Reverend George Tarvin and the Dunker Religion

by Verne Hoffman


A presentation given to the Tarvin Family Reunion, August 20, 1988, in Denver, Colorado.

The topic of my presentation today is the story of Reverend George Tarvin from the time of his marriage about 1767 to the time of his death in 1813. During these years he resided in the areas of Hampshire Co., Virginia, and in various counties of Northern Kentucky.

Although I was able to gather information from a variety of sources, this information is at best incomplete. County court records form a large part of what I was able to gather. Much of this data had already been uncovered by family researchers over the years, but it needed to be assembled in chronological order and studied.

Another of my sources was the Brethren Historical Library in Elgin, Illinois. The library furnished what data they had on file about Rev. Tarvin, which was very limited, but significant in certain areas.

Another vital source of information was Dr. Emmert F. Bittinger of Bridgewater, Virginia, who is in charge of the West Marva District Church of the Brethren History Project. Presently, he is deeply involved in writing the history of the Brethren (also known as Dunker) churches of Hampshire and other West Virginia counties. This will include the Brethren group to which George Tarvin belonged. The book Dr. Bittinger is writing should be available for purchase within a year and will be of great interest to all Tarvin researchers. I am very appreciative of the information he was willing to share with me even though he was in the midst of his work.

To more fully understand our ancestor, a person must first look at the history and doctrine of the Dunker Church. The German Baptist Brethren, called Dunkers, grew out of the Pietist movement of Germany in the late 17th century. The Church of the Brethren was officially organized at Schwartzenau in 1708 by Alexander Mack, a miller. There were eight original members baptized by triple immersion (hence the name Dunker) in the Elbe River. Their belief was to live as close to Bible teachings as possible. They found themselves a persecuted people and by 1719 the first group came by ship to Pennsylvania to seek a refuge where they could worship as they pleased. This first group settled in Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia. In 1729, Alexander Mack led the remainder of his group from their native Germany to America.

During these early years, several Brethren communities were founded in southeast Pennsylvania and two in Maryland. The Dunkers were progressive farmers and tried to live simply, hence they were invariably included among the so-called "plain people" of Pennsylvania. They were often on the frontier, locating in the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and later extending south to the Carolinas and Tennessee and west to Virginia and Ohio.

The Dunkers were one of the historic peace churches. Most Dunkers have been conscientious objectors to military service. On the frontier, this went as far as not carrying guns and being friends with the Indians.

Some of the distinguishing beliefs of the Brethren were (1) baptism by triple immersion, previously mentioned as the reason for being called Dunkers; (2) full communion service including a meal and a footwashing service; (3) "Fellowship of Believers" which in the early days meant marriage primarily within the membership of the church; and (4) simplicity, meaning to dress plainly and to avoid any extravagance in spending. There was no official church creed and the main emphasis was on living as close to the teachings of the New Testament as possible. It was said, "A Dunker's word is as good as his bond."

Their beliefs which set them apart, and especially their emphasis on marrying within the faith, led to a close-knit group with a tremendous number of intermarriages among the few well-known family names. As the name of Tarvin was not one of the typical Dunker family names, one can rightfully assume that George Tarvin was a convert to the religion. In Dr. Bittinger's correspondence with me, he has shared the interesting ideas that his information has led him to believe concerning George Tarvin's conversion. Dr. Bittinger is of the opinion that the Cracraft family played a major role. The Cracrafts were a Dunker family in Hampshire Co., Virginia. We are uncertain of the details, but we can conclude that George Tarvin became well acquainted with the Cracraft family as he married Sarah Cracraft in about 1767. The Church of the Brethren had no system of record keeping in these early days, so we have no exact date for George Tarvin's baptism or his later ordination as minister. But knowing that both of these events did take place, we can conclude that his conversion was sincere and his commitment to the church complete. Following his baptism, he would have gone through a period of proving his devotion to the church and his ability to live by the strict rules of Brethren life before his ordination. Dr. Bittinger feels that it is doubtful that George Tarvin would have been ordained before 1780.

Judging from the court records and land records in Hampshire County during these years, we can assume that Rev. George Tarvin lived between the Great Cacapon River and the south branch of the upper Potomac River. The membership in these early days of the church were loosely gathered in congregations and often held their meetings in various members' homes. Here it was that George Tarvin began his family and his ministry. at least eleven of George and Sarah Tarvin's thirteen children were born in this area of Virginia. But, as it wasn't unusual to find the Dunkers always pushing on to new frontiers, the early 1790's found George and Sarah contemplating a move their their family. That this was a common event was demonstrated by the 1784 Hampshire County census. This census reveals that more than 50% of the Tarvin's neighbors had moved since the census of 1782, only two years previous. In 1793, word came that the last great Indian threat in Kentucky had ended, perhaps influencing the Tarvins' decision to go west. The early records of Hampshire County show two land transactions in 1794 involving George Tarvin. On September 10th, George Tarvin sold 193 acres of land to John McCormick, Sr., and on December 10th of that same year, he sold 417 acres to John Easton. The next records involving George Tarvin occur in Mason Co., Kentucky.

