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William Hickman, Senior
By Samuel H. Ford
     PIONEERS PREACHERS - harbingers of light, breaking through the midst-wreathes of morning, and heralding the full-orbed day - worthy are their memories of permanent record. A pity and shame were it to consign their names and their labors to oblivion. To wipe the dust from their tomb stones, and trace the record of their toils, has, thus far, been left to this hand; and most cheerfully is the laborious yet pleasing task prosecuted.

     Near the town spring at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, in the spring of 1776, - ere the fathers of independence had signed their immortal declaration, William Hickman, with a fellow-laborer, David Tinsley, announced for the first time in the "tangled wilderness" of the dark and bloody ground, the "glorious gospel of our blessed God." Around that spring were gathered nearly the whole population of Kentucky. Into the hearts of those warrior-hunters the leaven of truth was cast. At the head spring of that vast stream of western life were the "sweet waters" dropped. The effects look at them. Not only Kentucky, "the mother of the West," but every new State of which her sons were the pioneers, impressing more or less her character on them all - the wide West exhibits the effects of those mercy drops, as that every swelling, widening stream sweeps onward to the Pacific wave. To the pioneers of Kentucky they preached the gospel.

     William Hickman was born in the county of King and Queen, Virginia, on the fourteenth of February, 1747. His father, Thomas Hickman, and his mother, died while William was quite young, leaving "myself," he tells us, "and a dear little sister." The orphans were removed to the home of a pious grandmother, who taught them "the fear of the Lord." At fourteen years of age, he was bound out to a trade, at which he spent seven years. In the twenty-second year of his age he was married to the daughter of the man with whom he served his time. They were both careless, fond of mirth and dancing, without education, and comparatively poor. Though Hickman had been raised in a moral family, he had not, up to his twenty-fifth year, heard a gospel sermon. He had frequently heard of the Baptists, or "dippers," as they were usually called, and imbibing the prejudice of his times, resolved never to go where they were. The deplorable state of society under the influence of the established church threatened a complete extinction of vital religion in the colony. "I went often to hear the parson preach," writes Hickman, "when he was sober enough to go through his discourse." Such was the moral purity of "the church," as some still would call it, in the eighteenth century.

     For lifting up their voices against the vices, as well as the foundations of this establishment, Childs, Waller, and others, were led to judgment and to prison. Feeble unlearned men, with public opinion, wealth, learning, an organized established Church, backed by the power of the English throne - all against them, and threatening their liberties and their lives, these men fearlessly met the whole array, and with the weapons of spiritual warfare revolutionized Virginia.

     "In the year 1770," says Hickman, then living in Buckingham county, Virginia, "curiosity led me to go some distance to hear these babblers. The two precious souls were John Waller and James Childs." It was a Sabbath morning. Thousands were gathered, like Hickman, through curiosity. There was in the hearts of those apostolic men no fear of the mighty multitude; no misgivings of failure because the profane or the rabble were there. The soft voice and trembling heart of some modern lover of good order would have turned with despair from the sea of upturned faces, with their frowns of defiance, or smiles of scorn. But these preachers were men who believed the gospel had power in it, and was mighty through God to the pulling down of the strongholds. And mark the effects of that day's preaching. Hickman continues:

     "When I got to the meeting I could not get sight of the preachers, there was such a multitude of people. Each of them preached. God's power attended the word, and numbers cried out for mercy. I went home heavy-hearted, knowing myself in a wretched state. I informed my wife what I had seen and heard. She was much disgusted for fear I would be dipped too. She begged I would not go again, but I told her I must go and see them dipped. I went the next day; and an awful day it was to me. One of the ministers preached before baptism, and then moved on to the water near a quarter of a mile; the people moved in solemn procession, singing - 'Lord, what a wretched land is this.'"

     "It was a strange thing," he says, "in this part of the world." Yes a strange - yet afflicting sight. That little company, surrounded by the vast, staring multitude, with newly-enlisted soldiers in front, joyous in new found hope, marching on to the melody of plaintive song. "Many tears were dropped," says Hickman, "and not a few from my own eyes." Ah! there is something sublime in such a sight.

