Gloomy State of Affairs in 1784
THE winter of 1783-4 was a very severe one. The weather was bitter cold, and a deep snow covered the earth for many weeks. The settlers in the dreary wilderness lived in small, rudely constructed cabins and tents covered with the bark of fallen trees. Their supply of clothing was scant and of aquality that illy protected them against piercing winds and driving snow. Much suffering was inevitable. But the severity of the season brought with it at least one inestimable blessing: It prevented the inroads of the Indians, and thus gave the settlers a sense of security against their most dreaded ill. With this sense of security, they were able to give attention to necessary work, and occasionally assemble in each others cabins to worship God.
In describing his own situation, John Taylor, who was by no means among the poorest of the settlers, gives some idea of the condition and surroundings of the people in Kentucky at that period. Mr. Taylor moved to Kentucky in the fall of 1783, and stopped during the winter, in what is now Garrard county. He speaks of his removal from Garrard to Woodford county, in the following language: "I moved in the summer of 1784, and, rather than go in the fort, settled on my own land, with no family between me and the Indian towns, and in the height of war." "For sometime we had to pack corn forty miles, and then send a mile to grind at a hand mill, before we could get bread. As to meat, it must come from the woods." "Soon after I settled in my little cabin, sixteen feet square, with no floor but the natural earth, without table, bedstead or stool. I found that an old buck had his lodge a few hundred steps from my cabin, among the nettles, high as a man's shoulders, and interlocked with pea vines. We found those nettles very useful the next winter, in getting the lint, and,
with the help of Buffalo wool, made good clothing for our black people." Thus situated, the people were compelled to use much dilligence and industry to keep from actual want.
The religious affairs of the people were in no better condition than their temporal concerns. At the beginning of the year 1784, there were but eight small churches in the whole of Kentucky, and not one house of worship. There were ministers enough to supply the people with preaching, if they could have given themselves wholly to their sacred calling. But they were compelled to support their families, just as did the other settlers, and could, therefore, onlygive their spare hours to reading the Bible, and to the ministry of the word. Even professors of religion appeared to have lost all interest in spiritual things. Speaking of this period, John Taylor says: "Embarrassed as my worldly circumstances were, the face of things, as to religion, gave me more pain of mind. There were a number of Baptists scattered, but we all seemed cold as death. Everybody had so much to do, that religion was scarcely talked of, even on Sundays. All our meetings seemed only the name of the thing, with but little of the spirit of devotion."
It had been more than eight years since the first settlement had been made in the country. Forts and stations had now been erected and surrounded by cabins, from Craborchard, Boonesboro and Lexington, to the Falls of Ohio and the present site of Elizabethtown, and there must have been between 20,000 and 30,000 people in the country, an average proportion of whom had been church members. There were at least sixteen Baptist preachers and one Presbyterian minister among the settlers. But only a few had gathered into the eight small Baptist churches which have been spoken of, and there was no church of any other denomination in the country. There had been nothing like a religious revival, of which we have any authentic account, in any one of the settlements. The churches had been built up exclusively of persons who had been church members before their emigration to the West. It is not known that a single baptism had been administered in any of the waters of Kentucky, the account of Lynn's having baptized seven persons in Nolin river, in 1782, being purely traditional. The religious condition of the country was deplorable indeed. Old church members had become dull and lifeless in
religion, the younger ones had become more or less reckless, and the faithful old heralds of the cross had become gloomy and despondent. John Taylor says: "Kentucky felt to me now as the quails did to the Hebrews, when they eat them till they were loathsome and returned back through their noses."
David Rice, a Presbyterian minister, who had previously visited the country, moved to Kentucky, in October, 1783. Speaking of the Presbyterians, who were quite numerous in the country, he says: "After I had been here some weeks, and had preached at several places, I found scarcely one man, and but few women, who supported a credible profession of religion. Some were grossly ignorant of the first principles of religion. Some were given to quarreling and fighting, some to profane swearing, some to intemperanee, and perhaps most of them totally negligent of the forms of religion in their own houses. Icould not think a church formed of such materials as these could properly be called a church of Christ. With this I was considerably distressed, and made to cry, where am I! What situation am I in? Many of these produced certificates of their having been regular members in full communion and in good standing in the churches from which they had emigrated, and this they thought entitled them to what they called christian privileges here. Others would be angry and raise a quarrel with their neighbors if they did not certify, contrary to their knowledge and belief, that the bearer was a good moral character. I found indeed very few on whose information I could rely respecting the moral character of those who wished to be church members."1
This is indeed a gloomy picture, and, while we do not hear of such gross and general immoralities among the Baptists, who had been gathered into churches, and watched over by wise and faithful pastors, the life and spirit of religion seemed to have no place in the country, This sad state of affairs did not arise from want of able and pious ministers. There has, probably, never been, on this continent, a more effective corps of preachers than lived and labored in Kentucky during the year 1784. Lewis Craig, John Taylor, William Hickman, John Bailey and William Marshall, have had few superiors for effectiveness
in the gospel ministry, in any age or country. Yet, under their ministry, and that of several others, who had been abundantly successful in Virginia, we do not learn that there was a single baptism during the year. But, after all, of what value is human talent, skill and energy in the gospel ministry if unaccompanied by divine power? The time had not yet come for God to pour out his Spirit upon the hearts of the people, in this great wilderness.
