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John Tanner
Frontier Baptist Preacher
By J. H. Spencer, 1885
      JOHN TANNER was early a member of Tates Creek church of Regular Baptists, and was probably its founder and first pastor. Of the time and place of his birth, we have no certain knowledge. The earliest account we have of him is that, in 1773, he raised up a small church in Rocky Swamp, in Halifax county, North Carolina. He was soon after this pastor of a church of Separate Baptists, in Edgecomb county, of the same State. Here he was engaged in a laudable enterprise, of which a brief account may be interesting to the reader.

      As early as 1695, and a number of years before we have any direct historical account of any Baptists in Virginia, there were many individual Baptists, scattered along the eastern coast of North Carolina, supposed to have been driven out of Virginia by the intolerant ecclesiastical laws of that colony. They were General Baptists, and very ignorant of the true nature of Christianity. They had something of the form of godliness, but knew little of its power. By the year 1752, sixteen churches had been gathered, which met annually in "a yearly meeting." About this time, they were visited by John Gano, and, a year afterwards, by Benjamin Miller and Peter Vanhorn,* from Philadelphia Association. These eminent ministers found them in a deplorable condition. They preached among them. Many of them confessed that they knew nothing about experimental religion. They "openly confessed they were baptized before they believed, and some of them said they did it in hope of getting to heaven by it. Some of their ministers confessed that they had endeavored to preach, and administer the ordinance of baptism to others, after they were baptized, before they were converted themselves; and so zealous were they for baptism (as some of them expected salvation by it) that one of their preachers confessed, if he could get any willing to be baptized, and it was in thenight, that he would baptize them by fire-light, for fear they should get out of the notion of it before the next morning."+ Many of these people, how ever, could give a good account of their conversion before their baptism; and some of their preachers were pious, evangelical men. Of these, the missionaries formed Regular Baptist churches. Such as had been converted after baptism, were required to be rebaptized.
      * Benedict, Vol. 2, p. 99.
      + Burkitt and Read's His. Kehukee Assoc., pp. 49, 47.

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Some of them dissented, and were refused membership in the new churches. After this renovation, there were three or four churches, and as many preachers, that refused to submit to the reformation, and remained on their old grounds. Their doctrine and practice seem to have been substantially the same that are now held by the Campbellites. In a few years they became extinct.

      The new churches, formed by the missionaries, on the doctrines of the Philadelphia Association, united with four other churches, one of which, at least, was under the pastoral care of John Tanner, and formed the present Kehukee Association of United Baptists. At the time of this union, 1777, the association contained ten churches, with an aggregate membership of 1,590.* Mr. Tanner traveled and preached extensively, not only in the bounds of this association, but also in Virginia. He endured much persecution, and at one time came very near losing his life for his faithfulness in the gospel of Christ. Elder Lemuel Burkitt, who was present when the surgeon dressed Mr. Tanner's wound, relates the circumstance as follows:

"A certain woman by the name of Dawson, in the town of Windsor, N.C., had reason to hope her soul was converted, saw baptism to be a duty, and expressed a great desire to join the church at Cashie, under the care of Elder Dargan. Her husband who was violently opposed to it, and a great persecutor, had threatened that, if any man baptized his wife, he would shoot him. Accordingly, the baptism was deferred for some considerable time. At length, Elder Tanner was present at Elder Dargan's meeting, and Mrs. Dawson applied to the church for baptism, expressing her desire to comply with her duty. She related her experience, and was received; and, as Elder Dargan was an infirm man, he generally, when other ministers were present, would apply to them to administer the ordinance in his stead. He therefore requested Elder Tanner to perform the duty of baptism at this time. Whether Elder Tanner was apprised of Dawson's threatening or not, or whether he thought it his duty to obey God rather than man, we are not able to say. But so it was, he baptized Sister Dawson. And, in June following, which was in the year 1777, Elder
     * Ibid., p. 51.

