Monday, April 18, 2016

The Old Springfield Presbyterian Church

The Old Springfield Church, April 2016
The cornerstones of any community are the houses of the holy.  This is especially true in Kentucky, where churches of varying faiths are quite abundant.  Early immigrants from Europe came to what would be the United States to exercise a freedom in religion; we all have read about the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower in order to break away from the teachings of the Church of England and the Catholic churches, which they felt strayed from the true meanings of the Bible.  After the colonial settlements and mass migrations to the New World began, many others followed suit and sought to teach the Gospel, establishing places of congregation and worship along the wild, wilderness trails.  According to the history of Fort Boonesboro, Reverend John Lythe from the Church of England performed the first formal Christian religious service in Kentucky on May 8, 1775, under a large elm tree near the fort during a meeting to establish a colony called Transylvania.  A piece called The Kentucky Baptist History compiled by William D. Nowlin states the first organized church in Kentucky, called Severn's Valley, was constituted June 18, 1781 near present day Elizabethtown.  South Elkhorn Christian Church off Harrodsburg Road in Lexington was founded as early as 1784 and the Walnut Hill Presbyterian Church, also in Lexington, was organized in 1785 as a small cabin for pioneers to congregate and worship.  The Stanford Presbyterian Church was recognized in 1788; however, the church wasn't built and established until 1792.
Cane Ridge Meeting House, circa 1934
The Cane Ridge Meeting House, located in  Bourbon County, Kentucky near Paris was built around 1791 as a one room log structure made of roughly hewn logs and wooden slat siding.  It was the site of The Great Awakening Revival in 1801 and reportedly attracted over 10,000 people.  Today, the original structure is enclosed within a brick building and still in use today. 

The Presbyterian Movement can be traced back to Scotland, where a reform against the Catholic churches started around the 16th Century.  Reverend Francis Makeme is credited as organizing the first Presbyterian church in America at Philadelphia in 1706.  The sect of Presbyterians that came to Kentucky were derived from the Irish who had settled in Virginia.  David Rice arrived in Kentucky in 1783 from Virginia and is regarded as the 'father or Presbyterianism in Kentucky'.  He preached at the Stanford Presbyterian Church and was a member of the Kentucky Constitutional Convention in 1792.  As the region that would become Bath County was settled, the need for a place of worship was expressed. In the minutes of the Transylvania Presbytery Meeting held June 12, 1793, the Springfield congregation petitioned to erect a place of worship.  Located on the old road that connected Mount Sterling to Blue Licks, four-hundred acres of land was donated by William Robinson to build what would be known as the Springfield Meeting House.  At the time, this portion of land was considered part of Clark County; in fact, the Springfield Church as been, at some points in time, in parts of Clark, Bourbon, Montgomery and finally Bath Counties.
Map showing some of Kentucky's Counties, 1794
  Joseph Price Howe, a Presbyterian reverend, emigrated to Kentucky from North Carolina with his family and met with Robinson during the summer of 1794 to express interest in organizing the church, which would be located along the old Blue Licks road near a large spring that inspired the name Springfield.  That fall, Reverend Howe organized  what was at the time called the Springfield Meeting House with James Trimble as the first elder.  The first members were William and John Robinson, Jane McClure and William & Rebecca Moffatt.  The church was a small square log cabin built with the abundant timber that covered the area.  According to Edward Owings Guerrant's speech made at the Centennial of Springfield Church dedication on September 12, 1894, the church, at the time of its organization, was the only one in the area; the closest being at the Washington settlement in Mason County.  This is an interesting revelation, since the Cane Ridge Meeting House is regarded as being one of the oldest churches in Kentucky, and is nearer than the aforementioned church at Washington.  Another nearby church was organized in Montgomery County in 1794 along the banks of the Lulbegrud Creek near the Clark County line on Prewitt Pike; although the first record of a minister presiding over the congregation isn't noted in records until 1799.  It is also of interesting note that the Old Republican Meeting House was built around 1791-1793 (depending on which source is read) near Bethel, but the purpose of that meeting house has long been forgotten.  Aside from a very old cemetery adjacent to the location, nothing remains of the Old Republican Meeting House.  