Most or all of the ministers who now labored in this religious desert had been accustomed to live in the midst of a continuous revival, in Virginia, from the time they entered the christian warfare till they came to Kentucky. They had seen multitudes of people weeping and crying for mercy, while many others were rejoicing in the fullness of the love of Christ. Some of them had lain for months together in wretched prisons, "for preaching the gospel contrary to law." But even those were heavenly seasons compared to what they were enduring now. Then the divine presence was with them. Sinners were weeping and saints rejoicing around the jails, while they preached a crucified Savior to them, through iron grates, and mingled their prayers and tears with those of the multitudes who visited them in their prison cells. But now all their prayers seemed unanswered, and their preaching appeared to fall on hearts of stone. It is not wonderful that they were gloomy and sad, or that the new country became distasteful to them as were the quails of the desert to the Israelites. Kentucky was indeed an Eden of beauty and fertility, and, with Bishop Heber, they could exclaim:
Every prospect pleases and only man is vile."
But with them these things were trifles compared with the privilege of communing with Christ. How fully they appreciated the sentiment of Newton's hymn:
"While blessed with a sense of his love,
A palace a toy would appear,
And prisons would palaces prove
If Jesus would dwell with me there."
But under all these discouraging circumstances, they continued to sow the seed of gospel truth, trusting in the divine promise that if they fainted not they should reap in due season. The
fulfillment of the promise was realized anon, and the desert blossomed as the rose.
During this year only one church was gathered. But this was an important work. It was planted in the midst of a wide field of destitution, now being rapidly populated. Louisville had been settled by a few families as early as 1778, and now contained "63 houses finished, 37 partly finished, 22 raised but not covered, and more than 100 cabins." A number of populous settlements had been made on Bear Grass, and in other portions of the county. Some early settlements had been made along the north bank of Salt river, and several forts and stations had been occupied in Shelby and Spencer counties. In the area of country lying between Salt river and the Ohio, and extending east to Kentucky, there was no church, and, so far as known, but one preacher. In this large diocese John Whitaker labored alone, save when some preacher came from afar to assist him. One of his preaching points was about six miles east of Louisville. Here he collected the scattered Baptists from the surrounding settlements, and, in January, 1784, with the aid of James Smith, solemnly constituted them a church, under the style of the Baptist church on Bear Grass.
BEAR GRASS was not only the first, but for a period of more than eight years, the only church in Jefferson county, or within thirty miles of Louisville. When it entered into the constitution of Salem Association, the next year after its constitution, it numbered nineteen members, and was under the pastoral care of John Whitaker. Its growth was not rapid; for when it entered into the constitution of Long Run Association, just after the close of the great revival in 1803, it numbered only sixtyseven members. About 1820, it enjoyed a revival which increased its membership to 142. But Campbellism early took root in the church, and it was utterly destroyed by that heresy. Among its early members were Col. Samuel Wells, the Kellars, Hikeses and Arterburns.
JOHN WHITAKER was one of the first preachers that located in Kentucky, and it is not certain that he was not here earlier than WilliamMarshall. Of his early life nothing is now known. He is supposed to have emigrated from Maryland, and, with his son Aquila, was in George Rogers Clark’s campaign against the Indians, as a Kentucky volunteer, in 1780.
The next year he was living in Brashears Station, at the mouth of Floyd's Fork, in what is now Bullitt county. His grandson, the late venerable John Williamson, related that some young men were going to that point to procure his services in marrying two couples at Lynn’s station, on Bear Grass, when they discovered the Indians that effected Floyd's defeat on Long Run in 1781.
Mr. Whitaker, though somewhat advanced in years when he came to the West, appears to have been very active in the ministry. He aided in constituting most of the early churches, that were gathered within fifty miles of Louisville. He gathered Bear Grass church, and became its pastor at the time of its constitution, probably filling that position until the time of his death, which occurred not far from the year 1800. His sons were John, Abraham. Elijah, Isaac, Jesse and Aquilla. The latter was a colonel of Kentucky malitia, and was a famous Indian fighter. Isaac was a Baptist preacher. ________________
1 Rice's Memoirs, p. 68. ================
[John Henderson Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, 1885; rpt. CHR&A, 1984.]
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