Baptist History Homepage

In doctrine he agreed with Andrew Fuller. In preaching, he was plain, simple and unaffected, yet wonderfully charming and attractive, pleasing alike the learned and illiterate. . . . In the whole manner of his preaching, he probably resembled the famous George Whitfield more than any other known orator. - J. H. Spencer

KY & MO Frontier Baptist Minister
By J. H. Spencer

Jeremiah Vardeman was the second pastor of Crab Orchard Church. He was probably the most effective pulpit orator, and the most successful preacher that ever lived in Kentucky. His father was a Swede, his mother a native of Wales. John Vardeman, sr., with his young family, emigrated from Sweden to South Carolina, in the early part of the 18th century. He was a member of the Lutheran church, but joined the Episcopal church, in South Carolina, and was esteemed for his piety and moral worth. His descendants reported that he died at the age of one hundred and twenty-five years.

His son, John Vardeman, jr., was also born in Sweden. He came with his parents to South Carolina when he was seven years old. He married Elizabeth Morgan, a native of Wales, in South Carolina. Soon after his marriage, he moved to Bedford county, Virginia. While living here, he and his wife professed religion and united with a Baptist church. About 1767, he moved farther west, and settled on New river, and, ten years later, pushed still farther into the southwest corner of Virginia, and settled on Clinch river in what is now Russell county. Here he was compelled to move into a fort to protect his family from the Indians. But he did not long remain here. Again he moved on westward, and, in the fall of 1779, settled in Lincoln county, Kentucky, near the present town of Crab Orchard. This was two years before Lewis Craig settled on Gilberts creek, with his traveling church.

Here John Vardeman and his older sons were compelled to take part in the numerous wars with the Indians, that gave exciting and hazardous employment to the early settlers, for a period of nearly twenty years after his settlement in Kentucky. But he did not become indifferent to his religion. He kept up family worship, and, when a church was organized near him, became a member of it. He and his wife were probably members of old Gilberts Creek church, and it is certain
[p. 233]
that they were at an early period, members of the church at Crab Orchard, where many of their children afterwards became members.

The old pioneer remained near Crab Orchard, till 1812, when the country became too thickly settled to suit his habits of life, and he became restless and discontented, and again turned his face towards the setting sun. In October of that year, the church at Crab Orchard entered on its book of records an order, "that old John Vardeman have a letter of dismission." The term "old" was designed to distinguish him from his son, of the same name. With this evidence of his fellowship with the children of God, he moved to Missouri, where he died at the age of 109 years.

Jeremiah Vardeman was the youngest of twelve children born to John and Elizabeth Vardeman, and was born in Wythe county, Virginia, July 8, 1775. He came with his parents to Lincoln county, Ky., in the fall of 1779. Here he was raised up to manhood, in "the deep tangled wildwood," amid the constant dangers and privations of a frontier settlement, receiving barely education enough to enable him to read, write and exercise in the simplest elements of arithmetic. After long continued and pungent convictions of sin, during which period his father and mother were his principal comforters and instructors, he obtained hope in Christ, about the year 1792. He immediately united with the church at Crab Orchard, and was baptized, probably by William Bledsoe, who was then pastor of that church. This was during the revival referred to above, conducted by the Bledsoes, John Bailey and Peyton Nowlen. Mr. Vardeman always asserted that the preaching of these men had nothing to do with the awakening of his conscience. He was under conviction three months, during which the instructions of his parents, the prayers of his father, and his own reading of the Bible deeply impressed him.

When Mr. Vardeman, then about seventeen years of age, realized the joys of salvation, he felt strongly impressed with the duty of warning sinners of their danger, and exhorting them to flee the wrath to come. This feeling preyed on his mind till he felt that he must preach. But many apparently insurmountable obstacles appeared in his way. He was young, timid, had not the gift of speech, and was uneducated. Still
[p. 234]
the subject bore heavily on his conscience. But he continued to resist the impressions till they measurably wore off. He continued very comfortably in the church, about two years, during which time he habitually prayed in secret, but did not attempt to pray or exhort in public. This was doubtless more the fault of the church and its unfaithful pastor, than of the young convert.

It is a sad truth, that many of our churches lose the talent, zeal, and influence of a large number of their best young members, by giving them nothing to do, in the Master's service. Every young church member should be proved, to ascertain his gifts, as soon as he becomes a member, and then be diligently employed in the work of the Lord, in accordance with his gifts. The pastor that fails to do this, is either incompetent to fill his position, or unfaithful to his charge.

Had young Vardeman been prudently brought forward in public prayer and exhortation, immediately after he joined the church, it would, no doubt, have saved five years of his invaluable services to the cause of Christ, and himself from piercing his own soul through with many bitter sorrows. But this was neglected, he gradually wandered off into sin, and brought reproach on himself and the cause of Christ.

