit and ludicrous anecdotes, to hold up to derision and contempt those to whom they applied the epithets "arminian," "soft-shell," and the like; while educated ministers, missionaries, Bible societies, etc., came in for a full share of their denunciation.
Now everybody in this part of Northern Kentucky knew who was chiefly aimed at — knew who was the staunch friend of education, and the open advocate of "every good word and work." Everybody knew who it was, who stood in the fore-front of the churches of Christ, in defense of the doctrine and spirit of the gospel, and who most prominently represented the principles and practicees of the Baptist fathers. Every one knew whose name, on these semi-religious occasions, was cast out for naught, and whose influence was sought to be destroyed, and that, too, by strangers, who possessed not a tithe of his knowledge, influence or weight of character. As a matter of course, these things were chafing to the spirit of Robert Kirtley. But that which grieved him most was that brethren, who had acknowledged him in all the past as an honest man, a Christian and a faithful expounder of the truth; many of whom he had baptized, and who had looked upon him as a spiritual father, and that churches, which had acknowledged and delighted in his ministry, — should now lend their sanction to such ribaldry and abuse, and join in with the common spirit and acclaim of those "by whom the way of truth was evil spoken of." Gladly would we have drawn a vail over this part of our narrative, but the biographer is not at liberty to ignore the facts of history. Besides, the scenes narrated were to Robert Kirtley the great trial of his life. They constituted a furnace of affliction, from which, however, he emerged, not only unharmed, but better fitted for the conflict ahead.
His labors afterward were more abundant than ever, and were evidently crowned with the divine favor. At the meeting of the North Bend Association for 1842, held with the church at Bullittsburg, a revival spirit began publicly to be displayed. The brethren had come together in humility, and with the prayer of faith, that the God of grace and blessings would visit again his rent and dismembered Zion. The Lord was with them. A powerful work of grace began. Brethren returned to their homes, and to their churches, carrying the revival spirit with them. The work became general throughout the churches and continued for many months. The additions to the churches of the Association during this revival season were considerably greater than the losses sustained by the late succession.
Before the meeting of the next Association, under the immediate labors of Elder Robert Kirtley, two flourishing young churches were organized with an aggregate of eighty-five members, one of which has become a strong church. As an additional fruit of this and the preceding revival, several useful ministers were reared up to labor in this and other fields, some of whom continue till the present time, but others have fallen "asleep in Jesus."
"Then had the churches (of the North Bend Association) rest throughout all their borders, and were edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied [adapted from Acts 9:31]." From that day till the present, they have enjoyed uninterrupted harmony and peace, and a very considerable measure of prosperity. Much of which, by the blessing of God, is attributable to the constant, faithful, and judicious labor of Elder Robert Kirtley. In the years following, he labored with equal earnestness and efficiency to build up the churches, and especially those young interests, in the faith and fellowship of the gospel. It was his great pleasure to strengthen the hands and encourage the hearts of young ministers. In witnessing the growth of these young churches and ministers, he was more than compensated for the lonely toils, and the sad trials of past years. But another trial came to him, however, in another form. The companion of his youth, the faithful partner of all his toils and cares, the sharer of his sorrows and joys, whose meek and gentle spirit had soothed him under all his trials, and whose prayer, and faith, and words of cheer, had given vigor and courage to his manly labors began to linger with enfeebled health. From week to week, we witnessed her failing strength. At last, one bright Sabbath morning, as we watched by her bedside, death came and touched her form. The loving, trusting spirit of that dear mother, passed into the Sabbath of everlasting rest. And her dust we laid in the old family The strong man of sixty-five, with a sad heart, yet vigorous step, and a firm faith, went forth again to labor in the Master's vineyard. To cheer the loneliness of his advanced years, he sought another companion, and found one in Mrs. Louisa Graves, a most estimable Christian lady, another faithful and affectionate wife.
His labors at this period of his life were but little diminished. He was still able to mount his horse, and ride fifteen or twenty miles to a morning appointment, and to preach twice a day for a number of days together, without any inconvenience.
He was, in some respects, more comfortably situated in regard to the ministry than he had been for a number of years previous. Other laborers had grown up, and were sharing the responsibility with him. The writer of this sketch was immediately associated with him in ministerial labor.
The summer and fall months of 1853 witnessed another general revival among the churches of the Association. The preaching of Elder Kirtley was, as in the years past, active, earnest, and efficient. The old mother church came in again, for a good share of divine favor. Fifty-four converts were added to her number by baptism. One of these at least, represents her in the ministry of the word, Rev. A. C. Graves, ordained at Bullittsburg, September 7th, 1860, a great grandson of Elder Absalom Graves, and the present youthful and talented pastor of the First Baptist Church of Manchester, New Hampshire.
On the 13th of September, 1858, Mrs. Louisa Kirtley, second wife of Elder Robert, Kirtley, after a lingering illness of several months, died, full of peace and faith.
He preached his last sermon, at Bullittsburg, on Christmas day, with considerable zeal and interest, and with satisfaction to the brethren who heard him. From this time he began very perceptibly to decline in health and strength. For ten years past he had made his home in the family of the writer. He had disposed of all his property and business interests according to his own pleasure. Had set his house in order, and had no worldly care to annoy.
The remaining winter months were spent in reading the Word of God, in conversation, and occasionally, as friends would gather in, in speaking to them "of the Kingdom." We saw that he would be with us but a short time. A distressing disease, incident to old age, was rapidly carrying him off. Children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends, were in constant attendance. He suffered greatly, but his faith and hope never faltered. He would have us sing:
And again would call on us to sing for him:
Often under the most acute suffering he would speak to us of "Jesus, and the resurrection."
On the evening of the 8th of April, the low, fluttering pulse, and the quickened respiration, summoned all to his bedside. He seemed to notice no one after this; and at a quarter past 12 o’clock, on the morning of the 9th of April, 1872, the peaceful spirit of our dear old father left the frail, worn, emaciated tabernacle, to dwell in mansions above. On Wednesday, the 10th of April, we removed his retrains to Bullittsburg, where he had, for fifty-three years preached to the people; and after a solemn and deeply interesting discourse from Job 19:25, delivered by Dr. S. L. Helm, to a very large congregation of weeping friends, neighbors, brethren, children, and grandchildren, we looked, for the last time, upon that pale, rigid form, and then laid it away in its resting place.
Thus departed Robert Kirtley, after having served his generation through a long laborious, useful life, aged 85 years, 10 months and 9 days. May his mantle fall upon those who shall never dishonor it.
[From James A. Kirtley, History of the Bullittsburg Baptist Church, 1872, pp. 52-64.]
You may access Circular Letters written by Robert Kirtley in 1823 and in 1826.
— Jim Duvall