Reverend John Dawson Steele's
Legacy Lives On In Kentucky
Pioneer Preacher Rode Many Miles By Horseback
Through Adair And Surrounding Counties
By Cindy Whitis - 2004
Reverend John Dawson Steel, or "Father Steele" as he was affectionately called, was instrumental in the formation of a new denomination in south-central Kentucky.
John was one of three children born to William and Mary Dawson Steele, who were early pioneers from Virginia. William brought his wife, his widowed mother-in-law, and some of her children into Lincoln County, Kentucky, in 1797. William and Mary moved on to Adair County, Kentucky, where William farmed and reared two daughters, Elizabeth and Susannah; and one son, John.
On March 11, 1813, John married Sally Settles in Adair County. In 1814 their son, Dawson Steele, was born. He was followed by: William, Ermine, Emily, Robert, Sarah, Harriet, Isaac, and John (Jr.).
John grew up in a religious household, was active in his local church, and was even elected to represent his church in the local Baptist Association. However, by 1830 he was greatly influenced by a new movement that was just beginning in Kentucky led by Alexander Campbell. Brush Arbor meetings and tent meetings drew large crowds and his followers were given the name "Campbellites." Eventually, they became the Disciples of Christ or Christian Church. The History of Baptists in Kentucky has this entry:
"The Russell's Creek Baptist Association met on September 18, 1830, and refused to permit Elder John Steele to preach the introductory sermon, because he had adopted the views of Alexander Campbell since the last session."
In the coming years Reverend John Steele would be instrumental in organizing and starting Christian churches in the Adair and Green County area. In 1830 he helped organize Mt. Pleasant Christian Church. In August of that year 14 members constituted a church and selected Reverend John D. Steel as their minister. Charter members were: Nancy Browning, Gilmore Callison, Martha Callison, William Callison, Benjamin Edrington, John Edrington, Thomas Edrington, Anna McClure, Abraham Sallee, Charity Smith, Mary Smith, John Steele, and Sally Steele.
Also, in 1830 he was busy organizing the Mt. Gilead Christian Church. Bricks were made right there on the Irvine farm by members of the community. Local craftsman cut yellow poplar and made pews that are still in use today. This church is located on the Adair and Green County line at the camp of the Long Hunters.
Reverend Steele did not confine his ministry to the Adair County area. He was known to travel by horseback many miles to preach. The Greensburg newspaper, The Kentucky Republican, published this announcement in 1832: "On Friday the 7th day of September, God willing, elders J. D. Steel, William Steerman, and Nathan Waters will address the people of the Christian religion in Campbellsville on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday the 8th, 9th, and 10th in this place."
A denominational newsletter, The Christian Messenger, later known as The Millenial Harbinger recorded some of Reverend Steele's travels between 1832 and 1851: Creelsborough (Russell County), Columbia (Adair County), Bethel Meeting House, Mt. Gilead (Green County), Dudley's Meeting House, Jamestown (Russell County), Burkesville (Cumberland County), Campbellsville (Taylor County), and Perryville (Mercer County).
M. A. Stemmons gave this amazing report from Stanford, Lincoln County, Kentucky, in 1842: "I sit down this Lord's morning to inform you of the success of the Gospel within the last six weeks, all within ten miles of this place. This has been principally under the labors of our young and excellent Brother Carroll Kendrick. He had the aid of Brother John Steele and others at Hustonville where 124 were gained, many of them of the highest rank and intelligence. At McCormick's, five miles away, 96 were gained in seven days. Brothers Kendrick and Steele were the only preachers. At Gilbert's Creek, eight miles away, in six days Brother Kendrick alone got 50; and at Rush Branch, two-and-one-half miles from this, and here at night, 156 were gained in seven days. At Logan's Creek and Maple Swamp, ten. In all, 436 in six weeks, all within ten miles of this place."
Reverend Steele's influence was not confined to Kentucky. In 1833 a large group of Adair Countians, including his parents, moved to Illinois. Also among them were Elizabeth "Betsey" Steele, and her husband, Nathan Massie. The Restoration Movement in Hancock County, Illinois, records their arrival and formation of their church. Mt. Pleasant Church is located midway between Carthage and Plymouth, ten miles from each. Into this locality in 1833 they came from Columbia, Adair County, Kentucky. Among them were Gilmore Callison and his wife, Elizabeth; her brother, James McClure (who had been baptized by the pioneer Christian preacher, John D. Steele, and who was the father of Mrs. Smith); Mrs. Betsey Massie (who was the sister of Mr. Steele); Green Browning; and others. These five people met on the first Lord's Day after their arrival at the home of Mr. Callison to "break bread" and then formed a Church of Christ.
This was the first Christian Church in Hancock County, and it became the mother of other congregations. Plymouth, Carthage, Augusta, Oak Grove, Denver, and Bently are her spiritual children.
Reverend Steele and his family later moved to what is known today as Steele's Knob in Casey County, Kentucky, receiving a land grant for 76 acres on Martin's Creek.
During the Civil War skirmishes occurred nearby. Wild Riders Of The First Kentucky Cavalry by Sergeant E. Tarrant, a history of this Union Regiment, records the capture of three Confederate soldiers: "Captain Drye was ordered to report with his command to Colonel O. H. Moore at Lebanon, Kentucky. Soon after arriving Captain Drye was ordered to Washington County, Kentucky, to intercept some Rebels supposed to be cut off from Morgan's command. Drye soon scented the trail and followed it through the northern part of Marion County and into Casey County. At Austin Thompson's on Martin's Creek he ran upon them and took them by surprise. The commander of the squad, Captain Thomas Bullitt, and two of his men mounted their horses and attempted to escape, but Captain Drye was on a fleet horse, and as swift as the wind he chased them for a while when a well-directed shot from his pistol brought the rebel captain down. The other two men surrendered. The disabled captain was taken to Elder J. D. Steele's nearby, where he lay for some time and finally recovered."
Reverend Steele had spent nearly 50 years in the ministry when he met with Brother J. Bowman of Poplar Hill, Kentucky, in 1874. Brother Bowman recalled: "During the winter I was called to preach four discourses at Pleasant Valley, some 40 miles from this place, and there I had the pleasure of meeting with old Father Steele, Elder John Smith's old companion. He is yet able to preach, and he knows well how to do it. At the close of my meeting he gave me $5 and the church gave me the same. God bless the dear old brother."
Failing health caused Revered Steele to move in with his daughter, Sarah Coppage, and her family. His last will and testament is recorded in 1876 in Marion County, Kentucky. His portrait is now in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky. His was a life spent in service to God and others, and now at rest, his legacy lives on.
Cindy Whitis, 1836 Ridge Creek Lane, Knoxville, IN 37938, shares this article with our readers.