After 195 years of faithfulness to Kentucky Baptists, the Western Recorder is stopping regular publication. As this long-standing publication comes to an end, let’s take a look at how it began.
The foundation of the Western Recorder can be traced back to 1767 and the salvation of John “Swearing Jack” Waller.
Born in Spotsylvania County, Va., in 1741, John Waller originally trained to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, the temptation of sin was too strong, and he quickly fell in with a notorious gambling crowd. Waller’s use of profanity was so frequent and harsh that everyone began calling him “Swearing Jack.” It was said “that there could be no deviltry among the people, unless Swearing Jack was at the head of it.”
All that changed when Waller was summoned to appear by the grand jury in the case of Baptist preacher Lewis Craig. Arrested for “worshipping God contrary to the laws of the land,” Craig shared his testimony of salvation with the courtroom. Hearing these words firsthand, Waller was immediately struck with conviction from the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t long before “Swearing Jack” was saved.
Waller’s conversion changed everything in his life. God called him to preach, and he was ordained to pastor Lower Spotsylvania County Baptist Church. Knowing his family needed Christ, Waller began to share the gospel with his siblings. His younger brother, William Edmund Waller, was soon saved and called to preach as well.
After the Great Revival of 1800, Baptists were rapidly growing in Kentucky, and a Baptist newspaper was needed. However, the pioneer nature of the state made this a great difficulty. Stephen Ray, (uncle to the famous Baptist historian D.B. Ray) had started “The Baptist Monitor and Political Complier” in Bloomfield, Ky., in 1823. Within a year, publication ceased as Ray had lost $1,000 and would eventually move to the newly-formed Jackson Purchase to try and restore his finances.
In 1825, William Edmund Waller’s son, George Waller, started the “Baptist Recorder.” Edited in Georgetown, but published in Bloomfield, this was the first Kentucky Baptist newspaper to last more than one year. Waller’s combination of promoting missions, sharing denominational news and his strong doctrinal orthodoxy appealed to Kentucky Baptists.
Over the next few years, the “Baptist Recorder” was merged with other papers and renamed. Finally, in 1834, it was relaunched as the “Baptist Banner.” The following year, John L. Waller, the grandson of William Edmund Waller, became the editor. The gospel legacy of “Swearing Jack” Waller continued to bear fruit.
It was under the leadership of John L. Waller that the Baptist newspaper finally gained stability in Kentucky. A gifted writer, Waller also had a knack for seeing talent in other men. J.M. Pendleton, S.H. Ford, W.C. Buck, R.B.C. Howell and John Mason Peck all served as assistant editors with Waller. In 1851, the name of the “Baptist Banner” was officially changed to the “Western Recorder.” The latter name indicated that Kentucky was still a western state in 1851, while the former name harkened back to the original 1825 newspaper.
Although the editors and their perspectives would change through the years, the Western Recorder would remain a constant in Kentucky Baptist life. Humorously enough, in the early 20th century, the paper was dubbed the “Western Distorter” by progressives in the state who disliked the doctrinal fidelity of editors such as T.T. Eaton, J.W. Porter and V.I. Masters. In the later 20th century, this swapped as conservative pastors began jokingly using that nickname.
Looking back over the past 195 years of the Western Recorder, there are many things to remember and learn. One that encourages us today is the fact that one man can make a difference. When God saved “Swearing Jack” Waller in 1767, who knew the impact it would make on his family members and consequently on Kentucky Baptists? Truly every believer is an epistle “known and read of all men” (2 Corinthians 3:2).
Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.