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WILLIAM HICKMAN, the founder and first pastor of Elkhorn church, was among the most active, courageous and useful of that noble band of pioneer preachers that brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the great Valley of the Mississippi. He was, in the true sense of the term, a servant of Jesus Christ. He made preaching the gospel the business of his life. He conscientiously avoided that worldly speculation which involved a number of our early preachers in much trouble, and greatly marred their usefulness. Refusing to entangle himself with the this world, he looked unto the Lord, and steadily pursued his holy calling, from the time God called him into the ministry, until he finished his course with joy, at a ripe old age. He served the Lord with diligence and zeal, in his youth, and realized the fulfillment of the promise made to the righteous: "They shall bring forth fruit in their old age."
William Hickman was the son of Thomas Hickman. His mother's maiden name was Sarah Sanderson. He was born in King and Queen county, Va., February 4, 1747. His parents died young, leaving him and one sister, their only surviving children, to the care of their grandmother. He gives the following account of his youth and early manhood:
"My sister and myself were taken by a loving old grandmother, who did her best for us. She tried to impress our minds with a solemn sense of eternal happiness and the torment of hell. These things bore heavily on my mind, and more so on the death of our parents. Thinking of my father, and fearing he was miserable, deprived me of hours of sleep. I hoped my mother was in glory. With these thoughts, I determined not to be wicked, and especially to keep from evil words. My opportunity for learning was very poor, having little time to go to school. I could read but little, and barely write. My sister also had very little opportunity to learn, for we were two little orphans.
"At about fourteen years of age I was put to a trade. The family I had lived with since the death of my parents were orderly, but without any real knowledge of true godliness. They all depended upon their works to save their souls. None of us knew any better in those days. I had not lived long at my new habitation before I fell in with the evil habits of the family, for master, mistress, children, apprentices and negroes were all alike in their wickedness. I left off saying prayers, and learned to curse and swear; for sinning will make us leave off prayer, and real prayer will make us leave off sinning. I lived at this place seven years. I went often to church to hear the parson preach, when he was sober enough to go through his discourse. Towards the last of the seven years I heard of a people called Baptists, though at a great distance. I was told that they would take the people and dip them allover in the water. I was sure they were the false prophets. I hoped I never should see one of them, nor did I for several years after that.
"In the ninth year of my apprenticeship I married my master's daughter. Both of us were poor, careless mortals about our souls. My wife was fond of mirth and dancing. In the year 1770 the Lord sent these Newlights(1) near where we then lived, in Buckingham county, Virginia. Curiosity led me to go some distance to hear these babblers. The two precious men were John Waller and James Childs. When I got to the meeting the people were relating their experiences. There was such a multitude of people that I could not see the preachers till they were done. At last they broke up. The two preachers sat together. I thought they looked like angels. Both of them preached, and God's power attended the word. Numbers fell, some were convulsed and others were crying out for mercy. The day's worship ended. The next day they were to dip, as they called it in those days. I went home, heavy hearted, knowing myself to be in a wretched state. I informed my wife what I had seen and heard. She was much disgusted, fearing I would be dipped. She begged me not to go again; but I told her I must see them dipped. I went, and an awful day it was to me. One of the ministers preached before baptism. Then they moved on to the water, near a quarter of a mile. The people moved in solemn order, singing:'Lord, what a wretched land is this That yields us no supply.'
Though it was a strange thing in that part of the world, I think the people behaved orderly. A great many tears dropped at the water, and not a few from my eyes. The first man brother Waller led in had been a dancing master, to whom brother Waller said he had given a gold piece to teach him to dance. I think eleven were baptized that day."
