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Historical Society News | Frontier preachers embraced by pioneers for fiery sermons

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By Bonnie Strassell

They came from the same stock as the early pioneers who settled the frontier in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Though not college educated, they preached the gospel whenever they were moved by the spirit, and Kentucky was fertile ground for early circuit riders to sow the word of God.
Frontier preachers were zealous and their fiery sermons were embraced by the pioneers whose indomitable ruggedness had forged homes in the wilderness.
Many settlements held church services outdoors, weather permitting, and men of the frontier kept their rifles close at hand in the event trouble appeared in the form of an Indian or wild beast.
One early Kentucky circuit rider was preaching at a church in a clearing when the dogs that had followed their master to the service jumped a bear in the nearby woods. The preacher listened intently then stopped his sermon and announced a recess while he and the men followed the dogs who had cornered the bear. He asked the women to stay and pray.
The bear hunt was successful, and after a few hours the preacher took up his sermon where he had left off.
In his closing prayer, the circuit rider thanked God for men who knew how to shoot and women who knew how to pray.
In her book, “The History of  Old Cedar Baptist Church,” author Margaret Murphy reflected on several early circuit riders who preached in Owen County and whose influence was evident in the early log cabin church of Old Cedar Baptist.
John Foster, Cornelius Duvall and Tobias Wilhoite not only preached at Old Cedar, but they also held services at other Owen County churches including Long Ridge, Greenup Fork, Emmaus, Twin, Owenton, Pleasant View, Caney Fork, Clay Lick and Mussel Shoals.
Near the Scott County line in southern Owen County, Harmony Baptist Church was constituted in 1839. Samuel Boone, a nephew of the famous Kentucky frontiersman, Daniel Boone, was one of the original members of the church and served as its first deacon. Until a church building could be erected the congregation met and held church services in Samuel Boone’s home.
Even into the 1900s many Owen County churches only had part-time preachers, for money was scarce, and congregations struggled to support a pastor and his family. Many of these preachers worked other jobs. Some owned farms, others worked odd jobs around the county, and several were preaching as well as working in other professions
The first pastor of Harmony Baptist was James Duvall who led his flock for five years. Records show that though James was a fervent preacher who brought many to repentance, he “maintained his family chiefly by the practice of medicine, in which he was quite successful.”
Rev. John Allie Lee was well known in Owen County in the early 1900s. Traveling with a small gospel organ, played by his little daughter, the Rev. Lee preached many revivals throughout the area.
During World War I, when Owen County boys were headed off to join the fight, the Rev. Lee gave each one a dollar bill with his name on it. Pastor Lee was also instrumental in raising the money to erect the World War I monument in the Owenton Cemetery. Today this memorial remains a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice in war.
Though most preachers delivered sermons in churches or revival tents, the well-known Rev. Lewis W. Arnold recorded his sermons and depended on a layman of Old Cedar Baptist, Clark Karsner, to spread the gospel message in the air.
During World War II, Clark was a flight instructor in California, and when he came home, he built a hangar on his farm where he instructed young men in the art of flying. A dedicated Christian, Clark erected a neon sign on the side of his hangar with the words, “Christ Is The Answer,” a message that served as an inspiration to thousands of passersby traveling U.S. Highway 127 from Owen County.
Clark equipped one of his planes with a loudspeaker, and playing the Rev. Arnold’s sermons he flew over villages and towns of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio reaching hundreds of thousands of people with the Gospel message.
One of America’s earliest circuit riders, Francis Asbury, adamantly declared, “We must reach every section of America, especially the raw frontiers. We must not be afraid of men, devils, wild animals or disease.”
So it was, despite the danger, trials, sickness and at times despair, dedicated and determined men and women infused the Gospel into the raw, untamed wilderness of America. As it took root, the flames of Christianity created new hope in the souls of men and women across the nation, leaving in its wake a rich legacy that today remains an integral part of our American history and heritage.
The historical society is pleased to once again cook and serve the Gideons at their annual dinner March 23. If any member would be willing to help out, please call the museum 502-484-2529 and leave a message. Even if you are not a member and would like to help serve we would appreciate your assistance.
Don’t forget to join us at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 14, at the Owen County Public Library for an evening of exuberant rollicking Irish music and fun. Wear a bit o’ green and help us celebrate Irish culture and tradition.
Visit us at www.owencohistory.com for upcoming events, bits and pieces of Owen County history and a list of our current publications; and thank you Owen countians for your continued support of the society’s endeavors to preserve Owen County history.