First Churches Planted
During a period of more than twenty-five years since the last of the pioneer fathers fell asleep, much interest has been felt, and much earnest inquiry has been made, as to which is the oldest church in Kentucky, and what was the date of its constitution. The dilligent Sweed, John Asplund, who traveled on foot from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as Kentucky, for the purpose of collecting statistics, of which to compose a Baptist register, for 1790, did the Baptists of America a good service in preserving approximate dates and numbers of their old churches and associations. But it was not practicable for him to have all his dates technically correct. A comparison of his register with the official records, exhibits many mistakes. Subsequent historians have followed him, and, of course copied his blunders. In order to correct these errors, we must have recourse to the official records, where such resources can be found. Happily such records have been found as will enable us to determine with sufficient exactness the time of constituting our early churches.
For some years after the constitution of our oldest associations, the minutes of their proceedings were not printed, and few of the manuscripts containing them have been preserved. In 1825, Elder Spencer Clack, an accomplished scholar, and, at that time, a member of Simpsons Creek (now Bloomfield) church, was elected clerk of Salem Association. That body, fearing that its minutes would be lost, if not put in a more permanent form, made the following order: "The clerk is requested to make out a condensed history of this Association, and present it at our next meeting." Mr. Clack presented his report to the Association at its annual meeting in 1826. The following extract is taken from that report, as recorded in the
Association book, and printed in the minutes of that date:
"At the last meeting of the Association, the clerk of the Association was requested to make out a condensed history of the Association. From his own personal knowledge, he knows but little of its history. From the book of records, he has derived all the information in his possession, from which he has, in most cases copied verbatim what you will read in the following pages."
"On Saturday, the twenty-ninth of October, seventeen hundred and eighty-five, four Regular Baptist churches met at Cox's Creek, Nelson county, Ky. by their delegates, in order to form an association, and, after a suitable sermon on the occasion, preached by our brother, Joseph Barnett, from John 1:17, proceeded to business. BrotherJoseph Barnett being chosen Moderator, and Brother Andrew Paul, Clerk."
"I. Letters from four churches were read, viz.
"Severns Valley, constituted June eighteen, seventeen hundred and eighty-one, number of members, thirty-seven. No pastor."
"Cedar Creek, constituted July fourth, seventeen hundred and eighty-one. Joseph Barnett, pastor."
"Bear Grass, constituted January, seventeen hundred and eighty-four, number nineteen, John Whitacre, pastor."
"Cox's Creek, constituted April, seventeen hundred and eighty-five, members twenty-six."
Another witness confirms the statements of the official record in regard to Severns Valley church. Hon. Samuel Haycraft, a member of this church, and a cotemporary of several of those who entered into its constitution, published a history of the old fraternity, in the Christian Repository of April, 1857. He states 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. A mong the original members were Jacob Vanmeter, Sr. and his wife, Letty, Jacob Vanmeter, their son, Bennam Shaw, Jacob Dye, and Hannah, his wife, and three colored persons, Mark, Bambo and Dinah, servants of Jacob Vanmeter. It is also probable that John Gerrard and Thomas Helm were in the constitution. Among the early members of this church were
many distinguished citizens, of whom may be named John La Rue, in honor of whom LaRue county was named, Robert Hodgen, from whom Hodgenville derived its appelation, Gen. Duff Green, afterwards of Washington city, and Thomas Helm, father of Hon. George Helm, grandfather of the late Gov. John LaRue Helm and Rev. Dr. S. L. Helm, and great grandfather of Hon. George H. Yeaman, Rev. Dr. W. Pope Yeaman, and other distinguished citizens. Of the descendants of the original members of this old church many able ministers of the New Testament have gone forth to declare to the multitudes the blessed message that gladdened the hearts of their ancestors, amid the toils and dangers of the savage-infested wilderness. The following graphic description of the scene presented at the constitution of Severns Valley church, is from the pen of Hon. Samuel Haycraft, a grand son of Jacob Vanmeter, jr.