"In the fall of the next year I moved to Cumberland county. There I shook off the awful feeling I have named above, yoked in with a gang of ruffians and took to dissipation, but with a guilty conscience. The Lord sent his servants in that part, and pretty soon a number of our dear neighbors were converted to God, and among the rest, my wife." (2)
On the conversion of his wife, Mr. Hickman's remorse of conscience greatly increased. His wife offered herself to the church, and was approved for baptism, when he was absent. This greatly irritated him. He kept her from being baptized several months. He persuaded her to attend the Episcopal church, and strove to convince her of the validity of infant baptism. For this purpose, he studied the New Testament closely. This investigation led him to the conclusion that infant baptism was not taught in the Bible. He finally consented to his wife's being baptized. Under the preaching of David Tinsley -- that eminent and faithful witness for Jesus, and for times a prisoner of the Lord, in Virginia jails -- Mr. Hickman became deeply over-whelmed with a sense of guilt and condemnation. He closes a relation of his experience as follows:
"I saw sin enough in my best performances to sink me to hell. When I heard the truth preached, it all condemned me. I often wished that I had never been born, or that I had been a brute that had no soul to stand before the holy God. For months I tried to pray, but thought I grew worse and worse, till all hopes of happiness were almost gone.
"One cold and gloomy afternoon, the 21st of February, 1773, I went over a hill to try to pray. When I got to the place, I put myself in every position of prayer. I must have been an hour in that dismal condition. It was so cold that I returned to the house and sat awhile before the fire. I thought hell was my portion. About the setting of daylight I got up and walked out about fifty yards. All at once the heavy burden seemed to fall off: I felt the love of God flow into my poor soul. I had sweet supping at the throne of grace. My sins were pardoned through the atoning blood of the blessed Savior. I heard no voice, and no particular Scripture was applied. I continued there sometime, and then went back to the house. I made no ado for fear of losing the sweet exercise. That was one of the happiest nights I ever experienced. The next morning when I rose and looked out, I thought everything praised God, even the trees, grass and brutes. In the month of April, I was baptized by that worthy servant of God, Reuben Ford, who had baptized my wife the fall before. We both joined the church after I was baptized.(3)
The young converts composing this church, having no preacher near them, kept up meetings themselves, as was the custom of the early Baptists of Virginia. Among those who took an active part in the public exercises were William Hickman, George Smith, George Stokes Smith, John Dupuy, James Dupuy, Edward Maxey and Jeremiah Hatcher. All of these became useful preachers, and the first five were among the early preachers of Kentucky.
In 1776 Mr. Hickman came with a small company to Kentucky. Some account of this visit has been given in the first chapter of this work.
Several incidents which occurred under Mr. Hickman's ministry during the eight years that he preached in Virginia, after his first visit to Kentucky, will serve not only to exhibit the zeal of the preacher, but will also show something of the spirit of the times in which he lived.
Near where Mr. Hickman lived was the boundary line of an Episcopal parish, the minister of which was a Mr. McRoberts. The Virginia Legislature passed an act in 1776, by which the parish ministers were deprived of their salaries, which they had hitherto drawn from the public treasury. Most of them abandoned their parishes as soon as their salaries were cut off. Parson McRoberts had left his parish. The Methodists had seized upon the opportunity to gather a large society in the vacant parish. Congress proclaimed a general fast to be held on the 23d of April, 1777. Mr. Hickman preached the fast day sermon in his neighborhood. An immense crowd of people attended. The Spirit of the Lord was present, and a number of people were deeply convicted of sin. Among these was a middle-aged man named John Goode. He was so deeply wrought upon that he thought he was going to die, and applied to Col. Haskins to write his will. He continued some days in great agony. For three days and nights he did not eat, drink or sleep. When he obtained relief he went to see Mr. Hickman, and related to him his experience. He concluded by saying: "You need not mention baptism to me. Blessed be God, I am baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire, and I need nothing more." Mr. Hickman told him to search the Scriptures and they would teach him his duty. "I had an appointment the next Sunday week," says Mr. Hickman, "at Muse's school-house. I asked Mr. Goode if he would go to meeting with me, if I would come by and take breakfast with him. He said he would with pleasure. When I went he was sitting on his porch with the Bible in his hand. He commenced conversation by saying: 'You need not say anything about baptism; my Holy Ghost and fire baptism will do for me.'" Mr. Hickman advised him, as before, to search the Scriptures. "When the meeting was dismissed that day," says Mr. Hickman, "I missed Mr. Goode till the people were nearly all gone. At last he came out of the woods. I asked him where he had been all that time. He told me that Mr. Branch, one of his neighbors, a church warden, had taken him out to give him some good advice, and that the advice was to take care of the Baptists, for they preached damnable doctrines, and that they will not rest till they dip you. Mr. Goode replied that Mr. Hickman had not persuaded him, he only advised him to read the Scriptures. 'Ah,' said Mr. Branch, 'that is their cunning.'"
