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Kentucky Baptist History
By William D. Nowlin
Chapter 3 - The First Churches Constituted - 1781.

"It is a well established fact in history that the Baptists were the pioneers of religion in Kentucky. They came with the earliest permanent settlers," says Collins' history.

In the year 1780 many Baptists, chieifly from Virginia removed to this state but it was not until the summer of the following year that a church was constituted.

Severn's Valley - June 18, 1781

The first church of any denomination consituted on Kentucky soil, far as history shows, was the Severn's Valley Baptist church which was constituted June 18, 1781. We learn from Spencer's History of Kentucky Baptists (Vol. I, p. 21): "There are facts and circumstances connected with the early history of the Church with which the present generation is little acquainted. When this present widespread and favored country was but a wilderness; when not a human habitation was to be found between Louisville (then called the Falls of the Ohio) and Green river, save a few families, who had ventured to Severn's Valley - a dense forest, and unexplored - and commenced a rude settlement far from the haunts of civilized man; there the lamented John Gerrard, a minister of God, came like John the Baptist, 'The Voice of One Crytng in the Wilderness,' and finding a few of the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ like sheep without a shepherd, on the 18th day of June, 1781, they were collected together under a green sugar tree; and in the fear of God, in church covenant gave themselves to the Lord and to one another, and were constituted a Baptist Church, named after Severn's Valley
and the creek which flows through it. It has ever borne the same name, none having dared, and it is hoped never may, to lay impious hands upon it by changing its venerable and venerated name - 'Severn's Valley Church.'"

From "Haycraft's History of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and Its Surroundings," which was written by Samuel Haycraft and published in the Elizabethtown News in 1869, and published in book form in 1921, we gather the following facts concerning the Severn's Valley Baptist Church, which is now located in Elizabethtown.

"On the 17th (this should be the 18th) day of June, 1781, under the shadow of a green sugar tree, near Haynes Station, a Baptist Church was constituted with eighteen members, by Elder William Taylor and Joseph Barnett, preachers, with Elder John Gerrard, who was ordained first pastor. The church was called the Regular Baptist Church of Severn's Valley. The same church still exists in Elizabethtown and is known by the name of the United Baptist Church of Christ, called Severn's Valley, and is now the oldest Baptist church that maintains an existence in Kentucky. All of the mewbers and the preacher emigrated from Virginia, and Elder Gerrard might have been emphatically styled 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness.'

"This man of God was only permitted to exercise the functions of his office for nine months." (Page 14). It is supposed that he was killed by the Indians, as he went out hunting one day and never returned, and as the wilderness was infested with hostile Indians at that time.

We say the date should be June 18, not 17, because the history of Salem Association written by its clerk, Spencer Clack, in 1826 says: "On Saturday, the 29th of October, 1785, four Regular Baptist Churches met at Cox's Creek, Nelson County, Kentucky, by their delegates, in order to form an association, and, after a suitable sermon on the occasion, preached by
our brother, Joseph Barnett, from the first chapter of John and 17th verse, proceded to business. Brother Joseph Barnett was made moderatio[sic], and Brother Andrew Paul, clerk.

"I. Letters from four churches were read, viz.: Severns Valley, constituted June eighteen, seven hundred and eighty-one, number of members, thirty-seven. No pastor." The number of members, of course, refers to the number when the church went into the association -- not when constituted.

Another reason why we say the date (June 17) in Haycraft's history is incorrect: we find that this same Samuel Haycraft published a history of Severn's Valley Church in Ford's Christian Repository of April, 1857, in which he stated that "The church was constituted of 18 members, June 18, 1781, under a green sugar tree, about a half mile from the present limit of Elizabethtown, the county seat of Hardin." This was while Mr. Haycraft was living, and if the date had been published incorrectly he evidently would have said so.