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Tanner was expected to preach at Sandy Run meeting house, and Dawson, hearing of the appointment, came up from Windsor to Norfleet's ferry, on Roanoke, and lay in wait near the banks of the river. When Elder Tanner, in company with Elder Dargan, ascended the bank from the ferry landing, Dawson, being a few yards from him, shot him with a large horseman's pistol, and seventeen shot went into his thigh, one of which was a large buckshot that went through his thigh. In this wounded condition, Elder Tanner was carried to the house of Mr. Elisha Williams, in Scotland Neck, where he lay some weeks, and his life was despaired of. But, through the goodness of God, he recovered."*
      Besides the rude persecutions Mr. Tanner endured in North Carolina he took his turn in a Virginia jail, with his co-laborers. Mr. Semple says: "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."+ Speaking of the same circumstances, Burkitt and Read say: "The people were so desirous to hear preaching that they would attend at the prison, and the ministers would preach to them through the grates. In order to prevent their hearing, Colonel Cary had a brick wall erected ten or twelve feet high before the prison, and the top thereof fixt with glass, set in mortar to prevent the people from sitting on the top of the wall to hear the word."x

      Previous to the year 1785, Mr. Tanner moved to Kentucky, and, in that year, was a member, and we have supposed, the founder and pastor, of Tates Creek church, in Madison county. Not long after this he was the preacher of Boone's Creek church (now Athens) in Fayette county. Like William Marshall, Mr. Tanner entered deeply into the investigation of God's eternal decrees, and growing morose in his temper, he seemed to arrive at the conclusion that none were converted, unless they were "sound on the decrees," from his standpoint. About the year 1786, or the year following,
      * Burkitt and Read's His. Kehukee Assoc., pp. 59, 60.
      + His. Va. Bapt., p. 207.
      x History Kehukee Assoc., p. 269.

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there was a general revival among the young churches in Kentucky. Indeed, this work began as early as the winter and spring of 1785, and continued some three years. During the same period, there was a glorious work of grace spreading extensively over the land in Virginia and North Carolina. Sometime during this precious season, William Hickman was with Mr. Tanner at Boones Creek. About twenty persons were approved for baptism in one day. Such a work had not been seen before, in Kentucky. It was a time of great rejoicing. The news had just reached Kentucky, that a similar work was in progress among the churches in Virginia and North Carolina. Mr. Tanner preached, but otherwise, and perhaps in his preaching also, he endeavored to discourage the revival, saying he feared it was "the work of the devil." He refused to examine the candidates for baptism before the church, and when they were received, he refused to baptize them.* However, it is probable that he would not have absolutely refused these offices if there had been no other minister present to discharge them. How far will even good men be led astray, when they turn away from the simplicity of the gospel, to weary themselves and their hearers with vain attempts to discover, and unfold, the secret mysteries of God's eternal decrees?       About the year 1795, Mr. Tanner moved to Woodford county, and settled in the neighborhood of Clear Creek church. By this time, he had come to the conclusion that all the existing churches in Kentucky were too corrupt for a christian to live in. He soon induced his aged father-in-law, Elder James Rucker, to adopt his opinion. Elder John Penny had recently moved from Virginia, and settled on Salt river. He was induced to enter into Mr. Tanner's scheme. They found a few Baptists in Mr. Penny's neighborhood, suited to their purpose, and they constituted "the Reformed Baptist church on Salt River," of ten members, three of whom were ordained preachers. Their plan was to receive members only by experience, and these must be of known good character. None were received by letter from other churches. Their intention was to have a very pure church. As Mr. Penny lived among
      * Hickman's Narrative, pp. 23, 24.
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them, he was chosen pastor. The fact soon developed itself that human nature was the same in the "Baptist Reform" church, that it was in Clear Creek church. The members of this "pure body" soon fell into contentions among themselves. Mr. Penny called helps and constituted the present Salt River church, on the old plan. Mr. Rucker returned to Clear Creek and shortly afterwards moved to the lower end of the state. The "Baptist Reform church" was dissolved in two years after it was constituted. Mr. Tanner soon moved to Shelby county,* from whence, after a brief period, he emigrated to Missouri, and settled near New Madrid. From this settlement most of the people were frightened away by a series of violent earthquakes which occurred in 1811. Mr. Tanner moved to the neighborhood of Cape Gerrardeau, where he died, in 1812.
      * History of Ten churches, pp. 80, 81.

[John Henderson Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, Volume I, 1885; rpt., CHR&A 1984, pp. 97-101. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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