By John Marshall
JEFFERSON CITY—When the U.S.A. took control of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Missouri’s population was about 10,000, concentrated primarily along the Mississippi River. Cheap, and sometimes free, land proved a lure too strong for thousands to resist. Settlers poured into the new territory.
They came any way they could – by foot, on horseback, by boat, in wagons, alone, families, whole communities. Population exploded: 1810 (20,845); 1820 (66,586); 1830 (140,455); and 1840 (383,702). Immigrants continued settling on lands along the Mississippi, but their sights were more and more drawn to rich farm lands along the Missouri River.
As a result of this population boom, Mid-Missouri soon became a political and cultural force to be reckoned with in the state. This regional clout was increased by the decision to put the state capital in Mid-Missouri, rather than in the St. Louis area.
Baptists were part of this human tidal wave into Mid-Missouri. In 1818 Mt. Pleasant Association, encompassing a number of churches along the Missouri River, was organized. It would throughout the 1800s be a dominant association in Missouri Baptist life.
The epicenter of Missouri Baptist influence, the powerhouse, became Howard County and nearby areas, including the communities of Glasgow, Fayette, Boonesboro, New Franklin, Chariton, Salisbury, Boonville, and others.
At the same time God was welding together Welch, Peck, and Meachum in St. Louis, He was also bringing together in Mid-Missouri three mighty preachers whose exploits would follow the example of Paul’s missionary journeys.
In late 1817 Thomas Fristoe came to Missouri settling near the town of Chariton, close to the present site of Glasgow in Howard County. In 1818 Fielding Wilhite came to Missouri, settling in Rocheport in Howard County. In 1819 Ebenezer Rodgers moved to Missouri, choosing Chariton as his home.
These three men served as pastors, evangelists, church planters and missionaries throughout north and central Missouri.
Their joint efforts culminated in 1834, when they led the effort to found what we now call the Missouri Baptist Convention. Baptist historian R.S. Douglass said few men deserve more gratitude from Missouri Baptists than these three servants of the Lord. Each of the three deserves to have his story told.
This article will highlight the first two pastor/missionaries, Thomas Fristoe and Fielding Wilhite, whose names should always be mentioned together by Missouri Baptists. The two almost always traveled together in their preaching tours through Missouri. They claimed they always agreed in their plans, and never had a short word with each other in all their travels.
Thomas Fristoe, born in 1796 near Knoxville, Tenn., was a great-nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall. In the War of 1812, Fristoe volunteered to serve his country and served under Gen. Jackson at New Orleans.
In 1815, Fristoe moved to Kentucky, where he became a Christian after eight agonizing months of conviction. The change was immediate and lifelong. In later years he said, “I have never loved sin from that time until now.”
In late 1817, Fristoe came to Missouri. He claimed to be extremely burdened for the lost, perishing condition of sinners. Licensed by his church to preach, he went to Lafayette County, where he was the only Baptist preacher, and where he led in the founding of First Baptist Church, Lexington.
After this he returned to his home church and married Nancy Jackson in 1824. They moved near Fayette, where Fristoe served as pastor of the Chariton Church for 30 years. His job description called for him to preach one Sunday a month. This gave an abundance of time to travel on missionary journeys across Missouri.
Fristoe died at his home near the Chariton Church in March 1872. He had lived 52 years in the community, and was eulogized as “a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.”
Fielding Wilhite was born in Kentucky in 1799. In 1818 he came to Missouri. In 1822 he became a Christian and was baptized. In 1826 he was licensed to preach. Before long he was making missionary journeys in Missouri.
The preserved report of his 1844 missionary tour provides insight into what his preaching trips were like. He preached in Saline, Lafayette, Ray, Clay and Platte Counties. He was gone 60 days, traveled 1,100 miles, preached 40 sermons, baptized 37, constituted one church, and ordained two ministers and four deacons.
A friend said, “Fielding Wilhite was one of the most Godly men I ever knew. The very atmosphere in which he lived seemed to be surcharged with the Spirit of God.” A local historian described him as a farmer and Baptist minister, one of the men who brought religion and good citizenship to Howard County.
Wilhite died at his home near Walnut Grove Church, northeast of Rocheport, in October 1874. His body rests in the cemetery of the church he long served as pastor, and the only church to which he ever belonged.