Mr. Haycraft, on the next page (15) of his history, gives a very interesting account of the manners and customs of the members of this old church, which we here reproduce:

"Church going folks of the present day who make it a point to appear in their best attire at the public reljgious services might feel some curiosity to know how our ancestors appeared on such occasions, and I hope they will not blush at the description. I received my impression from Jacob Vanmeter, who was the younger Jacob Vanmeter in the original constitution of the church. He died a few years since at the advanced age of about ninety-five, having been a Baptist about eighty-four years.

"They then had no house of worship. In the summer time they worshipped in the open air, in the winter time they met in the round-log cabins with dirt floors, as there was no mills and plank to make a floor. A few who had aspired to be a little aristocratic split timber and made puncheon floors.
"The men dressed as Indians; leather leggins and moccasins adorned their feet and legs. Hats made of splinters roled in Buffalo wool and sewed together with deer sinews or buckskin whang; shirts of buckskin and hunting shirts of the same; some went the whole Indian costume and wore breech-clouts. The females wore a coarse cloth made of Buffalo; wool, underwear of dressed doe skin, sun bonnets, something after the fashion of men's hats and the never-failing moccasin for the feet in winter, in summer time all went barefooted. When they met for preaching or prayer, the men sat with their trusty rifles at their sides, and as they had to watch as well as pray, a faithful sentinel keeping a lookout for the lurking Indian. But it so happened that their services were never seriously interrupted, except on one occasion. One of the watches came to the door hole during a sermon and endeavored by signs and winks to apprise the people that something was wrong - not being exactly understood, a person within winked at the messenger, as much as to say, 'Don't interrupt us.' But the case being urgent, the outside man exclaimed, 'None of your winking and blinking - I tell you the Indians are about.' That was understood, the meeting was closed, and military defense organized. Now, gentle and fair reader, I beseech you not to blush or be ashamed of your forerunners; they were the chosen of God and nature's nobility."

Our present day worshipers who live in their splendid homes and worship in their magnificent churches will read this account of the customs of our forefathers with absorbing interest. The following is from "Haycraft's History of Elizabethtown and Its Surroundings" (page 82): "The Baptists were the first in order of time in this valley. Their membership was scattered and covered a great deal of ground. For the accommodation of the church the monthly meetings were held alternately at the Valley and Nolin. These meetings were held in open air or a private house for many years. Old Nolin church
was constituted in 1803 by a mutual agreement." This explains why Nolin Church is some times referred to as the oldest church in Kentucky. Benedict in his "History of the Baptists," published 1848, on page 811, Chapter XXII - Kentucky, says: "The church called Nolin is supposed to have been the first Protestant religious society organized in the great West." The statement of Samuel Haycraft clears up this point in our history, and shows that Benedict is in error, and at the same time shows how the error easily occurred. Several other historians followed Benedict in this error.

In the minutes of the Green River Association, of which Severn's Valley was now a member, for the year 1802, meeting held at "Mill Creek Meeting House, in Barren County, Kentucky, on Saturday 31st July 1802," has the following item: "Severns Valley church, messengers, Jacob LaRue, Christopher Miller, Geo. Helm. Baptized 125, recd by letter 12, dismissed by letter 7, dead 2, total membership 156." We call attention to this item because of the large number of members received during the past associational year. More than half the membership reported had been received since the 1801 session of the association. This, as will be remembered, was during the "Great Revival of 1800," and following. Another item in that same minute (1802) says:
"Letters from thirty churches were read. Twelve of which had been constituted since last association, were received. "

These two items help us to estimate the results of the revival of 1800 and the years immediately following.

We have given a somewhat extended account of this church because it was the first church on Kentucky soil.

Cedar Creek Church - July 4, 1781

We come now to the second church in Kentucky, and which, but for patriotic reasons, might have been
the FIRST. This was only a few years after the Declaration of Independence and while the Revolutionary War was still continuing. This explains why those who constituted this church waited for the Fourth of July.

"Cedar Creek Church," says Spencer (Vol. I, page 23), "was the second organized in Kentucky. It was gathered by Joseph Barnett who was assisted in its constitution by John Gerrard, July 4, 1781. It is located in Nelson county about five miles southwest from Bardstown. The first pastor was Joseph Barnett." This church is still in existence and reports 200 members.

