A few miles from where Campbellsville now stands, more than half a century ago, might have been found, in the fields of his father's farm, the subject of the present memoir. He, the eldest of a large family of children, was engaged in the noble filial duty of assisting his parents in the toil and labor necessary to the support of such a family.
The toil-worn youth might have been followed from the exhausting labors of the day, and, instead of seeking that grateful repose which is "tired nature's sweet restorer," he would be found, forgetful of his toils, earnestly engaged in reading such books as he could obtain, or sedulously prosecuting some of his studies, which had been commenced at the winter session of the neighborhood school, until the carefully gathered brush-pile was consumed.
Thus early did he manifest an earnest desire for knowledge. He sought, by diligent study, to compensate for the want of regular instruction. This was well. He was called to use that knowledge for a purpose which he knew not of. Night by night, after days of toil, did the persevering student occupy his accustomed place. His thirst for knowledge converted the fire-side
into a simple studio, where the midnight oil did not indeed burn, but where the sparkling blaze of the hickory shed its welcome light upon the page which riveted the student's eye.
With a remarkably diffident nature, he sought for companionship in the sweet communion of books. These things were not unperceived by a fond mother's eye. She saw the aspirations of her eldest born, and did not her prayers ascend to God that he might be enabled to discover the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus? She was not only a woman of decided piety, but possessed a strong native intellect. Such a mother could not fail to make deep impressions on the minds of her children. She saw behind that veil of constitutional timidity the deep thoughtfulness of her son.
Another trait was strongly marked - a love of truth. No fear of punishment, no hope of reward, could induce him, for a moment, to swerve from the truth. His statements, whether made in the home circle or in the merry crowd of his associates, were always relied on.
Soon did youth's sunny hours pass away to be succeeded by the responsibilities of manhood. As yet he had not made a profession of religion. As soon as he attained the age of manhood his great desire was to satisfy his longing mind with knowledge. For this purpose he placed himself under the instruction of Dr. Hall, a Presbyterian clergyman, who taught school in an adjoining county. It was while attending this school that he found peace to his spirit by the gospel of the blessed Saviour. Engaged in the study of the sublime science of Astronomy, his mind was led to a serious contemplation of Him whose glory the heavens proclaim. His mind went further than the mere revolution of planets - than the august machinery - up through nature to nature's God. The power of that Being, who gave the stars their appointed places, flashed in awful brilliancy upon his soul; he felt the language of the psalmist, "What is man [am I], that thou art mindful of him?" He realized that "the undevout astronomer is mad," and determined to seek the favor of God. In the still, solemn twilight hour, beneath that blue canopy, with its wealth of worlds, upon which he had so often gazed in admiring wonder, he resolved to become reconciled to Him whose favor is
life - gracious, spiritual, eternal life. The silent watchers of the night looked down from their ceaseless march and smiled; angels saw it, and were glad. His anxiety was depicted in the sad, thoughtful countenance so as to attract the Christian eye of his instructor. In his helplessness he turned to Calvary's cross, and, trusting in the gracious provisions there made for the guilty, he found the light of life shedding its hallowed rays across his dark and troubled soul. He was a new creature in Christ Jesus; "old things had passed away; all things had become new." Blessed gospel, how potent is thy grace! With a subdued yet earnest tone would he recite this ever-remembered event as vividly as if his spirit's lip were yet wet with the first healing draught from the water of life.
Henceforth the Sun of Righteousness was to irradiate his pathway amidst earth's worldliness and sin. He attached himself to the Pitman Church, (now Campbellsville,) and was baptized by that gifted man of God, Isaac Hodgen, Nov. 7th, 1812. It was during a meeting, probably the first of much interest since he joined the church, that his spirit was stirred within him, as he saw sinners away from Christ; he must warn them of their danger, and, rising above his natural diffidence, the young man that had never before attempted to address his fellow-men, exhorts them to flee from the wrath to come. The Spirit of God had set his seal upon him; he had a work to do.
