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The Great Revival in Elkhorn
By Harold G. Polk
      When the Baptists of Elkhorn Association gathered at the "Great Crossing" in Scott County August 10 through 12, 1799, they had little cause for rejoicing. The thirty-one churches listed in the record had baptized a total of only twenty-nine persons since the last meeting. Eighteen congregations reported no baptisms. The clerk, Augustin Eastin, noted "a general complaint of supineness (sic)." Another observer noted, "I don't remember . . . ever to have heard such complaints of deadness and supiness in religion as were contained in our church letters. . . . It appeared as if every harp was un-tuned and hung upon the williows. Though peace and tranquillity were prevalent, and the churches appeared sound in the Faith, their general state seemed to strike all the friends of vital piety. It was likewise observed to be the case with every denomination of Christians, in this country."

      Contemporaries blamed the decline in religious vitality on several causes: the greed of the people; a preoccupation with political developments in the new nation; and the influence of French deism. A Methodist circuit-rider, James B. Smith, observed in 1795 that, near Lexington, at least, "the Universalists, joining with the Deists, had given Christianity a deadly stab hereabouts."

      Whatever the perceived reasons for religion's loss of influence on the Kentucky frontier, such a loss seems to have been real. According to the figures prepared by J.H. Spencer in his classic, History of Kentucky Baptists (1885), in 1790 one out of every twenty-three Kentuckians was a Baptist. In the next decade, Kentucky's population tripled, but Baptists did not grow accordingly. Spencer's figures revealed a Baptist ratio in 1800 of one to every forty-three of the population. As Fred J. Hood has pointed out, Baptists (as well as other denominations) were not very successful in reaching what he called the "newer and dependent classes in the society."

Therefore, most Kentucky Baptists would have shared Spencer's sentiments:

The beginning of the year, 1800, was the darkest period that has ever occurred in the religious history of the Mississippi Valley. The gloom had been thickening year after year; till the land was now enveloped in darkness like that which anciently overspread the land of Egypt.

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The morals of the people were extremely bad, and open infidelity vaunted itself in every part of the land. It was openly asserted by leading politicians, that Christianity was inconsistent with liberal and enlightened states of worship. Lawyers, physicians and other men of real and pretended culture, felt that it would be a reproach to them to acknowledge the truth of revealed religion, and, of course the masses were much affected by the opinions of their leaders.
      However, better times lay ahead. Again, in the words of Spencer:
If a traveller had passed through the whole breadth of the settled portions of North America in 1799, he would have heard the songs of the drunkard, the loud swearing and obscenity of crowds around taverns, and the bold, blasphemous vaunting of infidels, in every village and hamlet. If he had returned in 1801, he would have heard, instead, the proclamation of the gospel to awed multitudes, earnest prayers in the groves and forests, and songs of praise to God, along all the public thoroughfares. While this wonderful religious awakening spread with great rapidity over the entire country . . . in no other locality was it so deep and powerful as in Kentucky, where the people had been most profane in their everyday conversation, and blatant in the coarsest type of infidelity. 'Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.'
      Most historians date the beginning of the Great Revival (or the Kentucky Revival) to the "Sacramental meeting" held at Red River Presbyterian meeting house in Logan County, in June, 1800. According to most accounts, however, Baptists were scarcely involved in the meetings in western Kentucky, since there were few Baptist churches in the region. In Spencer's view, though, the revival spirit had already begun to move among the relatively numerous Baptist churches of the northern part of the state.

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      John Taylor (1752-1836) seems to have been the Spirit's willing, but amazed, agent in the beginnings of revival among Baptists. Taylor records that "very early in the spring of 1800," he received word from Benjamin Craig, the brother of Lewis Craig, that there was revival in progress at the mouth of the Kentucky River (present-day Carrollton). Baptists and Methodists were the groups most active. Taylor travelled the sixty miles from his home in Bullitsburg, arriving at the home of Benjamin Craig in time for an evening meeting. Taylor was decidedly not in the mood for revival, yet he was called upon to preach. "From the dull feelings of my heart," he writes, "I took the text, which suited my own state, 'Lord, help me!' I continued but a short time, for I felt myself very worthless."

