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.
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.
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.
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.”
Both A.A.’s son and grandson were active at First Baptist Church in Tarpon Springs, Bill Keith told Florida Baptist Witness. Bill said he remembers his great-great grandfather, Walter William Keith Sr., or “Papu,” as a “godly old guy—just real old.” And kind.
“My dad’s father, we called him ‘Wally Pop,’” Bill said. “He was just a super good granddaddy. He worked all the time and he loved the Lord and he loved us and had the kids in church all the time.”
Bill said his grandmother, “Momma Lou” went to a Christian school in Georgia to prepare for the mission field, but instead “fell in love with my granddaddy” and spent a lifetime serving faithfully at Tarpon Springs.
Waving for PowerPoint slides to move faster, Gene Keith, preaching during his birthday celebration service, had a lifetime of wisdom and biblical counsel to share in ten minutes. And he barely concealed his impatience to an indulgent congregation while running through lessons learned in over 60 years of ministry, pausing after referencing a trip to the Holy Land.
“I would never have gotten any of these experience except that I followed the Lord,” Pastor Gene said. Noting it might be his last time to preach, he shared from Joshua 23:14 for 15 minutes.
Gene, according to his son Bill, once had a radio ministry on a secular station in the Tarpon Springs area before he was called to preach in 1952. While in school at Stetson University in DeLand, he pastored First Baptist Church in Taft. He then accepted the pastorate at First Baptist Church in Otter Creek 1954-59 and he was called to Southside Baptist Church in Gainesville (later changed to Countryside Baptist) from 1959-67.
Adrian Rogers called Gene to pastor Cape Canaveral Baptist Mission from 1967-70, and he returned to Countryside in 1970, where has served since, accepting the title pastor emeritus in 2009. Gene continues to write, preach and teach Sunday School at Countryside, according to his son.
“My dad was the first that I know of in my family to start schools,” said Bill who believes his father helped start 10-15 Christian schools throughout the state during his ministry.
In many ways, Gene harkens back to Elder Benjamin Keith whose work also extended over half a century. Benjamin Keith was identified with the “Otter Creek Association of Regular Baptists,” organized at the Otter Creek meetinghouse in October, 1839, in Mead County, Ky.
Benjamin, A.A. Keith’s grandfather, was known as a “remarkable preacher” who created a zeal for evangelism. Meeting in settler’s cabins in the winter, or in open air in the summer—like at Billy’s Cowboy Church—formal worship was often dispensed while the passionate preacher focused on the “condition of their souls.”
In a moving tribute to Benjamin in Signs of the Times, published in 1876, Joseph Settle of New Hope, Ky., shares his account of a preacher who spent time studying with Elder Squire Boone, brother of Daniel Boone.
Baptized and licensed to preach at 17, but not ordained until he was 27, Benjamin appeared in the tribute to have presented a persuasive sermon illustration at a time many were appearing to leave United Baptists. “It seemed that the Lord had sent him among us to let us know that there were many of our faith (anti-mission) in counties below us, who were leaving the churches because of missionism,” Settle wrote. “He observed Paul’s charge, he preached the word, was in season and out of season, reproved, rebuked and exhorted, with all long-suffering and doctrine. He preached the doctrine of God our Savior.”
No amount of labor in travel, whether on horseback or on foot was ever regarded. He would travel as many as twenty miles Saturday, on foot, to his appointments, leaving his horse in the field plowing,” wrote Settle. “Neither cold, nor heat, rain nor snow, nor any circumstance of his own person or that of his family, except alone that of sickness, would keep him from his appointments.”
Benjamin rarely ceased preaching, according to Settle said, “It was his life, his meat, his drink, to honor and glorify God, and on his death-bed about his last audible words were, ‘I want to glorify God as long as I live.’”
Bill Keith says he’s overwhelmed in discovering the succession of his forefathers in ministry and anticipates they prayed for God to be glorified and for the Gospel to be spread.
“I just pray that we will be able to carry the torch, carry the message into the next generation,” Bill said. “Sometimes you serve and you wonder if you have any kind of an impact.”
When he was 12 years old, Bill was sure he wasn’t going to have any impact at all—at least the right kind. The youngster told his father he was headed to bartender school. His father threw his head back and laughed.
“We came from Otter Creek in 1959 and one tiny school house, to inner city Gainesville in the bad section, and there were five children—moving from a warm tiny community to an inner city church—and they had run about 4-6 preachers off,” Bill remembered. “My dad was just a young guy, not quite 30, and people rallied behind him and loved him” but “I just watched this all happen and made up my mind I will never go into ministry.”
