By early 1776 there were Baptist preachers in Kentucky. That spring, Thomas Tinsley and William Hickman preached the first recorded Baptist sermons in Kentucky in Harrodstown (now Harrodsburg). While virtually nothing is known of Tinsley, William Hickman was saved and baptized in Virginia. Indeed, at least 10 of the first 12 pioneer Baptist preachers in Kentucky from 1776-1780 were from Virginia. (Tinsley was likely from Virginia too, which would make John Whitaker of Maryland the only exception of these first 12 Kentucky Baptist preachers.)
What made the Baptists of Virginia so eager to move to Kentucky?
To answer this question, you must first understand what was happening to the Baptists of Virginia in the 1770s. They were experiencing tremendous persecution by the established church of Virginia — the Anglicans. James Ireland and Lewis Craig were imprisoned in 1770, John Weatherford in 1773 and John Waller in 1774. Things were so bad in Virginia that Samuel Harriss (the Baptist version of George Whitfield) was dragged by his hair from the platform where he was preaching and beaten. The Anglicans were furious at the Baptist insistence of believer's baptism by immersion and their refusal to pay church taxes.
It was no surprise then, when these Virginia Baptists heard about the new land of Kentucky, many were ready to go. Yes, Kentucky had inexpensive, fertile land to farm and plenty of wild game to hunt. But there would also be freedom for the Baptists to preach without threat of imprisonment or beating. There were dangers in this new land — three of the 12 pioneer Baptist preachers disappeared, presumably killed by Native Americans — but the promises of prosperity and liberty far outweighed the risks.
Indeed, the hope of a better life was so strong that in 1781 Pastor Lewis Craig led his congregation, the Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church in Virginia, to move to Kentucky. The entire church voted to make the journey. The now famous "traveling church" took three months to make the 600-mile trip. That December the congregation arrived in what is now Garrard County and renamed themselves the Gilbert's Creek Baptist Church.
The early Baptists in Kentucky understood the importance of religious liberty. They used those freedoms to preach the gospel, scripturally baptize converts and plant New Testament churches. God blessed their efforts as the Second Great Awakening of 1800 saw thousands saved and added to the membership of Baptist churches.
As 21st century Baptists, may we not only contend for religious liberty today, but also use the opportunities it presents us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. For it is the gospel that changes lives (Romans 1:16).
Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a Baptist historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.