First Separate Baptist Chruches
At the beginning of the year 1782, the Baptists had three churches in Kentucky: Severns Valley in Hardin county, Cedar Creek in Nelson, and Gilbert's Creek in Garrard. They were all of the Regular Baptist order. The Regular Baptist preachers in the new country, as far as known, were Barnett, Gerrard, Whitaker, Marshall, Lewis Craig, and, most probably, Richard Cave and George Stokes Smith. All these, except Barnett and Gerrard, had been Separate Baptists in Virginia; but for some unknown reason they had changed their party name, there being little else to change, at that time, in order to their becoming Regular Baptists. Lynn and Skaggs were the only Separate Baptist preachers now known to have been in the country at that time, and, as yet they had formed no church The evangelical labors of the year, therefore, were begun by three churches and nine preachers. There were, at most, only two churches gathered during the year, and both of these Separate Baptists. Probably it would be better to say that these churches claim, with some plausibility, to have been constituted in 1782, than to assert it as a historic fact.
SOUTH FORK church, originally called No-Lynn, was, according to tradition, constituted in what is now La Rue county, in the summer of 1782, by Benjamin Lynn and James Skaggs. The late venerable Elder John Duncan took much pains to learn the history of the church, and had conversations with at least two men who claimed to have been present when it was constituted. They stated that Lynn had been preaching in the neighborhood for some considerable time, and several persons had professed conversion. The church was constituted under the boughs of a large oak tree, where it continued to meet the remainder of the summer. Immediately after the organization was effected the church sat to hear experiences. Seven persons
were approved for baptism. The times were troublous. It had been only a few weeks since the supposed massacre of Elder John Gerrard, in an adjoining neighborhood, and the Indians were now lurking in the surrounding forests. The candidates for the sacred ordinance were guarded to the water by armed citizens, and baptized by Elder Lynn, in No-Lynn [now spelt Nolin] river. If this account be true, it is probable that these were the first persons baptized in Kentucky.
This church first united with old South Kentucky Association, but, in 1797, it assumed the style of Regular Baptists, and afterwards became a member of the Green River fraternity. It was one of the few Baptist churches, in which the "jerks" and other extravagances prevailed during the great revival of 1800-3. It was subsequently divided on the subject of slavery. But a reconciliation beingeffected, it became very prosperous, under the ministry of William M. Brown. It is at present one of the largest churches in Lynn Association. Among the few preachers it has raised up was John Hodgen, a brother of the famous Isaac Hodgen.
FORKS OF DIX RIVER church is located in Garrard county. Its early history is obscure. Asplund dates its constitution in 1786, and is followed by Benedict. In the minutes of South District Association of 1844, the date of its constitution is put down at 1782. Its first book of records has been destroyed, but its second book, which commenced in 1805, states that the church was constituted by Lewis Craig, in 1782. In a manuscript biography of Randolph Hall, its first known pastor, written by his successor, John S. Higgins, it is stated that Mr. Hall “took the care of Forks of Dix River church shortly after its constitution, which was in 1782.” In a manuscript biography of Burdett Kemper written during his lifetime, by his son who was clerk of the church, the following passage occurs: “The Forks [of Dix River] church, to which Father Kemper still preaches, was constituted by Lewis Craig, in 1782, and has never had but three pastors, viz: Randolph Hall, John S. Higgins, and Burdett Kemper.” The preponderance of evidence appears to favor 1782, as the true date of the church’s constitution, and if this be correct it must have been constituted a Regular Baptist church. But its first associational connection was with South Kentucky Association, which was
constituted in 1787. In 1786, a "request for help from a number of Baptists at or near the Forks of Dix river was read" before Elkhorn Association, "and Ambrose Dudley, John Tanner, Benj. Craig and Bartlet Collins were appointed to attend a meeting there the fourth Saturday in August." This indicates that there was no Regular Baptist church there at that period. If one had been constituted there by Lewis Craig, in 1782, it had either dissolved, or, what is more probable, a majority of its members had given their adhesion to the Separate Baptists, and the minority, holding to the Regular Baptists, had petitioned Elkhorn Association for help. However this may be, Forks of Dix River church entered into the constitution of South Kentucky Association, in 1787, and there remained till 1793, when it entered into the constitution of Tate's Creek Association. James Smith was a preacher in the church, in 1790, at which time it numbered 58 members. After the organization of South District Association, in 1802, the church joined that fraternity, of which it is still a member. It has long been one of the largest and most prosperous churches in its Association.
The Forks of Dix River was a preaching place for the Presbyterians, as early as 1784, the next year after David Rice, the pioneer minister of that denominationin Kentucky, arrived in the country, and it is believed that they and the Baptists worshipped in the same house for a few years; after which the Presbyterians abandoned the station. James Smith and Joseph and William Bledsoe, Separate Baptist preachers, located in Garrard county, about 1783, and it is probable that through their influence the Forks church was converted to the Separate Baptists.