"There are facts and circumstances connected with the early history of the Church with which the present generation is little acquainted. When this present wide-spread 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 crying in the wilderness," and finding a few of the desciples 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 Severns 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."
Then they did not occupy a house of worship, as at present; then there were no waving harvests, or burdened fields of corn; no hospitable mansion to receive shelter and cheer the man of God after delivering his message; but in some humble, round log cabin with earth floor, or rude, half-faced camp, with bark
roof; or, perchance, under the shade of some spreading tree, the humble disciples met; they met like brethren, surrounded by dangers, in a forest of unknown boundary, not knowing at what moment the savages would break in upon them; they had fears without and fightings within. Could we of the present generation look upon a group, giving a correct representation of one of those religious assemblies, it might strike us as somewhat grotesque, if not ludicrous. Imagine the male members, partly in Indian costume, leather leggins, breech clouts and moccasins, with hats made of buffalo wool rolled around white oak splints and sewed together; and the females in the simple attire of bed-gown and petticoats entirely of buffalo wool; underwear of dressed deer skins, for as yet no flax, cotton, or sheep's wool were to be found in their wilderness home. The brethren sat with rifle in hand and tomahawk at their side, with a sentry at the door. Yet they feared God and considered themselves highly favored, for they had the word of God dispensed, and sanctuary privileges in the great temple of Nature. The reader may smile at the picture, but dare not smock. They were good people; their appearance was not of choice, but from the force of circumstances."
The same day on which the church was constituted, probably by Joseph Barnett and John Whitaker, John Gerrard was ordained its pastor. He was, therefore, the first pastor of a Baptist church -- the first who discharged the functions of a scriptural bishop -- in the great valley, lying between the Alleghany and Rocky Mountains. His was a vast parish, and he occupied aresponsible position. But he did not long enjoy his honors, nor bear his responsibilities. About eleven months after his assumption of the pastoral office, he took his rifle and went out to hunt for game in a neighboring forest. At night fall, his wife and daughter watched for him in vain. He never came. It is supposed that he was killed by the Indians, who were then prowling around the infant settlements, determined to drive the "pale faces" from their hunting ground. His history, except during his brief sojourn in Severns Valley, has faded from the memory of men. We know not whence he came nor whither he went. Our knowledge of him may be summed up in a single sentence from the pen of Mr. Haycraft: "Like John
the Baptist, he came preaching in the wilderness, and, like Moses, no man knoweth of his supulchre until this day." Severns Valley church has, for many years past, been located in Elizabethtown, but still retains its ancient name. It first united in forming Salem Association, but afterwards, perhaps on account of its opposition to slavery, united with Green River Association. After a year or two, it returned to Salem, of which it still remains a member. It has generally been a peaceful, orderly and prosperous church, and has numbered among its pastors, such eminent ministers as Alexander McDougal, David Thurman, Colmore Lovelace, Robert L. Thurman, George H. Hicks, Jacob Rogers, William Vaughan, William L. Morris and John S. Gatton. From its membership have sprung the following preachers: Josiah Dodge, Isaac Hodgen, Colmore Lovelace, Jacob Rogers, S. L. Helm, W. L. Morris, A.W. LaRue, John H. Yeaman and James Haycraft. It has sent out colonies to form the following churches Nolin, Middle Creek, Rudes Creek, Youngers Creek, Mill Creek, Mt. Zion, Gilead and perhaps others. These, some of which date back almost to the beginning of the present century have sent out their colonies, in turn: so, that old Severns Valley is the mother of a multitude.
CEDAR CREEK church 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 south-west from Bardstown. It will be observed that it is only sixteen days younger than Severns Valley, and probably might as well have been constituted as early, or even earlier than that church, had not our patriotic fathers desired to do honor to the Fourth of July, it being only five years after the Declaration of Independence, and while the old Revolutionary War was still in progress. Among the prominent citizens, who were members of this church, in an early day, were James Rogers, a member of the Danville convention, in 1785, and judge James Slaughter. The first pastor was Joseph Barnett, who continued to minister to the church till October, 1785, and probably some years later. The second pastor was Joshua Morris, who continued, to labor with the church a long series of years, during which time it greatly prospered.