The next church on Kentucky soil was the Gilbert's Creek Church which was brought over in a body from Virginia and located in Kentucky, December, 1781. Lewis Craig was the pastor of this church. Attracted by the glowing accounts which were given by returning explorers of the beautiful scenery, the unexcelled productiveness, and the abundance of wild game of the charming region beyond the mountains, and revolting against the ecclesiastical persecution and domination of the State Church authorities of Virginia, the larger number of the members of this church, having been, at their own request, constituted into an independent church, and taking along with them the pastor and the old church book, began their long and tedious journey to the "foreign land." Carrying their women, children, and baggage on horseback, they travelled through the wilderness for 600 miles. Famine, cold, fatigue, and sickness impeded their journey. The wild beast and treacherous Indian made perilous their march. Winter, with its ice, snow, and mud, tested their patience and tried their strength. Many times during their journey, when a halt was called, did they engage in religious services. Many times did the primeval forest of the Dark and Bloody Ground resound with the hymns of Zion; the vales which formerly had reverberated with the scream of the catamount or the war whoop of the
[ 35]
infuriated savage, now for the first time echoed with the hallelujahs of the saints. The "Great Spirit," whom the savages ignorantly worshipped by means of magic and incantations, was now worshipped "in spirit and in truth." On the second Sunday in December, 1781, weary and exhausted, they arrived at Gilbert's Creek, and there permanently located. The church entered into the organization of Elkhorn Association in 1785. Dr. S. H. Ford, in the Christian Repository of March, 1856, (page 137), says of Craig and his traveling charge: "About the first of December, they passed the Cumberland Gap, . . . and on the second Lord's day in December, 1781, they had arrived in Lincoln (now Garrard County) and met as a Baptist Church of Christ at Gilbert's Creek." Then Dr. Ford adds, "Old William Marshall preached to them, with their pastor, the first Sunday after their arrival." John Taylor, in a biographical sketch of Lewis Craig, says: "I think he moved to Kentucky in the fall of 1781." Dr. J. B. Taylor, another of his biographers, says: "It has already been stated that in 1781, he removed to the West." Dr. R. B. Semple, in his history of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, Revised and extended edition (p. 200), says, in speaking of Craig's Church, "formerly called Upper Spottsylvania" . . . . "in 1781, to the great mortification of the remaining members, Mr. Craig, with most of the church, moved to Kentucky." Then in a footnote on the same page, Dr. Semple, after naming their location in Kentucky, "Gilbert's Creek, Lincoln (now Garrard) County," says, "They were the third Baptist Church constituted in Kentucky, and held their first meeting on the second Sunday in December." This fixes the date of this church in Kentucky. This church has long since ceased to exist as an organization, though out of it came other churches. Dr. W. M. Pratt says in "Jubilee Volume" (page 40): "In 1781 Lewis Craig, and probably his brother Joseph, came to Kentucky, followed, in 1786, by another brother, Elijah, and by his brother-in-law,
Richard Cave, a pioneer preacher. These Craigs were the sons of Toliver Craig, of Orange County, Virginia, whose large family of seven sons and four daughters were members of the church. The three sons who came to Kentucky were effective preachers in Virginia, and were a number of times thrown in prison. Lewis Craig, the elder of the three, was pastor of the 'migrating church' of two hundred, of Upper Spottsylvania, and after a long, fatiguing pilgrimage, maintaining their organization and worship on the way, settled on Gilbert Creek, Garrard County, October, (this should be December - wdn) 1781. Elijah Craig was first pastor of Big Crossing, laid out the town of Georgetown, established the classical school in that place, which is now the seat of Georgetown College. These two brothers were men of strong minds and of great influence in molding the character of the infant churches."

