My great grandfather, Jesse Benton Harris was a pioneer preacher and church planter. I have always cherished this photo of Jesse Benton (standing in the water) about to baptize, some say the entire community of Posey. If you blow up the image and look in the trees you see many people in the trees seeking to look over the crowd. There is also a tent structure in background among the crowd, I suppose in which to change clothes? There are no leaves on the trees and many of the women have coats and hats, while other have none. Some have speculated that all of those near the water without coats are about to be baptized in what had to be very cold water. I don’t have any idea what Jesse Benton is looking at unless others are baptizing and he is preaching, leading and praying. In addition this photo, I have a copy of his hand written ministry diary and several of his hand written sermon notes. I preached from his notes on one occasion and it was deeply moving to me.
He was born in 1853 and died in 1915. He lived all of his life in the rural area around Trenton, Missouri. When he was converted and called to preach he was illiterate. His wife Mary would read the scripture to him and he would create the the sermon and preach it from memory. He was by all accounts a very powerful preacher. In short order Mary taught him to read and write and he became a Baptist missionary for the Livingston Baptist Association. In that role he went about planting churches throughout the country side. In his hand written journal he wrote “that 1892 was the most productive year, planting four churches and seeing over 200 baptized”. In total he planted more than a dozen churches during his ministry.
He was known for his boldness in preaching and church planting. Take for example the often repeated story of Calvary church in Posey. The community of Posey was not a city but a collection of Kentuckians who arrived in North Missouri and found the one place filled with hills and hollows that looked like home. They set up three businesses in those hills, lumber, gambling and moonshine, and not in that order. It was a wild place. Jesse planted a church there and as the photo shows the gospel had a major impact on the lives of the people. As the people were converted it became clear that moonshine and gambling were no longer the cash crop in those hills. My great aunt Fina born in 1896 would tell the well known story about some young men who grew increasingly frustrated by the new found morals of the community. These young ruffians learned of the ongoing revival meeting led by Jesse in Posey and determined to interrupt it by doing something they had done at other churches. They planned to ride their horses into the church house during the revival meeting. That night as the eager group left nearby Jamesport a bolt of lighting followed by thunder startled one of the horses who threw off his rider. The rider’s shot gun fired as he hit the ground and it literally blew off the young man’s arm. No one ever tried to interrupt Jesse’s revival service again. From that point on the one armed man in town was a visible reminder of God’s protection of the pioneer preacher. Let’s just say when Jesse talked, people listened.
I have been planting churches for thirty years and just recently God has added another church planting lane for me. This lane involves replanting dying churches, we call it Legacy planting. A few months ago an area missionary from the region where my great grandfather served called me about a dying church. I knew of the church it was one of those dozen churches that my great grandfather planted over 100 years ago. This summer I will be seeking how God might use me to Legacy plant a church first planted by my great grandfather. Each day when I glance at his photo, which is framed in my office I grow in my commitment to be as faithful in my generation as Jesse Benton was in his. I am reminded that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that enable Jesse is with me as well…even if I don’t have one armed man just to bring home the point.