JOSHUA MORRIS was born in James City county, Va., about the year 1750. His father and one of his uncles were Baptist preachers in Virginia, where they labored during the stormy period of persecution.
Mr. Morris was awakened to a sense of his lost estate under the the preaching of Elijah Baker, by whom he was baptized for the fellowship of James City church, in his native county, about the year 1773. Very soon after his baptism, he commenced exhorting, and, two years later, began laboring with Elijah Baker, at Grafton, where his exhortations were profitable. After this he moved to the neighborhood of Boar Swamp (now Antioch) church, of which he became a member. While here, he commenced holding meetings at the house of a Mr. Franklin, near the city of Richmond. The Lord blessed his labors, and soon several persons were baptized. There was no Baptist church in Richmond at that time, and it is even doubtful whether any Baptist had ever preached within its limits.
Not far from the year 1776, Mr. Morris moved into the city, and commenced laboring among the people. Again his labors were blessed. Within about two years, a sufficient number was baptized to warrant an organization, and, in 1780, the First Baptist church in Richmond was constituted. Mr. Morris was immediately chosen its pastor. He continued to labor in this position about eight years. In 1788, he moved to Kentucky, where he stopped, for a time, on Elkhorn. But the Lord had prepared a field of labor for him in another locality. He was led to it in the following manner: About the year 1785, those famous old pioneers, John Whitaker and William Taylor, constituted a small church on Brashears creek, in Shelby county. But the Indians soon became so troublesome that it ceased to meet. Two or three years later, William Hickman, who had recently settled at the Forks of Elkhorn in Franklin county, visited the brethren on Brashears Creek, collected them again, and preached to them several times. They solicited him to settle among them, and when he declined, they desired him to send them a preacher. This was just about the time that Mr. Morris arrived in Kentucky. There was no preacher in what is now Shelby county, at that time. On Mr. Hickman’s solicitation, Mr. Morris visited the church on Brashears
Creek, and soon afterwards became its pastor. He labored in the gospel about ten years, in Shelby county. During this period, he gathered several churches, and among them Elk Creek, till recently, one of the largest and most prosperous churches in Spencer county.
From Shelby county, he moved to Nelson, and became a member, and the pastor, of Cedar Creek church. He was, at this time, about fifty years old, a strong, able-bodied man, with a large and varied experience, and was eminently useful among the young churches of that region. He preached to Mill Creek in Nelson county, and Severns Valley in Hardin, and perhaps tosome other churches, at different periods, while he lived on Cedar Creek. Under his ministry at Severns Valley, in 1801, a revival prevailed, which resulted in 101 additions to the church. Among these was the distinguished Isaac Hodgen and three others that became preachers. Mr. Morris died at his home in Nelson county, about the year 1837. His was a long and eminently useful life, and when, at last, the summons came from the Master, he left the walks of men, honored and lamented.
After the death of Mr. Morris, Cedar Creek church had frequent changes of pastors; other churches grew up around it, and for a number of years past, it has been rather a weak body. Still it has some good members, and it is hoped that the old mother of churches will be rejuvinated and become mighty for the accomplishment of good, as in the days of yore.
GILBERTS CREEK CHURCH was the third organization of the kind in Kentucky. Its history is one of thrilling interest, and must be traced from its origin in Virginia, where it was born amid the throes of a relentless persecution. In order to have a clear understanding of its history, it is necessary to glance at the early operations of the Baptists in Virginia.
