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John Hillsman - A Soldier for the Lord

In his youth, John Hillsman lived the life of the soldier and of the adventurer. In his prime, he became a successful business man and an honorable community leader. During this time, he married and raised a large family. But none of these accomplishments satisfied the longings in his soul. At an age when many prepare to die, he began a new life. This is a record of his amazing story.

Ancestry of John Hillsman

John Hillsman was born on November 17, 1764, to Matthew Hillsman and Ann Gillentine in Amelia County, Virginia. His family has been traced back through his father Matthew and his grandfather Nicholas to his great-grandfather John A. Hillsman. We will begin this life of John Hillsman by looking at his family heritage.

John’s great-grandfather, John A. Hillsman, is the earliest ancestor discovered by Thomas Wingo Hillsman and Naomi B. Hillsman, co-authors of The Hillsman Family. Legal records fix his birth date in the year 1649 but do not indicate the country of birth. A court deposition fixes him in York County, Virginia, in 1685 at the age of 35. He died around the year 1705. In his will which was written on November 16, 1704, his property (which included “one feather bed and furniture; three mares and one horse… Eight head of cattel also”) was to be equally divided between his three surviving adult children: “William Hillsman, Mary Garro, and Nichloss Hilsman.”

Nicholas Hillsman, the grandfather of John Hillsman, was born about 1678 in York County, Virginia. Almost everything known of him comes from his will of 1760 which was written in Amelia County, Virginia. It is of sufficient interest to include below. Remember that Nicholas’ son Matthew will be the father of our John Hillsman.

WILL OF NICHOLAS HILLSMAN – Amelia County, Va., 1760
In the name of GOD, AMEN. I Nicholas Hillsman being of sound mind and perfect sense and memory do make and constitute this my last will and testament in manner following, Viz:
Item: I do give and bequeath to my son Matthew Hillsman all my household. Item: I do give to my daughter Mary Ross two plates and one porringer. Item: I do give to my son John Hillsman one desk. Item: I do give to my son William Hillsman one desk. Item: I do give to my son Matthew Hillsman six head of hogs and one cow and calf.
I do appoint my son Matthew Hillsman executor of this my last will and testament. As witness my hand the 8th day of November 1760.

Matthew Hillsman, the father of John Hillsman, was born about 1715 in Amelia County, Virginia. He married Ann Gillentine and they had five daughters and three sons. The two oldest boys, Joseph and John, served in the Revolutionary War, but the youngest, James, was not born until 1771. Matthew evidently died early in 1781. In his will he gave to his son, John (who would have been 16 years old at the time), “one silver clasp, a sorrel colt, one bed and furniture and half my wearing apparel.”

Early Life of John Hillsman

John Hillsman was born on November 17, 1764, in Amelia County, Virginia. As a young man not much more than a boy, he served in the Revolutionary War with Captain Ford’s Company, Virginia Regiment. He saw General Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 and heard George Washington’s famous farewell speech to his troops at the end of the war.

When the war was over, John’s father was dead and John presumably took his inheritance and began a great adventure. According to the book, The Moragne Family in America, as quoted in The Hillsman Family (p.318), he soon took off for the frontier and, “in company with a few friends, proceeded as far ‘west’ [in present-day Tennessee] as the Swanee River (now Cumberland). He was for a while a member of Col. Anthony Bledsoe’s Fort situated some twelve or fifteen miles east of the present site of Nashville, a country which at that time was a wilderness where the Creek and Cherokee Indians were still a terror. Subsequently John was a teacher in the village school of Cumberland, now the city of Nashville.”

In 1793, John returned to East Tennessee and came to Knoxville. James White had built a fort on this location in 1786 and the infant community was named Knoxville in 1791 after Washington’s Secretary of War, John Knox. Two years later, twenty-nine year old John Hillsman arrived to build one of the first log cabin homes in the city and, in this frontier city, he established a mercantile business. He must have done well in his business. At some point, during these early years, John purchased 68,200 acres of Grainger County, Tennessee (this was 106 square miles in a county that presently has a total of 310 square miles). However, the University of Tennessee Special Collections has a receipt where John Hillsman returned this acreage to the state in 1799 as a payment for his taxes for that year.

On October 24, 1801, John Hillsman married Catherine Fornwalt as recorded in the Knox County court records. They only had one child and Catherine died in 1806. Probably not long afterwards, John married a second time to a Rebecca Thrasher who was born on July 8, 1776, in Virginia. She would bear ten children and would outlive her husband, dying on January 28, 1864, in Knox County, Tennessee.

John Hillsman became one of the community pillars in the growing city and surrounding area of Knoxville. Under the provisions of the congressional act of 1806, the state of Tennessee was allowed to sell 100,000 acres of land and use the proceeds to endow and maintain one academy in each county of the state. As such, Hampden-Sidney Academy was established in Knoxville. In 1811, the number of trustees was expanded and John Hillsman was included among them. Also in 1811, the first bank in Knoxville was incorporated. It was popularly known as the Bank of Tennessee. At its first election of officers in 1812, John Hillsman was named to the board of directors.

