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By Mickey Winter, 2011
Born - July 8, 1775 - Wythe County, VA.
Died - May 28,1842 - Rails County, MO.
Second Pastor of Crab Orchard Baptist Church, Crab Orchard, KY. 1802-1810

"Probably the most affective pulpit orator and the most successful preacher that ever lived in Kentucky" - J. H. Spencer

John Mason Peck writes of Vardeman in his book, "Annals of the American Pulpit", (1860) - "he had then baptized a greater number than any Baptist minister in the United States - the exact number can not be ascertained; but it probably exceeded eight thousand."

The Vardeman family migrated to America from Sweden in the early part of the eighteenth century. They would eventually move to South Carolina where Jeremiah's father, John, would marry Elizabeth Morgan. That union would produce twelve children of whom Jeremiah was the youngest. In 1767, they would move to Wythe County, Virginia where Jeremiah was born in 1775. John Vardeman would be a part of the Daniel Boone expedition that cut the trail from the southwest corner of Virginia to Boonesborough, Kentucky. In 1779, John would take his family and settle in Lincoln County near present day Crab Orchard. This was two years before Lewis Craig would leave Virginia with the "traveling church" and settle on Gilberts Creek near Lancaster, Kentucky and some four years before Joseph Bledsoe would start the Gilberts Creek Separate Baptist Church.

In Kentucky the older Vardeman men would take part in defending the settlers against the Indians. They then joined militia groups and some would serve in the Revolutionary war. Others would serve under George Rogers Clark and also served as scouts under William Whitley.

In 1783, there were only five Baptist churches in Kentucky and only eight preachers. The Gilberts Creek Regular Baptist Church, the "traveling church" of Lewis Craig, which had settled on Gilberts Creek in December, 1781, had pretty well dissolved into other churches. Many of the members moved further north with Craig across the Kentucky River. Others would join the Gilberts Creek Separate Baptist Church organized by Joseph Bledsoe in 1783. Joseph Bledsoe's son, William, would become the first pastor of Crab Orchard Baptist Church and another son, Jesse, would become the Secretary of State in Kentucky. Later, Jesse would serve in the Kentucky House of Representatives as well as having served as a senator. Eventually he became a judge and taught law at the Transylvania University.

John Vardeman and his wife, being active Baptists, were probably members at Gilberts Creek Separate Baptist Church. In 1812, they moved to Missouri. In 1791, Gilberts Creek dismissed forty active members for the purpose of starting a church in Crab Orchard. William Marshall who was himself a very active Baptist preacher organized the church. Among the fruits of his ministry would be John Taylor and Joseph Reading. The Crab Orchard Church would be called the Cedar Creek Baptist Church. It was not until 1809 that the name was changed to Crab Orchard Baptist Church.

William Bledsoe, son of Joseph Bledsoe, was called as the first pastor. It is recorded that he was an intelligent man but not a very consecrated preacher. He would soon leave the Baptists and become a Universalist. Later still, he became indifferent to anything of a spiritual nature and died a practicing horse racer.

It was an outbreak of revival in the Gilberts Creek area that led to the organization of the Crab Orchard Church. The revival lasted from 1789 to 1792. It was during this time that Jeremiah Vardeman and two of his brothers, Amaziah and Morgan, would profess faith in Christ and were baptized, probably by William Bledsoe, and joined the Crab Orchard Church. Jeremiah was seventeen years of age and said he had been under conviction for three months. He immediately felt the need to preach but because he was timid and lacked any formal education, he suppressed it. For the next few years he was active in all the meetings but never really became involved in anything, choosing instead to remain in the background. His friends were most certainly not the best influence on his life. They convinced him that there was nothing wrong with dancing and having a good time. He soon became a regular visitor to the third floor of the William Whitley house where Whitley permitted a dancing school to be taught. He even bought a violin and became a popular fiddler at the dance school. He also met a young lady by the name of Elizabeth James. Not being a professing Christian, even though her parents were active members of the Crab Orchard church, she saw nothing wrong with Jeremiah's lifestyle. However, the church did and he was excluded.

In August of 1799, Jeremiah married Elizabeth and moved to Pulaski County. Elizabeth would be the first of his three wives and she would bear him twelve children. They would remain in Pulaski County for several years.

Living in Pulaski County at that time, was a preacher by the name of Thomas Hansford. Hansford helped organize the Sinking Creek Baptist Church in Somerset in 1799 and would become its first pastor. Sinking Creek would later become First Baptist of Somerset. Vardeman and his wife would often attend his meetings. At one such meeting, Hansford preached from II Peter 2:22- "But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." He applied the text to those who had professed Christ but afterwards returned to their old way of life. Vardeman became deeply convicted as well as his wife. For several days he could not work and spent the time in the woods seeking the face of God. He repented, not only of his sins but also for his refusal to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in surrendering to preach.

He later attended a prayer meeting at one of his neighbor's house. There was no preacher present and someone asked Vardeman to speak and he did. For the next few weeks, similar meetings were held and he was asked to speak. Soon, word reached Lincoln County about his preaching and the Crab Orchard Church restored him to membership and licensed him to preach. In a short time, many of his frivolous friends professed Christ as well. Vardeman moved back to Crab Orchard in 1801 and was ordained by the church. In 1802 he accepted the pastorate of Cedar Creek Baptist Church and remained there until 1810. During his pastorate, the church changed its name to Crab Orchard Baptist Church. Vardeman was pastoring other churches as well, plus doing revival work around the state. This may be a bit confusing to some as to how a preacher could pastor more than one church at a time since it is generally not the mode of our day. One must remember that churches would often meet just once a month and sometimes even on Saturday. This would allow a preacher to preach in more than one church at a time. Later we would find that churches would meet more than once a month and have a different preacher for each service. That is why we read that different preachers often pastored the same church at the same time but on different Sundays.