At the beginning of the zealous labors of the Baptists in the colony of Virginia, the Regular Baptists, whose most active preachers were John Garrard, John Alderson and the distinguished David Thomas, occupied the northern border, while the Separate Baptists, whose first preachers were Shubal Stearns, Daniel Marshall, Dutton Lane, James Read, Joseph and William Murphy, and the renowned Samuel Harris, occupied the southern border of Virginia and the contiguous part of
North Carolina. Each of these parties extended its operations toward the centre of the State, till they met in Culpeper, Orange and Spottsylvania counties. Their labors were greatly facilitated by a singular display of the divine favor, of which Mr. Semple speaks as follows:
"It is remarkable, that about the time of the rise of the gospel in Virginia, there were multiplied instances of persons, who had never heard anything like evangelical preaching, that were brought, through divine grace, to see and feel the want of vital goodness." Among these was Allen Wyley, a respectable citizen of Culpeper county. On becoming awakened to the subject of salvation, he began to call his neighbors together at his house, read the Bible to them, and exhort them to seek the Savior. After this had continued for some time, he accidentally heard of David Thomas, and soon set out to travel sixty miles to converse with him and hear him preach. On a second visit, he was baptized, after which he invited the minister to come and preach at his house. But when he reached Mr. Wyley's the mob had collected, and refused to let him preach in the county. However,he went over into Orange county, and preached several times. Many persons were awakened, among whom were some of Toliver Craig's Household. This occurred in 1765. Next year, Mr. Wyley traveled to Pittsylvania county to find Samuel Harris and induce him to come and preach at his house. Mr. Harris returned with him, and preached the first day after his arrival. But next day when he began to preach, the crowd "assailed him with whips and sticks" so violently, that he was compelled to desist. He then went over into Orange county, where he continued many days, preaching to great crowds. Many who had been awakened the year before, under the preaching of Mr. Thomas, were converted, as well as others who were alarmed under Mr. Harris' preaching. On leaving the young converts, to return home, Mr. Harris advised some of them, in whom he discovered gifts, to hold meetings. They took his advice, and chose Elijah Craig’s tobacco barn for their meeting house. Among these unbaptised young preachers were Lewis and Elijah Craig. Some time after they commenced their meetings in the tobacco barn, David Thomas, who was a man of !earning, visited the neighborhood again, and preached to the young converts, on their
invitation. In his preaching, he unfortunately spoke against such weak, illiterate persons' attempting to teach. The young converts took umbrage at this, and determined to send again for Mr. Harris to come and preach and baptize. When the three messengers, one of whom was Elijah Craig, arrived at Mr. Harris', they were surprised to learn that he had not been ordained. However, he set out with the messengers, who traveled sixty miles farther, into North Carolina, to obtain the services of James Read. Mr. Read consented to go with them. They arrived in Orange county, and, having sent a messenger before them to make an appointment, they found a large crowd of people assembled. Messrs. Read and Harris preached a number of days, and the former baptized many. David Thomas and John Garrard were present on Sabbath. It will be remembered that they were both Regular Baptists, while Read and Harris were Separate Baptists. The preachers on both sides desired to unite in the work, but the people were opposed to it, the larger number adhering to the Separates. Both parties preached and baptised at the same hour, and near together. This widened the breach. From Orange, Read and Harris went into Spottsylvania, and, thence, through Hanover, Caroline and Goochland counties. So much were they encouraged by their success, that they made an appointment to return again next year. On fulfilling this appointment, they brought Dutton Lane with them. On this occasion, they constituted the first Separate Baptist church north of Rappahannock and James rivers. This took place, Nov. 20, 1767. The church was called Upper Spottsylvania, and consisted of twenty-five members. It was three years without an under shepherd; but, in November, 1770, Lewis Craig was ordained, and became its pastor.
THE CRAIGS were so conspicuous in gathering the early churches, both in Virginia and Kentucky, that they are entitled to especial notice in this place. Toliver Craig was an only child of English parents, and was born in Virginia, about the year 1710. At the age of 22, he married Polly Hawkins, and settled in Orange county. This union was blessed with seven sons and four daughters. Their names, in the order of their ages, beginning with the oldest, were John, Joyce, Lewis, Toliver, Elijah, Jane, Joseph, Sally, Benjamin (born March 30,
1751, Jeremiah and Betsy. They all became Baptists, Lewis, Elijah and Joseph became preachers, and Betsy married Richard Cave, a pioneer preacher in Kentucky. They were probably all among the early settlers of Kentucky.
