If there was ever a man with a vision for his community and his church, it was Wendell Holmes McRidley. Although largely forgotten today, this giant of the faith was one of the most outstanding Kentucky Baptist ministers in the early 20th century.
Born as a slave around Davidson County, Tenn., in 1842, McRidley began preaching after the Civil War ended. The Nashville Normal and Theological Institute had been founded in 1866 to provide education for African-Americans. After graduating from this school, McRidley preached throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. Though the records are scarce during this period, we know he served at Portland Memorial Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville in 1880.
In 1881, McRidley began his life’s work when he was called to be the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Cadiz, Ky. This congregation was started in 1870 with 40 members. In 1881, the membership remained small and without a permanent home.
McRidley came in like a whirlwind. Within a short time, 250 new members had been added. A new sanctuary was built in 1884. The growth remained steady through the years. In 1913, McRidley reported Second Baptist had received 1,120 new members during his pastorate. What makes this even more amazing is during these years, Second Baptist regularly practiced church discipline. McRidley was known for his staunch doctrinal convictions — the American Baptist newspaper called him an “uncompromising Baptist preacher … striving to lift up our people and broaden Baptist influence.”
With so many new converts in his congregation, McRidley realized that Christian education was essential. In 1884 he established the Cadiz Normal and Theological Institute. The school provided elementary education for African-American children in Cadiz and helped “to educate preachers and teachers who are not able to make long expensive trips to acquire education elsewhere.” While the buildings are gone today, the school was located near his home on McRidley Street.
With limited resources available, McRidley appealed to his friends and fellow believers for financial assistance. In 1893, he attended the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (then called the General Association), and shared his vision of the Cadiz Normal and Theological School. John A. Broadus, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was so moved by McRidley’s speech that he personally walked among the messengers using his own hat as an offering plate to receive a collection.
By 1913 the school had 247 graduates. Included among these were more than 40 Baptist pastors and several missionaries to Africa. It comes as no surprise that in 1911, National Baptist historian Nathaniel H. Pius listed the Cadiz Normal and Theological Institute as one of the 13 “most prominent Negro Baptist universities, colleges and seminaries” in America.
So much more could be said about this amazing individual. McRidley edited a Baptist newspaper, The Cadiz Informer, that had a circulation of 10,000. He was a practicing lawyer for a time and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. While his age and the advent of free public education forced the Cadiz Normal and Theological Institute to close in 1915, McRidley remained faithful at Second Baptist. In 1931, his friend, H. Boyce Taylor of Murray, wrote that McRidley, at the age of 91, was likely the oldest active Baptist pastor in Kentucky.
On Sunday, Feb. 21, 1932, W.H. McRidley passed away near the altar of his beloved Second Baptist Church. He had preached that morning and was preparing to enter the pulpit for the evening message when he died. Wendell Holmes McRidley and his wife, Annie, are buried in unmarked graves in the United Brotherhood Federation Cemetery in Cadiz. However, one day those graves will be opened, and he will hear the blessed words of the Savior, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
Ben Stratton is pastor Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.