A Place So Hard: Bio of Rev. Aratus Kent

The birthday of our church-the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville, Wisconsin- is August 17, 1839. On that day, the earliest official record of the church states that “the Methodist Episcopal Church opened its doors to those who desired to organize a Presbyterian Church and kept them open so long as the infant church was without a home of its own.” Yes, our present church began as a Presbyterian Church. Rev. Aratus Kent, of Galena, Illinois, and Rev. Albert Hale of Springfield, Illinois, had traveled to Platteville. Wisconsin, to “confer with those present who desired to be united as a church,” Nine men and women were received into the newly organized church on that day by professing their faith. One woman “was received on certificate.”

Rev. Kent and Rev Hale have been referred to as “saintly men of blessed memory.” They were Presbyterian ministers who had been traveling from place to place in what was then known as the “Northwest Territory.” They were preaching and starting new churches wherever they could. But just exactly who were these men and how did they happen to be in the rough mining town of Platteville on August 17, 1839.

Many years earlier, in Suffield, Connecticut, a baby boy was born to Mr. and Mrs. John Kent. The date was January 15, 1793. The date was January 15, 1793. The Kent family was highly educated and gave their new son the name, Aratus, after an ancient Greek leader (Another one of their sons was named Germanus). This Puritan family was of the merchant class and made sure that their son, Aratus, received the best education that was available at that time. He was prepared for college at the Westfield Academy in Massachusetts. At the age of 19, (1812) he entered the Sophomore class at Yale College, but it wasn’t until August 15, 1815, that Aratus (then 21) formally united with the Presbyterian Church, where he was by preference a “new school” Presbyterian. One year later (Many years earlier, in Suffield, Connecticut, a baby boy was born to Mr. and Mrs. John Kent. 1816) he graduated from Yale and began 4 years of theological studies in the city of New York. After being licensed to preach by the Presbytery of New York (April 20, 1820), Aratus spent one year (1821) as a missionary in what was then the “wilds” of Ohio. Although he was far more educated than most men at that time, Aratus continued as a regular student of the Theological Seminary at Princeton from Nov. 21, 1822 until April 11, 1823. Two years later (January 26. 1825) Aratus was ordained in Lockport, New York.

For the next several years Rev. Kent served churches in: Massachusetts; Lockport, New York; Connecticut (to be with his aged father); and Bradford, New Hampshire. In Bradford his congregation wanted him to stay, but when he was called to a prestigious church in New York City, he moved there.

In the meantime (1829), a Captain John Shackford, of St. Louis, spent several months in the Village of Galena, Illinois. He was disturbed by the situation of the people he found there. They were without churches and clergy of any denomination. Capt. Shackford reported his findings to the American Home Missionary Society. In speaking with the people of Galena, Capt. Shackford stirred up the citizens so that 44 of the leaders applied to the Home Missionary Society for a minister and pledged S530.00 toward his support. The following application was sent:

“We, the subscribers feeling desirous for the improvement, welfare, and morals of the society of Galena, and believing the best step to the accomplishment of this important object is to have among us a clergyman of talents, education and piety to promote an object so desirable, we agree to pay the several sums set against our respective names, to a committee to be appointed to receive and collect the same and to pay it over to any clergyman who shall come and discharge the duties of his sacred orders for the space of one year, or to pay in proportion for a shorter period.”

Upon receiving Capt. Shackford’s report and the application from the Galena citizens, the American Home Missionary Society determined to send out a missionary to occupy the field. Shortly after Rev. Kent had moved to a rich and prestigious church in New York City, a man came to speak with him about the desperate need for ministers on the country’s western frontier. (At that time, Illinois was the western frontier.) Rev. Kent was so moved and excited by this request that he decided at once to become a missionary to the frontier, and asked to be sent to “a place so hard that no one else would take it.” So the American Board of Home Missions sent him to the “Northwest” – Galena – the metropolis of the lead mines.

Dr. Absolom Peters, the secretary of the Board also proposed the lead mines of the Upper Mississippi River. Rev. Kent had never heard of the region before but there were several thousand souls there and “no preaching.” “I go, sir,” was his prompt reply. Leaving his horse as a parting gift to the American Tract Society, he went, without even waiting for his written commission. Traveling on horseback until he reached the Ohio River, he then boarded a steamboat for the trip down the Ohio and up the Mississippi River. Rev. Kent wrote, “I am as one that dreams. I write with my paper on a trunk and my pen trembling with the jarring of a steamboat contending with the strong current of the Mississippi. I am urging my way up the great valley, to the lead mines, not knowing the things that shall befall me there.” There was not another Protestant minister on the river above St. Louis – none in Illinois. Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were occupied by Indians. All told, the trip took 27 days.