      What happened next was astonishing to John Taylor!

After which they continued on, in prayer, praise, and exhortation, with much noise, at times, till late at night. Some were rejoicing, having lately obtained deliverance; others groaning in tears, under a pensive load of guilt. My own heart was so barren and hard, that I wished myself out of sight, or lying under the seats where the people sat, or trodden under their feet. Many people tarried all night to talk to me. I never heard the question, 'what must I do to be saved?' more prevalent in my life. A number of them neither lay down nor slept during the night. About sunrise next morning, I took my leave of this blessed company of young disciples.
      Out of this "union" meeting arose the Ghent Baptist Church. Taylor had expressed reservations about Baptists working so closely together with Methodists. Their "union" sentiment, he noted, dissolved "soon after, when they came to divide the fish they had caught together."

      Leaving the settlement at the mouth of the Kentucky, Taylor journeyed to Trimble County, where a revival broke out which resulted in the formation of Corn Creek Church. Moving on, he preached at Clear Creek, in Woodford County, where he had been God's agent of revival in 1785 and 1788. His preaching, with "great heart yearning for my old neighbors," sowed seeds for the awakening to come.

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      On his journey home, John Taylor was filled with apprehension: "I almost dreaded to go home, fearing I should be unprofitable. Poor Bullitsburg now appeared like a deserted cottage in the wilderness."

      What he found did little to allay his fears. In his absence, dances at the home of a certain Captain DePew had become "a new social feature in the neighborhood." This raucous form of frontier entertainment even threatened to interfere with church-meeting times! One night, writes Taylor,

I had a meeting near the place. But few attended, though I heard they had a crowded house at the infare (dance). Two young ladies left the dance and came almost alone to the meeting. This was some encouragement that the devil did not reign sole monarch of this lower world. Next day, was preaching at our meeting house. It was an unusual thing, not withstanding the vanity of youth, for all to come to meeting, especially on Sundays. We had a crowded house, and perhaps all the dancers were there.
      Mrs. DePew, a relative of John Taylor's wife, had warned her social set about the preacher: "Girls, we shall hear enough of our dancing today, but let us not mind what Mr. Taylor says, we are at liberty, and will do as we please, let him say what he will." Now, that advice has a modern ring to it!

      John Taylor was discouraged. I had never been so thoroughly cowed down by discouragement in a ministry of twenty-five years. I really thought I had better be dead than alive, for I felt that Satan had gotten mastery where I lived. . . .! preached from the words, 'my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel, is, that they might be saved.' Soon after I began, a set of feelings overtook me, that exceeded anything I ever felt in public speaking. They consisted of a profuse weeping that I could not supress, while I made a comparison with the then state of Israel with my poor

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neighbors. The whole assembly seemed to reciprocate my feelings; perhaps there was not a dry eye in the whole house, Mrs. Depew exceeded in weeping.

      Thus revival began at old Bullitsburg Church.

      Another Kentucky Baptist pioneer preacher, William Hickman (1742-1834), helped to kindle revival fires at historic Forks of Elkhorn church in Franklin County. "The church was under a decline," he wrote.

Zion had gone into her slumbers. At a meeting at my house, on Sunday afternoon, several preachers being present, there came a young married lady to meeting whom I had never seen before, as she had just moved into the neighborhood. In time of preaching I observed tears flowing from her eyes. This gave me an uncommon feeling. I thought she was pierced with the sword of the Spirit. I think it gave me a travailing soul for the cause of god. She became an humble penitent, and, is now, I hope, in glory. Very shortly after this, I heard of three females in trouble, and inquiring the way to heaven. I started out to hunt the lost sheep. The first I went to see was a married lady. I conversed with her, and she satisfied me that she had been born again. I went to see two more the same day. . . . Neither of them professed to be satisfied, but appeared humble beggars, at a throne of grace. At our monthly meeting which was near at hand, the first one I visited came forward and told us what the Lord had done for her. She was cordially received. My dear brother (John) Gano, though in a feeble state, like old Jacob, leaning on the top of his staff, spoke at the water, and I baptized her in the name of the Holy Trinity. The next meeting the other two came forward, and I baptized them. Blessed be God, the glorious work of God went on and prospered abundantly. Every meeting was crowded and many more were converted to God.