The church licensed him "to exercise his gift in exhortation," Dec. 15th, 1812. He was licensed to preach June 4th, 1813, and was ordained to the ministry March 5th, 1814 - John Chandler and Isaac Hodgen being the presbytery on the occasion. The ministry presented but little that promised a life of ordinary ease. Having recently endured the persecution of a state-church, and seen the pampered indolence and insolence of a state-paid clergy, the poor, devoted Baptists went to the other extreme. The Baptists have suffered from it since. Even this may have been a blessing in disguise. It induced a spirit of self-sacrifice and noble zeal which entered largely into the success that attended the labors of the early Baptist ministry. Those that felt it to be their duty to preach counted all things but loss, that they might see the cause of Christ prosper. They were noble men. Sacrifices
they were willing to make, trials they were willing to endure that Christ might be preached. Faithful men, no doubt your crowns of bliss sparkle with more resplendent glory for the sacrifices yon made; a halo of holy renown rest upon your memory! He is now fairly entered the ministry. Let us pause a moment, and from this stand-point behold the hand of God in that eager thirst tor knowledge, which awaited the touch of Isaiah's hallowed fire to consecrate it to the master's service.
In the circumstances which surrounded the early life of John Harding, there was that discipline which was the very best preparation for success in his future labors. He was acquiring that knowledge which is essential to every successful preacher - a knowledge of the people, with their impulses, sympathies, and habits of thought. Amid such circumstances the high resolve, the true and indomitable courage are nurtured, and become leading characteristics. This knowledge and these qualities cannot be acquired by reading descriptions in books, nor by residence in college halls. They are not often obtained by those around whose life affluence spreads her golden charms, which too often represent life in brilliant but unfaithful colors. The heralds of the cross have generally been called from the ranks of the "common people." Herein is seen the wisdom of God. From the days of Christ until now, "the common people" have had the gospel preached to them more successfully than to the wise men after the flesh, the mighty and noble. That man who has been nurtured in their bosom can gain a successful hearing, while unwieldy erudition fails. David conquered while trained warriors of Israel stood aghast. Our Saviour exemplified the truth to which we refer in his own ministry - a carpenter's son. How significant the call of his apostles. He does not summon from Moses's seat the Scribe, a proficient in rabbinical lore, nor the wealthy Pharisee or Sadducee; but from the Galilean shore he selects his ambassadors, as they cast their nets into the storm tossed waves, and toil to secure a support. This was done that "faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." This, it is alleged, was important in the infancy of Christianity; is it less important now? The truth, "that the excellency is of God and not of men," must constantly be held up against the vapid claims
of progress and a false philosophy which would deck its own meretricious brow with the garland that should in wreathe the cross. Men thus selected may not present a roll of parchment as the prestige of ability, but they have thousands of redeemed souls gladly testifying, "Whereas we were blind, now we see." Such are workmen that need not be ashamed. How worthy of deep commiseration is the fledging of scholastic theology, that bewails in piteous tones the ignorance of these faithful old pioneers. Have we ever had a more successful ministry than that which led the Baptists to victory in those days? We doubt it. The boasted eminence upon which we are so apt to plume ourselves at the present day, will hardly compare with the devotion and sacrifice, the common sense and piety of that good olden time. These old pioneers may not have been learned in the myths of Grecian and Roman lore, but they were familiar with their Bibles. They may not have read this or that system of divinity, but they were versed in those writings that make wise unto salvation. "Unlearned and ignorant men" they might appear to be, but the multitude saw "they had been with Jesus." They went forth weeping, bearing precious seed, and came again with rejoicing, bearing their sheaves with them.
O that the Lord of the harvest would send forth such laborers again into his harvest!
We will here resume the record of Elder Harding's labors and success. On the 18th of February, 1815, he was married to Miss Rachel Carlile, who proved herself a helpmeet for him. In November, 1815, he was called to the care of the Pitman Church. This church had the benefit of his labors for the period of twenty-five years without intermission. No weak testimony this to the esteem in which he was held. His labors extended through the counties of Green, Taylor, Adair, and Marion, having the care of the churches in each. The Friendship, Greensburg, Columbia, Mt. Gilead, and other churches, were blessed with his ministrations. Toiling through the week with his own hands, he preached the unsearchable riches of Christ on the Sabbath to the various congregations of which he had the pastorship. He was eminently useful and successful in his ministry, and, though no diary of his labors was kept, yet numbers now living gladly testify
to his success, rejoicing in the hope of that gospel they heard him proclaim; while others, in strains of sweetest melody, join with.him before the throne in singing the praises of the Lamb, to whose bleeding feet they were led by his ministrations.
