Beginnings of Baptist Worship in Kentucky
By Randall Allen Corkern, 1952
Organized public worship was first begun in Kentucky by the Baptists. There were Baptist ministers ready to begin the work and laboring in the State as early as 1776. Thomas Tinsley was regularly preaching in1 Harrodsburg on Sunday in the spring of that year. J. H. Spencer considers him the first settled preacher. He excepts Squire Boone, the brother of Daniel, who explored the state before any settlement was made. The year 1776 also found William Hickman, Sr., preaching at different places while he was at the time making a tour of investigation and observation. He soon returned to Virginia, not returning to make Kentucky his permanent home until eight years later.2
In 1779 a number of Baptist ministers visited Kentucky.3 Three of them were John Taylor, Joseph Reding and Lewis Lunsford. Their main objective was to look over the country with a view to future settlement. With the exception of Reding, these preachers soon returned to Virginia. However, as the years passed, many of them returned to Kentucky to take up permanent residence and to become pastors.4
By 1781 a few Baptist ministers began to settle permanently. This settlement continued until by the year 1786 Lewis Craig, Joseph Bledsoe, George S. Smith, Richard Cave, James Smith, James Rucker, Robert Elkin, John Taylor, William Taylor, John Tanner, John Bailey, Joseph Craig, Ambrose Dudley and a few others were to be found at work in scattered sections of the state.5
The Severn's Valley Baptist Church was the first constituted Baptist church in Kentucky, perhaps in the entire West.6 It was organized with eighteen members by two ministers, William Taylor and Joseph Barnett, on June 17, 1781. John Gerrard was chosen first pastor. They called it the Regular Baptist Church of Severn's Valley.7
For years the congregation had no church building. In the summer they gathered in the groves to hold service. When winter came they worshiped in one of the rude pioneer dwellings.8 About 1799 the first church building was begun. Called Severn's Valley Church, it was open to all groups as it was a town church project. It was a large house of hewed poplar logs. A rough, loose floor was laid and break-back benches set up. This structure was covered but never finished. The building was used in the summer time for public worship of all groups and occasionally as a school building.9
From this time on Baptist growth and organization developed rapidly. With the Baptists being the earliest denomination on the ground, it was not surprising that many prominent families became Baptists before other denominations could win them.10
Yet the work progressed not without peril. For a number of years no church group met without the fear of Indian molestation. The fact that Kentucky had no constituted church until 1781 - seven years after its settlement - is definite evidence of the unsettled, disturbed condition of the region.11
As the worshipers assembled in the groves, each man with his rifle, sentinels stood in strategic positions to guard against surprise Indian attacks.12 Even as they prayed, they did so with half-opened eyes, knowing they had to be watchful.13 Lest one underestimate this problem, it is noted that the Brashear's Creek Church in Shelby county, organized in 1785, was unable to meet for two years because of the Indian danger.14
In spite of all obstacles, there were in 1785 enough organized Baptist churches in the state to merit the formation of three associations. There was the Elkhorn Association with six churches: Gilbert's Creek, Tate's Creek, South Elkhorn, Clear Creek, Big Crossing and Limestone. Salem Association consisted of only four: Severn's Valley, Cedar Creek, Bear Grass, and Cox's Creek. The third association was the South Kentucky Association, which boasted a membership of five Separate Baptist churches including Gilbert's Creek, No Lynn, Pottinger's Creek, Head of Boones's Creek and Rush Branch.15
Because of the growing needs of the communities and the expanding needs of the churches the number of ministers was often inadequate. This made it necessary to spread the duties of a minister over several churches.16 The fact that there were a number of licensed ministers in the area relieved the shortage to some extent.17 These men often ministered to churches in the same capacities as the regularly ordained ministers. However, it was still necessary at times for a church to be inconvenienced by the lack of a minister for some time. Mays Lick Church, which was organized in 1789 with only four members, was without a minister for seven years. They called consecutively four ministers, William Wood, William VanHorn, a Reverend Toller, and a Reverend Ferrens, but all to no avail. During this period the members enjoyed preaching only when a traveling minister came along. Occasionally William Wood came and preached for them. Though they had no minister, they kept the church going, having regular Sunday worship and monthly meetings to conduct their business.18
According to Asplund's Baptist Register, in 1790 there were in Kentucky 42 Baptist churches with 3105 members. Laboring among these churches were 40 ordained and 21 licensed ministers.19
Asplund's figures, if correct, and there is no reason to doubt that they are fairly reliable, would seem at first glance to refute the above statement that the number of ministers was often inadequate. However two facts, if remembered, help to resolve this apparent contradiction. First, there is the fact that those ordained ministers who were in the state at the time were not always evenly distributed. Often there were found two or three ordained ministers in one church. Because of this, it could happen that a number of churches in the more backward and inaccessible places found themselves without a pastor, though another church, not too far away, might have two or even three ministers available. The second fact is that, though there were a number of licensed ministers available, churches still preferred the ordained minister, feeling that they had been proven where as the licensed minister seemed to them still an apprentice.
