Elder Benjamin Tolbert
By Wendell H. Rone, Sr.
The pioneer of all the pioneer preachers of the Green River Country is the subject whose name appears above. Few men were better known, or more revered in this section a century and a quarter ago than Elder Benjamin Tolbert. His ministry is the beginning of the Baptists of this section of the State. Elder Tolbert is supposed to have been a native of North Carolina. His date of birth was probably about the year 1760. He came to Muhlenberg County, Ky., as a settler in the 1790's from the central part of Tennessee. As far as is known he was among the first preachers to settle in the Green River Country and is therefore to be considered as the founding father of a large number of the Baptists in this large and populous territory. Tradition holds that he has been heard to say, that, while a soldier in the cause of liberty for his country, he was caused to see himself as a sinner in the sight of God on suffering from a wound by the enemy's gun which casualty he balieved was ordered by Providence. The wound left a cavity in his thigh like the mark of Grace in his heart and was borne through life. He learned to read after marriage by the aid of his wife. Nothing else is known concerning him prior to his entering into the constitution of Hazel Creek Church in Muhlenberg County on December 3, 1797. Then he was a man with a family settled in what was then Muhlenberg County and a little later became Butler County. Investigations have led many to conclude that he had connections with Cox's Creek Church, in Salem Association, before coming to this section of the State. He was of small stature, but of large resolution; making journeys to his appointments through perils, often bearing his gun: and while preaching to the hardy settlers, his horse would eat on the ground the corn brought in a wallet, or graze in the woods. He was not embarrassed in preaching without his coat in warm weather, and he said that he considered no good done when he preached unless someone laughed, wept or got mad. Faultfinding church members he called the "devil's dogs." Sinners, deeply penitent; he compared to the cattle in the Pedee Swamps of North Carolina. (From this we see he must have been a native of that State). The more they strove the deeper they sank in the mire. A religious professor of crippled influence, he said, was like a sheep recovered from a fall into the water. If he did not like the story of an applicant for church membership, he would tell him to wait till another time.
Some ministers who envied him, or were suspicious of his orthodoxy on the subject of preaching the Gospel to every creature, attended one of his appointments to advise a cessation of his tone. While they sat on the platform Tolbert spoke to the people, saying he would preach his doctrine if the devil was at his back.
At an Associational meeting in a prosperous region, some familiar brethren, willing to please the people, cautioned him, that if he were invited to preach, not to speak as plain as common. Sure enough, in his sermon he said that the people of the Green River Valley were like hogs, living fat all the year, but never looking from whence the acorn came.
We are little surprised that such a courageous man was a successful minister of the Gospel. From his little spiritual fort on Hazel Creek he went forth in all directions bearing the message of peace to all settlers in a strange land. He was instrumental in planting many of the oldest churches in the Green River Valley and ministered to them until God raised up preachers to take care of them. Among these are to be found: Hazel Creek in Muhlenberg County in 1797; Beaver Dam in Ohio County in 1798; Nelson Creek in Muhlenberg County in 1803; Sandy Creek and Monticello in Butler County, both founded in 1805; Buck Creek in McLean County in 1812; Yelvington in Daviess County in 1813; Walton's Creek in Ohio County in 1814; Pond Run in Ohio County in 1820? [blurred] and perhaps others of which we have no information.
His work was mainly in the Gasper River Association of which he was a member from its organization in 1812 until his death 22 years later, He served that body as Moderator from 1824 through 1830, and preached the Annual Sermon on six different oocasions.
Hazel Creek Church received his pastoral ministrations from her organization to the time of his death, a period of 37 years. He also pastored Beaver Dam for 28 years, 1803 through 1831; Nelson Creek from 1803 through 1813 a pe riod of 11 years ; Sandy Creek from 1805 throug1 1834, a period of 29 years; Walton's Creek from 1814 through 1832, a period of 19 years; and Pond Run from 1820 through 1833, a period of 14 years. [These churches met usually only one Sunday a month back then.]
His death occurred on November 10, 1834, in his 74th. year. The Gasper River Association erected a monument over his grave, in l867, which is located about eight miles from Rochester, Ky., in Butler County. It is a marbie slab about four feet in height and about twenty inches in width, bearing the following inscription:
IN MEMORY OF
ELDER BENJAMIN TOLBERT
WHO WAS A PIONEER BAPTIST PREACHER IN THE GREEN RIVER COUNTRY. THE
TIME AND PLACE OF HIS BIRTH UNKNOWN, DIED
NOVEMBER 10s 1834. AGED ABOUT 74 YEARS.
"His toils are passed, his work is done,
And he is fully blest;
He fought the fight, the victory won,
And entered into rest."
His final resting place was only a few feet behind the cabin in which he lived and died. Small pieces of stone may still be found on the ground showing the remains of the chimney of his home. The tombstone was cracked but is now in a good state of repair.
Elder Tolbert was a man of great decision of character. His purposes once formed were seldom changed. Heavy rains, high waters, and hard winds were seldom obstacles between him and his churches. A man of rare talents. his gifts of exhortation were seldom equaled. He rarely delineated the sufferings of Christ except in tears. He traveled and preached much and received very little compensation. Though he never lived to see the formation of the Daviess County Association; it would be an act of ingratitude to not include him among the fathers of this large body of Baptists as well as the Gasper River, Ohio County, and Muhlenberg County Associations.
[From The Kentucky Baptist Heritage magazine of the Kentucky Baptist Historical Society, December 15, 1971; originally in A History of Daviess-McLean Baptist Association, 1943, pp. 280-283. Via E-Text, SBTS Archives, Adam Winters, Archivist. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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