It was on April 18, 1829 that the steamboat Red Rover appeared in Galena with Rev. Kent aboard. He carried with him letters of commendation from Dr. Peters and Capt. Shackford. Upon his arrival in Galena, Rev. Kent wrote, “Here is opened a great and effectual door to preach the gospel.” It was a vast field to which he had come, but his “faith and courage were equal to the responsibility.” At this time, Illinois was the western frontier of the United States and “there was no church of any kind, no Sabbath, no minister, no God recognized.”

Rev. Kent was at that time 35 years of age and a strong, healthy man except for a “weakness of the eyes.” He happened to arrive on a Sunday morning and set to work at once. Walking round town, he knocked on doors making him self known as a missionary and telling people he was going to hold a church service that afternoon at 3:00 p.m. He wanted to preach to the multitudes that came to the village on the Sabbath to do business – but where? He was not a man to be discouraged. Rev, Kent leaned on the power of God. Although there was no church or public hall of any description, a man happened to be building a house on Bench Street. (Some references call this building an unfinished store/saloon.) The house was enclosed but had no floor. Placing some boards and a borrowed pine table inside the house, Rev Kent preached his first sermon in Galena to about 50 people. That turned out to be the largest number of people to attend one of his services for quite a while. Although he became discouraged at times, he never gave up.

Later, notice was given in the Miner’s Journal that Rev. Kent would preach Sunday, May 10. The congregation was composed wholly of young people. At these early worship services, the Bible and Waft’s Hymnbook were used. “They sang the good old tunes of St. Martin’s, Mear and Old Hundred.”

After preaching, in Galena, in a bar room, a hotel dining room, and in a court house Rev. Kent bought (with his own money) the old log court house and the lot next to it. (This was south of the present First Presbyterian Church in Galena.) The building had two rooms separated by a pine partition. The small room was Rev. Kent’s bedroom and study. The larger room had long wooden benches and was used as a church and Sabbath School. The old log church had a little cupola on top and a little bell which was rung by the boys. Much was made in the early writings of the little bell. Thus in the autumn of 1829, the congregation had a stated place of worship.

By the spring of 1830, the little log church also had a Sabbath School with 10 teachers and from 60-90 scholars. This was probably the first Sabbath School in northern Illinois. Rev. Kent also started a day school because he believed that education was next in importance to religion. He taught in this school through the week and preached on Sundays.

In 1830, Rev. Kent wrote a narrative of the work that he was doing. He stated that he labored in this part of the world under commission from the American Home Missionary Society. In addition to his work in Galena, Rev. Kent traveled a circuit – preaching in at least 15 different places along a 100 mile radius every four weeks. At the same time he continued to preach and lead a regular Sunday School class in Galena every Sunday. His parish extended from the “Rock River to the Wisconsin” and he preached at Prairie du Chien, Fort Winnebago, Madison, Potosi, Lancaster, Cassville, Mineral Point, Belmont, Platteville, Pecatonica (now Rockton), Rockford, rand Detour, Lyndon, Rock Island, Albany and Savannah. He wrote, “I have been in perils of water six times, perils in the wilderness three nights, several times lost, – but out of them all the Lord has delivered me.” On July 11, 1830 he “preached at the meeting of the council with the Indians, of whom 300 different tribes were present.” He regarded Prairie du Chien as part of his parish and held religious services there in July of 1830. He wrote that there was a congregation of 200 people – “a great variety of the human family.” His hearers paid his expenses plus an offering of $11.00 for the work of the American Home Missionary Society. In going to and returning from Prairie du Chien, he preached in Cassville.

To illustrate what the conditions were like in the entire area of this part of the United States, Rev. Kent wrote about a trip he decided to take during the fall of his first year in Galena. The capital of Illinois at that time was Vandalia where an important church meeting was to be held. Today that trip from Galena to Vandalia would take 6 to 7 hours by car, but Rev. Kent had to travel by horseback following an old Indian trail along the Mississippi River. One day he rode 40 miles without seeing a single house or any signs of human life at all. Another day he had to swim across a river. Later he everything, he was able to organize the First Presbyterian Church of Galena on Oct. 28, 1831. This was 2 and 1/2 years after his arrival. At that time Galena had a population of approximately 1,000 people. The first church had six members – 2 men and 4 women.

