Salt River Baptist Church

Photo© courtesy of Jim Miller, Harrodsburg KY

This is a page dedicated to the Community Project in Anderson County KY for restoring and preserving one of the county's oldest and finest architectural treasures, the Salt River Primitive Baptist Church.

Salt River Primitive Baptist Church: A Deteriorating Legacy of Kentucky Baptists

Just over the county line in what is now Anderson County and once Mercer, then Franklin, then Anderson, stands the remnant of what has been referred to as the cradle of the Baptist faith in Kentucky. The late Wyatt Shely, historian from Anderson County, said, "Salt River, in a real sense was the mother church of Baptist witness in this area, the main source of strength in the beginning of our association and worthy of preservation by those who deem our heritage a source of strength and inspiration."
Now a group called the Salt River Baptist Church, Inc. is working hard to preserve that heritage and needs help from those "who deem our heritage a source of strength and inspiration."
No longer an active church with an active congregation, the church has fallen into disrepair. Still it stands, a proud tribute to its founders and its members who lovingly served it for almost 150 years. A now ancient relic of the past it silently watches over the remains of nearly 300 members buried beneath the hallowed ground – those who gave it life and nurtured it for so long.
The church was active and held regular services until the early to mid 1940’s. Declining membership led to its demise. There were, however, a few homecoming services held by the remaining members over the years but the vitality was gone – it was no longer a community church. The last member of its congregation , Charlie Gaines, died in 1965. The last burial took place in 1968. Jessie Waterfill was laid to rest beside her husband who died almost 60 years previous.
For the past 20 years a select group of friends have been trying to restore the building and preserve this symbol of our heritage but it has been a rough and rocky road. Over the years various individuals and descendants of those buried there have mowed and tried to do what they could to keep the church and cemetery from being totally taken over my nature.
In 1977 when a group got together and decided to do something about repairing it, you could hardly see the church building from the road. Trees were as high as the roof and brambles and bushes had taken over the church yard and cemetery. However through volunteers and many man hours they managed to at least repair the outside and protect it for a few more years. They repaired the outside by replacing the old weatherboarding with similar weatherboarding from a house that had been abandoned nearby. They completely painted the building, including the roof, and acquired enough in donations to maintain the yard and cemetery for about a year before the funds ran out. Since then, it has been as long as a year between mowings. Vandals have gone into the building and taken pews, broken windows, etc. The hard work of 20 years ago no longer shows on the rapidly deteriorating building. Windstorms and heavy snows have been particularly damaging in the past couple of years.
Constituted on the Philadelphia Confession of Faith , February 3, 1798, the church was found almost 30 years before Anderson County was established. There were seven charter members: John Penney, great grandfather of the founder of the J. C. Penney stores, and first preacher; Rawleigh Stott and his wife Lucy; Ann Tracy, Albert Plough, Benjamin Elliston, and a slave girl named Nanny. Originally meeting in a log structure, the members constructed the present building in 1842 after the original log building burned.
For the first 100 years only four pastors served the church. They were: John Penney, 1798-1833; Jordan H. Walker, 1833-1862; J. F. Johnson, 1862-1881; and Smith Hawkins, 1881-1907.
The church was built according to the custom at the time, with two doors – one for the men to enter and another for the women, and a third door located on the south side for slaves. It was solidly built of poplar with heavy log beams supporting the floor and ceiling.
Most early churches were strict in their expectations and Salt River was no exception. The Rules of Decorum set forth by the founding fathers are as follows:
1. We, the Baptist Church of Christ on Salt River Constituted on the Philadelphia Confession of Faith with its exceptions, do agree that our meeting, for business be on the second Saturday in each month and that all matters of dealing be done privately, that the church may deem to be of a private nature.
2. Resolved that no member shall be received into fellowship without a unanimous voice of the church.
3. Resolved that the method of secluding (excluding) members shall be done by a majority of the church.
4. Resolved that we meet at 11 o’clock on each day to do the business that may come before us.
5. (Concerning Communion marked out)
6. Resolved that any member holding and believing in a general Redemption from hell (if they can not be reclaimed) shall be excluded.
7. Resolved that all free males members shall pay an equal proportion of all church expenses according to their abilities.
8. Resolved that no member shall withdraw himself in time of business without leave of the moderator.
9. Resolved that but one person speak at a time, that he arise from his seat and address himself to the moderator.
10. Resolved that any member reflecting on the Judgment of the church shall be dealth with for such conduct.
11. Resolved that no member shall speak more than twice to one case, without leave of the church.
12. Resolved that any person reflecting on another in time of business shall be called to order by the moderator.
13. Resolved that any member suffering their children to go to the dancing school while under their tuition, shall be excluded.
14. Resolved that any free male member failing to vote in any matter as respects fellowship shall assign their reasons.
15. Resolved that the orders of the church be read at the opening of each days eeting for business.
