Baptist History Homepage

The Early Baptists of Northern Kentucky
Delivered at the Northern Kentucky Regional History Day, 1998
By James R. Duvall
      John Tanner was the first known Baptist minister to come to Northern Kentucky. He and his family, originally from Virginia, first came to Central Kentucky; then they settled near what is now Petersburg in Boone County during the 1780s (it was at first called Tanner's Station); he built a cabin, and began raising crops. American Indians from north of the Ohio River kidnapped Tanner’s nine-year-old son, also named John, in 1789*, while his father and a few slaves were working in a nearby field. The Tanner family is reported to have a second son kidnapped by Indians; however he escaped and came back to them. They soon moved back to Central Kentucky. John Tanner held some religious services locally but never established a church in Northern Kentucky.

      In August 1791 a Baptist congregation was established, known as the Old Baptist Church on the Dry Ridge, in what later became Grant County. Elders John Conner and Lewis Corban assisted in the constitution of this nine-member frontier church. John Campbell, after whom Campbell County was named, lived at the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville) and periodically came to the region to trade for furs with the Indians. He built a block house that was believed to be used by the church once a month in their early days of worship.

      In June 1794 a small group of Baptists, originally from Virginia, moved to what is now Boone County from Central Kentucky and organized a Baptist church of seven members in the North Bend area of the Ohio River. That church, called the Bullittsburg Baptist Church, retains its original records from early 1795 to the present. Soon other Baptist churches were established in Northern Kentucky: Mouth of the Licking (now First Baptist Church, Cold Spring) in 1794, Forks of the Licking Baptist Church (now Falmouth Baptist Church) in 1795, Dry Creek Baptist Church in 1800, Bank Lick Baptist Church in 1801, and Middle Creek Baptist Church (now Belleview Baptist Church) in 1803. The Ten Mile Baptist Church, in what is today Gallatin County was established in 1804. David Lillard became pastor there in 1817 and served for 42 years. When Pastor Lillard began his ministry, the church had about 50 members; when he retired, it had nearly 400.

      In the early 19th century, Baptist churches met only one Sunday of the month; usually they accepted members and conducted any other business that was necessary on the Saturday just before their Sunday worship service. Churchgoers would travel by horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage or wagon, and most of the early church meetinghouses were located near a water source, so that peoples’ animals could be watered properly. Often a preacher would pastor as many as three or four churches at the same time. Ministers received very little financial compensation throughout the 19th century and generally were bi-vocational. Not until near the end of the century did many of the churches begin meeting on a bi-weekly or weekly basis. If evening services were held, light was supplied by lanterns in the days before electricity became available.

      The great frontier revival of 1800-1801 occurred in Northern Kentucky as in other areas of the state. Rev. John Taylor was a frontier Baptist preacher who came to Northern Kentucky and preached (though he never officially pastored) at the Bullittsburg Baptist Church. He described in his book, A History of Ten Baptist Churches (1823), how the revival he conducted in Northern Kentucky began in a service in the Corn Creek community of Gallatin (now Trimble) County. Soon the revival spread to Boone County and to other parts of Northern Kentucky. There were many unusual activities (the falling-down experience, the barking experience, the swooning experience) described at Cane Ridge Campground in Bourbon County and other Central Kentucky communities, but these were not reported in Northern Kentucky. In 1800 more than 122 persons professed faith in Christ and were baptized in the four churches that existed in Northern Kentucky, and as a result some new Baptist churches were organized. More revival activity followed in 1801. Revivals among the Baptist churches in Northern Kentucky were also recorded in 1811, when 277 were baptized; again in 1817-1818, with 728 baptisms; and in 1828-1829, with 228 immersions. These events led to the organization of more new churches in the region’s outlying areas. John Taylor had also been involved in the first reported Baptist revival in the state of Kentucky, when he pastored in Woodford County, several years before he came to Boone County.

      The first Baptist churches of the Northern Kentucky area became members of the Elkhorn Association of Central Kentucky which was organized in 1785 (the exception was the Dry Ridge church). The North Bend Baptist Association (named for the northern-most curve in the Ohio River) was established in 1803 with 9 churches. It grew to 25 churches by 1827, but then 8 churches from Campbell County withdrew and established another association, which they named Campbell County Baptist Association. These two associations merged in 1967 and became the Northern Kentucky Baptist Association; the year after they merged, 61 churches and 22,199 members belonged to the association. In 2005 the association had 70 churches with 34,600 members reported, the third-largest number for any association in the state. But this is not the only Baptist association in the region.

      The Bracken Association was established in 1799. Lewis Craig, leader of the famed "Traveling Church" that came to Kentucky from Virginia, was regarded as the father of this association. In the Bracken Association during the years 1827-1828, there were 1,116 persons baptized. Some members in the Bracken Association were adamantly opposed to involuntary slavery. For example, a church near Mayslick (Mason County), pastored by Donald Holmes, adopted emancipation principles. Some of the churches separated from the Bracken Association and formed an association that emphasized the abolition of slavery: "Licking-Locust, Friends of Humanity Baptist Association." David Barrow (who Baptist historian, J. H. Spencer said was a great orator, only being excelled by John Gano) was also a leader among this group. The Bracken Association presently extends along the Ohio River from Augusta eastward to beyond Vanceburg and as far south as Morehead.

      The Ten Mile Association was constituted in 1831 from 9 churches, with 4 churches from the North Bend Association and others from Gallatin County. This association presently has 15 churches in its membership. The Crittenden Association includes 29 churches in Grant, Pendleton, and Harrison counties. The Union Association has 15 churches from Falmouth, Brooksville, and Cynthiana. The Owen County Association has a total of 24 churches, and the White's Run Association has 10 churches in Carroll County and the surrounding area.