At another time Mr. Hickman preached at the funeral of an old lady. After the service a friend of the deceased made him a present of the value of five dollars. It was soon reported that he charged five pounds for preaching a funeral sermon. This was used to prejudice the people against the Baptists. Mr. Hickman soon afterwards preached another funeral discourse at the parish grave-yard, but was compelled to go off the church lot, or, as it was called, "the church acre." Mr. Hickman remarks: "The Baptists in those days were much despised." This was especially the case in Chesterfield, county. "A little before this date, about eight or nine ministers were imprisoned at different times. But to stop the work of the Lord was not in the power of the devil. The word was preached through iron grates, and God blessed it to the conversion of hundreds." It will be remembered that, "in Chesterfield jail seven preachers were confined for preaching, viz: William Webber, Joseph Anthony, Augustine Eastin, John Weatherford, John Tanner, Jeremiah Walker and David Tinsley. Some were whipped by individuals, and several were fined." (4) "They kept up their persecutions," says Semple, "after other counties had laid it aside." Mr. Hickman, though not imprisoned, came in for his share of rude persecution.
The following affecting circumstances show something of the bitter feeling that was entertained against the Baptists, only a hundred years ago. A revival was in progress in Skinquarter church. Many people were interested about their souls. Among these were the wife, son and daughter of an old man who was a fierce opposer of the Baptists. The young lady was the first to find peace in the Savior. Despite the father's opposition. "Nothing would do but she must follow the footsteps of her dear Master. After she was baptized," continues Mr. Hickman, "She never dared to put her foot in her father's house. He cursed and swore and wished her in hell. But she had friends and homes enough. One day her poor old mother came to my house and asked me what I would do if she told me an experience that satisfied me, and demanded baptism. I told her I should have to baptize her. She said: 'I expect to put you to the test, in a short time. But my husband must not know it. If he does, I know he will kill me.' I told her I did not think so. She replied: 'I know him better than you do.' A short time after this, the old man went from home, and the old lady came to my house with her bundle under her arm. The expelled daughter was at my house at that time. The old lady related her experience. It was satisfactory. My wife, the old lady and myself went alone to the water. Her daughter would not go, for fear she would be interrogated on the subject. The old lady came up out of the water praising and glorifying God. I informed the church what I had done, and they were pleased with it. I directed the deacons to convey the elements to her when administering the supper, she being in some bye-corner covered with a large handkerchief. The old man did not find it out for four years. The worst of his rage was then over. The son, a young man grown, had been converted. But he lived with his father, and was afraid to be baptized. One night at a meeting the members became very lively under religious exercises. Abram -- for that was his name -- came forward and related his experience. Like Paul, I took him the same hour of the night and baptized him. I saw his mother next morning. She said to me: 'Brother Hickman, did you baptize Abram last night?' 'Why do you ask that?' said I, for I was sure none could have told her. 'Why, I dreamed so: I thought I stood by and saw it.' I told her I had, and she appeared much rejoiced. Some one told Abram's father of his baptism on Monday morning. The old man drew his cane on him and ordered him off, but did not strike him."(5)
John Goode, who was at first so well satisfied with his Holy Ghost and fire baptism, after studying the Scriptures sometime, demanded water baptism, and ultimately succeeded Mr. Hickman as pastor of Skinquarter church.
