State of Religion upon the Kentucky Frontier
By Randall Allen Corkern, 1952
Early Kentuckians were not distinguished for their religious piety. The general moral and civic laxity imposed a plenitude of exacting work upon every minister available. Among the pioneers there were many morally undesirables. Others of them were reckless and desperate men. Organized law upon the frontier was conspicuously absent. There in the new country any person could find comparative immunity from punishment.1 Lawlessness abounded in many of the communities and courts were almost unknown. In the new population were to be found many individuals who would seem to be undesirable from the standpoint of any citizenship possibility. Many of them were former convicts or redeemed servants. These persons, impulsive in social action and highly sensitive to suggestion, often played dramatic parts during the open-air revivals by attacking the camp meetings.2
Contemporary writers were perturbed as they noticed the lack of piety. The considerable religious work which was being done by the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics seemed scarcely to affect the current of life in Kentucky.3
The "Continental Sabbath" idea found much favor on the frontier. While speaking of frontier conditions Joseph Doddrige said:There was no other vestige of the Christian religion than a faint observance of Sunday, and that merely as a day of rest for the aged, and of play for the young.4In Kentucky, in addition to widespread drunkenness, profanity, Sabbath breaking, and a general procrastination in reference to religious duties, there was much of gambling, horse racing and duelling [sic].5
French skepticism and infidelity penetrated even the frontier. In the latter years of the eighteenth century Tom Paine was in vogue. French liberalism colored much of American thinking. In Kentucky, many of the early towns received their names from French infidels.6
Such were the conditions as the frontier preachers applied themselves earnestly in an effort to keep their religious experiences from receiving too much of the coloration of their environment. As the preachers surveyed their times, they were keenly aware that religion played only a small role in the lives of most of the early Kentucky settlers. David Rice, the well known Presbyterian preacher who came to Kentucky at an early date, bemoaned the situation deeply and wrote his much-quoted passage: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 their forms of religion in their own houses.7Placed in a new and demanding environment, far removed from the normal condition of life, many settlers became so engrossed in securing the material needs of life that matters of the soul were pushed into a secondary place.8 It was all they could do to build homes, clear fields, raise crops and establish themselves in the frontier.9
Thus as the frontier preacher planted the gospel seed in the Kentucky seedbed, he undoubtedly sometimes had qualms as to an immediate or abundant harvest. David Barrow commented, perhaps with a rationalizing strain:As to religion it is with them as it is with all other parts of the world. They have no true vital religion but where the grace of God has implanted the Devine principle in their hearts.10At times it seemed as if those who professed religion were in danger of having their ardor dampened by the disinterested environment. Painfully conscious of the woeful and inadequate state of religion in Kentucky, John Taylor said:Embarrassed as my worldly circumstances were, the face of things as to religion gave me more pain of mind; there were a number of Baptists scattered about, but we all seemed cold as death - every body had so much to do that religion was scarcely talked of, even on Sundays, all our meetings seemed only the name of the thing, with but little of the spirit of devotion - In short, we were such strangers to each other, that confidence was lacking for want of more acquaintance, and our common calls were such that we had not time to become acquainted - Kentucky felt to me now, as the Quails did to the Hebrews, who ate of them til they were loathsome and returned back through their noses.11But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the frontier preachers did not easily give up. They labored with great energy. As the settlers began to finish their homes and establish themselves in their communities, they began to listen more thoughtfully to the ministers, and the word of God which they proclaimed did not return void. However, on another occasion Taylor is exuberant as he recounts a vivid experience which he and Joseph Reding shared.We met about thirty or forty people, and began about the time designated. I went forward - there was nothing very visible while I was speaking - Reding dwelt on the awful subject, of a Judgment to come - the first appearance, was a young lady who began to weep and tremble, sitting by her grandmother; - the old lady for some time strove to stop her - at length she began to tremble herself, as if the Judge was at the door - From thence the effect spread through the whole house, with solemn groans and lamentations . . . the only remedy I had to prevent hallowing with all my might, was to vent the tender feelings of my heart, by exhortations and feeling invitations . . . our worship continued perhaps six hours, in prayers, praise, and exortations among the people . . . I solemnly surveyed the house a little before we started, and it is a fact, that the floor of it was a wet with the tears of the people, as if water had been sprinkled all over it, or with a shower of rain.12Such was the background of the place and times in which the frontier Baptist preacher spent his time and gave his life.
1 Frank Grenville Beardsley, The History of Christianity in America (New York: American Tract Society, 1938), p. 111.
2 O. Olin Greene, "The Revival of 1800-l," Publications of the Kentucky Baptist Historical Society, Vol. II, (1911), 8.
3 R. S. Cotterill, History of Pioneer Kentucky (Cincinnati: Johnson and Hardin, 1917), p. 241.
4 Beardsley, op. cit., 111.
5 Ibid., p. 112.
6 Ibid., p. 95.
7 Niels Henry Sonne, Liberal Kentucky 1780 – 1828 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), p. 11.
8 Ibid., pp. 11-12.
9 The Courier Journal, January 1, 1942.
10 David Barrow, "Diary of David Barrow Pioneer Baptist Minister Va.-Ky.," (a typed copy in The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, from the original now in possession of descendent Thomas Marshall Barrow, St. Louis, formerly of Owensboro, Kentucky), p. 26.
11 John Taylor, A History of Ten Churches (Frankfort, Kentucky: John Holeman, 1823), pp. 43-44.
12 Ibid., pp. 24-25.
[From Randall Allen Corkern, “A Study of the Education, Morals, Salary and Controversial Movements of the Frontier Baptist Preacher in Kentucky from its Settlement until 1830”, 1952, pp. 49-54, chapter 2, section VIII. A thesis for the Ph.D. @ SBTS, Louisville, KY; via the archives, Adam Winters, Archivist. The original footnotes were #83-94. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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