     The first man Waller led into the water had been a dancing master, to whom Waller said he had given him a gold piece to learn him to dance. Among those baptized that day were two who afterwards became useful ministers - Rana Shasteen and William Johnson.


     In the fall of the next year he moved down to Cumberland county. Here David Tinsley, who afterwards accompanied Hickman to Kentucky, preached.

     "I concluded, (he says), to go with my wife to meeting, and after singing and prayer he took his text, which is found in the fifth chapter of Daniel, twenty-seventh verse, 'Thou are weighed in the balance and found wanting.' It was a glorious day to me, for God made use of it to show me what a wretch I was. By a metaphor he made use of, supposing a man to go in debt five hundred pounds to a merchant, and he proved insolvent and had nothing to pay, he would say to the merchant, I can't pay the old debt, but I want more goods, I now will pay as I go. He stormed out, for he was a son of thunder, says the preacher. Would that satisfy the merchant? no, he would take him by the throat, say, 'pay me what thou owest.' Then calmly he let us know how we are indebted to God's righteous law, and now if we could live as holy as an angel in Heaven, to the end of our days, how were we to atone for all our past sins? God by his Holy Spirit, I trust, sent it home to my heart. That night I withdrew in secret prayer; there I felt the wretchedness of my wicked heart. I could not pray, but sin and evil thoughts were in my best performance. Considering that God was holy, and how I was to stand before him, condemnation seized my troubled soul. From that time I thought I grew worse and worse, for I saw sin enough in my best performance to sink me to hell. When I heard the truth preached it all condemned me. I often wished 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 hope of happiness was almost gone. When I heard preaching I was condemned. I often went to meeting to get converted. I heard the gospel was free, but not for me, I was such a wretch and condemned. One cold and gloomy afternoon, the 21st of February, 1773, I went over a hill to try to pray. My heart appeared as hard as a rock. 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 I had to return to the house and sit awhile before the fire. I thought that hell was my portion. There was a young woman that lived in the house at that time, a professor of religion. In passing by where I sat, in a kind of extasy [sic], said I was converted. I thought she spoke unguardedly, but said not a word. I got up immediately and went out and walked about fifty yards, about the setting of daylight. 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 pardoned through the atoning blood of the blessed Saviour. I heard no voice, no particular scripture applied. I continued there some time. I went back to the house; made no ado for fear of loosing the sweet exercise. The woman cried out aloud and praised God, I kept still. That was one of the happiest nights that I ever experienced in all my life. The next morning when I rose and looked on, I thought every thing praised God; even the trees, grass, and brutes, praised God. I thanked God for all his favors. In the month of April I was baptized by that worthy old servant of God, Reuben Ford, who baptized my wife the fall before. We both joined the Church after being baptized as above written."

     This is what Baptists nearly a century ago called an experience. This is what infidels have denounced and hypocrites scorned. And yet with this, each true heart, on which the dew of blessing has been shed, will feel a holy sympathy.


     In the beginning of the year 1776, the glowing accounts of Kentucky were recited by the returning hunters. Hickman determined to visit this Eden of the far West, as it was then and afterwards termed. We will let him relate the circumstances of his journey:

