First preacher in Illinois
1796 – James Lemen, Sr., his wife and several of his neighbors were converted to Christ and baptized by Elder Dodge, an itinerant Baptist preacher from Kentucky. This same group organized themselves into a Baptist church in Lemen’s home on this day in May, 1796. Lemen, who had served in the Revolutionary War, had arrived in Illinois from Virginia in 1786. That same summer Mrs. Lemen’s sister and her husband, James Andrews were killed by Indians, and their two little daughters were carried captive to Wisconsin. One of the sisters died and the other was recovered by French traders for a reward. These were trying days for settlers on the frontier. In just two years from 1789-90 one-tenth of the total American population perished by Indian Wars and murders. It was into that environment that James Smith, a Separate Baptist preacher from Kentucky, went with the gospel in 1787, being the first gospel preacher to visit Illinois. A great number of people were converted to Christ but not without great difficulty. Smith too was captured by Indians. A Mrs. Huff with her little child was also in the party that was taken. While she was being put to death by the savages, Elder Smith fell to his knees praying for her. They took him to Vincennes, but because of his praying and singing they were afraid of him and offered him for ransom. His fellow settlers, though poor, raised $170 to ransom him, and returned him to Kentucky. However, undaunted he returned to Illinois to continue his ministry. Family altars were established in the homes, which resulted in many preachers prepared to go out into the ministry. Later one of Smith’s sons was elected Governor of Texas. We must also never forget that in the very home that the first Baptist church of Illinois was founded, the battle against slavery in the Northwest Territory was won. William Henry Harrison, then Gov. of the territory made his desire for slavery known, but James Lemen prepared a petition that was circulated among the pioneers that was successful in opposing that effort. This is another example where Baptists were in the forefront in the fight for liberty.
Dr. Greg J. Dixon, from: This Day in Baptist History Vol. I: Cummins/Thompson /, pp. 212.