Mr. Hickman relates the following incident, which occurred under his ministry, while he was pastor of Tomahawk church. There was a man living near the meeting place, "who was thought to be a christian," says Mr. Hickman, "but had not joined society. I said to him one evening going from meeting: 'Mr. Flournoy, when I come again, I intend to have meeting at your house, on Saturday night, hear your experience and baptize you the next day.' He asked me if I was in earnest. I told him I was. The same week there was preaching at the meeting-house by a strange minister. The preacher and myself went to Mr. Flournoy's to dinner. After dinner he said to me that he could not wait till next meeting to be baptized. I told him he had waited seven years, and asked him if he could not wait another month. I told him I should do as I had promised. The next morning he came to my meeting, ten miles off, bringing his family and friends, and also his clothes to be baptized in. I told him I should do as I had first told him. The next monthly meeting, I baptized him, according to my first arrangement. When I came to Kentucky I left him the minister of Tomahawk church."
Another circumstance will illustrate the strictness of discipline among Baptists, at that period. A young lady, the daughter of Colonel Haskins, was arraigned before the church at Skinquarter, "for wearing stays, they being fashionable at that time. She was truly a meek and pious young lamb," continues Mr. Hickman. "I plead her cause and saved her. She afterwards became the wife of Edward Trabue, and died in Kentucky."
On the 16th day of August, 1784, Mr. Hickman started to move to Kentucky. He arrived at George Stokes Smith's, in what is now Garrard county, on the 9th day of November. "The next day," says he, "which was Sunday, there was meeting at brother Smith's, and unprepared as I was, I had to try to preach, though there were three other preachers present. I spoke from the fourth psalm: 'The Lord hath set apart him that is godly for himself.'" This was his second attempt to preach in Kentucky. It was now more than eight years since he began his ministry at the head of the spring at Harrodtown. Thomas Tinsley was present when he made his first effort. Speaking of the second, he says: "Old brother William Marshall was there, and invited me to go where he lived, at a place called the Knobs. He appeared to set some store by me, but thought I was tinctured with Arminianism. I thought he was strenuous on eternal justification. There was a church at Gilbert's creek, but I had no inclination to join so soon after I moved there. Brother John Taylor came from the north side of Kentucky river, and preached at brother Robertson's. William Bledsoe was there. Brother Taylor's text was: 'Christ is all in all.' I fed on the food. It was like the good old Virginia doctrine." Thus, in a few days, Mr. Hickman was brought in contact with nearly all the preachers in "Upper Kentucky." There were at that time, only two Regular and two Separate Baptist churches in that part of the State; and the first revival did not occur till the following winter.
The 5th of the following April, Mr. Hickman moved to the north side of Kentucky river, and settled near Lexington. The fourth Saturday in the same month, he and his wife handed in their letters, and were received into the fellowship of South Elkhorn church. Here he and Lewis Craig became yoke-fellows in the ministry, and John Taylor was near by. Than these, a nobler trio of gospel ministers has seldom blessed anyone community on our planet. They, with a few others perhaps equally pious, but less active and zealous, raised up, in a few years, churches enough to form a large and influential association, and their names were familiarly known over this continent, and in Europe.
