The Life of the Frontier Preacher John Stevens
Campbell County, Kentucky
By N. Pettit, 1855
Rev. JOHN STEPHENS was the second Baptist Minister ordained in Campbell County. We only have to regret that we have not more space to give a fuller account of the life and labors of this noted Baptist Minister of Campbell County.
He was born in New York, near Albany, in the year 1774, and emigrated to Campbell County, Kentucky, in 1793, where he lived and died. In 1796 he was married to Elleanor Rardin, by the Rev. John Smith of Columbus, Ohio. When he was about 26 years of age, he made a profession of religion, and joined the church at Four Mile. -- He began to exhort immediately, and soon after, was ordained to the [C]hristian ministry in the same church. His early education was very limited; so much so that when he began to preach, he could not read a chapter in the New Testament intelligibly; but by unwearied perseverance, he acquired an extensive knowledge of the Bible, as much, at [blurred] as can be with the facilities that he had. He studied no other book, save the Bible; it was his companion by day, and his comfort at night; and often, when others were slumbering, he was prayerfully pouring over the pages of Sacred History. The Bible was his comfort in distress, and his light when in darkness.
As a minister, his manner of address was by no means attractive, but rather repulsive to strangers. His enunciation was defective in consequence of an impediment in his speech. His style was rather barren , owing to a want of mental training, but with all these imperfections he was an able minister of the New Testament. His undoubted piety, and peculiar earnestness, gave great power to his exhortations and sermons, and, in fact, no man in the Campbell County Association, ever labored in the ministry more successfully. His sermons were generally more practical and hortatory than doctrinal. His talent was best suited to encourage [C]hristians; or, using his own familiar language, "to feed the flock." Elder Stephens was Moderator of the Campbell County Association from the time it was constituted, until he became by age disqualified for the discharge of the duties. He filled this honorable and responsible position with credit to himself and with satisfaction to all.
His dignity of character and unflinching integrity, gave him great influence in all deliberative assemblies; and, indeed, he was regarded as the leader of [C]hristian hosts. He was pastor of the First Twelve Mile church for a period of about twenty-eight years, and altho' he had preached for the church so long he was as highly esteemed, when he resigned his charge, as at any other period of his life. He was one of those that lived and lasted. What he was one day you would find him the next. He was, as he often exhorted his brethern [sic] to be "an every day [C]hristian." He was also pastor of the Brush Creek church for a number of years, as well as many others. He traveled and preached a great deal in the bounds of this Association, but not as ministers of the present day travel.
Very often when he went to fill an appointment, he would take his cane in his hand, throw his coat across his arm, and walk five, ten, or fifteen miles on Saturday morning, and perhaps, having followed the plow all the week, preach on Saturday at eleven o’clock and at f[ive?] and the same on the Sabbath, and then walk home. I sometimes fancy I see the old [C]hristian here as he traces his slow and weary steps towards his lonely dwelling. Now he has traveled only a few miles when night throws her gloomy mantle around him, and the wolvs [sic] begin to howl in wild confusion through the forest. See him as he pursues his narrow path through the waste, howling wilderness, with no light to guide his footsteps, only as now and then some twinkling star might chance to drop a gentle ray through the waving branches of the trees, into his path. He arrives at home, takes his rest, and Monday morning again addresses himself to his daily labor.
In this way the greater part of his life was spent; he not only frequently walked to the churches in the bounds of his own Association, but even walked to corresponding Associations; and once we are informed he and some of the Brethern [sic] went to the North Bend Association, in a canoe. We have noticed these incidents to give some idea of the difficulties under which the pioneers labored in building up the Baptist cause, in this part of the state. The population was sparse, the points of preaching at a great distance from each other, and his fellows laborers were few, yet he labored faithfully, until he had the satisfaction of seeing prosperous churches growing up all around him, and the Association, of which he was a member, increased from three hundred to one thousand.
When he was ordained, there were two small churches in Campbell County, numbering thirty or forty members; when he died, there were fifteen churches, numbering about one thousand. But he has gone to his resting place, loved and venerated by all who knew him. The Lord took him up higher where he might rest from his labors. After fifty years devoted to the [C]hristian ministry he departed on the __ day of _____, 1849, leaving many [C]hristian friends to lament the loss of so good a man.
[This short biography was taken from the Circular Letter of the Campbell County Baptist Association, 1855. The complete Circular may be accessed below. -- jrd.]
Go to Campbell County Circular of 1855.
There is also a short bio of Rev. Bethuel Riggs in this Circular.
Baptist History HOmepage