John Taylor was one of the giants among the Baptist preachers in pioneer Kentucky. He helped organize some 20 Baptist churches and was also involved in the establishment of the Long Run and Elkhorn Baptist associations. S.H. Ford, who first gathered the historical materials for Kentucky Baptists, said of Taylor “no man in Kentucky wielded a greater influence for good.”
As fascinating as John Taylor’s ministerial career was, perhaps the most interesting account from his life is the story of his salvation. Born on a farm in Virginia in 1752, Taylor’s boyhood was a mixture of hard work and frolic. That all changed in his 17th year when Taylor heard that the Baptist preacher William Marshall was going to be speaking in a nearby abandoned church house.
Taylor and his friend Thomas Buck attended the service, just to have something to do. He later said that he had no more concern for his soul than the horse he rode upon. At first Taylor wasn’t interested in the sermon. But then he noticed his friend Thomas crying and calling upon God for mercy. This made Taylor decide to listen more carefully.
As Marshall thundered out the Word, the conviction of the Holy Spirit smote Taylor. He later said his “heart was touched with a dagger.” For the first time he realized that as a sinner he was under the condemnation of God.
Unfortunately, rather than trusting in the finished work of Christ, John Taylor returned home, determined to reform his life. He had been known as a notorious gambler and brawler. He quit these sins the best he could and even took to reading the Bible. He even thought his goodness would “get him to heaven as well as the noisy Baptists.”
That all changed a year later when Taylor went and heard his boyhood friend Joseph Redding preach. The message emphasized the absolute necessity of the new birth as well as the depravity of the human heart. The sermon hit him like a sledge hammer. Taylor later wrote, the “goodness I had thought of before, was blown out as with a puff.” He realized his heart was full of darkness and evil.
Again, Taylor did not turn to Christ for forgiveness. Instead he returned home depressed. For months he could not eat or sleep much. He knew his sins would condemn him and knew God was just in this condemnation. Like a mixture of Cain, Esau and Belshazzar, he considered himself a spiritual reprobate who was cut off from God.
Finally, John Taylor decided to end his life.
Two miles from his home was an uninhabited mountain. As he climbed the ridge, Taylor was unsure whether God would strike him down or if he would die by his own hand. As he fell to his knees at a place called “Hanging Rock,” his thoughts were on his sins and the wrath of God.
But then something changed.
For the first time, John Taylor thought on the grace and glorious salvation of Jesus Christ. In his own words he said, “I now began to cry again for mercy, as the great grace in Christ had brought possible salvation to such a wretched sinner as myself. I believe I shall never forget the hanging rock while I live, nor even in heaven.”
A few months later Taylor joined the Lower South River Baptist Church and soon began preaching. In 1783, he moved to Kentucky. Until his death in 1833, he preached the gospel throughout Kentucky — and under his ministry, hundreds were converted to Christ. While not a perfect man (none of us are), John Taylor’s story shows the ultimate purpose of life. Our God can take the worst of sinners, change them by His grace and make them “meet for the Master’s use.”
Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a Baptist historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.