Kentucky Baptist History:
Christ made difference in the life of William Hickman
By Ben Stratton
In April 1776, William Hickman had the honor of preaching the first recorded Baptist sermon at Fort Harrod, in what is now the state of Kentucky. The 29-year-old Virginian was trying to decide if he wanted to move his young family west. Although he had heard that Kentucky was a beautiful and rich new country, upon seeing it firsthand, Hickman declared, “The half was not told.” While it would not be until 1784 that Hickman was able to permanently relocate, the story of this early Kentucky Baptist pioneer shows us the importance of life in Christ.
Born in 1747, William Hickman had a difficult upbringing. Orphaned at a young age, he was reared by his grandmother. When he was 14, Hickman was sent to live with John Shackleford so he could learn a trade. The Shacklefords were very “wicked,” and soon Hickman had adopted their irreverent ways. He would eventually marry John’s daughter Elizabeth, but the two were more likely to go to a dance than to church.
That began to change in 1770 when John “Swearing Jack” Waller began preaching in Buckingham County, Va. Crowds gathered to hear Waller proclaim the gospel and tell how Jesus had changed his life. Many were saved, including the local dance master. Although many claimed the Baptists were “false prophets,” Hickman wanted to see for himself. He slipped away to hear Waller preach, and watched as converts were “dipped” in the river. Even though he felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit, Hickman did not respond at the time.
Shortly after this, Hickman moved to nearby Cumberland County. Resuming his sinful habits, he soon forgot about the Spirit’s call. Then another Baptist preacher came into his community sharing the gospel. This time it was David Tinsley, a faithful witness for Christ. Elizabeth was saved and invited her husband to come and hear Tinsley preaching. When he finally agreed, a sermon on Daniel 5:27 shook him to his core. On Feb. 21, 1773, Hickman slipped away to the woods to pray and be alone with God.
He would later write of this experience: “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.”
This newfound life in Christ transformed everything for Hickman. He joined a local Baptist church and within a few years was preaching himself. Hickman pastored two churches in Virginia, but after his 1776 visit, the call of Kentucky was on his heart.
When Hickman finally moved his family to Kentucky in 1784, he was able to work closely with notable preachers Lewis Craig and John Taylor. Churches were strengthened, new congregations were planted and the Elkhorn Baptist Association was founded in 1795. It is no wonder Baptist historian J.H. Spencer wrote, “Than these, a nobler trio of gospel ministers has seldom blessed any one community.”
William Hickman was on the front lines when the Great Revival came to Kentucky in 1800. His gospel preaching was described as “thunder,” and it left an impact on its hearers. In two years he baptized over 500 people at the Forks of the Elkhorn Baptist Church and in the years afterwards was able to start Glen’s Creek, South Benson, North Fork and Mouth of Elkhorn Baptist churches.
Christ had not only changed Hickman’s heart, but the way he saw the world. During his pastorate at Forks of the Elkhorn, he received multitudes of African Americans into the membership of the church. Seeing how the gospel could transform anyone’s life, Hickman soon became a vocal opponent of slavery. While his early efforts were ultimately not successful, he planted seeds of emancipation that would later bear fruit in the lives of men such as J.M. Pendleton and Alfred Taylor.
William Hickman had 18 children. One of his sons was Captain Paschal Hickman, for whom Hickman County, Ky., is named. Another was William Hickman, Jr., who pastored South Benson Baptist Church for years. On Jan. 24, 1834, after preaching for that son, William Hickman felt weak. He laid down at a neighbor’s house and soon died. So passed one of the giants of early Kentucky Baptists. Yet the fruits of his labor remain as the life of William Hickman reminds us, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
[Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society. The article first appeared in the April, 2021 issue of the Western Recorder; used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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