John Gano was the most learned and distinguished of the pioneer Baptist preachers of Kentucky. And, although he was far advanced in life before he came to the West, and had but a few years to labor among the Baptists of Kentucky, his matured wisdom, long and varied experience, and eminent piety and consecration, made him of incalculable benefit to the cause of the blessed Redeemer, in the new country. He had spent his youth and the prime of his life in building up the cause of Christ along the Atlantic slope, from Rhode Island to South Carolina, and few men were ever better fitted for the work of a pioneer preacher. He was well educated and well skilled in the gospel. He was easy and agreeable in conversation, his wit and humor were rarely at fault, he could readily accommodate himself to any grade of society, and any contingency, his courage was dauntless, and, above all, he loved the cause of Christ, his brethren in the Lord and the souls of men, with an unquenchable ardor. He brought all these excellent gifts and graces into requisition among the pioneers of Kentucky, according to the measure of physical strength, which still remained to
him. He visited and encouraged the young churches and preachers, hastened to adjust difficulties among the brethren, went far to attend the new associations, guided their counsels and corrected the crudities of their doctrines, and pushed out into the very remotest settlements in the midst of fierce Indian wars, to lift up and establish the feeble infant churches. It is not wonderful [wondered] that he was greatly loved and much lamented by the Baptists of Kentucky.
John Gano was born at Hopewell, New Jersey, July 22, 1727. His father was of French extraction. His great-grand- father, Francis Gano, fled from France in the night, to avoid martyrdom. On his arrival in America he settled at New Rochelle, a few miles above New York City, where he lived to the age of 103 years. His son, Stephen Gano, raised six sons (Daniel, Francis, James, John, Lewis and Isaac) and three daughers. Daniel married Sarah Britton, by whom he raised five sons, (Daniel, Stephen, John, Nathan and David), and three daughters. Of these parents, both of whom were eminently pious, the father being a Presbyterian and the mother a Baptist, John was the fifth child and third son.
In early 1ife John Gano professed conversion, and was strongly inclined to unite with the Presbyterian church; but, doubting the scriptural authority for infant baptism, he entered into an elaborate investigation of the subject. He read many books on the subject, and had many conversations with Presbyterian ministers. He only became more and more convinced of the truth of Baptist principles. Finally he had an extended conversation with the renowned Gilbert Tennant. At the close of this interview, Mr. Tennant, seeing he was not convinced, said to him: "Dear young man, if the devil cannot destroy your soul he will endeavor to destroy your comfort and usefulness, and, therefore, do not be always doubting in this matter. If you cannot think as I do, think for yourself." Some time after this, having obtained the consent of his father, who had had him "christened" in infancy, he united with the Baptist church, at Hopewell, and was probably baptized by Isaac Eaton, who established the first school for educating young men for the Baptist ministry in America, and whose descendants have been so conspicious as preachers and educators in this country. Soon after he was baptized Mr. Gano became much exercised
in mind on the subject of preaching Christ to dying sinners. His mind became so much absorbed on this subject that he was almost incapacitated for his ordinary business. "One morning after he began plowing in his field the passage, 'Warn the people, or their blood will I requlre at your hands,' came with such weight upon his mind that he drove on till 11 o'clock utterly insensible of his employment. When he came to himself he found he was wet with the rain, his horses were excessively fatigued, and the labor he had performed was astonishingly great."
After becoming convinced that the Lord had called him to the work of the ministry, he applied himself with great diligence to study, preparatory to entering upon this duty. Before he had been licensed to preach he accompanied Benjamin Miller and David Thomas, who were among the most eminent ministers of their day, on a missionary tour into Virginia, whither they had been sent by the Philadelphia Association. The principal object of this mission was to visit and set in order a little church on Opecon Creek, which had been constituted by the notorious impostor, Henry Loveall.1 On reaching the place, and visiting this little church, the ministers found it in a deplorable condition. Only three of its members could give a satisfactory account of their conversion. These were constituted a new church, and the rest of the members of the old church were exhorted to seek the salvation of their souls. Mr. Gano, in his Autobiography, gives the following account of the part he took in this work:"After the meeting ended a number of old members went aside and sent for me. They expressed their deplorable state, and asked me if I would meet with them that evening and try to instruct them. They were afraid the ministers blamed them. They had been misled, but it was not their fault, and they hoped I would pity them. I told them I would with all my heart, and endeavored to remove their suspicion of the ministers. They met and I spoke to them from these words: "They, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their ourn righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God." I hope I was assisted to speak to them in an impressive
[p. 119]manner; and they to hear, at least some of them, so as to live. They afterwards professed conversion and became zealous members and remained so, I believe, until their deaths."This occurred in 1751. This was the first time Mr. Gano attempted to preach, and this, it will be remembered, was before he was licensed by his church. The attentive reader will also remember that William Hickman commenced his ministry in a similar manner, at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, just twenty-five years later.