It has been remarked that he served the Pitman Church for twenty-five years. After an intermission of one year, he was recalled to the pastorate, and served it several years longer. These facts show the warm attachment formed for him. His labors here were blessed, a fact which refutes the opinion entertained by many, that change in the pastoral relation is an element of prosperity.
During his residence in Campbellsville, his only child, a beloved son, was stricken down in early manhood by death. His wife also was soon called hence. To be bereft of these dearest earthly friends was a severe trial, but they had died in the faith of the gospel. Hope pointed to a re-union where sorrow and death never come, where the broken ties of domestic love that seemed withered in the dust are resumed under happier auspices in the fadeless climes of bliss.
The remainder of his days - thirteen years - were spent at the home of his brother, Greensburg, Ky. From this time forward, he was entirely disengaged from secular pursuits. His time was spent in preaching and in diligent study of the Bible. He had the same thirst for knowledge which marked his youth, and he sought for it in the Book of Books. He was a student up to the very time that he was attacked by his last sickness. The Bible was studied systematically. Every scattered ray of truth was searched for in the examination and formation of his doctrinal views. No glasses of commentaries would satisfy. The inspired thought was eagerly sought after. Years were spent in the investigation of subjects in the New Testament. Close, earnest thought, devoted to the word of God, prevented his holding any disjointed theories, and gave a unity and consistency to his views of the gospel which are seldom found, and sought for in vain among the jarring conflict of commentaries. He would think for himself. No array of great names, no antiquity, would prevail for one moment when it was thought the Scriptures taught differently. "The Bible, the Bible alone," was no stereotyped quotation
with him; it was a living principle, guiding him by its light away from the shoals and quicksands of second-hand opinions. It is not, therefore, to be wondered that some of his views differed from those that are usually labelled "orthodox." These views were carefully formed - not crude and hastily formed theories. Every iota of scriptural evidence was brought to bear upon them. Mature deliberation was the character of the man. Old opinions would not give place to new ones, without long and patient investigation. It was known to his brethren that his views differed from the current theology on some points. In many a friendly controversy were these the subject of discussion. In all of which, it was evident, they were defended by no slight gossamer of fanciful conjecture, but were surrounded by strong fortifications of scriptural truth. He was often requested to publish his views in the denominational paper. These requests were never complied with in his life time. After his death it was ascertained that he had left several articles upon various subjects, which were requested for publication by the Russel's Creek Association. In pursuance of this request, they appeared in the Recorder and the Christian Repository.
There are yet some articles unpublished. In the article on "The Baptism of the Holy Ghost," and in others, the careful reader will see principles, which, if true, would overturn much of the commonly received theology. A thorough review of them is desirable. He did not regard Christianity as a mere emendation of Moses - as Judaism re-vamped. Its message of grace and love was announced in many a glowing prophesy, but the death of Christ procured them for Jew and Gentile. He regarded salvation as the result of the Saviour's death, and therefore could not precede that event. Salvation, he dated from the cross - the actual work of redemption. Yet he most firmly believed that all who died trusting in the promises, were ultimately and certainly saved. These views gave a glorious conspicuity to the doctrine of Christ crucified.
Those that desire to examine attentively these views, can do so in the pages of the Repository. Enough has been said here.
His preaching was eminently sound and scriptural. It was the best preaching - a clear and forcible presentation of gospel truth.
He went into the pulpit seemingly forgetful of every thing but the important work before him. This was no solemn affectation - no pulpit trick. There was something in the holy calmness of that mild face which tended to compose a congregation more effectually than the polished exordiums of some preachers. Truly might it be said -
"There stands the messenger of truth; there stands
The legate of the skies: - His theme divine,
His office sacred, his credentials clear.
By him the violated law speaks out
Its thunders: and by him, in strains as sweet
As angels use, the gospel whispers peace.
He 'stablishes the strong, restores the weak,
Reclaims the wanderer, binds the broken heart.
And, armed himself, in panoply complete
Of heavenly temper, furnishes with arms
Bright as his own, and trains by every rule
Of holy discipline to glorious war,
The sacramental hosts of God's elect."
