Marker #1530 "Wilderness Revival"

Historical marker #1530 shares the story of a series of religious revivals that took place in Kentucky during the mid-to-late 1770s.

The Wilderness Revival of 1776 was among the first in a series of Baptist awakenings that swept Kentucky during the Revolutionary Era. Daniel Boone’s younger brother, Squire, was reported to have preached Baptist sermons during his exploration in Kentucky in the early 1770s. The settling of Boonesborough and Harrodsburg in 1775, however, spurred a larger surge of Baptist preaching. Reverend Thomas Tinsley had become a fixture on the Baptists scene in Harrodsburg by 1776. In the spring of that year, he asked William Hickman, a Virginia native and recent Baptist convert, to preach a short sermon. Their preaching spawned a series of revivals that established Baptists as a dominant force on early Kentucky’s religious landscape.

Little is known about Tinsley, but Hickman was one of many itinerant preachers who sought to evangelize the frontier. He became a leading figure among Kentucky’s early Baptists and recounted his life and ministry at age 81 in the 1828 publication, “A Short Account of My Life and Travels. For more than fifty years; A Professed Servant of Jesus Christ.” Born in Virginia in 1747, Hickman’s parents died young and he reportedly “fell in with evil habits.” In 1770, while living in Buckingham County, Virginia, he heard two Baptist preachers and witnessed at least eleven baptisms. This proved a transformative experience for Hickman, and he thereafter devoted more time to prayer and meditation. In February 1773, after a frustrating hour of prayer convinced him that “hell was my portion,” Hickman spoke with a professor of religion, who convinced him of his dedication to God. Hickman was baptized that April.

By 1776 Hickman had “heard of a new country called Kentucky.” He and small group of Baptists made the 36-day journey across the Appalachian Mountains. Upon reaching Kentucky, part of Hickman’s group traveled to Boonesborough, while the rest arrived at Harrodsburg. Hickman then met Thomas Tinsley, whom he heard preach nearly every Sunday morning. One morning, at Tinsley’s urging, Hickman preached for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, a sermon that sparked a life of preaching and revivalism. Tinsley also spoke, and the sermons took place under a large elm tree, only a short distance from where James Harrod had started Kentucky’s first white settlement.

Hickman soon returned to Virginia, but his and Tinsley’s preaching at Harrodsburg set in motion the spread of the Baptist faith throughout Kentucky. Virginia’s House of Burgesses in late-1776 designated the claiming of Kentucky County, an act that launched a steady trickle of white colonists who brought their Baptist faith with them. Three Baptist churches were established by 1781, the first two being Severns Valley settlement in present day Elizabethtown and Cedar Creek Church in Bardstown. The third was Lewis Craig’s “Travelling Church,” which had been formed in Virginia before relocating to Gilbert’s Creek, only 20 miles southeast of Harrodsburg. The congregation later relocated closer to Lexington as the South Elkhorn Baptist Church.

Hickman returned to Kentucky in 1784. With Lewis Craig and other newly formed Baptist churches in the area, he formed the Elkhorn Association, the first Baptist association west of the Allegheny Mountains. Aside from a brief return to his native Virginia in 1791, Hickman played a central role in spreading the Baptist faith in the years leading up to Kentucky statehood. In 1788 he established the Forks of Elkhorn Church. By 1790, just two years before Kentucky statehood, one in every 23 residents were Baptists, a number that exceeded that of neighboring Virginia (one in 33). The membership at Elkhorn soon grew to more than 300 members, and Hickman estimated that he baptized more than 500 people over the course of two years. Hickman continued to preach, baptize, and conduct revivals into the nineteenth century. During an 1807 service at Elkhorn, Hickman reportedly preached against slavery and declared himself in non-fellowship with those who endorsed the practice. Although Hickman’s statements against slavery placed him at odds with many Baptist members, the incident does not seem to have affected Hickman’s relationship with his congregation. He pastored the church until his death in 1834. Fellow Baptist preacher John Taylor said of Hickman: “His preaching is a plain and solemn style, and the sounds of it like that of thunder at a distance but when in his best gears, his sound is like thunder at home, and operates with prodigious force on the consciences of his hearers.”

The marker reads:

Scene of the first of a series of religious revivals conducted in Kentucky during April and May of 1776. The Rev. Thomas Tinsley, a Baptist minister, was assisted by William Hickman in meetings held here under a spreading elm tree. The tree was only a short distance from "Big Spring," where Capt. James Harrod and men started Kentucky's first settlement.