Rev. Kent tried his best to bring a sense of morality and justice to the rough mining town of Galena. At that time arguments were settled with gun battles and the law pretty much sided with whoever was fastest on the draw. During his first year in Galena, he wrote back to the American Board of Home Missions that he was “the lone Missionary laboring from year to year among the rocks of the lead mines and the flinty hearts of those adventurous but skeptical frontier men who were exploring them.” There were but a few won over to the faith. Although Rev. Kent was often discouraged and sometimes tempted to return back east, he remained in the area because he felt he had a duty to the people who had been entrusted to his care.

Rev. Kent’s labors in Galena were interrupted in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. That spring the Sauk Indians, led by Black Hawk, had taken up arms and crossed the Mississippi River. War followed as a matter of course. The village of Galena was crowded with people from the country side. Block houses and stockades were built for defense and the place was under martial law. The Presbyterian Church was occupied by soldiers. (The citizens of Platteville also fortified their village for the expected attack.) Rev. Kent took this opportunity to visit the East where in Sept. 1832, he married Miss Caroline Corning. Rev. Kent and his new wife attempted to return to Galena but only got as far as Springfield, Illinois, where they were stopped by the army. All railroads, stage coaches, and steamboats going into this area were closed down because of the danger. Rev. Kent and his new wife decided that they needed to be with their congregation during this frightening time – so they rented a private carriage and set out for Galena. It took them six months and many adventures to get the 300 miles from Springfield to Galena. By the time they finally arrived in Galena, the war had ended. The Indians had been driven back to the Mississippi River and slaughtered at a place called Bad Axe, Wisconsin. The victims were mostly women, children, and old men. (The leader of the settlers was Commander Henry Dodge). When Rev. Kent, his wife and other assistance finally arrived in Galena, he “recommenced his labors with uncommon zeal, being very much aided by the efficient help” he had brought with him.

From 1829 until April 6, 1841, Rev. Kent continued to labor as a missionary and stated supply of the First Presbyterian Church of Galena. During one of his many travels Rev. Kent, along with another early missionary preacher Rev. Albert Hale, helped to organize a Presbyterian Church in Platteville. Wisconsin. The year was 1839. Two years later Rev. Kent finally received a call to become the pastor of the church in Galena. The salary provided was S600.00 annually. He accepted the call and was installed on April 28. 1841. During the seven years of his pastorate, it was written that “his labors were constant. All knew him to be a man of God. In zeal and self-sacrifice he was rarely, if ever, surpassed.” It was also written that, “No man has lived in the Northwest who has left so the impress of his life and influenced so many minds.”

In 1848, although he continued to live in Galena, Rev. Kent became the supervisor for all the missionary preachers in northern Illinois. He traveled a great became lost for an entire day. Eventually, he arrived in Vandalia 19 days after he started, only to find that the meeting had already been held and ended before he even got there. So he was faced with another 19 days back to Galena with nothing to show for the trip. It was on one of his early tours of exploration that Rev. Kent alighted from his horse and on one of the majestic bluffs above the Mississippi River proclaimed aloud, “I take possession of this land for Christ.”

Aratus Kent at the Mississippi River, 1829

What drew the people to Galena and the surrounding area was mainly the lead business. During the summer the miners worked their claims with “commendable diligence.” However, when winter set in, the steam boats and long teams of oxen returned south. The residents (mostly young able-bodied men) were confined to their tiny cabins, their diggings, and their own reflections. There would be no communication with the rest of the world until the opening of navigation in the spring.
There was no law, no Sabbath, no family altar, and no restraint. Everyone did whatever was right in his own eyes. Therefore, since there was little or no business or work during the winter, (and very few women), the men “gave themselves up to frolicking and gaming in which all must take part or lose caste.” There was also the dance and the incessant sleigh-riding down to the portage. However, “there were a few men who were suspected of having been Christians once.”
That was the situation that Rev. Kent had to contend with. However, in spite of deal and wrote hundreds of letters to organize and support the churches in his region. He has been called the “Apostle of Northern Illinois.” Rev. Kent was also active in the organization of three colleges (Beloit College in Wisconsin, Rockford College in Illinois, and Grinnell College in Iowa) and two seminaries. He died on Nov. 8, 1869 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Galena, Illinois.

Compiled and written by: Betty Burgett (9/19/1999)

(Further information about Rev. Kent, his sermons, writings, etc. can be found at the First Presbyterian Church in Galena, Illinois.)

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