In 1810, Vardeman resigned Crab Orchard and took the pastorate of David's Fork Baptist Church in Lexington. Within six months, one hundred and seventy souls were added to the church. One of those individuals was James Welch who became a successful Baptist preacher in Missouri. Vardeman was pastor at David's Fork for over twenty years while pastoring several other churches at the same time. In 1811, he accepted the pastorate of Bryant's Station Baptist Church and pastored there until 1830 when he moved to Missouri. During this period he also was pastor of Lulbegrud and Grassy Lick in Montgomery County. He was also busy conducting revival meetings throughout Kentucky. In 1820, he preached in Nashville, Tennessee and as a result of that meeting the First Baptist Church of Nashville was organized. In 1828, he held meetings in Cincinnati, Ohio and one hundred and eighteen people were baptized during the meeting.

In the fall of 1830, Vardeman resigned all his churches in Kentucky and moved to Ralls County, Missouri. His first wife Elizabeth, who bore him twelve children, died around 1818. His second wife Elizabeth Bryant, bearing one child, died in 1822. His third wife, Lucy Bullock, whom he married in 1823 when he was forty-eight years of age and she was twenty-one years of age, would bear him four children and travel with him to Missouri where he would buy a 200-acre farm.

His work did not cease when he moved to Missouri. He constituted Salem Baptist where he served five years. He also started or helped start Bethel, Mt. Pleasant, and the church at Palmyra in 1834. In 1834, he presided over a meeting, which eventually led to the organization of the General Association of Missouri Baptists. On Saturday morning, May 28, 1842, after calling his family to his bedside and bidding them farewell, he moved to his heavenly reward. He was sixty-six years of age. He is buried on the family farm in Ralls County, Missouri. The grave is hard to find and requires the crossing of several fences to get to it. In May of 2008, the Baptist History Preservation Society erected an eight-foot tall marker in his memory at the Salem Baptist Church in Canter, Missouri.

Jeremiah Vardemen and the Jesse James-William Jewell College Connection

Recently I had the privilege of having lunch with Eric James. Eric is a former actor and international real estate broker. He currently lives in Danville, Kentucky, and is working on a four-volume history of the family of Frank and Jesse James. He is president of the James Preservation Trust, which deals with the heirs of the James Family. Eric and Judge James R. Ross, who was the great-grandson of Jesse James founded the non-profit trust in 2002. I highly recommend his very informative website, Eric helped fill in the blanks on the Jeremiah Vardeman - Jesse James connection.

John M. James came to Kentucky from Virginia in 1781, probably with the "traveling church" of Lewis Craig. They settled near Crab Orchard, Kentucky. John M. James was not only a preacher, he would later become a judge as well. He and his wife had eight children. Three of the boys would be preachers. Several of them would pastor at Flat Lick Baptist Church in Pulaski County, Kentucky and First Baptist of Somerset, Kentucky. His daughter, Elizabeth, would marry Jeremiah Vardeman. The family would relocate to Pulaski County and buy a farm. Vardeman and Elizabeth would live there for a few years until Vardeman moved back to Crab Orchard. The farm was located on Highway 80 east of Somerset. If you take Hwy 461 from Mount Vernon toward Somerset, turn right at Hwy 80, go approximately 3/4 of a mile, the old farm is located on the left side of the road. There is a gravel company located there now. There are no remains of the house left. On the right side of the road up on the hill is the old family graveyard. A number of the James family is buried there including several preachers.

Elizabeth James, who married Jeremiah Vardeman had a cousin, Robert Sallee James. James, was a Baptist preacher who graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky. Vardeman was at one time a trustee there and founded the Vardeman School of Theology at Georgetown. Robert Sallee James married Zerelda Cole who was a student at a Catholic convent in Lexington. They would later move to Missouri where Zerelda would give birth to Frank and Jesse James. Robert would pastor in Missouri and was one of the original trustees of William Jewell College. He helped establish the school with money supposedly given to him from Jeremiah Vardeman. Robert James would travel to California in 1850 to preach to the men who worked the gold mines. He contracted cholera soon after his arrival and died. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Placerville, California. Zerelda would remarry and Frank and Jesse James would grow up to be outlaws.

It is often said that Frank and Jesse would come to Somerset during their outlaw days and visit with their relatives. This is more family lore than anything. They may have come to Somerset but it cannot be established as truth. However, they most certainly were in Kentucky at different times. They rode with Quantrell and his raiders when they came through Kentucky, and robbed a bank in Logan County in 1868.

Bibliography for Jeremiah Vardeman

1. Spencer, J. H. - A History of Kentucky Baptists
2. Duncan, R. S. - A History of the Baptists in Missouri
3. Semple, R. B. - History of the Baptists in Virginia
4. Nolin, W. D. - Kentucky Baptist History
5. Christian, J. T. - A History of Kentucky Baptists
6. Taylor, J. B. - Virginia Baptist Ministers
7. Elkhorn Association Circular Letter - 1828

[Published by the J. H. Spencer Historical Society Journal, 2011, pp 41-45. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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