RANDOLPH HALL, probably the first pastor of Forks of Dix River church, was a Virginian, and took an active part in the Revolutionary War, whether as a chaplain, or a soldier, or both, is not known. He came to Kentucky with the flood of emigration which poured into the western country at the close of the War, but at exactly what date, is not known. "He was a good solid, preacher," of a warm impressive address, and exercised an extensive influence within the bounds of South District Association, of which he was moderator many years. He was instrumental in gathering Sugar Creek church in Garrard county,
in 1801, to which, and to Stony Point in Mercer county he preached for a number of years, He was no less distinguished for piety, than for his faithful and successful labors. After a long and useful life, the prime of which was spent, first in battling for the liberties of his country, and afterwards amidst the dangers of savage warfare, he died of an attack of epilepsy, to which he was subject, in the year 1821, aged about 70 years.
JOHN S. HIGGINS was the second pastor of Forks of Dix River church. He was born in New Jersey, Dec. 29, 1789. In 1805 he emigrated with his parents to Ohio, and, five years later, to Woodford county, Kentucky. He was baptized by Edmund Waller, in 1813, and commenced exhorting a few weeks afterwards. Being impressed with a call to preach the gospel, he attended a grammar school in Fayette county, that he might be the better prepared for that work. He moved to Lincoln county, in 1815, and, on December 27th of that year, was ordained to the pastoral care of McCormack's church, by John Rice and David Thurman. About the same time, he was called to the care of Hanging Fork (now New Providence) church, to which he ministered with good success about twenty years. At this place he baptized Strother Cook, who became a useful preacher. In 1820 he was called to succeed the venerable Randolph Hall in the pastoral care of Forks of Dix River church, to which he ministered about nineteen years. Here he baptized Burdett Kemper, who succeeded him in the pastoral care of that church, and John L. Smith who has attained considerable eminence in the gospel ministry.
John S. Higgins was a man of eminent respectability. He was not only successful in his pastoral labors, but preached abundantly in all the surrounding country. Among the churches he gathered was that in Danville, to which he minist ered until it could secure a pastor. He resided on a farm, and,by industry and economy, acquired a comfortable property. He was twice married, and raised a large and respectable family. At the age of four score years, he died at his home in Lincoln county, surrounded by an affectionate family, in 1872.
BURDETT KEMPER was of German extraction, his grandfather, Frederick Kemper, having been a native of Germany. His parents, Thomas and Judith Kemper, were natives of Virginia, and were among the pioneers of Kentucky. He was
born in Garrard Co., Ky., Feb. 24, 1788, and was raised up on a farm, receiving the elements of a common school education. Under the teaching of a pious mother, he had an excellent moral and religious training. In his 30th year he married Jemima, daughter of Judge James Thompson, of his native county. He possessed a remarkably strong body, and a strong practical mind, and, in a measure, made up the deficiency of his early education by application to books in his maturer years. Meanwhile, his good business habits enabled him to acquire a fair property. He had reached mid-life when, in March, 1830, he and his wife professed religion, and were baptized for the fellowship of Forks of Dix River church, by John S. Higgins. Within a year after his baptism, he began to exercise in exhortation, and was ordained to the ministry, in 1833, by John S. Higgins, John Rice and Edmund Waller. During the same year, he accepted an invitation to preach once a month to Forks of Dix River church, and, upon the resignation of Mr. Higgins, in 1839, became pastor of that congregation, a position he continued to occupy till the close of his earthly career.
During his ministry, Mr. Kemper was, at different periods, pastor of the following churches, besides the one of which he was a member: Sugar Creek, Gilberts Creek, Buckeye, Freedom, Shawnee Run, Friendship, Hillsboro and Logans Creek. To all these, it is said, he ministered acceptably and successfully. But his greatest success was in old Forks of Dix River church. When he began to preach to this congregation, Campbellism was in its belligerant state, was devastating the churches in this region of the State as a tornado sweeps away the forest in its track. Nearly all the old churches were weakened and disordered, and many of them were utterly destroyed. The "Forks" church received little or no injury, although assailed with persistent vehemence, and with every species of available weapons, however unscrupulous. Mr. Kemper met the heresy with unyielding firmness and much practical wisdom. At one time a squad of Campbellites came to interrupt public worship. They collected together, and, after Mr. Kemper commenced his discourse, began to make sport of the exercises. The speaker paused till the attention of the audience was directed to the disturbers, and pointing towards them said: "Look! and behold Campbellism in its full bloom!" The
recreants fled from the house, and abandoned the field. Under the firm and wise administration of this excellent pastor, the church continued to prosper till it numbered over 500 members. Mr. Kemper continued his active labors in the ministry to an extreme old age. Few men in his region of the State have enjoyed a higher reputation for all that is excellent in the christian and useful in the ministry. He was moderator of South District Association twenty five years. When his work was done, the Lord called him to his reward, March 18, 1876. At the time of his death "Forks" church numbered 319 members. It is still (1885) one of the largest of the century-old churches in the State. It is, at present, under the pastoral care of that excellent minister, Thos. M. Vaughan.
[John Henderson Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, 1885; rpt. CHR&A, 1984.]
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