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The Coming Of Other Denominations To Kentucky

1776 - 1790
By Frank M. Masters
      While the Baptists were the pioneers in Kentucky, in doing the first preaching, and planting the first churches, other Denominations of Christians were gathering permanent congregations of their faith.


      It is certain there were individual Presbyterians among the first settlers of Kentucky. William Hickman speaks of his old friend, "Mr Morton, a good pious Presbyterian" at Harrodsburg in the Spring of 1776. James George, Richard and Samuel McAfee were Presbyterians, as were Judge Richard Henderson and Benjamin Logan.

      The first Presbyterian minister to settle in the territory of Kentucky was David Rice, a native of Virginia, a graduate of Princeton, and for thirteen years pastor in his native state. Mr. Rice visited Kentucky early in 1783, not with the intention of becoming a resident, but solely in search of land for his children. He did not purchase an acre because of the shameless spirit of land speculations which he found rife everywhere. During his stay, Mr. Rice preached as opportunity afforded, and was received with joy by the Presbyterian settlers, who urged him to come and live among them. He indicated, if they desired to be organized into a church, that he would consider coming.1

      On his return to his home in Virginia, Mr. Rice met more than a thousand people on their way to Kentucky, so great was the migration in that direction. Sometime later a paper was presented to him with some three hundred signatures of men, entreating him to come and plant a Presbyterian Church among them. Mr. Rice appeared with this petition before the Hanover Presbytery, which recommended that he accept the call as providential. In October of 1783, he moved to Kentucky with his family and settled in the region of Danville, where he preached in private homes.2

      Later Mr. Rice describes the religious conditions he found among the Presbyterians, who had requested him to settle among them. He says, "After I had been here some weeks, and had preached at several places, I found scarcely one man, and but few women, who supported a credible profession of religion. Some were grossly ignorant of the first principles of religion. Some were given to quarreling and fighting, some to profane swearing, some to intemperance, and perhaps most of them totally negligent of the forms of religion in their own houses. I could not think a church formed of such materials as these could be called a church of Christ. . . . Many of these produced certificates of their having been regular members in full communion and in good standing in the churches from which they had emigrated, and this they thought entitled them to what they called Christian privileges here. Others would be angry and raise a quarrel with neighbors if they did not certify, contrary to their knowledge and belief, that the bearer was a good mortal character. I found indeed

very few on whose information I could rely respecting the moral character of those who wished to be church members."3

      In the Spring of the year, 1784, Mr. Rice gathered three large congregations near Harrod's Station, at Danville, Cane Run and the Salt River Settlement. Houses of worship were erected without delay and during the following years churches were organized in them all. Rev. Adam Rankin arrived from Virginia in October, 1784 and organized a church in Lexington under the name of Mt. Zion, becoming its pastor, and later he took charge of the congregation at Mt. Pisgah, located about eight miles southwest of Lexington. During the same year, Rev. James Crawford, also from Virginia, settled at Walnut Hill. In 1786, Rev. Thomas Craighead from Nortih Carolina and Rev. Andrew McClure from Virginia were added to their number. With the seven ministers then in Kentucky and with five ruling elders, the first Presbytery was organized in the Court House at Danville on Tuesday, Octboer 17, 1786, and designated Transylvania. Rev. David Rice was Moderator and Andrew McClure, Clerk. The territory of the Presbytery included the District of Kentucky, and the settlements on the Cumberland River, extending into what is now Tennessee, and also settlements on the Miamis in what is now Ohio.

      Dr. Davidson says, "In 1786 the Presbyterians and Baptists had an equal number of congregations, viz., sixteen of each denomination, but the latter had greatly the advantage as regards preachers, boasting of no fewer than thirty; while the Presbyterians could count only seven. These two were for some years the only prominent sects in the country."4

      A historian writes thus of tlhe Presbyterians and Baptists at that period: "The Presbyterians and Baptists composed a large proportion of the population. The first having ample claims to literature, the latter but little, either in possession, or expectancy, deeming learning unnecessary in expounding the Scriptures. The Presbyterians, in common with the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, admit infants into their Church. The Baptists on the contrary differ essentially from them on these subjects. Their members must be of discreet years. Their own children are admitted into their own church only upon conditions of their making certain declarations of experienced religion, and giving assurance of divine acceptance, which but few educated people can, or will do. The result is, that when a Baptist has educated his son for the higher occupations in life, there are three chances to one, against his becoming a member of his father's church. There are yet more chances against any other well educated man's becoming a member of the Baptist Church in Kentucky. While the Presbyterians receive children into their congregation, raise them up members, educate them in their own faith and practice; for which reason they ever after remain in the same church. The consequences are not more obvious than important. Presbyterians are found qualified for every department, civil, ecclesiastic, military, and forensic. They have, therefore, divines, lawyers, doctors, politicians, judges, governors, and legislators."5

      The Presbyterians were the pioneers in promoting public education in the Kentucky territory. A Board of Trustees was appointed by the Hanover Presbytery, in Virginia, in 1783, with Rev. David Rice,

President, to establish a public school or seminary in the new country. In February, 1785 a school was organized in the house of David Rice, near Danville, designated Transylvania Seminary, which was the first school taught in Kentucky.6 From 1780 to 1783, there had been granted by the Virginia Legislature 20,000 acres of escheated land, located in Kentucky County and one-sixth of tihe surveyors' fees, for the purpose of supporting public education, which was incorporated by the Trustees into an endowment to support the Transylvania Seminary. This land was unproductive for years, providing only a meagre support for one teacher.