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      Such stirrings of the Spirit were noted at the annual meeting of Elkhorn Association at Bryant's Station Baptist Church. An observer noted:
At our Association in August, 1800, the face of the churches' letters was generally altered, and hopes expressed, in very strong tones, of a divine visitation, with some small encrease (sic) in many of them....The meeting of the Association was lively and refreshing, and great seriousness appeared in the very numerous audience which attended of I think not less than 2,000 persons. When I set out on my return home, at the house where I had lodged, I left about a dozen persons bathed in tears.
      It was in the spring and summer of 1801, however, that the revival "broke loose" with full force in central Kentucky!

      The "granddaddy" of all the Kentucky revival experiences took place at Cane Ridge Presbyterian meeting house near Paris. Kentucky, beginning August 8, 1801. The "instigator" of Cane Ridge was the church's pastor, Barton W. Stone, a revivalistic Presbyterian who had visited Logan County in the spring to witness the amaz-ing events there. He returned home "with ardent spirits" and the conviction "that it was a good work - the work of God." Stone gave wide publicity to the meeting. Bourbon County was located near the center of the most thickly settled region in Kentucky, and word travelled quickly. "The roads were literally crowded with wagons, carriages, horsemen, and footmen, moving to the solemn camp." Estimates of attendance ranged from twelve thousand to twenty-five thousand - an amazing number for this period in Kentucky's history. Presbyterians and Methodists were most in evidence, and some Baptists were probably present. One contemporary wrote this description:

At night, the whole scene was awfully sublime. The ranges of tents, the fires reflecting light amidst the branches of the towering trees; the candles and lamps illuminating the encampment; hundreds moving to and fro, with lights or torches, like Gideon's army; the preaching,

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praying, singing, and shouting, all heard at once, rushing from different parts of the ground, like the sound of many waters, was enough to swallow up all the powers of contemplation. Sinners falling, and shrieks and cries for mercy awakened in the mind a lively apprehension of that scene, when the awful sound will be heard, 'arise ye dead and come to Judgement.'
      Preaching went on all over the beautiful Bourbon County hillside.
There was at this place a stage erected in the woods, about 100 yards from the meeting house, where were a number of Presbyterian and Methodist ministers; one of the former preaching to as many as he could get near enough to hear. In the house, also was another of the same denomination, preaching to a crowded audience - at the same time another large concourse of people collected about 100 yards in an east direction from the meeting house, hearing a Methodist speaker -- and about 150 yards in a south course from the house was an assembly of black people, hearing the exhortations of the blacks.
      At Cane Ridge, worshippers experienced the bizzare physical manifestations which marked much of Kentucky revivalism. Observers divided these "exercises" into six distinct types: the "falling exercise", the "rolling exercise", the "jerks", the "barks", the "dancing exercise", and the "laughing and singing" exercise. Eyewitness accounts of these phenomena were a major part of reports from the revivals which appeared in religious journals in the East. Such reports caught the attentioin of the Shakers of New York, who sent a group to observe the revivals in Kentucky. Finding the religious excitement to their liking, within a few years the Shakers established two thriving settlements on the Kentucky frontier, at South Union in Logan County and at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.

      Historians of Kentucky Baptists have insisted that Baptists were not involved in the emotional excesses which characterized Cane

