James Smith Coleman

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Rev. James Smith Coleman was long the pastor of Old Beaver Dam. His parents, grand parents, and great grand parents, were members of this church, and he united with it, when he was eleven years and ten days old. At nineteen years of age, he was chosen clerk of this church of his fathers, in which capacity, he served nine years, and then, in 1854, became its pastor. At a very early period his great grand parents emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania, where they stopped only a few months, and then descended the Ohio river in a flatboat, aiming to land at Beargrass, the present site of Louisville, Ky. But on arriving at that point, they discovered Indians on the shore. Pulling out, to avoid danger, they floated over the Falls, and continued their journey to the Yellow Banks, the present site of Owensboro’. Here the young German couple buried all their possessions, which they could not carry with them, and walked 28 miles, to a little fort, near the present location of Hartford. In this little fort, their first child was born. This child was the grandfather of J. S. Coleman. They remained in the fort, till this child was about three years old, and then moved to the spot where the village of Beaver Dam is located, on the Elizabethtown and Paducah Rail Road. An account of the self-baptism of Mrs. Coleman was given in the history of Beaver Dam church. At this place, the little boy which was born in the fort, became the father of 23 children, all born of one mother. Of these, Elisha H. Coleman, born January 5, 1805, was the oldest.

J. S. Coleman, only child of Elisha H. and Susannah Coleman, was born in Ohio county, Ky. , February 5, 1827. His father was of German, and his mother of Irish and Welsh extraction. His parents were in good circumstances, and gave him what was then regarded a good opportunity to get an education, viz. he labored on the farm during the summer, and went to school during the winter. When he grew up, he taught school, and attended school, alternately, till he acquired a fair English education, and probably some knowledge of some of the dead languages.

In the eleventh year of his age, he was suddenly awakened to a vivid sense of his sinful and ruined estate, before God, by reading the following stanza of a then popular old hymn:

“That awful day will surely come;

The appointed hour makes haste.

When I must stand before my Judge

And pass the solemn test.”

Without any religious instruction, save that which he had previously received from his pious parents, he set about seeking the salvation of his soul. After seeking for sometime, he found peace in Jesus, and was afterwards baptized by Alfred Taylor. In his fifteenth year, he was strangely and powerfully impressed with a sense of duty to give his life to preaching the gospel. But thinking it impossible for one so ignorant as he deemed himself, ever to be able to engage in so holy and responsible a work, he strove to stifle his impressions, and succeeded, for the time. At about the age of 20, he married Rachel Chapman, to whom, in after years, he acknowledges himself greatly indebted for what he has been enabled to accomplish in the work of the ministry.

Soon after he arrived at his majority, he was elected Sheriff of his county. After this he was elected Brigadier General of his Congressional district, which, under the then existing military laws of the state, gave him considerable prominence in the district. The way to a seat in Congress seemed opening before him. His ambition was greatly kindled. But now his religious duties, which had been much neglected, for several years, began to press upon his mind with force. Meanwhile, his early impression of duty to preach the gospel returned with great power. He again strove to throw off these impressions. To the proud, ambitious young man, with such bright worldly prospects before him, the thought of the poverty, self-denial, and reproach, attending the life of a preacher, was almost intolerable. The struggle was long and terrible, but the Spirit of God prevailed. “The strife went on,” says he,” until humbled and subdued by God’s grace, I at last submitted to be anything, or do anything, or, at least, to attempt anything that the Lord might require of me. This condition, and submission, was reached late one Sabbath evening — perhaps the last in April, 1854 — while on my knees, far out in the deep forest, where I was wrestling with God, duty, and self.”

Mr. Coleman had already acquired considerable practice in public speaking, and, the following Sunday night, he commenced his ministry, at Old Beaver Dam church. This was in May, 1S54. He took charge of Beaver Dam, and perhaps other churches, the same year. Within one year, he so disposed of his worldly affairs as to be able to give his whole time to the work of the ministry, which he has done to the present time (1885). He was ordained, in October, 1S54, by Alfred Taylor and J. F. Austin. He was very soon pastor of four churches. From the beginning, his success was extraordinary, not only in the churches of which he was pastor, but in many revival meetings, which he engaged in. He served Buck Creek church, McLean county, as pastor, 24 years, Beaver Dam, 18 years. Green Brier, 14 years, Sugar Grove, 12 years, West Point, 9 years, and several others, shorter periods of time. He has assisted in constituting 11 churches, and in ordaining 20 preachers. He was Moderator of the General Association of Kentucky Baptists, from 1859 til 1872. He was editor and proprietor of the Green River Baptist, for a time during the war. He was also co-editor and part owner of the Western Recorder, one year. He was State Evangelist, under appointment of the Board of the General Association two or three years.

In 1877, he accepted a call to the First Baptist church in Owensboro’. During the first year of his pastorate there, 250 were added to the church. Walnut Street church was constituted in that city the same year, and Mr. Coleman subsequently became pastor of that organization. He is at present, pastor of some country churches near his birthplace.

Between the time he was ordained, in October, 1854 and the first of January, 1879, he baptized 3,415* persons. About 700 of these were from other denominations — mostly from the Methodists which were, next to the Baptists, most numerous in his part of the State. Among those he has baptized from the Methodists may be named W. Pope Yeaman now of St. Louis.

Mr. Coleman has acquainted himself with the outlines of theology and religious literature, and is familiar with his text book; but he has studied men rather than books. He is much better acquainted with the human heart than with systematic theology. He has diligently studied effectiveness, and few men ever studied it to more advantage. Whatever may be said of his want of elegance of style, few men in Kentucky have ever been able to draw and hold together, from year to year, larger congregations or more deeply interested audiences. He holds his religious convictions intensely, and is always ready to advocate and defend them. He has proved himself a skillful debater, but his best gift is that of a popular preacher. In this it would be difficult to point out his superior. But the best eulogium that can be passed on him as a preacher, is, that extraordinary success has attended his ministrations from first to last. * To the present (18S5), he has baptized over 4,000.

Source: A history of Kentucky Baptists: from 1769 to 1885, Vol. 1. John H. Spencer, Cincinnati, 1886 Courtesy of the Daviess County Bicentennial Committee