Since 1963, Kentucky Baptists have elected a different man as moderator of the KBC each year. This was not always the case.
Many know that during the first half of the 20th century, moderators were elected on consecutive years. However, few realize in the 19th century moderators often served multiple terms. These included Green Clay Smith (nine years), W.H. Felix (six years) and W.C. Buck (five years). Yet the record is held by J.S. Coleman, who served as moderator of the KBC (then called the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky) 16 years (1859- 1862, 1864-1872, 1890, 1895-1896)!
What made J.S. Coleman such a great Kentucky Baptist leader?
For one, Coleman led by example. He did not just talk about evangelism; he personally made evangelism a priority. From the pulpit, through revival efforts and one-on-one, Coleman shared the gospel. At the end of his ministry, he estimated he had seen 10,000 professions of faith and baptized more than 5,000 individuals. These converts were organized into dozens of new congregations, including the First Baptist churches of Greenville, Hartford and Madisonville.
At a revival in Auburn in 1879, the pastor’s 9-year-old son Boyce was converted. His father was concerned about his son’s young age. Yet after Coleman counseled with the boy, he declared, “That boy is as much saved as I am.” The boy was H. Boyce Taylor, who went on to be the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Murray and is given credit for the idea of the Cooperative Program.
Second, Coleman had a positive influence on many younger pastors. A staunch Baptist, Coleman once held a theological debate with a Presbyterian preacher named William L. Caskey in McLean County. Coleman so clearly demonstrated the biblical basis of Baptist beliefs that a Methodist Sunday School teacher named W. Pope Yeaman decided to join the Baptists. Yeaman later served as secretary of the KBC from 1861-1866. He was just one of 55 preachers that Coleman helped ordain to the gospel ministry in Kentucky.
Third, Coleman was involved in all levels of Baptist life. So many pastors today attend the SBC or KBC annual meetings, but neglect their own local associations. Not Coleman. In addition to being a leader at the state level, at various times he was elected moderator of the Gasper River, Daviess and Ohio Baptist Associations. He even found the time to attend the annual meetings of the SBC, where he served two years as assistant moderator of the national body – all while pastoring 19 different Kentucky Baptist churches!
Fourth, Coleman realized the importance of Baptist cooperation. He understood that Baptists are best when they work together. Yet unity must be based on a common faith and practice. To see this preserved, Coleman led the KBC to pass a resolution recommending the support and patronage of the Baptist schools of Kentucky. When the Western Recorder almost folded during the Civil War, Coleman sacrificially gave so the newspaper could continue to inform Kentucky Baptists. Through the efforts of men like Coleman, 19th century Kentucky Baptists were united in both doctrine and mission.
In the last years of his life, J.S. Coleman was nicknamed “the old war horse.” When he died on March 29, 1904, he had spent 50 years in the ministry, leading the charge for Christ. While he is largely forgotten today, his life presents many important leadership lessons for 21st century Kentucky Baptists. May we follow his example as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a Baptist historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.