     "On the 23rd of February, 1776, I started from home with five others, to-wit: George S. Smith, Edmond Woolridge, William Davis, Thomas Woolridge, and Jesse Low, and in the back parts of Virginia we were joined by three more, Peter Harston, Christopher Urvin, and James Parberry. We came to the resolution, three of us professors, to go to prayer every night. Our new companions in their hearts opposed it, but submitted and behaved well. It is too tedious to name every thing that transpired in our disagreeable journey; we had to travel a small and miserable track, over mud and logs, and high waters. Before we got to Cumberland river, we met three or four men turning back, like poor cowards, and not doubt, like the ten spies of Canaan, carried back an evil report; but one by the name of Harrod fell in with us, and went on. We thought him much of a coward, though he boasted very much. We went on and crossed the river; saw no Indians or signs. It was on Sunday, early in March, one of the company killed a buffalo, which suited us for provisions, and we prepared it by jerking, which made it necessary for us to stay all night. It being on the Indian war road, there was abundance of cane. Two large log fires were made. Late in the night a dreadful alarm was made. The dogs broke out like they had seen something. Poor Harrod rose up, scared half to death to appearance, cursed and damned the Indians, and said, there they are. The men rose and flew to the trees. I did not believe there was an Indian there, or that Harrod saw any. I did not think I was to be killed by an Indian, I therefore kept my station by the fire. No doubt the wolves smelt the beef, and the dogs were after them. After a little they left the trees and came to their rest again. Probably my readers may think my behaviour at the fire was fool-hardy; but I could not believe I should be killed there. I am that kind of a man who never believed any thing could happen by chance. However, we were all spared. Next morning we all started on our way, and nothing of moment transpired till we came to Crab-Orchard; there we discovered a wonder. Part of the company went on to Boonesborough, and the rest of us went on to Harrodstown, now Harrodsburg. When we came to the beauty of the country, I thought of the Queen of Sheba, that came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, when she said, 'the half was not told.' So I thought of Kentucky. I thought if I never could get but ten acres of land, I determined to move to it. I have ever been a true whig to the country. God never intended me to own much of it. My thoughts were, if I could get my children to this new country, it might be to their advantage, which I hope it has been. We got to Harrodstown the first day of April, and a poor town it was - in those days, a row or two of smoky cabins, men with their breech clouts, hunting shirts, leggings, and moccasins. I there ate some of the first corn raised in the country; but little of it, as they had a very poor way to make it into meal. We learnt to eat wild meat without bread or salt. Myself, Brother Thomas Tinsley, my old friend Mr. Morton, took our lodgings at Mr. John Gordon's, four miles from town. Mr. Tinsley was a good preacher, Mr. Morton a good pious Presbyterian, and love and friendship abounded among us. We went nearly every Sunday to town to hear Mr. Tinsley preach. I generally concluded his meetings. On Sunday morning, sitting a the head of a spring at this place, he laid his Bible on my thigh, and said to me, you must preach to-day. He said if I did not he would not. It set me in a tremor; I knew he would not draw back. I took the book and turned to the twenty-third chapter of Numbers, tenth verse: 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be as his.' I suppose I spoke fifteen or twenty minutes, a good deal scared, thinking if I had left any gaps down, he would put them up. He followed me with a good discourse, but never mentioned any blunder."

     Hickman, after making a tour through Kentucky, returned to Virginia; and after spending some years in North Carolina returned to Kentucky.

     Of his parting with his little flock, and his journey, I quote again from his journal:

"I wound up all my affairs, and started on the 16th of August, 1784. I sold my little place - it was small and poor, but there was a good frame house and orchard on it. The purchaser paid me the money down for it, or I should not have been able to have moved. I attempted to preach my last sermon, but in vain; I was entirely unmanned. There were a number of preachers there, and a weeping time it was, indeed. When we began our journey, Brother George Smith was with us, and assisted us in our packages. Several of our friends followed us a day or two; but Brother Smith went with us to help us along, for at least one hundred miles. My oldest son, about seventeen years old, very strong and active, was the best hand we had. I was good for but little. The other boys did their part as well as they could. The next oldest, Thomas, got kicked by a horse the second morning, which laid him up several days. After he recovered, we went on tolerably well. After our friend Smith left us, we felt more lonesome, and missed his advice and aid. We took plenty of provisions with us, and drove two milch cows, that gave milk for the children and my wife's coffee. The fatigues of the journey are too tedious to mention. We proceeded to the wilderness. It rained almost every day, which made it dreadful traveling. The waters were deep and no ferry boats - the children and myself wet both day and night. There were, also, vast crowds in the wilderness, large droves of cattle, and the trace small - provisions with a number ran out; but we, as poor as we were, had a plenty. I had written to Brother George S. Smith to meet us, but he failed to get the letter as soon as I expected. The night before we got in, we concluded to stop and rest. There were five hundred in company. My friend Smith rode up, inquiring for Hickman's camp. He came loaded with bread and meat. The next morning we started, and got to his cabin about an hour by sun, which was the 9th of November, 1784. Wet and dirty, poor spectacles we were, but thank God, all in common health. The Lord was with us through the whole journey.