The typical Baptist preacher of the Kentucky frontier was a settler who came from the ranks of the people. Usually this meant he was a farmer and worked his land week days, stopping to preach only on week-ends or for funerals. Almost always they were obliged to support themselves, or at least to supplement their incomes by working at various occupations.20
Generally speaking, the frontier preacher had little formal education, for there was much prejudice against educated and salaried ministers.21 What they lacked in erudition and finesse they made up by a mature use of their22 natural talents and indefatigable zeal. Mode23 says that these early preachers were filled with an apostolic urge to follow the venturing settlers with the gospel.
1 Willard Rouse Jillson, Filson's Kentucke: A Facisimile Reproduction of the Original Wilmington Edition, Louisville: John P. Morton and Company, 1930, p. 29.
2 John H. Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, I, 1885, 12-13.
3 W. B. Allen, A History of Kentucky (Louisville: Bradley and Gilbert, 1872), p 176.
4 David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World (New York: Lewis Colby and Company, 1848), II, 227.
5 Allen, loc. cit.
6 Benedict, op. cit., II, 228.
7 B. F. Riley, A History of the Baptists in the Southern States East of the Mississippi (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1898, p. 35.
8 Samuel Haycraft, A History of Elizabethtown, Kentucky and Its Surroundings (n.d.): The Woman's Club of Elizabethtown, Ky., 1921, p. 14.
9 Ibid., p. 15.
10 Ibid., pp. 82-83.
11 W. E. Arnold, A History of Methodism in Kentucky (Herald Press, 1935), I, 11.
12 Riley, op. cit., p. 35.
13 Z. F. Smith, The History of Kentucky (Louisville: The Courier Journal Job Printing Company, 1886), pp. 403-404.
14 Haycraft, op. cit., p. 15.
15 George L. Willis, Sr., History of Shelby County, Kentucky (Louisville: C. T. Dearing Printing Company, Inc., 1929), pp. 65-66.
16 Basil Manly, Jr., History of the Elkhorn Baptist Association, Kentucky, 1785-1815, (n.p., n.n., n.d.), p. 18.
17 Niels Henry Sonne, Liberal Kentucky 1780 – 1828 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), p. 13.
18 Milburn, The Pioneers, Preachers and People, p. 353.
19 Z. T. Cody, History of Mays Lick Baptist Church (Mays Lick, Kentucky: (n.n.), 1890, p. 4.
20 John Asplund, The Annual Register of the Baptist Denomination in North America (Published for the author in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1791), p. 47.
21 Wendell H. Rone, A History of the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association in Kentucky: 1844-1943, (n.p., n.n., n.d.), p. 13.
22 William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1930), p. 314.
23 Peter G. Mode, The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923), p. 52.
[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. 42-49, chapter 7. A thesis for the Ph.D. @ SBTS, Louisville, KY; via the archives, Adam Winters, Archivist. The original footnotes were #60-82. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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