Before Mr. Gano returned home the news reached Hopewell that he had been preaching in Virginia. Some of the brethren deemed it disorderly, and were aggrieved about it. As in the case of Peter's preaching at Caesarea, when John (Gano) was come up to Hopewell the brethren that were offended said unto him, "Thou didst go in unto the Virginians, and didst preach unto them, without authority from the church." John demanded evidence to sustain the accusation. They informed him that they had only heard it from travelers, but desired him to give them a relation of the matter. He replied that it was the first time he had known the accused called on to give evidence against himself, but that her was willing to give them an account of his conduct. Then John rehearsed the matter from the beginning. They then asked him what he thought of his conduct. He replied that he thought this question more extraordinary than the former. He had given evidence against himself, and was now called on to adjudge himself guilty. This is a specimen of that self-possession, readiness of mind, and ingenuity which characterized him through life. At length he informed the church that he did not mean to act disorderly or contrary to their wishes. That the case was an extraordinary one, that was not likely to occur again. But if it should, he would probably act in the same way. The church now appointed a time to hear him preach. He gave satlsfaction, and was soon licensed to exercise his gift. About this tlme he moved his residence to Morristown. Up to this period he had, with brief interruptions, devoted himself to close, systematic study. But the calls on him to preach became so frequent that he entered regularly into his holy calling. There being a call on the Phllladelphia Association for a missionary to go to Virginia, he was ordained for that work in May, 1754, and soon afterwards set
out on his mission. On this journey he went as far as Charleston, S. C. The following extracts, giving some account of this missionary tour, condensed from Mr. Gano's journal, will give some insight into the character of that good and great man:
On the frontier of Virginia this zealous missionary, while conversing with some people where he lodged, in an affectionate manner, respecting their religious concerns, overheard one of the company say to another, "This man talks like one of the Joneses!" On inquiring who the Joneses were he was informed that they were distracted people, who did nothing but pray and talk about Jesus Christ, and that they lived between twenty and thirty miles distant on his route. "I determined," said he, "to make it my next day's ride, and see my own likeness.' When he arrived at the house he found there a plain, obscure family, which had formerly lived in a very careless manner, but a number of them had lately been changed by grace, and were much engaged in devotional exercises. As he entered the house he saw the father of the family lying before the fire, groaning with rheumatic pains. He inquired how he did. "O," said he, "I am in great distress." "I am glad of it," replied the stranger. The old gentleman astonished at this singular reply, raised himself up and inquired what he meant. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son he receiveth," answered Mr. Gano. From this they proceeded to religious conversation, and he soon found that this pious family, whom the world accounted mad, had been taught the words of truth and soberness. They asked him many questions, and were much pleased to find one who was acquainted with the things they had experienced.
From this place he proceeded on toward North Carolina, having a young man with him, who chose to bear him company. "We arrived at a house just at dusk, the master of which gave us liberty to tarry. After we had conveyed our things into the house, the following dialogue occurred:
Landlord -- "Are you a trader?"
Mr. Gano -- "Yes."
L. -- " Do you find trading to answer your purpose?"
G. -- " Not so well as I could wish."
L. -- "Probably the goods do not suit."
G. -- "No one has complained of the goods."
L. -- "You hold them too high."
G. -- "Any one may have them below his own price."
L. -- " I will trade with you on these terms."
G. -- " I will cheerfully comply with them. Will not gold tried in the fire, yea, that which is better than the fine gold, wine and milk, durable riches and righteousness, without money and without price, suit you ?"