LEWIS CRAIG was born in Orange county, Va., about the year 1737. He was raised on a farm, receiving a very limited education, and, in early life, was married to Betsy Landers. He was first awakened to a sense of his guilt and condemnation, about the year 1765, under the preaching of Samuel Harris. Of his struggles while under conviction, John Taylor says: "Mr. Craig's great pressure of guilt induccd him to follow the preachers from one meeting to another. And when preaching ended, he would rise up in tears, and loudly exclaim that he was a justly condemned sinner, and with loud voice warn the people to fly from the wrath to come, and except they were born again, with himself, they would all go down to hell. While under his exhortation, the people would weep and cry aloud for mercy. In this manner, his ministry began before himself had hope of convertion, and after relief came to him, he went on preaching a considerable time, before he was baptized, no administrator being near, many being converted under his labors."
Very soon after Mr. Craig's conversion, and before he was baptized, he was indicted by the grand jury, "for holding unlawful conventicles, and preaching the gospel contrary to law." When the jurymen by whom he was being tried went to a tavern for refreshments, he treated them to a bowl of grog, and, while they were drinking it, got their attention, and spoke to them to the following purport:
"Gentlemen: I thank you for your attention to me. When I was about this courtyard, in all kinds of vanity, folly and vice, you took no notice of me; but when I have forsaken all the vices, and am warning men to forsake, and repent of their sins, you bring me to the bar as a transgressor. How is all this?"
John Waller, who was at this time an exceedingly wicked man, was one of the jury. He was so deeply impressed by the meekness of Mr. Craig, and the solemnity of his manner, that he did not recover from the awful impression until he found peace in Jesus, about eight months afterwards. He subsequently
became one of the most distinguished Baptist ministers of his generation, and, in his turn, endured great persecution, "for preaching the gospel contrary to law." Mr. Craig was probably prosecuted no farther in this case.
On the 4th of June, 1768, Lewis Craig, John Waller and James Childs were seized by the sheriff while engaged in public worship, and brought before three magistrates in the meeting house yard. They were held to bail in a thousand pounds, to appear at court two days afterwards. They were arraigned before the court as disturbers of the peace. In his speech, the prosecuting attorney said: "May it please your worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man on the road, but they must ram a text of scripture down his throat." Mr. Waller, who had been educated for the law, defended himself and his brethren so ingeniously, that the court was much puzzled. However, the prisoners were required to give security not to preach again in the county, for the period of twelve months. This they refused to do, and were committed to jail. As they passed along through the streets of Fredericksburg, on their way to prison, they sang the old hymn beginning:
"Broad is the road that leads to death."
A great crowd followed them, and the scene was awfully solemn. Tradition has it, that Joseph Craig, a very eccentric man, cried out in a stentorian voices: "Arise ye dead and come to judgement!" whereupon many persons dropped down, as if pierced through the heart.
"During their confinment," says J.B. Taylor, "Elder Craig preached through the grates to large crowds, and was the means of doing much good." Mr. Craig remained in jail a month, and was then released. He at once hastened to Williamsburg, and soon secured the release of his brethren. Their imprisonment seems to have increased their zeal, and they went forth with renewed energy in their glorious work. As has been stated, Mr. Craig was ordained to the pastoral office, in November, 1770. But this did not prevent his preaching abundantly in all the surrounding country. In 1771, he was arrested in Caroline county, where he was committed to prison and remained in jail three months. Before he left Virginia, he was instrumental in gathering at least three churches
in Dover Association -- Tuckahoe, Upper King & Queen, and Essex. During a revival in Upper Spottsylvania, in 1776, over one hundred were added to its membership. This church prospered as long as Mr. Craig remained with it in its first location. But the time now drew near when the Lord of the harvest would send him to a new field of labor among the dark wide forests of the great wilderness beyond the mountains. He was now in the vigor and strengthof manhood -- a little under 45 years of age. He had been fourteen years in the ministry, had enjoyed extraordinary success, and had had a wider and more varied experience than most men have in a life-time.