The three churches above named (Severn's Valley, Cedar Creek and Gilbert's Creek) were the only churches in Kentuclry in 1781 according to history. Mr. Roosevelt is evidently in error when he says ("Winning the West," Vol. II, p. 254), "Thus this spring (1780) "a third of the congregation of a Low Dutch Reformed Church came to Kentucky bodily to the number of fifty heads of families, with their wives and their children." He then adds, "The following year a Baptist congregation came out from Virginia, keeping up its organization while on the road, the preacher holding services at every long halt." There is plenty of evidence that the Baptist church came to Kentucky that year (1781) but no evidence that a "Low Dutch Reformed Church" was established in Kentucky in 1780. In fact, Filson after saying "The Anabaptists were the first that promoted public worship in Kentucky," says the only other sect at this time maintaining worship in Kentucky is the Presbyterians with four congregations. He says "at present there are no other religious societies formed, although several other sects have numerous adherents."
(301). So Filson in 1784 knew nothing of a "Low Dutch Reformed Church" in Kentucky, neither do other Kentucky historians. True Mr. Roosevelt does not say this church established itself in Kentucky as a church, but that is the inference. Dr. J. M. Cramp in his Baptist History in speaking of Kentucky Baptists says: "In 1781 the first church was organized at Nolin. (This is the Severn's Valley Church - Editor). That church is supposed to have been the first Protestant religious society organized in the Great West." The above is practically the statement of all the historians.

In the year 1790 there were in Kentucky forty-two churches, forty ordained ministers, twenty-one licensed preachers and 3,105 members. The list of early churches here given is by Dr. W. M. Pratt in Jubilee Volume (page 38):

"In 1782, Forks of Dix River was founded by Lewis Craig. In 1783, South Elkhorn, Fayette County, was founded by the removal of Lewis Craig, and a large portion of his church at Gilbert's Creek to this place, the first church north of Kentucky River.

"In 1784, Bear Grass Church, Jefferson County, six miles east of Louisville, was constituted by John Whitaker, and Howard Creek (now Providence), Clark County, by Elder Robert Elkin. (This church really came over from Virginia in a body as a constltuted church, as the old records show, and has a continuous history from its constitution in Virginia. Thus, it is the oldest church constitution on Kentucky soil, but not the first in Kentucky.- Nowlin.).

"In 1785, twelve churches were founded, viz.: Limestone (now Washington), Mason County, by Elder William Wood; Clear Creek, Woodford County, by Elder John Taylor; Pottenger Creek, Nelson County, by Benjamin Lynn; Cox Creek, Nelson County, by William Taylor; Brachears (Clear Creek), Shelby County, by Elder William Taylor and John Whitaker; Rush Branch, Lincoln County, by

Elder John Bailey; Head of Boone Creek, by Elder Joseph Craig; Big Crossing, Scott County, by Elder Elisha Craig; Tates Creek, Madison County, by Elder John Tanner; Town Fork (Lexington), by Elder John Gano; Bryant Station, Fayette County, by Elder Lewis Craig; Boone Creek (Athens), by Elder David Thompson.

"In 1786, Tate's Creek, Madison County, by Elder Andrew Tribble.

"In 1787, Marble Creek (East Hickman), Fayette County, by Elders William Hickman and John Price; Cooper's Run, Bourbon County, by Elder Augustine Eastin; New Providence, Lincoln County, by Elder William Marshall; South Fork, Nelson County, by Elder James S. Skaggs.

"In 1788, Huston Creek, Bourbon County, by Elder Moses Bledsoe; Forks of Elkhorn, Franklin County, by Elder William Hickman; Rolling Fork, Nelson. County, by Elder John Carman; Buck Run, Franklin County, by Elders John and James Dupuy; Shawnee Run, Mercer County, by Elder John Rice.

"In 1789, Hardin Creek, Nelson County, by Elder Baldwin Clifton; May's Lick, Mason County, by Elders Wood and Garrard.

"In 1790, Indian Creek, Harrison County, by Elder A. Eastin; Unity, Clark County; Hickman Creek and Hardin Creek, Mercer County; Mount Pleasant, Franklin County, and West Fork, Cox Creek, Nelson County, White Oak, Nelson County.