L. -- "Oh, I believe you are a minister."
G. -- "I am, and I have a right to proclaim free grace wherever I go."
"This," says Mr. Gano, "laid the foundation for the evening's conversation, and I must acknowledge his kindness, though he was not very desirous of trading, after he discovered who I was."
Our itinerant continued southward till he arrived at Charleston, and there, and in its vicinity, he preached to good acceptance. His account of his first sermon for Mr. Oliver Hart, at time pastor of the Baptist Church in Charleston, is as follows:"When I arose to speak, the sight of so brilliant an audience among whom were twelve ministers, and one of whom was Mr. [George] Whitefield, for a moment brought the fear of man upon me; but blessed be the Lord, I was soon relieved this embarrassment; the thought passed my mind, I had to fear and obey but the Lord."On his return from Charleston to the northward he visited an island where he was informed there never had been but two sermons preached. The people soon collected, and he preached to them from these words: "Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be burdensome to you. "
When he arrived at Tar River, in North Carolina, he found that some of the principal men in that county had agreed that if he came within their reach they would apprehend him as a spy; for, by his name he was judged to be a Frenchman, and this was in the time of the French war. Some of these people lived on the road he was to travel the next day. His friends urged him to take a different route, but he replied that God had so far conducted him on his way in safety, and he should trust Him for the future. When he got near the place where the men who had threatened him lived, he was advised to go through it as secretly as possible; but that by no
means accorded with his views. He replied he should stop and refresh himself in the place. He stopped at one of the most public houses; and asked the landlord if he thought the people would come out to hear a sermon on a week day. He informed him he thought they would; but, observed, that on the next Monday there was to be a general muster for that county. He therefore concluded to defer the meeting till that time, and requested the landlord to inform the colonel of the regiment, who, he had learned, was one of those who had threatened him, of his name, and desire of him the favor of preaching a short sermon before military duty. The landlord promised to comply with his request."On Monday I had twenty miles to ride to the muster, and by ten o'clock there was a numerous crowd of men and women. They had erected a stage in the woods for me, and I preached from Paul's Christian armor. They all paid the most profound attention, except one man, who behaved amiss. I spoke, and told him I was ashamed to see a soldier so awkward in duty, and wondered his officer could bear with him. The colonel, as I afterwards understood, brought him to order. After service I desired a person to inform the commander that I wanted to speak with him. He immediately came, and I told him that, although I professed loyalty to King George, and did not wish to infringe upon the laudable design of the day, yet I thought the King of kings ought to be served first, and I presumed what I had said did not tend to make them worse soldiers, but better Christians. He complacently thanked me, and said if I could wait, he would make the exercise as short as possible, and give an opportunity for another sermon, for which he should be much obliged to me. I told him I had an appointment some miles off to preach the next day. Thus ended my chastisement and the fears of my friends.
"From hence I returned by way of Ketocton, on Blue Ridge, where the inhabitants are scattered. On my road I observed a thunder-storm arising, and rode speedily for the first house. When I arrived the man came running into the house, and, seeing me, appeared much alarmed, there being at that time great demands for men and horses for Braddock's army. He said to me, 'Sir, are you a press-master?' I told him I was. 'But,' said he, 'you do not take married men?' I told him surely I did; and that the Master I wished him to serve was
[p. 123]good, His character unimpeachable, the wages great, and that it would be for the benefit of his wife and children if he enlisted. He made many excuses, but I endeavored to answer them, and begged him to turn out a volunteer in the service of Christ. This calmed his fears, and I left him, and proceeded on my way to Ketocton, where I spent some time, and baptized Mr. Hale."Soon after Mr. Garo's arrival at home, after this tour, he was married to Sarah, daughter of John Stites, of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and sister of the wife of the celebrated James Manning, the founder and first president of Rhode Island College - now Brown University.
