Patriot, Pastor and Pioneer

There seems to me to be no better introduction to today’s featured ancestor (my second cousin five times removed) than that written by E. Polk Johnson in 1912 in History of Kentucky and Kentuckians:

The Carpenter family was originally one of the Colonial families of Virginia and few citizens of the “Old Dominion” were better known or more beloved than the Rev. William Carpenter, a German Lutheran minister who for many years labored for the welfare of humanity ‘without money and without price.’

Willliam’s grandmother, Anna Barbara Kerker, immigrated from Germany to Virginia in 1717, a member of what has come to be known as the Germanna Second Colony. His grandfather, John Carpenter, came from Germany in 1721, and the couple married in 1722. Their son William (Sr.) owned a plantation in Madison County, Virginia, and also owned a mill with three of his brothers.

William Jr. was born on May 20, 1762. Both Wm. Sr. and Wm. Jr. fought in the Revolutionary War (the son being only 16 years old when he entered service) and were present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. A letter written by Professor M. L. Stoever of the Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg and included in the 1869 book Annals of the American Pulpit by William Sprague, tells us this about the young Carpenter:

He often, in after life, recounted the hardships which he and his fellow soldiers endured, and the great privations which they suffered, frequently subsisting two or three days without their rations, and then receiving only a meager allowance of corn-meal — this he would hastily mix with a little water in his handkerchief, and, after covering it with oak leaves, would lay it on a bed of warm coals until it was baked — and then would partake of his homely meal with the greatest zest. . . . He knew, from personal experience, the sacrifices and toil which it had cost to secure our national independence. The motto which he adopted showed how earnest was his devotion to freedom. On the blank leaf of some of his books are found inscribed the words, –Ubi libertas, ibi patria [“Where Liberty is, there is my country”] — a sentiment which Benjamin Franklin uttered in the Colonial Congress, and afterwards repeated at the Court of France.

At the close of the war, William heard the call to ministry and began his theological studies, becoming ordained by the Pennsylvania Ministerium.  He was pastor of the Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison County from 1787 to 1813. Built in 1740 on land bought from William Carpenter Sr., the Hebron Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran church in the U.S. that has been in continuous use. The church’s modern-day address is 899 Blankenbaker Road, Madison, VA.

Hebron Lutheran ch copy

Hebron Lutheran Church

The descendants of the original Germanna colonists held on to the old ways for quite a while. Newspapers were printed in German until the middle of the 19th century. Many people spoke German and taught their children to speak German.  The Rev. Carpenter suggested to the elders of the Hebron Lutheran Church that he might preach some of the sermons in English. Emphatically they told him to use only German, not only in his sermons but outside the church in the community also.

In 1805, a contingent of Germanna residents left Madison County, Virginia, bound for Kentucky, traveling by wagon through the Cumberland Gap. At this time, Burlington was the county seat of Boone County, and it consisted of a few log houses, a log courthouse, and a log jail.  Across the Ohio River, Cincinnati consisted of two brick houses and two frame houses. Within a year of the migration to Kentucky, the Germanna pioneers formed the Hopeful Lutheran Church, which also continues to exist today, although not in the same structure.

The first Hopeful Lutheran Church was built of unhewn logs, the roof and door of clapboards and the floor of puncheons, or split logs. An opening was made at each end of the cabin by sawing out some logs for windows, which were without sashes or panes.  The church was completely unheated and yet the faithful congregation met for worship during the winter and did so in log churches for 30 years.

In 1813, Rev. William Carpenter left Madison County, Virginia, with his wife and three children and came to Boone County, Kentucky, to serve as the Hopeful Lutheran pastor for twenty years. Rev. Carpenter always dressed in Colonial knee britches with gold buckles, and it is believed that in this new church he preached in both German and English. He farmed a large area, and the family expanded to include nine children.

But by 1832, Rev. Carpenter was beginning to wear down. He wrote to Rev. Jacob Crigler, formerly of the Germanna Colony as well and then pastor of a church in Berlin, Pennsylvania, and said:

I have now been preaching the blessed gospel for a space of forty-five years, this last spring.  I was about twenty-five when I began, and am now a little upwards of three score and ten; and according to the course of nature and my feelings, I cannot possibly hold out much longer.  We may indeed expect the ordinary blessings of divine Providence, but cannot expect miracles. I have often had heavy thoughts about my little congregation here in the wilderness.

He urged Rev. Crigler to come and take charge of the congregation. Less than a year later, on February 18, 1833, William Carpenter went to his heavenly reward, and the next year Rev. Jacob Crigler took his place at the Hopeful Lutheran Church. Rev. Carpenter was beloved in his community and left a legacy of goodwill that has been preserved in the retelling.

One story demonstrates the honesty for which William Carpenter was known. He heard that a certain man had a fine horse for sale, so he called on him and asked the price. The owner named a figure and the reverend countered with a lower offer.  The seller needed the money, so he finally agreed to accept the offer and Rev. Carpenter took his purchase home. In the following days, as he rode it around, people started asking where he bought it and how much he had paid and he told them about the deal he had made. But when several told him the horse was well worth the original asking price, Rev. Carpenter went back to the seller and paid him the difference.

He was also known to be kind to the poor and devoted himself to helping them. Another story tells that Rev. Carpenter caught someone stealing corn from his crib. He told the thief, “You would surely not come here unless you needed it. Now fill your sack. When you need corn again, come and ask me for it, and do not try to steal it.” On another occasion, when asked if he had corn for sale, the Reverend asked if the person had money to buy it. When the man said that he did have the money, Carpenter said he didn’t have any corn for sale.  “Plenty of my neighbors have corn for sale, but I need mine for the poor people who have no money.”  Just before he died, he burned $300 worth of notes for corn.

According to the History of Kentucky and Kentuckians, “By heritage and his own activities [William Carpenter] was a man of means and he secured a large farm in the new home, upon which he lived with his family and slaves during the remainder of his lifetime. As he asked and received no salary for his ministerial labors, a farm was a practical necessity.”

Yes, he was a slave owner. But the Last Will and Testament of Rev. Carpenter, written in 1831, refers to them as “servants” and reflects that he was a kind master. His servants Ben and Caroline were to take care of his wife until her death and then would be free, if the law allowed. They were to be given their house, four acres of land, “a good axe, a plough, a hoe, and a milk cow.”   It continued: “And as to my other servants or Negroes, I will that after the death of my wife they together with all the balance of my estate not herein already bequeathed, shall be equally divided among all my above named sons and daughters.  And I most solemnly enjoin it on all my children to treat my servants, which may fall into their hands, with all possible humanity and Christian like toleration.  Always bearing in mind the sacred injunction of Scripture, where it is said, And ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening, knowing that your master also is in heaven, neither is there respect of persons with him.  Eph.6.9.”

The Rev. Carpenter was buried in a private burying ground in what is now Florence, Kentucky, in Boone County.  In 1931 the Covington chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution held a memorial service at his grave and placed a bronze marker there in his memory.

Wm Carpenter plaque

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