The family's most probable route of travel during their relocation would have taken them over land to Fort Pitt (present day Pittsburgh) and then down the Ohio River on flat boats. It must have been a challenging yet interesting journey. They were a large family by the year 1794, and caring for them as well as keeping track of the younger ones must have taken a lot of work and cooperation by all. The oldest son, Thomas, would have been about 25 years old, while a daughter, Sabrina, was born in 1794 or 1795. Perhaps Sarah was with child or had a new baby to attend to as they moved. And there must have been plenty to catch the eyes of the family as they traveled, both in the beautiful scenery and in the odd assortment of individuals and families that made up the somewhat constant flow towards new life in the western edges of the frontier.

Family records indicate that the family probably landed at Limestone, now Maysville, Mason Co., Kentucky, and then proceeded to the area near Shannon Church, a prominent gathering point of the time. The family then settled in for what would be about a six-year stay in Mason County. The Mason County court records show that in August of 1796, a Dunker minister named George Tarvin presented to the court credentials of his ordination and took the oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth in order to be granted the authorization to perform marriages within the state of Kentucky. He had a special reason for making this request at this time as the first marriage of record became that of his son Richard to Sarah Armstrong. He went on to perform over 40 marriages in Mason County between the years of 1796 and 1800. But in 1801, the Tarvin family was on the move again, this time to nearby Fleming County. On February 28th 1801 Reverend Tarvin purchased 100 acres of land on the waters of Fleming Creek.

Life on the frontier was never easy, more especially for the women who often had to work as hard as the men while bearing and rearing the children in often trying circumstances. Such must have been the case with Sarah Tarvin. On the 10th of August, 1806, the Reverend Tarvin's wife and mother to his 13 children passed away. Their youngest child, Martha, was eleven years old. Reverend Tarvin must have felt a deep loneliness as well as a great weight placed upon him as he tried to fulfill both his duties as father and minister. On the 27th of March the following year, he married the widow Mary Wood. By the year 1808, Reverend Tarvin had performed 35 marriages in Fleming County.

County history reveals that a Dunker church existed at the present site of the Log Union graveyard until the 1840's. This correlates closely with information given in the dissertation on the Brethren in the Western Ohio Valley 1790-1850 by David B. Eller, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio 1975. The Log Union Cemetery contains the gravemarkers of at least two of the couples married by Reverend Tarvin in Fleming County.

While in Fleming County, Reverend Tarvin was called as a witness in a court case. The court record, dated May 10, 1804, File #430, has left us a good specimen of the Reverend's signature.

The year 1809 brought another move for the Tarvin family, this time westward to Bracken County. By this year, Reverend Tarvin would have been about 65 years old. It was to be his last relocation. His services at marriages were as frequent as ever, numbering 23 in Bracken County between January 1810 and November 1812. He even made one return trip to Fleming County in May 1810 to perform the marriage of his son and namesake George Tarvin to Kessiah Harman.

Reverend George Tarvin died in January 1813 as a result of injuries received in a grist mill accident near Augusta, Bracken Co., Kentucky. He was surely well known and loved by those he served for so many years as a minister but the inventory of his assets following his death revealed that he was a man of small means. This is probably as it should be and as he would have wanted it to be because of the dictates of his own faith in living a simple but hard-working life. When the Reverend's estate was sold and all claims paid, his widow's portion remaining was only $12.29.

The location of the final resting place of Reverend George Tarvin is not known. Two possibilities exist. He could have been buried in Bracken County, but it is more likely that he was taken back to Fleming County to be buried next to his wife, Sarah. No tombstone for either George nor Sarah's grave has ever been found. Field stones were often used as grave markers in those days and this would have been more especially the case with a family of small means.

It was a real pleasure for me to research the later life of the Reverend George Tarvin, my fourth great-grandfather. He was a man of great character and conviction. On joining the Dunker faith he no doubt risked alienating himself from his family, but in doing so, he found a new family that reached beyond the walls of his own home to the many fellow believers he served as a minister. He had the courage to remain a conscientious objector throughout the Revolution while others of his faith renounced the doctrine and were subsequently renounced by the church. He remained an ordained Dunker minister to his death, serving willingly in each community to which his moves took him. His life's record, even though sketchy, proves him a man of integrity and great commitment.


To see the heritage of Reverend George, go to the document The Origins of the Tarvin Family in America.

For a detailed listing of the children and grandchildren of Reverend George Tarvin, see The Descendants of Reverend George Tarvin.

For more information on the Church of the Brethren today, see the Church of the Brethren Network, COB-Net, at http://www.cob-net.org/.


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Last Updated: 17 Nov 2012 21:36 PST

Gary Hoffman, ghoffman@ucsd.edu