      In 1788 the Seminary was moved to Lexington, because of the literary and commercial advantages of this flourishing town. But the move proved almost disasterous to the school. The leading men of the place were deeply tinctured with French infidelity, which greatly influenced the Trustees. By 1794, this skeptical sentiment so prevailed that the head of the Institution was ejected and his place was filled by Rev. Harry Toumlin, who was an Englishman by birth, and by profession a Baptist preacher, but in sentiment a rank Unitarian.

      The Presbyterians, having lost the control of Transylvania, withdrew, and opened up the Kentucky Academy at Pisgah in Woodford County. The Kentucky Legislature endowed this academy with 6,000 acres of land. In 1798, Harry Toumlin became Secretary of State under Governor James Garrard. On December 22, the same year, the Transylvania Seminary and the Kentucky Academy were merged, and styled Transylvania University. The school was placed under the control of a Board of twenty-one Directors, the majority of whom should be Presbyterians, and some of them ministers. Departments of law and medicine were added in 1799, The school possessed a literary library of thirteen hundred volumes, besides a library of law and medicine.7

      The Presbyterians controlled the University for about thirty years. The land endowment had become very valuable, and the Institution prospered. In 1818, another crisis arose and it was found that there were only seven Presbyterians on the Board of Trustees out of the twenty-one members. The attempt was made to secure as head of the University a man "known for piety, orthodoxy and learning." Three noted Presbyterians and "the Rev. Luther Rice of the Baptist persuasion" were elected to the position. Neither of these men accepted the appointment.

      The Rev. Horace Holley of Boston was elected President, the charter was changed, the old Board of Directors was turned out in February, 1818 and in their place a set of men was appointed, "not one of whom, whatever other merits they might have had, made any pretense to religion." "The President was in habit of holding up to ridicule the evangelical tenets of human depravity, the efficacy of prayer, the real personality of the devil, the creation of the world in six days, and the doctrine Christ crucified." The Presbyterians surrendered all attempted control of Transylvania and founded a new college at Danville under the direct control of that denomination, which opened in 1823 as Centre College.8

      With all their educational and other advantages, the Presbyterians were not able to keep pace with the rapid growth of the Baptists. They

were greatly reduced in numerical strength following the great revival, because of the years of litigation, which resulted in the loss of the Cumberland Branch, and the New Lights, led off by Barton W. Stone. They reported only thirty-five preachers and one thousand three hundred forty-eight members in 1809.


      The Methodists were the third major denomination, to come to Kentucky and to establish societies. A Methodist historian gives the following account of early Methodism in Kentucky: "There were no Methodists among those first immigrants who came to Harrodsburg, Boonesboro, and Saint Asaph's for the very good reason that the pioneers of that migration were from the 'back countries' of Virginia and North Carolina, and Methodism had not reached those 'back countries' at that time. Methodism had its birth in England, when, on tine night of May 24, 1783, John Wesley 'felt his heart strangely warmed'. Twenty-five years later the movement reached America. Robert Strawbridge, an Irish local preacher, came to this country and settled in Maryland. In 1763, he gathered together a group of fourteen persons and organized them into a Methodist 'Society', the first to be organized in America at the time Kentucky was first settled, Methodism had been in existence only thirty-seven years, and in this country only twelve years. There were only ten preachers and about two thousand members, and fully half of these were in Eastern Maryland. There were only three hundred in Virginia, practically all of them along the Eastern shore. Middle and Western Virginia and North Carolina had none at all."9

      During the year 1783, Francis Clark, a local preacher, accompanied by John Durham, a class leader, and some others came from Virginia, and settled about six miles from the present site of Danville. Clark organized the first Society of Methodists in Kentucky sometime during the year 1783. At an early date, Thomas Stevenson and wife came from Maryland and settled in Mason County. Arnold says: "The home of Thomas Stevenson was undoubtedly the birthplace of Methodism in Northern Kentucky."

      At the annual conference held in Baltimore in 1786, a new circuit was created called Kentucky circuit. Benjamin Ogden and James Haw were sent to the new circuit. According to Methodist authority, Benjamin Ogden was a young man of twenty-two years, and just admitted on trial, while James Haw was an older man, an Elder, who had supervision over the whole field. In 1787, the Cumberland Circuit was formed out of Kentucky; and in 1788, the Kentucky Circuit was divided and became the Lexington and Danville Circuits, and all were supplied with preachers. "At the end of the Conference year of 1787-8 these faithful men reported 479 wthite, and 64 colored members."10

      In 1780, Bishop Francis Asbury visited Kentucky and held the first Annual Conference commencing on April 15, which met in a Methodist log meeting house, the first erected in the State, located at Masterson's Station five miles northwest of Lexington. Asbury came to America from England in 1771, and landed in Philadelphia. In 1772, he was appointed by John Wesley, as Superintendent of the work in America at the age of twenty-six years. He was later ordained Bishop.