      For most of the 19th century, the various associations annually sent out a circular letter to member churches, according to a custom that began among Baptists in early 17th-century England. The letter was written by a local pastor or church leader, and it usually emphasized a doctrinal theme or an exhortation to the churches. The writer was generally assigned the previous year.

      These early Baptists were noted for their doctrinal beliefs: that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that there are two symbolic ordinances of the church, baptism (by immersion) and the Lord's Supper, or Communion. Baptism is for believers only, by immersion of the believer in water, and the Lord's Supper is administered by a church to its members. The two offices, or official positions, in Baptist churches are pastors and deacons.

      There are some Baptists who believe that foot-washing is also a church ordinance, and some hold that elders are a third type of official in the church. Individual churches are autonomous bodies and are self-governed. The earliest churches in Northern Kentucky adhered to the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith, published in the 1700s; many of the later 19th century churches adopted the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith after it was published in 1833.

Issues the Early Baptists Faced

      Alexander Campbell was a religious leader from Virginia who came into Kentucky in the 1820s and edited a newspaper called The Christian Baptist. He had been immersed by a Baptist pastor in eastern Ohio. He opposed creeds, missions and taught that baptism by immersion was not merely symbolic but was necessary for salvation. Following the revivals, Alexander Campbell's doctrine, which deviated from Baptist doctrine, created agitation and unrest among many members and attendees at Baptist churches in Northern Kentucky. William Vaughan, a pastor and able theologian, strengthened the Baptist churches of the Bracken Association in their doctrine; in those churches Campbell's influence had been strongly felt. Some churches in the region split and a group of members went with the Campbell faction, though Campbell did not have the impact in Northern Kentucky that he had in other areas of the state, where as many as one-third of the Baptist churches were divided or joined his movement. However, one prominent Northern Kentucky Baptist pastor, William Montague, left his church (Sand Run Baptist Church) after a trial by the church to determine his doctrinal position. He claimed he did not adhere to Campbell’s views, was pronounced ‘not guilty’ by the church, and shortly thereafter joined the Campbell faction. Most Baptist churches at that time referred to themselves as a "Baptist Church of Christ." Campbell's followers identified themselves as members of the Church of Christ; a title often confusing to frontier believers.

      In 1840 the Salem Association of Predestinarian Baptists was formed by 6 churches that withdrew from the Regular Baptists of the North Bend and Campbell County Associations. This group grew to 14 churches and had 413 members by 1845. Known as Primitive (or Old-School) Baptists by some, they held to extreme Calvinistic views and did not practice any evangelizing. They opposed missions, Bible societies (distributing agencies), and the formal education of ministers. Lewis Conner and John Underhill were prominent pastors at Forks of Gunpowder Baptist Church and leaders among these churches. It is believed that T. P. Dudley, of central Kentucky, was the leading influence in this group as he was the primary speaker at their first associational meeting. He had been a critic of the policies of the Northbend Association for several years. Most of these Predestinarian churches died out by the end of the 19th century; there has been a revival of a few Primitive Baptist churches still holding services in Northern Kentucky.

      In 1845 the Western Baptist Theological Institute was established at Covington. It was to be a cooperative educational effort between Baptists in the northern and the southern states, but the issue of slavery became a dominant factor, and the school closed after 10 turbulent years. Professors were primarily from the northern states and opposed slavery, so the southern-state Baptist churches would not send students there. The building was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and later part of its campus became St. Elizabeth Hospital.

      In Pre-Civil War times, slavery proved a contentious issue among Baptists. Many of the early settlers came from Virginia and brought their slaves with them. The counties of Mason, Boone, Carroll and Owen were the counties with the majority of the slaves in northern Kentucky. Slaves became members at local Baptist churches when they made a profession of their personal faith and were immersed in baptism. They were not required to support their church; neither were they allowed to vote or participate in any church business. There was a gallery (balcony) in most Baptist meetinghouses where the slaves were to sit during the worship services. The early meetinghouses had two doors in the front; the women entered the left door and sat on the left side; the men entered the right door and sat on the right side.

      Church records mention two African American Baptist preachers, Asa and Barnabas, who became influential preachers and held separate services for the slaves living in their communities. Asa and his wife were purchased in 1839 by a Baptist pastor and physician in southern Indiana, Ezra Ferris, where they were subsequently freed.

      During the Civil War men could obtain a waiver from serving in the military, after Federal military conscription became a practice, by paying $300 for a substitute. James A. Kirtley, who pastored three churches during the war, paid for a substitute so he could continue his pastoral work. The Campbell County Association issued a circular letter to its churches during the war, deploring slavery and urging church members not to participate in the war. There were men in some of the churches who volunteered for the Confederate army as well as some who volunteered for the Union army.

      After the Civil War, African Americans began to establish churches of their own. For instance, the Bracken Association had 26 churches with 2,523 members in 1862; about 1,000 of these were African Americans who left the church rolls after the Civil War. There are now black Baptist churches in Northern Kentucky in Covington, Burlington, Walton, and other towns. However, most of the freed blacks moved north of the Ohio River after the war.

      In the latter 19th century, local Baptists began an effort to evangelize the German population of Covington and Newport; German-speaking churches were established in those cities for a short period. Today, there is a Spanish speaking Baptist congregation in Covington.

      As the 20th century began, Baptists continued to maintain a strong presence and evangelistic efforts in Northern Kentucky.
* An autobiography of Tanner's experiences has been written: here.


[From various sources. As this essay was an oral presentation and not initially intended to be published, footnotes are not supplied. The essay has been slightly modified for this publication (2019). Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

More Kentucky Baptist History
Baptist History Homepage