"The next day, which was Sunday, there was meeting at Brother Smith's, and as unprepared as I was I had to preach, though there were three other preachers there. I spoke from the fourth Psalm, 'The Lord hath set apart him that is godly for himself.' I was followed by a Methodist preacher, Mr. Swope. Old Brother W. Marshall was there, and invited me to where he lived, a place called the Knobs. Sometime afterwards I went to see him, and we soon got acquainted. He appeared to set some store to me, but thought I was tinctured with Armenianism. I thought he was strenuous on eternal justification, but never disagreed so as to have hard thoughts. There was a church at Gilbert's Creek, but I had no inclination to join so soon after I moved there. We lived in Brother Smith's family. Brother John Taylor came from the north side and preached at a Brother Robertson's. William Bledsoe was there. Brother Taylor took his text, which was, 'Christ is all in all.' I fed on the food. It was like the good old Virginia doctrine.

"We built a cabin near Brother Smith's, where our families lived very agreeable together. On the 11th day of January, my daughter Mary was born. Brother Edmund Woolridge had purchased a large tract of excellent land of Col. Campbell, near Lexington, where we concluded to move. I agreed to take one hundred acres of him, and sent my two oldest boys to build a cabin. As it was customary in those days to help one another, with help the boys finished one room. We moved over the fifth day of April, without any accident. My wife never appeared satisfied until now. The spring came on, and every thing appeared so very beautiful and rich, that it seemed we once more had got home. The fourth Saturday in that month was monthly meeting at Brother Lewis Craig's, within two miles, where we went to meeting. We found a people whom we thought we could live happy with. We gave in our letters and was cordially received in the church. My wife was soon reconciled to the country and church, and would not have gone back on any condition. We lived here near three years in love and friendship. I shall here give some account of what transpired in that time. The next year we had a severe affliction with what is called the scarlet fever, or French measels [sic], eight of the family were down at once, and myself among the rest. We lost a young daughter, the first of the family that died. The Lord raised the rest. But myself and seven of the children were afflicted with rheumatic pains, and it was long before we recovered. The Lord's ways are the best, but we are too apt to murmur at it. After joining the church as above, Brother Lewis Craig and myself were yoke fellows in the ministry. After some time, Brother Smith moved over and joined the Church with us, where we labored together in friendship; and in the fall of the same year the Elkhorn Association was formed at Brother John Craig's on Clear Creek. The gospel began to spread in different parts. A church was established at Clear Creek. Brother Taylor was the successful minister. A blessed work of God was produced by his labors. Sometime after, a church was established, now called Mount Pleasant. Brother Smith served them until the Lord took him home."


     The Forks of Elkhorn, some six miles from Frankfort, was then on the very outskirts of the settlements. A few families were living there, and no sooner had they a little land cleared and fenced, than they determined to have a minister of the gospel among them. Without the knowledge of Hickman they made arrangements to give him one hundred acres of land, and settle him in their midst. The invitation was accepted. In the bitter month of January, 1787, through almost impassable tracts then gorged with snow, he reached his new home on the night of the 17th.

     The following Sabbath he preached. Nearly the whole settlement was present - about thirty whites, and a few blacks. "It was a blessed day," he tells us. About four or five experiences came from that day's labor.