      A voluntary company, consisting of Rev. Peter Massie, John Clark, and eight others guarded Bishop Asbury from Virginia to Kentucky with rifles. Asbury speaks thus of this journey: "I was strangely outdone for want of sleep. Our way is over mountains, steep hills, deep rivers, and muddy creeks - thick growth of weeds for miles together, andr no inhabitants but wild beasts and savage men. I slept about one hour the first night, and about two the last. We ate no regular meals; our bread grew short and I was much spent." On Ihis way he "saw the graves of the slain - twenty-four in one camp - who had a few nights previous, been murdered by the Indians."11 To the first Conference, were reported twelve preachers, six circuits, and one thousand three hundred seventy-two members, of these one hundred and seven colored.

      To attend the Conference in Kentucky in 1792, Bishop Asbury and his party suffered many hardships. He came on horseback through the Cumberland Gap over the wilderness road. They encountered heavy rains and were compelled to swim the Laurel River to get to Rockcastle Station, where the people were wicked, and they were forced to pay a dollar a bushel for corn with which to feed their horses. They had to swim the Rockcastle River and other rivers. Asbury says: "How much I have suffered in this journey is only known to God and myself. What added much to its disagree - ableness is the extreme filthiness of the houses." In connection with the conference he says, "I am too much in company and hear so much about Indians, convention, treaty, killing and scalping, that my attention is drawn to these things more than I could wish. I found it good to get alone in the woods and converse with God."12 The report to this conference showed an increase in membership during the year of 251 whites and 15 colored, making a total of the four circuits, 2,059 whites and 109 colored.

      The Methodists had an almost unrestrained zeal in their work and worship. Singing was a very prominent feature in their worship. Great emotion, and physical manifestation characterized their services. At the first annual conference, the historian says, "Here a tolerably large log house had been erected, which was crowded day and night with shouting converts or anxious inquirers. There were no altars or mourners' benches, but the floor was often covered with persons groaning for redemption, and the woods resounded with the shouts of the converted."13

      The Methodists madie rapid progress following the great Revival. In 1800, they reported 1742 members, in 1810, 7800; in 1820, 15,670; in 1830, 28,189; and in 1846, 37,000. From 1890, they remained the largest denomination next to the Baptists.


      The Catholics were among the first emigrants who settled in Kentucky. Two Catholic families, those of William Coomes, and Dr. George Hart, settled in Harrodsburg in 1775. Here Mrs. Coomes opened a school, which, was attended by her children and by those of other settlers. This was, no doubt, the first elementary school taught in the territory of Kentucky. Dr. Hart was among the first physicians in the early settlements, if not the first. In 1783, these two families, with other Catholics, settled in Nelson County,

not far from Bardstown. Here the Coomes family secured possession of several tracts of land, one of which, containing 105 acres, was given to the Catholic Church.

      The Reverend Charles Whelan was the first priest sent to Kentucky. He arrived with other emigrants in the Spring of 1787. He visited the different settlements and gathered the Catholics and administered the sacrament in their homes, which were regarded as church altars. In 1793, another priest, the Reverend Stephen Theodore Baden, arrived and for thirty years rendered sacrificial service, and did his utmost to establish Catholic settlements. The Reverend Anthony Salmon came in January, 1799.

      Two families, Anthony Sanders and Jeremiah Webb, who were loyal Catholics, came to Bardstown. The site of the St. Joseph Church was practically a gift of Mr. Sanders. In 1785, a large colony of Catholics came from Maryland and settled on the Pottenger Creek in Nelson County. By 1787 there were about fifty Catholic families in the new County of Kentucky, and in 1793 this number had increased to about three hundred families.14


1. Davidson, Robert, History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky, p. 64, 65.
2. Sweet, W. W., Religion on the American Frontier, The Presbyterians, 1783-1840, p. 30.
3. Spencer, John H., A History of Kentucky Baptists, Vol. 1, p. 50; Christian, John T., A History of the Baptists in the United States, Vol. 2, p. 292.
4. Spencer, John H., op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 555.
5. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 556, 557.
6. Sweet, W. W., op. cit, p. 74.
7. Davidson, Robert, op. cit., p. 74, 290; Spencer, John H., op. cit., Vol. p. 557-558.
8. Sweet, W. W., op. cit., p. 74, 75; Davidson, Robert, op. cit., p. 298-29S; 310-311.
9. Arnold, W. E., A History of Methodism in Kentucky, Vol. 1, p. 19-21.
10. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 28, 51.
11. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 74.
12. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 92, 93.
13. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 75.
14. Mattingly, Mary Romona, The Catholic Church on the Kentucky Frontier, p. 1-155.


[From Frank M. Masters, A History of Baptists in Kentucky, 1953, pp. 141-146. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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