by Michael D. (Mike) Greene
In 1778, just two years after the colonies declared their independence from England, Daniel Boone made his way through the Cumberland Gap and blazed the Wilderness Trail into the frontier.
Fourteen years later, the state of Kentucky was founded. By 1796, thousands had followed Boone into the Bluegrass state to settle the frontier. Among them were George and Rebecca Smith and their large family.
The Smith’s were of hardy Irish stock. To this union were born 13 children. The ninth was a boy they named John. Born in 1784, he was but a lad when the family settled in Wayne County on the Little South Fork of the Cumberland River.
The Smiths, as many of their neighbors, were strict Virginia Baptists. They believed in baptism and were Calvinistic in their convictions, which meant, among other things, they believed that one was predestined from the foundation of the world to be one of God’s elect or among the damned. And there was nothing one could do to change that eternal destiny.
If you were of the elect, God would communicate that to you by means of an experience of grace, which you could not resist. Until God chose to do so, there was nothing one could do to gain favor with God, nothing one could do to affect his salvation in any way. This was John Smith’s religious heritage.
John grew to be a man of keen and analytical mind and a quick wit. He had little formal education, which he lamented all of his adult life. But educational opportunities were in short supply in Wayne County during John’s childhood.
He knew only three books, the Bible, The Confession of Faith and the Hymn Book. He may not have been formally educated, but he knew and read the Bible, which he loved.
In 1799, Isaac Denton, a God-fearing, Calvinistic Baptist preacher, came to Wayne County and saw in John Smith much potential and befriended his young protégé. In 1801, news came that George Smith, one of John’s older brothers may have fallen into the hands of a band of thieves known as the Harp Brothers.
John Smith and an older brother were sent to Russellville in Logan County, Kentucky to see if George was still alive and, if possible, bring him home. They found George alive and well. But that was not all they did on this fateful trip.
While in Logan County, John Smith witnessed the great Logan County Revival. This revival saw thousands gathered to hear the hell fire and damnation sermons of the day. Though conducted primarily by Presbyterian preachers, Methodist and Baptist preachers were welcome and joined in the proceedings with equal fervor and enthusiasm.
This open-air camp revival, conducted on the grounds of the meeting-house on the banks of the Red River, kept the waters of that stream stirring as some 3,000 “got religion” and were baptized.
John Smith turned away from the emotionalism of the revival with “feelings akin to disgust.”/1 His rational make up and respect for the sacred saw little of the Holy Spirit in the excesses of the revival. But they did stir within him his interest and concern for his own soul. He began to wonder was he of the elect or the damned?
Under the ministrations of his friend, Isaac Denton, John began to grapple with his own religious fate.
According to Baptist doctrine of the day, Smith sought a sign, the experience of grace that would mark him as one of the elect. Others related seeing the Christ, hearing the still small voice, even seeing the devil and being delivered from him by the hand of God.
These were thought by many to be the sign that they were indeed one of the elect. They would then go before the church, relate their experience to the older, more informed brethren who would then decide if the experience was truly an experience of grace.
If it was, the candidate was regarded as one of the elect, was baptized and took his or her place in the life of the church.
In spite of his inward struggles and prayerful appeals to God, no such experience came to John Smith. Hearing some of the experiences again caused John to turn away in sorrow and disgust. John’s earnest spiritual struggles, which were evident to all who knew him, continued unabated. But it all came to a happy conclusion in 1804.
“So great, finally, was the estimation in which his religious friends held his long and painful experience–so evident was it to them that a work of grace had been wrought in his heart, that they did not hesitate to acknowledge him as a brother, and to urge him to come forward and relate the facts to the congregation. On Saturday, the twenty-sixth of December, 1804, he went before the Church and gave a plain statement of his religious struggles for the past ten months. The Moderator formally submitted his case to the brethren. ‘All who believe,’ said he, ‘that the experience just related is a work of grace, hold up their right hand,’ -and every hand in the congregation was raised in testimony of his conversion to God. The next day, he was immersed by Isaac Denton in the waters of Clear Fork. . . and thus was received into the fellowship of the Church.”/2
But this was not to be the end of John’s spiritual and emotional journey. As Isaac Denton understood, the Lord had much more in store for John Smith from Wayne County. But unknown to Smith or Denton he had first to be tempered by a fiery trial.
1/Williams, John Augustus, Life of Elder John Smith, Reprinted by Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN, 1956, pg. 36.
2/Ibid, pp. 48-49