"When April came, it brought a fine spring, and we began to talk of becoming an organized church. Several brethren moved down that spring. Brother Taylor hearing of the work came down from Clear Creek to preach to us, and help us on; and, as well as my recollection serves me, there was a number baptized before the constitution of the church, for Brother Lewis Craig was with us at times. We sent for helps from Clear Creek, South Elkhorn, and I think Marble Creek. We got together, and, after due examination, we were constituted a church of Christ. This took place the 2d Saturday in June, 1788, and they were pleased to call me to go in and out before him. He is now gone to his long home. I think in the course of a year I must have baptized forty or fifty. I baptized none of Sister Cook's children, and among the rest that well-known Abraham, now the minister of Indian Fork Church, in Shelby county. The same year I baptized Philemon Thomas and his brother Richard, the latter a minister of the gospel, the former a statesman. My meeting was at Philemon's house. Richard had a great appearance of a fop, finely attired, but God sent the word home to his heart, and he never found rest till the Lord gave it to him."

     There are at this day some seventeen churches in Shelby county. Wealth and it accompaniments surround them. From the midst of their multiplied blessings, a glance at the past will not only be interesting, but it surely will awaken emotions of gratitude and devotion:

"About this time, (says Hickman,) in the midst of the work, two young gentlemen were often with us, sons of Mr. Bracket Owen, living in Jefferson county, now Shelby, and solicited me to come down to their father's and preach, as their mother was an old professor. I first thought it a kind of compliment, being decent young men, and as they were old neighbors with Brother Major's family, and often came on friendly visits, I concluded to go. I gave them an appointment, but before the day came that I was to start, there was a cold season, so much so that everything froze up, and I thought it impossible to get there. Wm Major, Benjamin Haydon and a lady were to go, to visit two of her brothers, who lived there. When the morning came that we were to start I had declined going, as there was no way to cross the river but in a little tottering canoe. Mr. Major was very intent to make the attempt. Although I had declined early in the morning, as they were anxious I concluded to go. We started about the middle of the day to go for Mr. Haydon, who was to be our pilot. When I got to his father's he was not at home, having gone over the river to hunt his horses. Then I thought the journey was at an end, but I desired his mother to give me his clothes, and I would take them to Frankfort, where the woman lived that was to go with us. At that time it was a perfect forest, there being only two little cabins in it. When I went to Mr. Pulliams, whose wife was to go, she had a fine turkey before the fire. I told her to have it done, and in the meantime be ready to start, and I would go to the bank of the river and call Mr. Haydon. After some time he answered, a long way off. When he came, he had no horse. Now, I thought, it was all over, as he was our guide. But Providence had a hand in it, and a relation of Pulliams was there, who told Benjamin rather than the journey should be stopped, he would lend him his mare. We dined on the turkey, and crossed the river, one at a time, and swam our horses by the side of the canoe. When we all got over, and put our saddles on, the moon was shining. We then had twenty miles to go in the night. Sometimes it was snowing, and then the moon shining. We crossed Benson nineteen times. At some fords the ice would bear us over; at other fords some steps would bear us, the next step break in. We continued this disagreeable road until we fell on the waters of what was then called Tick Creek. We passed a number of evacuated cabins, the owners of which had either been killed or driven off by the Indians. It was a very cold night. We had no watch along, but we judged it must have been two o'clock in the morning when we called at the fort gate for admittance. The old gentleman was not at home, and the old lady had all barred up. It was sometime before we could convince her who we were, as she was afraid of a decoy. But at last she let us in. The weather being so cold she had given me out, but she soon had a good fire raised, and got us a warm supper, or rather breakfast, put all to bed, and covered us warm. Early in the morning she sent out runners to the different forts, and about noon collected one of the rooms nearly full of people. About two years before, a small church was constituted by two old ministers, Brother William Taylor of Nelson, and John Whitaker of Jefferson, I believe eight in number. The Indians were so very bad among them, that they scattered and kept up no government. They could not meet together, and nobody preached to them till I went as above named. I preached on Saturday night and Sunday to nearly the same people, and I went about a mile to another fort, and I hope the Lord did not send me there in vain. On Monday morning I started for home. This short visit attached our hearts to each other. They insisted very hard for me to leave them another appointment before I left them. At last I consented to come again. I set a time in March, but it was with difficulty I could leave my people at home. But I went to the time, on Friday, and continued with them till Wednesday, day and night, at three or four different stations. They still urged harder for a continuance of my attendance. They promised, if I would, they would send me several loads of grain, and would every time send a guard to the river to meet me, and guard me back. I thought I would consult my wife and family, and the church, whether it would meet their approbation, and I would send them word. I did so - they had no objection. I sent word, and in May went down, and stayed longer. In that tour they came together, and agreed to stand as a church on the old constitution, and I baptized one member. The next month I baptized another. Brother James McQuade stood by me from the first, was my singing clerk. A little after, Brother Gano baptized him and two or three others. I repeated my visits to them, and baptized a number. The church grew. While going from meeting to meeting, sometimes twenty or thirty in a gang, we were guarded by the men. It looked more like going to war than to meeting to worship God. They urged me hard to move among them. I told them that request could not be granted; I had not long been moved on Elkhorn; I was attached to my people there; I could not leave them; besides all, they had given me a home. I felt bound to them as long as I lived. Buying and selling never was my object. Then they told me if I could get some good minister to come and live with the, it would be what they wished. I told them I would do my best for them. Brother Joshua Morris had just moved to the country, and I thought he would suit them. I saw Brother Morris, told him the situation of that people and their wish. He consulted himself and family. I told him if he would take a tour there I would go with him. We both went. Himself and people were pleased with each other. Soon after he moved, and his labors were much blessed. The church grew and flourished, but many a tour I took with him, long circuits round, till at last, concluding they were well supplied, I gave out going so often. But now I know of no county in the State so well supplied as Shelby - flourishing churches and good ministers. Great changes have turned up in thirty odd years. I went in front there, through cold and heat, in the midst of danger, but my God protected me till now, blessed be his name."
     But we must pass over many interesting periods in the life of this good man. In his life he constituted some twenty churches. Among them the church at McConnell's Run, now Stamping Ground, and continued its pastor for ten years, during which period he baptized nearly five hundred persons there. From the church at the Forks of Elkhorn went forth several young churches, Glen's Creek, South Benson, North Fork, Mouth of Elkhorn, and Buck's Run. He attended these churches after their constitution, they being destitute of ministers, and baptized a number of members in each; and at one period baptized more than five hundred in the course of a year.


