Circling the wagons: Three Florida Baptist pastors connect to legacy
The last of a chain of 10, a father, son & grandson reflect on ministry
Jan 28, 2013
By JONI B. HANNIGAN

THANKFUL Willy Keith, center, pastor of Cross Brand Cowboy Church in Williston, gathers leaders to pray. Keith is the last in a long line of Baptist pastors, elders and deacons directly descened from a Virginia church elder who in 1773 gathered the local Baptist congregation inside his fort to worship in safety. FBC photo
GAINESVILLE (FBW)—The woods weren’t safe around Ten Mile Creek settlements and so when families gathered for worship, John Keith, an elder in the Baptist church, made sure they met inside the rough-hewn logs of his private fort.

Since 1773 when John Keith hosted the first meeting of Virginia’s Ten Mile Baptist Church, the Keith men for at least ten generations have led their congregations as Baptist preachers, elders or deacons—to be pioneers in sharing the Gospel.

By wagon, on horseback, on foot, and by car, they’ve traveled carrying the Good News of Christ from the thick forests of Virginia, across the green mountains of Kentucky, to the High Plains of Texas before finally turning back southeast to settle in sun-drenched Central Florida where three generations now pastor two churches just 20 miles apart.

Coming together on Christmas day, Gene, Bill and Billy Keith—father, son and grandson—took part in an 80/60/40 service marking their 2012 birthdays and celebrating a common heritage in ministry.

But while Gene Keith became pastor emeritus at Countryside Baptist Church in Gainesville where his son Bill Keith remains as senior pastor, his grandson Billy Keith has unknowingly traced the route of Albert Abel “A.A.” Keith, the circuit-riding preacher and his double-great grandfather from Texas who came to Florida in 1883.

RELATIONSHIPS Billy Keith, pastor of Cross Brand Cowboy Church in Williston, hosts events at the church aimed to reach people who are interested in country life. FBC photo
Billy Keith, who started Cross Brand Cowboy Church in Williston six years ago to bring the Gospel to residents along the rural country roads and farms of Levy County, had no idea his ministry was about to circle the family’s wagons where they laid claim to the land—and its people to Christ—more than 100 years ago.

Invited to the 125 year anniversary celebration of Richland Baptist Church in Zephyrhills a few years back, Billy Keith said he was surprised to hear there was a cowboy preacher in the family, and before that, Keith men who braved the frontier to plant churches and missions from what was once Virginia to Kentucky, Indiana, and the Texas frontier.

“I find that extremely amazing; it’s just come back around,” said Billy, who works a four-acre cattle ranch with his wife Ginny and daughter Emma Grace, when he’s not honing his preaching and strumming skills. “He came from there to here, and it is kind of what I’m doing now.” 

In the tradition of Keith men throughout the ages, Billy is committed to meeting people where they are. (For more on Billy Keith, see “Cowboy Church searches for the lost and gathers the strays for the Lord” June 15, 2001, and online at http://www.gofbw.com/print.asp?ID=13012).

“I’m just gonna go to them whether it’s by horseback or under an oak tree or around a fire—we’re gonna meet them to have church,” Billy said.

TEXAS PREACHER A.A. KEITH

A.A. was born in 1843 to Enos Keith, who was named after his uncle, an unmarried Kentucky preacher of some renown in the tradition of Regular Baptists.

A.A. KEITH A circuit riding preacher and missionary, Rev. Keith came to the Florida frontier with his family from Texas in the 1800’s. Courtesy photo
Though little is known about his childhood, by 1880, A.A. was a Baptist minister and schoolteacher residing in Texas. A Civil War veteran, he had fought first for the Confederacy and later for the Union. Married to Amanda Annie Haynes, he was a living in Palo Pinto, Texas, in 1880 and had five children, among them, Walter William Keith. Another child was born later in Florida.

Florida Baptist Convention records list Rev. Keith as an ordained minister in 1885, at the same time he is recorded as farming on his 97.83-acre homestead in Kathleen.  In 1891, the Dade City Banner, in naming him as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dade City, wrote about him and his wife, that they possessed “all of the courtesy and gentleness (of) distinguished southerners of the old school.”

In 1895, and again in 1901 he pastored Richland Baptist Church in Zephyrhills, likely aiding in a reorganization of the church which had dissolved and reformed. A missionary and leader in the South Florida and Pasco associations, he served as moderator, preacher and teacher for years. Some of his Florida pastorates were Grace in Clermont; Mount Olive, Lakeland, Gapway, and Kathleen in Lake Co.; Seffner in Hillsborough Co.; Lacoochee, New Hope, and Emmaus in Pasco Co.; and Eau Gallie in Indian River Assoc. He also “supplied the Trilby church,” according to records.

Always serving in a bivocational capacity, for a number of years, A.A. had a strawberry farm on Dixie Highway in Pasco County where he worked as a postmaster at Owensboro and at Elfers, according to the Elfers West Coast Record which wrote he enjoyed “the love and respect of the community.”

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