Some of his young associates made persistent efforts to draw him into the circles of frivolity. They finally succeeded by a misapplication of Scripture language, in convincing him that it was "no harm to dance," so far as to induce him to attend "a frolic," "just one time." He went once. Then again, and again, and finally engaged in the giddy dance. About this time Col. William Whitley, the well known pioneer and daring Indian fighter, permitted a dancing school to be taught in a large ball room, fitted up in the third story of his fine new residence. "The young people were crazy about the dancing school." Young Vardeman was induced to subscribe himself a scholar, though, as he acknowledged, with a trembling hand and a smitten conscience. He was, of course excluded from the church. He
[p. 235]
soon afterward bought a violin, and, having a taste for music, became "a good fiddler." During this period, he became enamored with Miss Elizabeth James, daughter of Richard James, and, became engaged to her. Her parents were pious members of Cedar Creek church, and, regarding Vardeman as a vain, frivolous young man, opposed the match. The result was an elopement and marriage. The young wife had made no profession of religion. Her parents had the good judgment to perceive that further opposition would be useless; they forgave the delinquents, and, with young Vardeman, moved to Pulaski county, on the waters of Cumberland river.

"There Vardeman became the leader of the young people in every species of mirth and amusement. None could sing and play on the violin so enchantingly, none so jovial and full of hilarity as Jeremiah Vardeman. He was the life and soul of every dance and country frolic, and his young wife, much to the grief of her father and mother, joined him in all these recreations. Thus nearly three years of his life passed away to no useful purpose. In a worldly sense he was not immoral. He never swore profanely, was temperate in drink; kind-hearted, generous and honorable in all his dealings with his fellow-men; his duty to God was wholly neglected, and he lived after the course of this world. Yet he was not a happy man. In the midst of his associates, in gayety, music and dancing, he was full of enjoyment; but conscience was then stifled. There were seasons of mental disquietude which none can realize, but those who have drunk the wormwood and gall, after a season of backsliding. Conviction of his sin and folly often drove him back to sinful pleasures for temporary relief.

His religious friends with the exception of his mother, had given him up, believing he would go on the downward course to the end. She continued in persevering prayer and unwavering faith, saying with deep emotion: "I know Jerry will be reclaimed; God is faithful, and I feel assured that he is a prayer hearing God."

There lived in Pulaski county a plain, illiterate preacher of the name of Thomas Hansford. He was an earnest, self-sacrificing man, and had the confidence of the people. Mr. Vardeman
[p. 236]
sometimes attended his meetings with his wife. On one of these occasions, Mr. Hansford preached from 2 Peter 2:22: "But at is happened to 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 religion and afterwards apostatized. The Spirit of God directed the truth with great pungency, to the conscience of Mr. Vardeman. He was deeply convicted of his backslidings. In speaking of it to Mr. Peck, many years afterwards, he said: "If brother Hansford had poured coals of fire on my naked body, it would not have burned me worse than that sermon did." His wife was convicted of her sins at the same time. They both went home with heavy hearts. Mr. Vardeman could not labor. For several days he spent most of his time in the woods, some times on his knees, and sometimes prostrate on his face, confessing his sins and crying to God for mercy. He repented bitterly of all his sinful frivolity, but his deepest conviction was for that sin which caused him to turn back to the world and commit all his other sins, his refusal to follow the impression of the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel, or call sinners to repentance. In his penitent anguish he cried out: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? I will do anything the Lord requires, if it kills me. He obtained some relief in reading and meditating on Malachi 4:2. "But unto you that fear my name, shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings, and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves of the stall." He now vowed to the Lord that he would forsake all vain and worldly amusements and preach the gospel to his fellow-men.

A prayer meeting had been appointed at the cabin of one of Mr. Vardeman's neighbors. He with his wife attended this meeting the night after he had made the solemn vow just recorded. There was no preacher present, but there was so much interest felt that the people attended for several miles distant. It had been extensively rumored, without his knowledge, that Vardeman would preach. Before the meeting closed, one of Mr. Vardeman's neighbors, who was aware of his recent seriousness on the subject of religion, invited him to speak. He arose and commenced talking, but retained nothing of what he said, in his memory. He only recollected that the people of all classes were weeping and sobbing around him. Another social meeting
[p. 237]
was appointed for the next Sabbath. Mr. Vardeman again attended. He waited for older persons to take the lead, after which he rose up and with deep feeling and tears gushing from his eyes, delivered an exhortation, mingled with confessions of his own backslidings, and calling on his young associates to forsake their sinful amusements and follow Christ, and assuring them that they would then feel what he now felt peace of conscience, and salvation through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. To his surprise and amazement, young and old were crowding forward to give him their hands, and crying out: "Oh Mr. Vardeman pray for me, for I am a heap bigger sinner than you ever was." There were probably a score of people standing around him, and begging him to pray for them. He had never attempted to pray in public, but he thought of the vow he had recently made to the Lord, and he attempted to pray, for the first time in the hearing of others.

These social meetings were continued in a similar manner on each succeeding Sabbath, and two or three times in the week, except that Mr. Vardeman began to invite the people forward for prayer. Soon many of his former associates in sin gave evidence of conversion, and among the first was his wife.