     When William Hickman wrote the brief record of his work from which these frequent quotations have been made, he was nearing the close of his laborious life. "I have nearly come, he says, "to the close of my poor pilgrimage. 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 my own, which takes up all my time. But I WANT TO SPEND MY LATTER MOMENTS TO GOD'S GLORY." Noble thrilling words! Is it to be wondered at that men such as this should have left an indelible impression, and that their names and their memories should be cherished in grateful remembrance? And on the old patriarch labored. "I am a poor sinner," he writes, "but believing that the great God knew me from eternity, and included me in his purchase, he called me by his spirit, and made me willing in the day of his power; for it is by grace I am saved, through faith, and that not of myself; He deserves the glory."

     In the fall of 1830, the venerable man of God, in his eighty-fourth year, his noble form still erect, with his flowing silver hair, and voice still strong, was found in company with his son, preaching with tenderness and energy. He had eaten heartily at dinner, and complained of oppression. He made towards home, accompanied by his son. At Frankfort he found he could travel no farther, and they sought repose at the home of a friend. On a pallet made at his own request on the floor, he conversed sweetly of his trust in Christ, his hope of heaven; and in the midst of the conversation, his spirit passed gently from his tired frame. He died in the Lord, and his works follow him

     In the old church-yard at the Forks of Elkhorn sleeps the good man's dust; and not far from it the remains of those sainted ones, his fellow-laborers, John Taylor and John Gano. But around the throne their ransomed spirits sing, "worthy the lamb that was slain."       - S. H. F.


[From Samuel H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, 1858, pp. 600-612. Editor's note: Hickman's gravesite in now in Frankfort, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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