He was in earnest; no services were performed merely as a matter of course. Some suitable portion of Scripture was selected as a text. This was always suggestive of the train of thought he intended to pursue, and contained the truth he designed to communicate. With rather a slow manner he would commence his discourse; as he continued, his mind warmed up with the subject; Scripture after Scripture was quoted to elucidate and sustain some truth, or overthrow some error - concluding with an exhortation, an earnest, tearful appeal to the conscience. Those that witnessed his best efforts can testify to the wonderful effects produced - they have felt its power. Hard was the heart that could withstand the earnest pleading tones of that venerable old man as he urged sinners to flee from the wrath to come.
His sermons were no methodical skeletons, marching in true ghostly file to the notes of "firstly," "secondly," etc. They were something more than mere moralizing strains. Christ crucified was the beginning, end, and life of his ministrations. He knew well the meaning of words, and few men could use them more accurately than he, yet he cared less for the polish of the blade than for the directness and force of the blow.
Kind and conciliatory in his manner, he was never slow to attack error. This was always done in a kind, Christian spirit. When the "Current Reformation" rushed like a simoom over the Kentucky churches, he stood firm against the dangerous tide of innovation; no defections took place from any of his churches to swell the cohorts of Alex. Campbell. He was as diffident and retiring as a child, and this will account for his not attending our larger anniversary meetings, thereby failing to become as extensively known. In the field of his labors his influence was very great. The unblemished integrity and purity of his character secured the esteem and confidence of all who knew him. His manner had that dignified reserve which was as different from moroseness as it was from unbecoming levity. In trifling conversation he took no interest. Let some religious truth or interest become the theme, at once he was all earnestness. The reserve was gone. The silent tongue became eloquent in the exposition or defense of truth. His religious friends knew well how to enlist him. In such a circle he was at home. There was an undercurrent of true, genial humor in his nature, which, in its play, gladdened those that were so happy as to associate with him. Against vice and error he could use the most pungent sarcasm. These qualities never appeared in his pulpit labors; his words were those of gentleness and love, so well becoming him who watches for souls. For forty years was he engaged in his Master's work. Though never in robust health, his life was prolonged nearly to the three score years and ten. His work on earth was soon to be finished. He was attacked with disease, which, in three weeks, terminated his earthly existence.
During the early part of his sickness he thought that he would recover, but he was resigned - living or dying he was the Lord's. Having learned the value of the precious gospel, he was desirous, if the Lord willed it, to live longer, that he might plead with sinners to be reconciled to God. Is this not a holy desire? What minister would not desire to present, a few more times, the love of the blessed Jesus to the world - to gather a few more jewels for the Master's crown!
When it was apparent to his friends that hope was gone, it was thought proper to acquaint him with his situation, but who could
have the courage to speak it? A fellow-minister - one that had long labored with him - being about to leave, determined to let him know what his friends thought. He approached his bed-side to bid farewell for the last time, and informed him of his condition. Never can that parting be forgotten, as his faithful co-laborer, Joshua W. Brooks, turned away! But there is a heaven, a glorious heaven, where the bitter farewell tear is never shed. He was not startled; he felt that the sands of life were ebbing fast - his race was nearly run. After a few more days of extreme suffering, a solemn stillness succeeded, the hushed silence after the storm had passed - he was dying! A few more minutes, as if the soul had paused at the threshold of bliss - he was dead! "Another harp is broken, and the strains that trembled upon its strings are now heard in heaven."
"Yes, the Christian's course is run,
Ended is the glorious strife,
Fought the fight, the crown is won,
Death is swallowed up of life."
It was his request that he should be interred by the side of wife and child, in the grave-yard of the old Pitman Church - the scene of his labors and trials, as it will be of his victory in the glorious light of the resurrection morn.
Earth, unto thy faithful trust
Was committed this precious dust,
Thereby pain no more oppressed,
Brother, thou dost sweetly rest.
Glorious will that morning break,
When the dead in Christ shall wake, -
Joy and grief our bosoms swell,
Brother, Pastor, Guide, farewell!
============[From S. H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, September, 1857, pp. 517-526. Document from Google Books. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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