"1791, Stony Point, Mercer County, Strode's Fork, Fayette County, Taylor's Fork, Green Creek, Bourbon, Bloomfield, Nelson County; Crab Orchard, Lincoln County; Pitman's Creek and Brush Creek, Green County."

A number of other churches constituted within, this period are not named, as they had been disbanded.
Some Early Customs in Kentucky Baptist Churches

Dr. Spencer says (Vol. I, p. 485): "Ruling Elders were nominal officers in many of our early churches.
The name can only be appropriate when applied to the officer it designates, in a church having a Presbyterian form of government. In a Baptist church, the term is a misnomer." This custom soon passed away.

The practice of the laying on of hands was common. John Taylor in his "History of Ten Churches," says (page 10): "The rite of laying on of hands, on the newly baptized, was practised by the Baptists in those days; this practice was performed as follows: Those upwards of fifty, stood up in one solemn line, on the bank of the river, taking up about as many yards as there were individuals - the males first in line, about four ministers went together, each one laid his right hand on the head of the dedicated person, and one prayed for him, and after praying for three or four of them, another proceeded till they went through. It would appear as if that solemn dedication might be some barrier to future apostasy; for the prayers were with great solemnity and fervor, and for that particular person according to their age and circumstances."

Dr. Spencer says (Vol. I, page 486): "Laying on of hands was a ceremony in common use among the early Baptists of Virginia and Kentucky, as well as some other regions." He adds, however, "The ceremony has long since been discontinued among the churches in Kentucky."

The washing of feet seems to have been a very common ceremony among some of the early churches of Kentucky. "Among the Regular Baptists, it was practiced partially a few years, and then went entirely out of use," says Spencer. (Vol. I, p. 486).

None of these "early customs" are now in use among the Baptists of Kentucky, so far as the author knows.

We give two old subscription lists here of some interest. The first is for pastor's salary in South Elkhorn Church, and has on it thirty-six gallons of whiskey. The other is a facsimile of a subscription found in minutes of the Robinson & Pitman Church -


[Document transcribed]
Robinson & Pitman Baptist Church

Saturday Feb.y 1? 1806 Met pursuant to
adjournment & after worship proceeded to _____?
- Enquiry being made into the standing of
the Church, all appear to be in peace
No Businefs coming before the Church dis
were dismifsed - B Cliffton M[oderator]
Inste John Chandler

After Businefs a Subscription was Opened for
Raising property for the finishing the Meeting
House and is as follows

						  L      S    d
John Chandler 8 Gall'n whiskey 1 4
Jonathan Cowherd in Cattle 1 16
James Isbell in Corn 1 0
Timothy Riggs making 2 Doors 1 4
Isaac Wilson 20/ in Corn 1 ------
Baldwin Cliffton 16/ in Corn 0 16
Ambrose Ship in Corn 0 12
Isaac Hogland 1 Yearling 0 15
Stephen Hardin in Cattle 1 10
Wm Hardin in [?] 0 6
Rob't Jasbar[?] in [?] 0 6
Rich’d Wright in [?] 0 6
Joseph Richason in [?] 0 6
Tho's T. Cook in [?] 0 6

12 5 = 12 pounds & 5 shillings

20 shillings = pound L - [The British money system was still in use.]

(Robinson & Pitman Baptist Church) now Campbellsville Church - and containing eight gallons of whiskey.

In contrast with the above subscription lists we give the following which was adopted by the South Kentucky Association No.3 at its organization in 1845. Says Spencer (Vol. II, 580): "No church shall be considered in good standing in this union, that will encourage, by laxity of discipline, or otherwise, the making and vending of ardent spirits as a beverage, etc."

This shows the change of sentiment on the whiskey traffic in forty-seven years among the early Kentucky Baptists. And as compared with the present, it strikingly illustrates the great progress made in temperance reform in these 124 years.

What was true of the early Baptist churches in this country was true of churches of other denominations touching the whiskey traffic. Baptists were no worse and no better in this particular than those of other religious bodies of that time.

[William D. Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History, 1922, pp. 29-42. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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