Mr. Craig continued to serve Upper Spottsylvania church as pastor, till 1781, when he moved to Kentucky. So strongly was the church attached to him, that most of its member came with him, At exactly what time in the fall they started has not been ascertained. But Mr. Craig was on the Holsten river on the road leading from his former home, by way of Cumberland Gap, to his destination in Kentucky, on the 28th of September, 1781; for on that day, he aided in constituting a church at that point, then the extreme western settlement in Virginia.
Dr S. H. Ford, in the Christian Repository of March, 1856, says of Craig and his traveling charge: "About the 1st of December, they passed the Cumberland Gap, . . . and on the second Lord's day in December, 1781, they had arrived in Lincoln (now Garrard Co.), and met as a Baptist church of Christ at Gilberts Creek. 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;" and Dr. R. B. Semple, in his history of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia [p. 153], says: "But, in 1781, to the great mortification of the remaining members, Mr. Craig with most of the church, moved to Kentucky."
There seems to be no disagreement among the historians of the period as to when Gilberts Creek church was located in Kentucky. Some modern writers have been misled by Asplund's Register of the Baptists in America, for 1790, which
records the name of a Gilbert's Creek church, constituted in 1783, in the same locality. But this was a Separate Baptist church, gathered at the date specified, by Joseph Bledsoe. The original Gilberts Creek church had been dissolved, as we shall presently see, several years before Asplund's Register was published.
This ancient church had but a brief history in Kentucky. Dr. Ford thinks it numbered about 200 members when it was first organized on Gilberts creek. It continued to prosper under the care of Mr. Craig, till 1783, when he and most of the members moved across Kentucky river, and formed South Elkhorn church. The old organization continued to diminish in consequence of the removal of its members to the north side of the river. Alter the removal of Mr. Craig, George Stokes Smith and John Taylor were among its members, and supplied it with preaching, for a time. But these ministers also moved to the north side of the river, and left the church in a state of destitution. In its enfeebled condition, it entered into the constitution of Elkhorn Association, in September, 1785, and requested that body to send a committee to look into its standing. The request was granted, and a committee, consisting of "Lewis Craig, James Rucker, Wm. Hickman and Wm. Cave, or any three of them," was appointed to visit the church. At the meeting of the Association, in August, 1786, "the committee on Gilberts Creek church, reported that it was dissolved."
Immediately after moving to Fayette county, in 1783, Mr. Craig gathered South Elkhorn church, and was chosen its pastor. He occupied this position, about nine years, laboring abundantly in all the surrounding country. During this period, Elkhorn Association was formed, and many other preachers moved to that region of the country. Feeling that his labors were not needed here, and probably being somewhat mortified by the loss of his property through some unfortunate land speculation, he moved to what is Bracken country, about 1792, and "was in a manner the father of Bracken Association." John Taylor closes his biography of Lewis Craig in the following language:
"As an expositor of the Scriptures, he was not very skillful, but dealt closely with the heart. He was better acquainted with men than with books. He never dwelt much on doctrine, but
mostly on experimental and practical godliness. Though he was not called a great preacher, perhaps there was never found in Kentucky, so great a gift of exhortation as in Lewis Craig: The sound of his voice would make men tremble and rejoice. The first time I heard him preach, I seemed to hear the sound of his voice for many months. He was of middle statue, rather stoop shouldered, his hair black, thick set, and somewhat curled, a pleasant countenance, free spoken, and his company very interesting, a great peace maker among contending parties. He died suddenly, of which he was forewarned saying, I am going to such a house to die, and, with solemn joy, went on to the place, and, with little pain, left the world."
[John Henderson Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, 1885; rpt. CHR&A, 1984. - jrd]
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