Chapter I - Introductory
I propose in the following chapters to weave into form the scattered and tangled materials which make up the history of the Baptists in Kentucky.
In prosecuting this undertaking, impartiality and faithfulness shall be my undeviating aim. The chronicler of the past, however rugged his path, dare not shape or smooth it to suit it to his own taste or conscience. He cannot adorn it with embellishments gathered from the flowery fields of romance, nor can he light up the landscape with coloring or characters produced by his own inventive genius.
Yet truth is often stranger than fiction; it is certainly more instructive. And though the thrilling incidents, the splendor of thrones, the march of crimes and the thunder of battles which fling enchanting interest over the pages of history, are wanting here; yet will the lover of human progress, and especially the lover of truth, find much for which to be gratified. He will see a people crushed beneath a powerful and persecuting Episcopacy, few, feeble, and what the world calls unlearned, yet, lifting their voice in defiant tones above the storms of execration and violence; protesting in the name of truth and freedom against the universal domination of a State Church and a proud tyrannic clergy; sounding out through the grates of filthy prisons the joyous notes of redeeming mercy; and melting the hearts of those whom curiosity or mockery attracted to the spot; a people crushed, scattered, defenseless, without state patronage or the patronage of noble names or great leaders; with no earthly head, or strong central government to give direction to their aims, and no church creed to control or fetter their soul-freedom; with the word of God their only guide and love their only bond; yet rising in the strength of God above the crested mane, and battling with the storm; moving steadily and steadfastly onward and upward till, in the brief space of eighty years in a wilderness won from the savage, they have established churches in every portion of this Commonwealth; they have filled the land with temples of worship; they have reared institutions of learning which do honor to the State; they have sent forth ministers and missionaries whose praise is in all the churches, whose fame is world-wide; and after schisms and divisions have distracted and weakened them, and emigration has scattered through every new State thousands of their members, yet their ranks at this day far outnumber any other denomination around them.
Such are the struggles, and such the progress and triumphs of principles which will pass in review before us. Nor shall the follies, the failures and the partial defeats which have at times clouded or impeded their march, be extenuated or ignored.
Kentucky was a well chosen field to display the inherent energies of truth and develop the principles which have ever distinguished the people called Baptists, to display their tendencies and exhibit their power. The men who scaled the mountains with Boone and Kenton were no ordinary spirits. Cradled in the storms of colonial exposure and disquietude, they were capable of daring and enduring dangers and hardships which fling into the shade the wonders of chivalry and the heroism of romance. To plunge into an unexplored wilderness, occupied by unnumbered hordes of savage warriors; to swim rivers and camp through mid winter, without supplies, and without shelter, in a pathless forest hundreds of miles from any settlement, to select, survey, and defend for themselves the home they had claimed and determined they would occupy - required a courage and fortitude of no ordinary kind. But those dangers and conflicts fostered and strengthened their inborn energy and self-reliant independence. Men who feared no foe, who were appalled by no danger; who, as they followed the plow with their rifles slung across their backs, were resolving plans for the defence of the settlement or the government of the colony, were not likely to bow passively to the decrees of synods or the dogmas of confessions, because clothed with authority or hoary with age. With a manhood that claimed a birth-right equal to the noblest of earth, with a spirit that rose in the sublime consciousness of unfettered freedom, the huntsman, as he paused on the mountain's brow, or kneeled in the depths of the forest, lifted his heart to that being who alone spread out the heavens, and prostrated his heart to Him alone in humble adoration. Truth to him was everything; human names and authority nothing. And in the investigation of that truth, his strong common sense detected the sophistry and smiles and pretensions with which falsehood is ever arrayed.
This beautiful country which we call Kentucky, in the middle of the last century was an unexplored and almost unknown part of Fincastle county, Virginia. It was the common, and to some extent, the sacred hunting ground of different tribes of Indians. And often the herds of buffalo would graze on in peace, or gaze with wonder while the more savage painted warriors grappled in the fierce and bloody conflict. Can-tuck-kee, pronounced with a strong accent, was therefore an appropriate name for this "Dark and Bloody Ground," which is doubtless its literal signification.