Mr. Hickman's labors at Boones Creek, Marble Creek, Forks of Elkhorn and Brashears Creek, in Shelby county, have already been spoken of. He became pastor of Forks of Elkhorn, at its constitution, and sustained that relation till it was severed by death. He supplied Brashears Creek near the present town of Shelbyville, about a year, when he had to be attended by a band of soldiers between Frankfort and that point, to guard him against the hostile Indians. He then induced Joshua Morris to move to Brashears creek, and take charge of the little church. In 1791, he paid a short visit to his old churches in Virginia. On his return to Kentucky, he commenced preaching in Mr. Ficklin's barn, on McConnells Run, in Scott county. Here he raised up a church, at first called McConnells Run, but now known as Stamping Ground. To this church he ministered about fourteen years. A few brief quotations from his Life and Travels will give, in a narrow compass, some idea of his abundant labors and great success in Kentucky. Speaking of the great revival of 1800-3, he says: "I suppose I baptized more than five hundred in the course of two years, though in different places. Our church (Forks of Elkhorn) increased to three or four hundred in number. About this time the churches began to branch off. We dismissed members to constitute Glen's Creek, South Benson, North Fork and Mouth of Elkhorn (Zion) churches. I attended all those young churches at that time, they being destitute of ministers, and baptized a number of members in each, till they were supplied. In those days I went down and visited my friends on Eagle creek, and baptized a number there. Soon after that a large and respectable church arose there. Brother John Scott moved among them, and has long been their pastor. "I am now in my eighty-first year, and have a greater charge on me than ever I had. I am called upon to attend three other churches, besides our own. This takes up all my time. But I want to spend my latter moments to God's glory. I enjoy common health through the goodness of God."
"I have, after my poor manner, to serve Mt. Pleasant, North Fork and Zion churches. Our regular meetings at the Forks of Elkhorn, have been on the second Saturday and Sunday in each month for nearly forty years. This church I hope to serve till I am laid in the dust, for they have ever manifested their love and esteem to me. They lie near my heart, I wish to live and die with them; and I hope to spend a blessed eternity with them where parting is no more."
Some two years after he wrote the paragraphs just quoted, this venerable servant of God, still in ordinary health visited south Benson church, of which his son William was pastor. After preaching, and then eating a hearty dinner, he complained of feeling uncomfortable. He started to go home, accompanied by his son. When he reached Frankfort he was unable to proceed further. He stopped at the house of a friend and requested a pallet to be made on the floor. On this he lay down to rest. As he lay there, talking of his trust in Christ, on a mild evening in the fall of 1830, he grew weaker and weaker, until his voice was silenced. A few moments afterwards he passed away to the eternal home. So ended a long life of active labor and prominent usefulness in the cause of Christ. Of this remarkable man of God, John Taylor wrote in the following quaint style, while Mr. Hickman was living:
"This man had a great range in Kentucky, for here he has been a faithful laborer nearly forty years. He is truly a '76 man, for in '76 he paid a visit to Kentucky, and here, the same year, he first began to preach. In early times, and in the face of danger, he settled where he now lives, for a number of years, at the risk of his life, from Indian fury. He preached to the people in Shelby county, and other frontier settlements. So that he is one of the hardy, fearless sons of '76. For upwards of thirty years he has served the church at the Forks of Elkhorn, in which congregation he has, perhaps, baptized more than five hundred people. He has statedly served a number of other churches. Perhaps no man in Kentucky has baptized so many people as this venerable man. Though now about seventy-six years old, he walks and stands as erect as a palm tree, being at least six feet high, rather of a lean texture, his whole deportment solemn and grave, and like Caleb, the servant of the Lord of old, at four score years of age, was as capable of going to war as when young. This '76 veteran can yet perform a good part in the Gospel Vineyard. His preaching is in a plain, solemn style, and the sound of it like thunder in the distance; but when in his best mood his sound is like thunder at home, and operates with prodigious force on the conscience of his hearers."(6)
Mr. Hickman was twice married and raised many children. His oldest son, William, was long pastor of South Benson church. Captain Paschal Hickman who fell in the battle of River Rasin, and in whose honor Hickman county was named, was another of his sons. The venerable Elder Paschal Todd, of Owen county, is a grandson.
1. Baptists were so-called then.
2. Hickman's Life and Travels, pp. 1-3. Slightly Revised.
3. Life and Travels, pp. 5-6 ; slightly revised.
4. History of Virginia Baptists, p. 207.
5. Life and Travels, pp. 15-16; revised.
6. John Taylor, The History of the Ten Churchs, pp. 48-49.
[From J. H. Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, Vol. I, pp. 152-162. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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