Mr. Gano remained at home but a short time before he set out on another preaching tour through the Southern Colonies. This trip occupied him eight months. He was rejoiced to learn that his labors during the former tour had produced good fruits, and many people had turned to the Lord. Many striking incidents occurred on this tour, a few of which may be related:
Calling at a house on his route, he asked the man to have his horse fed, The man ordered his son to go at once and feed the horse. Meanwhile, ascertaining that his guest was a minister, he began to speak to him about baptlzing his child. "I been waiting some time," said he, "for a priest to come that 1 might have my child baptized, and now I wish to have it attended to." Mr. Gano signified his willingness to serve his host in any way that he could. The boy stood staring at "the priest," and neglected feeding Mr. Gano's horse. The father, observing this, said to the boy, "You son of a b___h, why don't you feed that horse, as I told you?" The boy started on his errand, and the father resumed his conversation about baptizing his child. "What are you going to call it?" said Mr. Gano. "That boy, I perceive, is named son of a b___h." After this singular reproof nothing more was said about baptizing the child.
Preaching at a place in Virginia one day, where the people were very wicked, two young men, believing that he was directing his censures against them, came forward at the close of the sermon and dared him to fight. "That is not the way I defend my sentiments," said he, "but, if you choose it, I will fight either both at once, or one after the other. But as 1 have to preach very soon, I prefer putting it off till after meeting.
To this they agreed. At the close of the meeting they came forward to engage in the fight. "If I must fight," said Mr. Gano, "I prefer a more retired place, and not before all these people." With this he walked off, bidding the young men follow him. When they were away from the crowd he said: "Young men, you ought to be ashamed of your conduct. What reason have you to suppose I had particular reference to you? I am an entire stranger here, and know not the character of any. You have proved, by your conduct, that you are guilty of the vices I have censured. If you are so much disturbed at my reproofs, how will you stand before the bar of God?" "I beg your pardon," said each of the young men. "If you are beat, gentlemen, we will go back," said Mr. Gano. Thus ended the fight.
On another occasion, hearing that there had been a revival at a certain place on his route, he made an effort to reach it that night. It was after dark when he reached the place. Knocking at the door of a house, with which he was unacquainted, and a woman answering the call, he said to her: "I have understood, madam, that my Father has some children in this place, and I wish to learn where they are, that I may find lodgings for the night." "I hope I am one of your Father's children," said the woman; "come in, dear sir, and lodge here."
In this manner, with his apparently exhaustless resources, did this eminent man of God find his way to all homes and hearts, and then, with equal wisdom and readiness, apply the blessed truth of the Gospel. After spending a few years in the manner above related, he was waited on at Morristown, N. J. by some messengers who came a distance of about eight hundred miles, to solicit him to take charge of an infant church in North Carolina. After a brief consideration, he accepted the call, and moved his family thence. At the "Jersey settlement" in North Carolina, he remained about two years. The church grew to be large, and his labors were abundantly useful throughout an extensive region of country. But a war breaking out with the Cherokee Indians, he moved back to New Jersey.
June 19, 1762, the first Baptist church in the city of New York was constituted by Benjamin Miller and John Gano, and the latter, who had recently moved from North Carolina to New Jersey, immediately became its pastor. He also accepted the
pastoral care of the church in Philadelphia, and for a number of years was pastor of all the Baptists in the largest two cities on the American Continent.
At the breaking out of the war between England and the American Colonies, Mr. Gano warmly espoused the cause of the latter. In 1776, he entered the army as chaplain, and continued in the service till the close of the war. In this position he maintained the same purity of character; and the same zeal and energy in the cause of Christ, that he exhibited on the missionary field and in the pastoral office. Some specimens of the many incidents related concerning him, while in the army, may be interesting.
On one occasion, the General informed him, on Saturday, the army would move on the following Monday, but requested him not to speak of it till after religious services next day. On Sunday morning he preached from the words: Being ready to depart on the morrow. Immediately after the sermon, orders were given to prepare for the march. On another occasion, as he was going to pray with the regiment, an officer, who did not observe him, was swearing profanely. Saluting the officer cheerfully and politely, he said to him: "You pray early this morning." "I beg your pardon, sir," said the officer. "Oh I cannot pardon you," replied the chaplain; "carry your case to your God."