Later Life Given to the Lord

By all accounts, up to this point in his life, John Hillsman had an exciting and fulfilling life. In his youth, he fought under General Washington in the Revolutionary War and explored the western frontier. As he matured, he became an influential business man in a growing town and was recognized as one of the pillars of the community. He was on the board of directors for the first bank in Knoxville and was one of the trustees for the first state-established academy in Knox County. He had lived two lives: the exciting life of a soldier and adventurer and the successful life of a business man. He even had a large and growing family.

But something was missing. We have no record of what was going on in John’s heart during these years. We have no record of his religious beliefs or practices at this time. However, we do have an account of an event that took place in 1825 in the city of Knoxville that changed forever the life of John Hillsman and the life of his family. It is important to note that in this year John would turn 61 years old. He was no longer a young man, but God still had a great work for him.

In 1825, two Baptist preachers were concerned for the people of Knoxville. Richard Wood had started the Forks of the Little Pigeon Baptist Church (later the First Baptist Church of Sevierville) in 1789 and continued as its pastor until his death in 1831. However, God had sent another man to work alongside him in the church. Elijah Rogers, who would be the second pastor of this church, was ordained in 1810 and worked with Richard Wood for over twenty years. These two men pastored churches all over the area and were always looking for another opportunity to preach the gospel.

Although there were several churches in Knox County in 1825, there was none in the city of Knoxville. The two men made arrangements with the Presbyterian Church of Knoxville and held a meeting in their building. The first fruit of this meeting was the conversion of none other than John Hillsman. In August of 1825, Elijah Rogers led John Hillsman down the hill from the Presbyterian Church to the waters of First Creek and baptized him in the presence of a crowd of 3,000 onlookers. The city of Knoxville only had a population of about 2,000 at the time. People must have come in from miles to witness the baptism of this 61-year-old pillar of the community. The old soldier who had himself witnessed the surrender of the British 44 years before now submitted himself to the scriptural ordinance of baptism.

If this were the end of the story, it would be quite a tale. But it is not. On the first Saturday in October of 1825, only two months after his baptism, John Hillsman was at the Tennessee Association of Baptists at Paw Paw Hollow Baptist Church as one of the delegates of Beaver Ridge Baptist Church. Joshua Frost preached an introductory sermon at the meeting from 1 Peter 5:1-4. In 1833, Hillsman was a delegate from the newly started Third Creek Baptist Church, a church he helped to start less than a half mile from his home. He was there with the founding pastor, Samuel Love. He came to the Association Meetings as a delegate in 1835, 1836, 1837, and 1846. John Hillsman stayed faithful to the work of the Lord.

Significance of his Life for the Lord

But there are more evidences of his devotion to the Lord. On January 5, 1841, William Hillsman, “a negro man of colour,” petitioned the Madison County Court of Tennessee declaring that he had been freed by his late master, John Hillsman, of Knox County, Tennessee, prior to 1831. The court approved his petition that he be acknowledged as a free man of color who was entitled to a certificate showing the same. This is almost certainly the same John Hillsman. And, if he freed his slave prior to 1831, it would be after 1825 when he was baptized. One has to think that John Hillsman’s newfound faith in the Lord led him to free this slave.

And what about the city of Knoxville which had no Baptist church? First Baptist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee: 1843-1993 by Nancy J. Siler tells the story (p.11). “On January 15, 1843, James and John Moses, with three young ladies and some ‘borrowed’ Baptists from the rural churches, met in a room at the Court House to adopt the Articles of Faith and organize a Baptist church. These ‘borrowed’ Baptists agreed to come to town till the new church got started, and then they would go back to their own churches, primarily Third Creek, Beaver Dam and Beaver Ridge Churches.” The moderator of this organizational meeting and one of the early “borrowed” members was John Hillsman (p.103).

Finally, we see evidence of his changed life in his influence on his children. His daughter, Mary (1813-1889), married Gordon Mynatt who served as the pastor of several area churches (including Third Creek) before he went to Talladega, Alabama, where served the remainder of his life. Their son, Matthew Hillsman Mynatt also became a Baptist preacher.

John’s son Matthew was born on August 7, 1814, and was born again in the summer of 1832 in a meeting held by Samuel Love at Third Creek, a meeting that set the stage for organizing the Third Creek Baptist Church the next year. It was constituted with Samuel Love as the Pastor and Matthew Hillsman as the clerk. Matthew was ordained in 1835. He went on to found the First Baptist church in Chattanooga in 1839, returned to Knoxville to pastor the First Baptist Church there from 1852 to 1858, not far from the place his father was baptized and in the church his father had helped to start.

Matthew was also elected President of Mossy Creek College (now Carson-Newman College) in 1858. Because of his many duties, he only stayed a short time. During the Civil War, he moved to West Tennessee and served as pastor of the Baptist church in Trenton and other churches in the area for over twenty years. For this and much more, one book calls him “Mister Tennessee Baptist of the Nineteenth Century.” He died in Trenton on October 2, 1892 as a preacher of righteousness for 60 years.

John Hillsman, the man who seemed to have many lives, finally went the way of all flesh and died December 8, 1850 at the age of 86. The family cemetery is now located at the back of Victor Ashe Park in Knoxville. John Hillsman is buried in a marble vault, two feet wide by five feet long and two feet high. The cemetery is only about half a mile from Third Creek Baptist Church. Below the vital statistics on his burial marker is this epithet taken from John 1:47 – “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” May others strive to live such a life!

David Reagan

Daily Proverb

Proverbs 23:21

For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.