News of the revival, of Mr. Vardeman's change, and of his preaching, as the people called it, soon reached Lincoln county. His parents, brothers and friends urged him to visit them. His first discourse there was solemn and effective. He seemed to want neither words nor matter. The church at Cedar Creek restored him to membership, and licensed him to preach. He preached several times in the neighborhood of Crab Orchard. The multitudes came out to hear him. In a short time upwards of twenty of his former associates in Lincoln county, and members of the dancing school that led him astray, professed conversion.

Mr. Vardeman was probably ordained in 1801, and the next year, moved back from Pulaski to Lincoln county, where he became pastor of four churches. He remained in this region of the State about eight years. Few particulars of his labors of this period have been preserved. But it is known that he was active in the ministry, traveled extensively, and was very popular and successful. The late Isaac Goodnight, Esq., of Warren county, who "cropped" with Mr. Vardeman in 1804, informed
[p. 238]
Mr. Peck that he was, at that period, pastor of four churches, and that during the year he made a preaching tour to Lexington, Maysville and several other places.

In February, 1810, he was called to the oversight of David's Fork church in Fayette county, and in the same year resigned the care of, and took a letter of dismission from Crab Orchard church, and moved on a farm within the bounds of David's Fork. Under his ministry a revival soon visited his new charge, and "within six months one hundred and seventy souls were added to the church." During another revival during his pastorate here in 1827-8 "upwards of two hundred precious souls were added to the church." He was pastor of this church twenty years and five months. He was three years pastor of Lulbegrud and Grassy Lick churches, both in Montgomery county. During this period he baptized for the fellowship of the former, one hundred and sixty-five, and for that of the latter, ninety. In 1811, he accepted a call to the pastorate of the Missionary Baptist church at Bryant's Station, and occupied the position till 1830.

Besides his pastoral labors, Mr. Vardeman was a very active and wonderfully successful evangelist in Kentucky and several of the adjoining states, for a period of nearly thirty years, before he moved to the West. In 1815, he visited Bardstown, where "Priest Baden was unwise enough to enter the list against him and lost several of his members." Next year he held meetings in Lexington and Louisville. In 1820, he visited Nashville, Tennessee, and through his labors the first Baptist church in that city was constituted, and attained membership of one hundred and fifty by the first of the following October.

In June, 1828, Mr. Vardeman held a series of meetings in Cincinnati, Ohio, which resulted in the baptism of 118 souls, in three weeks. These are only specimens of his abundant labors.

In the fall of 1830, he resigned the charge of all his churches and moved to Ralls county, Missouri. Here also, though advanced in years and grown corpulent, he did good service for the Master for a number of years. With the assistance of Elder Spencer Clack, who had recently moved from Bloomfield, Kentucky,
[p. 239]
he constituted a church in Palmyra. Several other churches grew up under his ministry.

In 1834, he presided in a meeting, convened for the purpose of organizing a system of domestic missions in the State. This organization grew into the General Association of Missouri Baptists.

But soon the infirmities of old age began to creep upon him. Still he labored on up to the measure of his strength. For two years before his death, he was unable to stand up to preach, but sat in a large arm-chair. Only two weeks before he was called from earth, in company with another preacher, he visited the Sulphur Springs, at Elk Lick, for the benefit of his health. Before they left they constituted a church. On this occasion, Mr. Vardeman baptized five candidates for that ordinance. This was the last service of the kind he ever performed. "He had then," says Mr. Peck, "baptized more Christian professors than any [other] man in the United States. As he kept no register of these and other labors, the accurate number can never be ascertained; probably not less than eight thousand converts."

The last Sunday he spent on earth, he attended the appointment of another preacher, not far from his residence. After the sermon he spoke a half hour from the words: "How shall we escape if we neglect so great Salvation." He was, at that time free from pain, but during the week he grew worse, though little alarm was felt by his family. But on Saturday morning, May 28, 1842, he called his family around him, gave them some directions, bade them farewell, and gently fell asleep in Jesus, all within fifteen minutes. He was in the sixty-seventh year of his age.

In person Jeremiah Vardeman was handsome, commanding and attractive. Mr. Peck says of him, in his latter years "His usual weight was three hundred pounds, yet his muscular frame was well proportioned, and his personal appearance graceful and commanding. His voice was powerful, sonorous and clear, his enunciation distinct, and he could be heard in the open air for a great distance."

In doctrine he agreed with Andrew Fuller. In preaching, he was plain, simple and unaffected, yet wonderfully charming and attractive, pleasing alike the learned and illiterate. He
[p. 240]
was not what is termed a doctrinal preacher, and still less a controversialist. His descriptive powers were unrivaled, and in the force and power of his exhortation, he was probably never surpassed. In the whole manner of his preaching, he probably resembled the famous George Whitfield more than any other known orator.

[From J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, Volume I, 1885, pp. 232-240. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Dvuall.]

Baptist Biographies
Baptist History Homepage