One day, standing near where some soldiers were disputing as to whose turn it was to cut wood, he heard one of them say he would be d__nd if he would cut it. Soon, however, the sbldier was convinced that the task was his; and took up the ax to perform it. Immediately Mr. Gano stepped up to said: "Give me the ax." "Oh no," said the soldier, "the chaplain shall not cut wood." "Yes, I must," said Mr. Gano. "But why," said the soldier. "Because," said Mr. Gano, "I just heard you say you would be d__nd if you cut it; and I would rather take the labor off your hands than that you should be miserable for ever."
At the close of the war, Mr. Gano resumed his labors as pastor of the church in New York city. He continued in this position till about the year 1786. At this time William Wood, pastor of Limestone church in Mason county, Ky., visited New York, and made such flattering representations of the western
country, both for ministerial usefulness, and temporal advantage, as induced Mr. Gano to call a church meeting, and consult the church about his going to Kentucky. Mistaking his motive, and supposing that he only desired them to increase his salary, they treated the matter with apparent indifference, leaving him to the free exercise of his own judgment. He at once determined to go. Learning this, the church offered to raise his salary, and made an earnest effort to retain him. But it was now too late. He had formed his resolution, and could not be changed. He soon, sold his small possessions, paid off some debts that had been embarrassing him, and started to Kentucky. He came to Redstone in wagons, and there took a boat. There was still much danger to be apprehended from the savages along the Ohio river; and, on the way their boat was partially wrecked. However, Mr. Gano and his family landed in safety at Limestone, June 17, 1787. He proceeded to Washington, where he preached his first sermon in Kentucky from the words: "So they all got safe to land." Some time after this, his son Stephen, then pastor of the Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, paid him a visit, on which occasion he preached from the words: I am glad of the coming of Stephanas. After remaining a short time at Washington, Mr. Gano moved to the neighborhood of Lexington, and became pastor of Town Fork church. Here he became the colaborer of Craig, Taylor, Hickman, Dudley, and others of that noble band that were in Kentucky before him. Among these brethren who recognized him as a father in the gospel, he labored with faithfulness and efficiency, about ten years, when, in 1798, he had his shoulder broken by a fall from his horse. Before he recovered from this, he had a paralytic stroke, which deprived him of the power of speech. From this he so far recovered as to be able to preach. During the "Great Revival," it is said, he preached in an "astonishing manner." While Elkhorn Association was much agitated by the appearance of Arianism in some of the churches, about the year 1803, Mr. Gano was carried to Lexington, and assisted into the pulpit, where he preached a masterly discourse on the Deity of Christ, which was thought to have a salutary effect in checking the spread of that baleful heresy. The next year, August 9, 1804, this venerable servant of Christ departed
this life at his home near Frankfort, Kentucky, in the 78th year of his age.
This great and good man had some marked eccentricities; but they were such as heigtened his efficiency, without detracting from his piety, and illustrate the important truth that God adapts all the means he uses in the accomplishment of his purposes, to the ends they are desinped to subserve. The following observations from the pen of his personal friend, Richard Furman, long the distinguished pastor of the Baptist church at Charleston, South Carolina, will appropriately close this sketch of Mr. Gano:"The late Rev. John Gano will be long remembered with affection and respect in the United States of America. He was below the middle stature, and, when young, of a slender form, but of a firm vigorous constitution. His mind was for social intercourse and friendship. His passions were strong and his sensibilities could be easily excited, but so chastened and regulated were they, by the meekness of wisdom, that he preserved great composure of spirit and command of his actions.
"As a minister of Christ, he shone like a star of the first magnitude in the American churches, and moved in a widely extended field of action. For this office, God had endowed him with a large portion of grace and excellent gifts. 'He believed and therefore spoke.' His doctrines were those contained in the Baptist (Philadelphia) Confession of Faith, and are commonly called Calvinistic.
"Like John the harbinger of our Redeemer, he was a burning and a shining light, and many rejoiced in his light. Resembling the sun, he rose in the church with morning brightness, advanced regularly to his station of meridian splendor and then gently declined with mild effulgence, till he disappeared without a cloud to intercept his rays or obscure his glory."
1 This Loveall was from New England. His real name was Desolate Baker. He was excluded from Opecan church for licentiousness.
===========[From J. H. Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, Vol. I, 1885; reprint, 1984, pp. 116-127. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on John Gano
Baptist History Homepage