« Back to Profile

Ira Vinson "Jack" Birdwhistell

John Rice - Pioneer Kentucky Preacher

Ed: Jack's summary of the life of his GGGrandfather, John Rice



            It is clear from all sources that our ancestor John Rice was among the most prominent preachers among the Baptists of early Kentucky. On the details of his life, however, there is much disagreement among these sources.

            He was born in 1760, sources say, but where? John H. Spencer, the dean of Kentucky Baptist historians, wrote in the late 1880s that John Rice came from North Carolina. The preacher himself, in his claim to a Revolutionary War pension which he filed in Mercer County, Kentucky, in October, 1832, reported that he was born in Prince Edward County in southwestern Virginia and was living there when the Revolutionary War broke out (in 1776, he would have been about sixteen years old).

            According to his own account, in 1779 he was on his way to Kentucky (he’d made it as far as Montgomery County, Virginia) when, near “Chissel’s Mine,” he “enlisted with Captain James Newell and was attached to Thomas Quirk’s company of Col. John Montgomery’s regiment.”

            The fighting force John Rice joined was headed up by General George Rogers Clark (1752-1818), a well known Indian fighter and defender of the frontier settlements.

Clark’s army, distinct from the Continental Army led by General George Washington, fought mainly in the Illinois country. Clark, with plans to attack Detroit, the strongest British position in the Northwest, had sent Colonel Montgomery and his men to this part of Virginia to recruit at least 500 soldiers. Only about 150 enlisted, including nineteen-year-old John Rice. Probably the lure of adventure, along with the promise of being granted three hundred acres of land by the Virginia legislature, motivated our ancestor.

            John Rice continues his account of his war service: “We rendezvoused at the Long Island on the Holston {River}, and went down it to the Tennessee {River} to the mouth and thence to Kaskasia, [to] which place we marched in May and [I] was stationed there.”

            Originally founded by the French, Kaskasia, in Illinois, was located along a tributary of the Mississippi River. It had been taken over by the British as a result of the French and Indian War, only to be captured by Clark and his men in 1778.

            From Kaskasia, John Rice recalled, “We marched as far as Vincennes on our way to Detroit, but this expedition was abandoned. The regiment I belonged to was called the Illinois Regiment and was under command of Col. Clark.” One source has described how disappointed Clark was when his recruiters arrive in Illinois with only “one hundred fifty half-starved and ill-clad men [Thomas Clark, Frontier America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), p. 114]. Clark himself recalled, “We were now going on in high spirits, and daily expecting troops down the Tennessee, when, on the __, we were surprised at the arrival of Colonel Montgomery, with one hundred fifty men only, which was all we had a right to expect from that quarter in a short time, as the recruiting business went on but slowly, and, for the first time, we learned the fall of our paper money.” General Clark, also expecting a contingent of one hundred Kentuckians, was further disappointed when only thirty showed up, forcing the campaign for Detroit to be called off.

            When John Rice applied for his pension, it was necessary to produce a corroborating witness who had first hand knowledge of the applicant’s service. Rice’s witness was Colonel Anthony Crockett, in 1832 a resident of Franklin County, Kentucky. After verifying that John Rice was with Clark at Vincennes in 1779, Crockett added the interesting detail that Rice was a “soldier and fifer” in the Illinois Regiment.

            “I enlisted for one year,” John Rice recalled. “While I was stationed at Kaskasias [I] was frequently engaged in scouts against the Indians until my time expired [in] 1780,” at which time he was “honorably discharged at Cahokia on the Mississippi.” The young soldier, along with other Virginia recruits, headed toward home. “When we reached Illinois after we were discharged, I returned through Tennessee and Kentucky to the settlements in Virginia. And in the year 1791 I removed to Kentucky and settled in Mercer County.”

            But a lot had happened in the years immediately after John Rice returned to Virginia. On March 17, 1781, he married Elizabeth Hundley, in Halifax County, Virginia; and in 1785 or thereabouts [according to Strother Cook, “in his twenty-fifth year”], he “professed religion, joined the Baptists on Catawba, in Halifax County, and was baptized by William Datson [Dodson].” According to Robert Semple, the early historian of Virginia Baptists, Dodson was “a man of active zeal, but rather destitute of prudence; he did much good, but he also did much harm” (The Rise and Progress of the Baptists of Virginia, 1891 edition, p. 275). Semple’s view of the Catawba church was more favorable: “[It] has been a flourishing church from the beginning. They have generally had among them several private members of intelligence, piety, and prudence that were rich in this world and willing to communicate, hence they have so frequently had the Association at their meetinghouse”(p. 320).

            The Catawba church had resulted from the preaching of Samuel Harris, one of the best known of the Virginia Baptist preachers known as “Separates” or “New-Lights.” The Separates, as distinguished from the older, more reserved “Regular Baptists,” were known for their lively worship, fervent preaching, and rugged independence. In contrast to the Regulars, the Separates used “the Bible alone,” disavowing documents such as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, which had been adopted by the Baptists of Pennsylvania in 1742. In 1787, shortly before John Rice moved to Kentucky, the Regulars and Separates in Virginia had agreed to join together in unity.

            John Rice’s move to Kentucky was not unusual. More Baptists from Virginia had preceded him, including Lewis Craig’s famous “Traveling Church,” from Spottsylvania County in 1781. But exactly when the Rices moved to Kentucky is unclear.

            In his pension deposition of 1832, John Rice mentioned the year 1791. According to J. H. Spencer [A History of Kentucky Baptists (Cincinnati, 1885), Vol. I, p. 170],


            John Rice, the founder and first pastor of Shawnee Run Church, is believed to        have been a native of North Carolina, and was born in 1760. He was among the            first settlers of Lincoln County, Kentucky. He was a member of Gilbert’s Creek   church of Separate Baptists, where he was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1785         and was probably the first preacher ordained in Kentucky. Soon after his ordination he settled on Shawnee Run. Here he preached to the settlers that    occupied the beautiful valley of Shawnee Run, ‘til he gathered Baptists enough to constitute the first church which had any permanence in Mercer County. He was        immediately installed as pastor, and continued to minister to it more than fifty-     four years.

            Strother Cook, a long-time member of Shawnee Run church, in an obituary written in 1843 for the Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, wrote, ”In 1789 he [John Rice] brought his little family to this state on Shawnee Run, near a Baptist church, and joined there. The church had been constituted the year before. Soon after he was ordained by John Ba[i]ley, Robert Elkin, Joseph Bledso[e], and Martin Haggard.”

            Whatever the exact date, it seems clear that John Rice was pastor at Shawnee Run by the early 1790s. Of course, “pastor” then did not mean the same thing it does now. Pastors were the regular preachers, who preached at the monthly services which were the custom of the frontier Baptist churches. The Separate Baptists had a firm tradition of not paying their ministers for their services. The pastor was expected to earn his living “in the world,” just like his people did. John Rice undoubtedly made his living as a farmer. (According to Mercer County records, in 1792 John Rice paid tax on two horses and eleven cattle. By 1795 he had added six more cattle. Also in 1795, he purchased about fifty-five acres of land near Shawnee Run Creek for the price of four pounds.) And since the churches met only once a month, he preached at other churches as well as Shawnee Run, most notably the Salt River church in Mercer County.

            At the turn of the nineteenth century, then, in 1800, John Rice in his prime at age forty was witness to some of the most historically significant events in the history of Baptists in Kentucky and the nation.





1 / 1