It took awhile, but listening to Christian radio on the way to a construction job, Bill said, “One day God reached down into the cab of that truck and said, ‘I just want you to help me buddy.’”
Bill said he packed his family and left for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to prepare for the ministry with wife, Vonnie and children in tow. Seven years later, in 1983, he had a massive health issue on the way to Tarpon Springs Baptist Church, and his father convinced him to stay and minister with him at Countryside as associate pastor.
From Countryside, he was “on loan” as interim pastor to First Baptist Church in Otter Creek as an interim pastor. Meanwhile Bill, like his father before him, continued to start and serve as a principal for Christian schools. In 2010 he took on the role of senior pastor at Countryside when his father retired.
Like the Ten Mile Church in Virginia, which after the end of the Revolutionary War was said to be located in the newly designated Washington County, Penn., Countryside Baptist Church is the new “Fort Keith” for the Gene Keith family. With the exception of Billy, Bill said Gene’s six children, 30 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren as well as sibling and other relatives are in the Countryside church—which runs about 200-250 in attendance in regular worship. And a second-cousin of Gene, Tim Campbell, has started another Florida Baptist cowboy church, River Cross Cowboy Church in Trenton.
“We are definitely a family church,” Bill said. And the family turned out for the special legacy celebration. “It was a once in a lifetime,” Bill sighed. “We never know. Dad will be gone in a few years. I’m sure he has a big oak tree to be under. It’s been awesome serving the Lord together—and I pray every day, ‘Lord, don’t let me mess up. Let me stay close to You and win souls and build them in the faith.’”
Thinking back to John Keith, Benjamin Keith, A.A. Keith, “Wally-Pop” Keith and others, Bill said his grandfather taught his father to be a soul winner and his father taught him to be a soul winner, and so maybe God has used that plan all along.
“As much as we love the Lord and have tried to serve Him, I wonder sometimes if we are the answer to his prayers,” Bill said of A.A. Keith, who finally settled in Florida. “I feel like we are the answers to his prayers. He prayed for Florida and the people of Florida. He prayed that God would send forth laborers but he probably never dreamed it would be his own grandchildren.”
Information compiled from various sources including Judith Jolly for the 125th anniversary of Richland Baptist Church in Zephyrhills, Kentucky Genealogy Organizaton, A History of Kentucky Baptists from 1769 to 1885.
John Keith, Born about 1710, elder in Ten Mile Baptist Church, Penn. (Va., prior to moving Mason/Dixon line)
Alexander Keith, Born a.1750-died March, 1824; “Very pious man” & leader of Regular Baptist Union Church in Hardin Co., Ky.
Benjamin Keith, July 4, 1792-June 28, 1876; Pastor of Regular Baptist Union Church, Hardin Co. Ky., & Otter Creek Assoc.
Enos S. Keith, Dates unknown. Presumed named for his uncle, Enos Keith, who begin preaching at 17, but died single.
Albert Abel “A.A.” Keith, Oct. 18, 1843-Dec. 27, 1927; Florida Baptist pastor and circuit riding preacher & missionary from Texas
Walter William Keith, Sr. “Papu”, Dec. 14, 1876-Sept. 13, 1960
Walter William Keith, Jr. “Wally Pop” Jan. 2, 1909-June 18, 2006
Gene Keith (William E. Keith, Sr), Dec. 25, 1932- ; Pastor Emeritus, Countryside Baptist Church, Gainesville
Bill Keith (William E. Keith, Jr.), Sept. 24, 1952- ; Pastor, Countryside Baptist Church, Gainesville
Billy Keith (William E. Keith, III), Nov. 3, 1972- ; Pastor, Cross Brand Cowboy Church, Williston
Confederate records place A.A. Keith in Florida by March 1883, and in 1885 the Florida Baptist Convention records list Rev. Keith as an ordained minister. In 1885 the family is counted by the United States Census as living in Kathleen and farming on his nearby 97.83-acre homestead and teaching school in nearby Socrum.
Just a year after Keith arrived in Florida, in 1884, the Florida Baptist Witness began publishing in Live Oak with L.A. Fish as editor. A privately owned newspaper, it was purchased by the Florida Baptist Convention’s State Board of Missions in 1918 for $4,000. At the Witness’ 100-year anniversary in 1983, then editor Edgar Cooper marked the occasion by announcing peak circulation at 92,000. There have been eight different editors since the start of the paper.
Keith recognized the value of the Baptist Witness, as it was called at the time and according to historic documents wrote the Witness about the need for additional workers needed in the “rapidly growing land of flowers” so that “we will see they have fields of labor.”
*Compiled from various sources and family accounts.
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