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Ridge and other such "camp meetings". S.H. Ford, writing in Ford's Christian Repository, was firmly convinced.
Individuals doubtless attended. Here and there a preacher may have taken part. But the Baptists, both members and ministers, condemned, from the first, the extravagances of the Presbyterians, and not a single case is on record of the particiaption of any Baptist Church or minister in any such scenes as have been described....! have conversed with several, who witnessed these ex¬citements; there are many still living, who were Baptists at the time. All have concurred in the testimony that the Baptist preachers discouraged all those excitments, and held no camp meetings. Rev. William Vaughan, who witnessed many of those scenes, gives his described testimony to this.
      Although Ford, Spencer, and other writers were doubtless trying to protect the Baptists from the ridicule and suspicion attendant upon these dramatic manifestations, what they wrote was probably mostly true. The Baptists rarely, if ever, used the camp meeting approach. Revivals moved from church to church, from community to community. The role of the local church, the pastor, and baptism by immersion probably contributed to Baptists' distinctive experience during the revivals. In fact, most of the conversions in Baptist congregations took place before the gigantic meeting at Cane Ridge. And, although Baptist revivals probably escaped the most bizzare manifestations of revival excitement, their meetings were certainly not without deep emotion, as the following accounts of revivals in selected churches demonstrate.

      South Elkhorn Baptist Church, then located near the present Fayette-Jessamine County line, was the site of marvelous works of God. S.H. Ford characterized John Shackleford, the pastor, as "an ordinary, unlearned man, rather slow of speech, of very moderate abilities, but pious and dedicated." Shackleford was distressed at the deadness in the church since pastor Lewis Craig had left South Elkhorn for Bracken County.

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But the light at length broke forth. The members ai Elkhorn had mingled with the awakened brethren at Clear Creek. The old pastor's heart beat with fresh ardor. Meetings were held weekly at the meeting-house, and nightly, the young, the old, the skeptic, and the worldly, were alike affected and alarmed.... The state of excitement here was greater than at Clear Creek. It verged at times to censurable extravagance. There were numbers who fell; a few cases of the 'jerks' were witnessed; yet none of that wild intoxication, which marked other scenes, was beheld here.... When six only had been received in the past six years, three hundred and nine were received during the spring and summer of 1801.
      A similar harvest was gathered at the Bryant's Station Baptist Church under the ministry of the sober and respected Ambrose Dudley (1750-1825).
Here were no extra meetings, except prayer-meetings at private houses through the week. The bright cloud passed over them. Gently fell the showers on the long barren field. Monthly were buried with Christ in baptism groups of rejoicing converts of every class and age.
      At the meeting of Elkhorn Association in 1801 "Bryant's" reported three hundred sixty-seven baptized!

      At Great Crossing, the oldest church in Scott County, "the work was more extensive."

The earnest and eloquent (Joseph) Redding preached day and night and from house to house. Crowds thronged the meeting-house. The preaching was frequently in the open, in order to accommodate the multitude assembled. From the Eagle Hills to Cane Run, age and infancy, black and white, were aroused, were alarmed, were asking, 'what shall we do to be saved?' William Cave, James Suggett, and George Eve, aided the pastor, and preached with new felt power. God's

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presence and power was (sic) among them, like the lightning, like the thunder, it shook, it prostrated, it killed to wake alive again; and the beautiful waters of the Elkhorn were parted by the burial in baptism of hundreds who now trod the shores of immortality.... Yet no strange scenes occurred.... It was power and peace; the deep anguish of heart-felt guilt, which voided itself in burning tears, the joy that filled the heart with holy melody; hope, lighting up the eye and wreathing the face in smiles angelic.
      To one observer, revival at the Crossings was truly miraculous, because "this has been the most unhappy church in our union (association)." He went on to note than in only two of the Baptist churches were "those extraordinarily bodily agitations prevalent; in the rest, as far as my acquaintance extends, there is a great solem¬nity and seriousness, and the new converts give very satisfactory accounts with a work of grace in their hearts."

      Therefore, when the Baptists of Elkhorn gathered on their regular meeting day, the second Saturday in August, 1801, there was great cause for rejoicing. But wait, what was the date? August 8, 1801 — the very date for the beginning of Stone's Cane Ridge meeting! Was Stone deliberately trying to compete with the Baptists? Or did he hope that they would adjourn en masse to join his meeting? No contemporary explains the coincidence of dates. The Baptists met in formal association on Saturday, worshipped together on Sunday, and reconvened in business session on Monday. There may have been some who travelled from South Elkhorn to Cane Ridge for Sunday's events, or went to Cane Ridge at the conclusion of the associational meeting. One Baptist contemporary, who out of curiosity chose to attend Cane Ridge instead of the association, wrote that between eight and ten thousand were in attendance at the Sunday worship of Elkhorn Association. This makes the religious impact of that second weekend in August, 1801, on the Kentucky frontier, even more remarkable!