While the missionaries and traders of the French, in their bark canoes, were pushing their discoveries from the Falls of St. Anthony to the Mexican Gulf, the government of England and the people of the colonies appear to have been entirely ignorant of this rich and charming region. With the exception of a few traders who had passed the Cumberland Gap, "and viewed with delight the landscape that stretched away towards the setting sun like an undulating sea of verdure,"1 this whole sweep of country bordering on the Ohio, was entirely unknown. In 1752 a rude map was constructed by Lewis Evans, which with the reports of returning traders, excited curiosity. Several exploring parties visited the country, but no permanent settlement was made till Daniel Boone erected a post at Boonsboro' on the first of April, 1775. During the same year posts were erected at Harrodstown, Boiling Spring, and St. Asaphs, and at the north side of the river - so runs tradition. "A party of hunters had kindled their evening fire and were seated on their buffalo robes around its cheerful blaze, deliberating, as may be supposed, about the name by which they should designate the newly selected site; when the news arrived of the momentous battle fought in Massachusetts on the 19th of April, 1775. In the enthusiasm of the moment the spot was called Lexington, to commemorate the event."2
On a bright Sunday morning, April, 1776, the sound of horn called the little settlement of Harrodstown together. 3 The whole population of Kentucky did not amount to one hundred, and as yet but ten women had ventured into the wilderness. Beneath a wide expanding elm tree little groups were collected. Dressed in their hunting shirts, leggins and moccasins they were seated or stretched upon the grass, silently watching the movements of two strangers who sat near the tree. Soon arose the younger of the two. He lifted his voice in earnest prayer, and then reading from the book of God, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his," proclaimed the glorious gospel of the blessed God. When he closed the other took up the theme. Those huntsmen's hearts were touched, and there beneath that elm, by the spring side, rose the accents of prayer and thanksgiving, and the groves of the savage and the buffalo rang with songs of praise and echoed back the strains of redeeming love. Those missionaries of the cross were Thomas Tinsley and William Hickman - Baptist ministers from Virginia. "We got to Harrodsburg," says the venerable Hickman,4 "the first day of April, and a miserable town it was. I there ate the first corn5 raised in the country; but little of it, as they had a poor way to make it into meal; we learnt to eat wild meat with our bread and salt." Hickman had heard of the new country called Kentucky early the same year, and such were the descriptions given of it that he determined at once to visit it. We may easily imagine what glowing accounts the returning hunters gave of this "Paradise of the Indian." The sublime historian describes it with an air of romance. "Everything here," - says Capt. Finlay, a revolutionary officer, and a witness of the early settlement of Kentucky - "everything here assumes a dignity and splendor I have never seen in any other part of the world. Flowers full and perfect as though they had been cultivated by the hand of the florist, in the lap of elegance and beauty decorate the smiling groves. Everything gives delight, and in that mild effulgence which beams around us we feel a glow of gratitude for the elevation which an all-bountiful Creator has bestowed upon us."
Upon "Father Hickman" the view burst with astonishing magnificence. After a dreary route through the wilderness and over bleak mountains still covered with snow, he beheld the rich glades covered with the tall waving corn and native grasses, the groves of sugar tree and walnut, the countless herds of buffalo and elk, and the undulating face of the country clad in all the peculiar beauties of spring. "I thought," he says, "of the Queen of Sheba, that came from the uttermost part of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and she said the half had not been told. So I think of Kentucky." After remaining some months in the country he went back to Virginia, soon to return with his family. For fifty years, he continued, after his return, to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ, and in his eighty-second year was still filling his appointments, and preached with interest.
In the meantime, and before regular worshiping congregations were established in the country, Joseph Reding and John Taylor made a visit to Kentucky in 1780, but such were the gloomy prospects of usefulness among a population so sparse and settled and unsettled, that they soon returned to Virginia. And in 1781, William Marshall, the father of Chief Justice Marshall, settled in the part of the distinct called the Moles, now in Lincoln county. His family labors and the establishment of the first church in Kentucky under the care of Lewis Craig, will be the subject embraced in the next chapter.
1 Findlay's Topographical Description of Western Territory, p. 5.
2 Flint's History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley. It is not part of any work to investigate the conflicting claims of priority in the settlements of different places in Kentucky. The post at Boonsboro' was erected April 1st, 1775. Harrodsburg laid out in lots in 1773, but forsaken till March 15th, 1775. Louisville was first visited by Capt. Bullit in 1773, but no permanent settlement was made till late in 1778. Lexington was laid off in June, 1775, and Frankfort was surveyed in 1773, July 16th, but not settled till years afterwards. See Frankfort Commonwealth, June 1st, 1841.
3 The settlement by Capt. Harrod was called Harrodstown, then Oldtown, and at present Harrodsburg.
4 Life and Travels of William Hickman; see page 8. A sketch of his life is reserved for another palce.
5 This first crop of corn was raised on the farm of John Harman, at the east end of Harrodsburg. - McAfee's Sketches.
[From S. H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, January, 1856, pp. 5-10. From a microfilm at The Southern Baptist Seminary Library, Louisville, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
Ford's Kentucky Baptist History
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