16. Resolved that any member of this church, who shall attach himself to the Masonic Lodge, shall be excluded.
The church was very involved in the conduct and acceptance of its members as indicated in the following excerpts from the church minute books:
March 1798 - Fanney Penney and Bro. Penney’s Fanney rec’d.
April, 1798 - Rawlegh Stott app. Deacon, Elder John Penney chosen pastor and moderator.
Apr. 1799 - Bro. and Sister Stott asked to give up Tavern keeping.
May 1799 - Joseph Bogess and his wife Jemima Boggess rec’d. by letter. The Stotts refusing to quit the tavern, Bro. Rawleigh Stott displaced as deacon and Joseph Woolfolk app.
Apr. 1800 - Church still disturbed by Bro. and Sister Stott, he is cited to attend the June meeging and it is decided to ask advise from Clear Creek and Beech Creek churches.
Aug. 1800 - Stotts came forward and promised to give up tavern keeping. Penney to prepare Ass. Letter and with Jacob Elliston, bear it.
March 1801 - Bro. William Baines given liberty to exercise his gift in public.
June 1801 - Bro. Wm. Hickman brings complaint against Sister Bowene (?) for leaving her husband. 12 members app. to inquire into it, and she giving no satisfaction is excluded.
Sept. 1801 - Bro. Shouse has comp. Against Amos Coffman for going to a horse race, Bro. Busey app. to cite him to appear at next meeting.
Oct. 1801 - Amos Coffman excluded after refusing to hear charges, Bro. Busey reports on this.
Nov. 1801 - Sister Egbert has com. against Sister Petty, decided that both in the wrong. Bro. John Lillard using harsh letters, leaving in an abrupt manner is excluded.
Dec. 1801 - Sister Petty charges Sister Egbert with a falsehood, ref. to next meeting.
Jan. 1802 - Sister proves ch. against Sister Egbert who is absent. Brethren Garvey & Jac. Elliston app. to cite her to next meeting.
Feb. 1802 - Ch. decided that both Sister Egbert and Sister Petty both are possessed of a spirit of hardness.
March 1802 - Sister Petty cited by Bro. Utterback to attend next meeting.
Apr. 1802 - Sister Petty excluded after not attending meeting as cited.
May 1802 - Bro. Petty withdrew in a disorderly manner, Bros. Edmond Waller and Ephriam Lillard cite him to next meeting. Rep. That Bro. Nation walks disorderly and John Penney, Jas. Woolfolk, Jac. Elliston, Rawleigh Stott and Edmond Waller app. to make inquiry and rep. Thomas Thompson guilty of immoral conduct and refusing to hear the ch., is excluded.
June 1802 - Ch. labored with Bro. Petty who having refused to hear, is excluded. No proof of disorderly conduct of Bro. Nation, as rep. before.
July 1802 - Bro. Nicholas Leathers has wounded the cause of God by immoral conduct, Bro. Boggess cited him to attend, he refusing is excluded.
Oct. 1802 - Bro. Utterback com. of drunkenness in Bro. Lott, who admits it, but refuses satisfaction to ch. so is excluded.
Jan. 1903 - The ch. met. They regret the idea of ruling members amongst us. A call meeting for next Friday, and app. Bros. Waller and Castleman to cite Bro. Nation, wife and dau. to answer for their conduct. Trouble between Bros. Lillard and Hanks to be settled on Fri. On Fri. Bro. Nation and Sister Betsey Nation came but failed to give satisfaction and are excluded. The other Sister Betsey Nation failing to come, Bros. Waller and Castleman to cite her. Lillard and Hanks settle their problem satisfactorily to ch.
Feb. 1903 - Sister Nation excluded.
March 1903 - Bro. Petty rest. to f.s. (restored to fellowship).
The decisions of the church continues in the minutes and includes the acceptance, exclusions and "excommunications" of members and other mundane business such as who will take care of custodial duties and that the church is insured, etc.
Most early churches were just as restrictive and were the beginnings of the churches we have today. The Salt River church played an important part in the development of the Baptist faith and throughout the pastorate of John Penney, Salt River played an important role in the denomination and during the last few years of Penney’s life he was very active in the Baptist Association.
Salt River Primitive Baptist Church was an important part in the lives of the early settlers of the area and many of these early pioneers sleep silently beneath the sod around the church. Many names known in Mercer, Washington, Anderson and Franklin counties are among those, including such names and Lillard, Woodard, Hanks, Williams, Duncan, Fallis, McGinnis, McMichael, Moore and others, and their descendants cover a wide area. There are many graves in the cemetery without markers, some of which have been destroyed over time and some of which, such as simple fieldstone markers, have been moved aside over the years. It is estimated that there are approximately 300 people resting there with the earliest stone being dated 1820 and the last dated 1968.
Within the next couple of weeks they hope to have the roof replaced and structural damage repaired to the roof and the floor, which has fallen in beneath the opening in the roof. About a third of the flooring needs to be replaced because of this damage. There are also plans for repairing the broken tombstones and straightening those that have fallen over.
There are many who believe that, yes – Salt River Church is worth preserving. And they need your help. They need your energy, your time, and your money. They are also asking for any photographs of the church before the 1970’s that may be copied or donated to help in their restoration efforts. If you would like to contribute to this effort, through a donation, pledge, or offering your time, contact Salt River Church, Inc., PO Box 245, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342. [NOTE: This address is no longer current; contributions should now be sent to: Harold Sims (Treasurer), 113 Plantation Dr., Lawrenceburg, KY 40342 (thanks to Myrtle Sparkman of Lawrenceburg for this update)]

[© 1998. This article, written by Jim Miller, appeared in the August 6, 1998 issue of Mercer Magazine, a publication of The Harrodsburg Herald. Reprinted here with permission.]

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