      The minutes of the Baptist meeting scarcely mention the excitement of the revivals. Perhaps they felt the statistics would speak for themselves! A total of 3011 had been baptized by the thirty-six

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churches reporting (ten were admitted to the association at this meeting). The total membership of the churches had nearly tripled! The revival had brought showers of blessings nearly everywhere in Elkhorn. One exception seems to have been the principal town within the bounds of the association:
But alas, poor Lexington, yet in measure stands out, though I trust even in this Sodom there are a few brought to a saving knowledge of Christ.
      It would be another decade before Baptists were able to start an enduring church in the "Athens of the West".

      The spirit of revival gradually decreased during the rest of 1801 and into the spring and summer of 1802. At the next annual meeting of the association, the churches reported 488 baptisms, and in 1803 the number had declined to 64. Acording [sic] to Spencer, revival fervor visited Kentucky Baptists again in 1810, 1817, and 1827-1829, and 1837. None of these seasons, however, would equal the excitement of 1800-1801!

      This is a good place to pause and assess the impact of the Great Revival on the Baptists of Kentucky and Elkhorn Asssociation.

      Of course, the major result was the increase of strength to the churches. Hundreds of new believers became extremely useful Christian citizens, laymen and ministers alike. However, others had difficulty conforming to a Christian lifestyle. For the next several years, at the annual meeting, Elkhorn churches reported a large number of members excluded because of disciplinary reasons.

      The awakening of missionary consciousness also followed the excitement of the Great Revival in Elkhorn. Larry Douglas Smith has documented this rise in missionary spirit, especially as demonstrated in the work of John Young (1764-1855). At the meeting of the association in August, 1801, South Elkhorn Church brought a request to send "missionaries to the Indian nations." Here is the response, in the exact wording of the associational minutes:

Agreed to appoint a Committee of five members to hear and determine on the the Call of any of our ministers and if satisfied therewith to give then credentials for that purpose: To set subscriptions on foot to

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receive collections for use of said mission and it is recom¬mended to the Churches to encourage subscriptions for said, purpose and have the money lodged with the Deacons to be applied for that purpose whenever called for by the Committee the following Brethren are appointed - David Barrow, Ambrose Dudley, John Price, Augustin Eastin, G. Smith, or any three of them.
      When no ordained minister volunteered for this special mission, John Young, a member of South Elkhorn, applied. Young, who had carried dispatches for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, was subsequently ordained in September, 1801, by a council which included all five of the members of the above named committee!

      Young's mission took him to the Indian tribes living near Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. Regretably, little is known of the actual impact of Young's work. J.H. Spencer preserved this single incident:

According to a tradition among his descendants, when Mr. Young met a council of the Indian tribes to which he was sent, he was received in a friendly manner by all except a fierce young warrior, who walked back and forth in a very angry mood, with a huge knife in his hand. Finally the missionary induced him to sit down by him; they smoked together and peace was made. As to how long Mr. Young remained among the Indians, or what degree of success attended his labors, we have no knowledge.
      In the years following a renewal of revival spirit in 1810, the Baptists of Elkhorn displayed their interest in the work of William Carey in India, raising money in 1813 to help rebuild a printing press there which had been destroyed by fire. When Luther Rice preached on the subject of missions at the associational meeting in 1815, he found a very receptive audience.

