The Self-Taught Frontier Baptist Preacher in Kentucky
By Randall Allen Corkern, 1952
One last group, those who were largely self-taught, deserves to be mentioned. There were a number of these frontier preachers who had no advantage of schooling. Sometimes they failed to attend because they lived too far away from the nearest school. Oftentimes there were too many to supply food and clothing for in the family, so that there was no other alternative than to forego the formal acquisition of learning and to help secure the necessities of life. Others failed to attend school because of the prejudice of parents who felt that no learning from books could benefit their children. But even when all these things were true, there was still the possibility of being self-taught. Some of the frontier preachers in Kentucky showed not a little ambition and aggressiveness as they sought in various ways to improve their education.
William Calmes Buck, who began his ministry in 1820 by working with the Highland and Little Bethel Churches, was largely such a self-taught individual.91 The frontier community in which he grew up was very backward. His father, though able at the time to send him away to school, refused because he had never given such opportunities to his other children. To do so for William would be showing partiality
1 Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, II, 172.
and giving him advantages which the other children had not enjoyed.He [Buck] then determined to gain by his own pluck and energy, what had been denied him by the circumstances of his youth. With beautiful devotion, he dedicated all his spare time and strength to his studies. Fortunately he had access to a village library of good books, and he carried home great loads of pine knots to serve as his lamp; and he snatched from the night, long hours for reading and study, which his fellows were devoting to sleep and amusement. So successful was he in his heroic self-training~ that he acquired not only a good English education, with a fair knowledge of Latin and philosophy, but also the habit of study, and power of concentration that made him a good student all his life long, that even enabled him to take up and learn Greek after he was fifty years of age; and Hebrew after he was sixty.2Some of the frontier preachers, as they reached maturity, and almost always after they had accepted the call to preach, began the attempt as best they could to supplement any education they might have received as school children. William Vaughn was such a man. He had always wanted to be different from the preachers he heard, who preached the same thing in almost the same words each Sunday. After beginning to preach he tried to increase his education. 3
2 Arthur Yager, Sketch of the Life of William Calmes Buck (Louisville: C. T. Dearing Printing Company, [n.d.], pp. 4-5.
3 For Vaughn's earlier education cf. ante, p. 60.
First, he took his savings and purchased several books including Walker's Dictionary, Murray's Grammar, and Buck's Theological Dictionary. These he kept by his side, even during the week as he worked, and frequently referred to them. He studied systematically the Bible, and read Bunyan and Shakespeare. At other times he read attentively Stackhouse's History of the Bible. He also read Witsius on the Covenants and Magee on Atonement and Sacrifice.4
Walter Warder became pastor of the Mays Lick Church in 1814. Upon coming to Kentucky he had engaged, as many of the early preachers did, in teaching school. Spencer says, "His education was very limited, but by means of close application while teaching it was much improved." 5 Thus at least one pioneer preacher taught himself as he taught others.
Often the preachers were given help and encouragement at home. Jeremiah Vardeman, a co-laborer of William Vaughn and Walter Warder, received his small amount of education in that way. John Mason Peck attributed Vardeman's education to the help he received from the family circle, as well as his own natural desire to obtain knowledge. 6
4 Vaughn, op. cit., pp. 53-54·
5 Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, I, 201-202.
6 J. M. Peck, "Rev. Jeremiah Vardeman," The Christian Repository, Vol. III (August, 1854), 460.
Benjamin Tolbart, first pastor of the Hazel Creek Baptist Church beginning in 1797, received his education in the home. He learned to read with the help of his wife after marriage. 7
David Barrow, who announced his Lulbegrud School in 1801, studied grammar after he married.8 Elder Jeremiah Walker helped him and he became an excellent grammarian.9
Much of the studies attempted by the pioneer preachers as they supplemented their sketchy learning was of a theological nature. It was often done as they worked with a church. Such was the case of Robert Kirtley.10 While pastoring the Bullittsburg Church, he secured a few valuable histories, good theological and Bible dictionaries, and with these aids applied himself to the study of the Bible. He did not have access to commentaries and theological text-books. The Bible was his only book.11
7 Wm. J. Johnson, History of Hazel Creek Baptist Church (Greenville: Banner Print, 1898), p. 6.
8 For information on Lulbegrud School, cf. ante, p.46.
9 Spencer, op cit., I, 193.
10 For Kirtley's earlier education, James A. Kirtley, "History of the Bullittsburg Baptist Church", 1872, pp. 59-60.
11 Kirtley, op. cit., p. 58.
[From Randall Allen Corkern, “A Study of the Education, Morals, Salary and Controversial Movements of the Frontier Baptist Preacher in Kentucky from its Settlement until 1830”, 1952, pp. 85-88, chapter III, section VIII. A thesis for the Ph.D. @ SBTS, Louisville, KY; via the archives, Adam Winters, Archivist. The original footnotes are #91-101. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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