Published November 1, 2020
One of the most beloved stories of the New Testament is the conversion of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. Yet, few are aware that a similar story occurred in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in 1811. In both cases, God used an earthquake to get someone's spiritual attention.
The young man from Muhlenberg County was Jacob Bower. Though raised in a German Baptist family, Bower wasn't converted in his youth. After leaving home, he worked with a man who was a Universalist and was soon persuaded to believe the idea that God would save everyone, regardless of whether they have faith in Jesus or not. Bower later wrote, "I was rocked to sleep in the cradle of Universalism for a little more than five years."
Every time he was convicted of his sins, he would assure himself that all men would be saved.
In the fall of 1811, this conviction grew worse. His father and a Baptist neighbor had been urging the young man to trust Christ and a war was going on in Jacob's soul. The struggle continued until Dec. 17, 1811. At 2 a.m., the famous New Madrid Earthquake struck Kentucky. Chimneys crumbled, foundations cracked and as far away as Boston, church bells rang.
Jacob immediately arose thinking it was the end of time and he knew his soul was unprepared. Families throughout the region were gathered together crying, hugging and praying. As the aftershocks continued on the following days, little farm work was done. Instead, almost continual church services were held as ministers traveled from home to home, preaching and exhorting.
Realizing he needed salvation, Jacob often retreated to the woods or his barn to pray. Unfortunately, he seemed to think forgiveness would come through his own efforts and remained miserable.
Finally, he comprehended the path of redemption. He would write, "Suddenly my thoughts turned to the suffering of Christ and what He endured on the cross … If it was done for sinners, it was done for me. I believed it. The storm calmed off, my troubled soul was easy. I felt as light as a feather, and all was quiet."
On March 1, 1812, Jacob Bower was baptized into the fellowship of Hazel Creek Baptist Church. The New Madrid Earthquake had brought a spirit of revival to Muhlenberg County — 76 individuals were baptized by Hazel Creek alone, most of whom claimed to have been saved during the days after the earthquake.
Forty-five years later, Jacob could testify, "I have the pleasure of being acquainted with many, who were brought in (during) the time of that earthquake." He went on to say, "(There were as) few apostates among them as (in) any revival I have ever seen, many of them no doubt are now in heaven, praising God for grace received during that memorial revival … O, for such another revival!"
The story doesn't end there. By 1814, Jacob began sensing a call of God upon his life. Hazel Creek recognized this calling and soon licensed him to preach.
In 1818, Jacob Bower became the founding pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in neighboring Logan County. In 1822 he helped to organize Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Lewisburg. Jacob pastored both congregations until 1828 when he moved to Illinois. The rest of his life would be spent as a missionary and church planter in the Prairie State.
God is always at work in this world, often in ways we don't understand. Both the Philippian jailer and Jacob Bower would agree with the Apostle Paul — we can even give thanks for an earthquake, for that is the means God used to get their attention.
"Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20).
Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.
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