      Another indirect result of the revivals was the union of two distinct Baptist traditions, the "Regulars" and the "Separates". The minutes

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for 1801 contain this entry.
Agreed that a Committee be appointed to attend the separate Association and write them a friendly letter and use such means as may appear right to them to bring about a union and if it should appear necessary that they call a convention of the Churches to carry the union into effect the following Brethren are appointed - David Barrow, Ambrose Dudley, J. Price, Wm. Payne, J. Redding.
      The Baptists of Elkhorn Association had shown their interest in bringing the two Baptist groups together as early as 1793. The "Separates" and "Regulars" had already united in North Carolina in 1786, and Virginia in 1787. Baptists in Kentucky, however, made little progress until the revival excitement of 1801. Then, it seems, they were able to recognize that their common evangelistic thrust overrode their differences on such issues as the uses of confessions of faith, the office of "ruling elder", laying on of hands after baptism, and the practice of washing of feet.

      Therefore, on the second Saturday in October, 1801, at the old Providence meeting house on Howard's Creek, in Clark County, two messengers from each church in the Elkhorn (Regular) Association and from each church in the South Kentucky (Separate) Association gathered to discuss union. They were able to agree on eleven "terms of union", of which the last was most signficant: "That a free correspondence and communion be kept between churches thus united." Although some Separate Baptist congregations insisted on keeping their distinct identity, most Baptists of Kentucky readily accepted those terms and many began to use the name, "United Baptists", to describe themselves. This terminology itself fell from use in the mid-nineteenth century.

      Another aspect of the Great Revivals has great relevance for our day. Although the early sources agree that revival was sincerely prayed for, revival was certainly not scheduled. Wayne E. Ward has written:

One thing is certain - if God is going to work with Baptists today, He has to fit into the time allotted in the program and within the structure we provide. We are 'running the show', and we can get along quite nicely

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with our own plans whether God chooses to manifest Himself or not. We may even long for God to pour out a mighty blessing of revival upon us; but we do not know how to 'wait upon the Lord', and let His Sovereign Love overwhelm us at a time and manner which He chooses, and which we may least expect.
      While these words should not in the least deter us from working, planning, hoping, and praying for revival, they remind us that when true revival comes, it is God's doing, not ours.

      Finally the Great Revival had immense socio-economic implications for the churches. As Fred J. Hood's research has shown, most of the converts of the revivals were of the "have-nots", or at least the "have-littles" of the frontier society. Many were black slaves. In the months following the revivals, some converts left the churches; others were excluded. But many remained, and their lives were changed. In biblical terms, "the gospel was preached to the poor" (Luke 4:18), and "the common people heard...gladly" (Mark 12:37).

      In the days and months ahead, as the Baptist of Elkhorn Association, the Kentucky Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention, plan for simultaneous revivals, we will do well to ask if we are still people who reach out to the poor with the Gospel, or has the affluence which has come so gradually since World War II built a wall between ourselves and the kinds of people who used to feel welcome in our churches? One thing is certain: other groups in our nation are preaching to the poor, and their growth rates reveal their success.

      So then, we long for revival, as did our forefathers in the discouraging years of the late eighteenth century. May God grant us revival such as they experienced, which saw the good news preached to all people, which brought healing to their divisions, which spurred their mission work and which enlivened their churches. "Lord, send a revival — and let it begin in me!"



John B. Boles. The Great Revival, 1787-1905: The Origins of the Southern Evangelical Mind. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1972.

S.H. Ford. The Christian Repository. Vols. VI (1856) and VII (1857).

Fred J. Hood. "The Restoration of Community: the Great Revival in Four Baptists Churches in Central Kentucky," The Quarterly Review, October-December, 1978, pp. 73-83.

Larry Douglas Smith. "The Missionary Work of the Elkhorn Association, 1785-1815" Paper to be published in the July, 1985 issue of Kentucky Baptist Heritage.

J.H. Spencer. A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1769 to 1885. 2 vols. Cincinnati: J.R. Baumes, 1885.

William Warren Sweet. Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists, 1783-1830. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1964.

John Taylor. A History of Ten Baptist Churches of Which the Author Has Been Alternately a Member. Frankfort, 1823.

Wayne E. Ward. "Early Revivals and Revivals Today," in Leo Taylor Crismon, Baptists in Kentucky, 1776-1976: A Bicentennial Volume. Middletown, Kentucky: Kentucky Baptist Convention, 1975.


[Published by the Elkhorn Baptist Association, Lexington, KY, 1985. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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