A few weeks after the 1801 revival at Cane Ridge drew such an enormous crowd, Springfield hosted one of similar nature, but only drawing around 3,000 people, according to the diary of Reverend John Lyle.  Another revival in August, 1802 brought many more into the congregation over the course of a weekend.  By 1803, the Springfield Church congregation had increased partly due to the revivals and the small cabin was outgrown.  A larger, double log cabin was built by Andrew and James Richart in 1804 and used until 1820.  A third church was built on the spot we know today by Thomas Graves between 1820 and 1821; being a stone and brick structure. The title to the land donated by William Robinson didn't pass to the church trustees until 1816, when John Jones conveyed three acres that included the Springfield Church and adjacent cemetery to trustees James McIlheny, Rollins Burbridge John Lockridge, Andrew Shankland and James Graham.  It is unknown exactly how many people dedicated themselves to the Springfield Church during the tenure of Reverend Joseph Howe, but it is a fair bet that it was a large amount due mostly to his active role in the revivals.  An astonishing 384 marriages were performed at the church by Reverend Howe from 1795 to 1826; the first being Patrick McCollum and Elizabeth Saint Dreskie on May 7, 1795 (a list of these marriages can be found in Robert Stuart Sanders' 1954 book An Historical Sketch of Springfield Presbyterian Church, Bath County Kentucky). 
Grave site of Rev. Joseph Price Howe
Reverend Howe remained the pastor at the Springfield Church for thirty two years. He also preached occasionally at the Little Mountain Church in present day Mount Sterling and the Point Pleasant Church in Bourbon County. The last sermon Reverend Joseph Price Howe preached was at the Peeled Oak Church in 1827.  He passed away at his home in Mount Sterling July 11, 1827 at the age of 62 and is buried next to the church he organized.

A host of pastors manned the pulpit over the years at the Springfield Church, but the one of the most known aside from Reverend Howe was Edward Owings Guerrant. Guerrant was born in nearby Sharpsburg, Kentucky February 28, 1838.  After graduating Centre College in 1860, he received by the Ebenezer Presbytery as a candidate for ministry.  At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Guerrant joined the Confederacy and served as a staff officer for General Humphrey Marshall.  Later, he achieved the rank of captain in John Hunt Morgan's 2nd Kentucky Cavalry and participated in many campaigns during his time in service.  After the war, Guerrant studied medicine, graduating from Belvue Medical College in 1867.  Guerrant moved back to his native Kentucky and practiced medicine in Mount Sterling until 1873.  He was ordained and licensed by the West Lexington Presbytery October 30, 1875 and preached at Springfield Church, and others in Clark County, Louisville, Wilmore and Woodford County.
Rev. Edward Owings Guerrant

The Springfield Church's Centennial celebration was held September 12, 1894 and Reverend Edward Guerrant delivered the address.  He gave an historical account of the church's organization and a comparison of notable events and the age of the church, such as the birth of Kentucky in 1792 and the Indian raid at Morgan's Station that occurred the year prior to the organization of Springfield Church.  The entire address was published in the Mt. Sterling Gazette and provides some great information about the origins of the church.  Reverend Guerrant presided over the American Inland Mission and received the degree of Doctor of Divinity during his ministry.  He also became a well known author and published a memoir of his time with John Hunt Morgan that gave an intimate insight of a soldier's life during the Civil War.  It is said that Reverend Guerrant's oratory skills and dedication to the church was one of great favor among the congregations he preached to.

The dilapidated Old Springfield Church, circa 1951
Time and wear began taking its toll on the Springfield Church during the early 20th Century.  Spot repairs were made to make the building usable through the years as offerings would allow, but the congregation began declining.  Reverend Thomas Jackson Ray presided over the congregation from 1936 until 1943.  At the time of his death at age 40, Ray did dual duty at Springfield Church and the Menefee Memorial Church in Sharpsburg.  After his death, the Springfield Church lay dormant and fell into a shape of disrepair.  The doors closed and the people moved to other churches, leaving one of Kentucky's oldest churches and cemeteries to the elements.  Nature began taking the old burying grounds over; the tombs of Reverend Howe and many other early settlers disappeared under thick vegetation.  The church's roof and floor timbers began decaying as termites fed on the 120-plus year old structure.  Trees and native bushes crept up the walls, cracking the old brick and displacing the aged mortar.  It seemed the church would collapse and be lost forever.  In March, 1954, H.D. Bastin, Chairman of the Presbyterian Home Extension Committee, set out to revive rural churches, including the Springfield Church.  He appointed a local committee comprised of Frank Taylor, William and Mark Smathers, Stanley Brown and Frank Hill to see what was needed to restore and reopen the historic church.  A community call was put out and soon, a great many people came to rescue the ailing house of worship.  All of the labor and a vast majority of the material was donated.  The floors and window sills had to be completely replaced; the old wooden floor was torn out and 40-50 loads of rock were hauled in to fill the underfloor prior to the concrete being filled in.  The cemetery was cleaned up and the old stones replaced and uprighted as needed.  By September 19, 1954, the Old Springfield Church was again ready to accept a congregation.  Three services were held that day, morning, afternoon and evening.  The morning service had around 300 people present, the dedication service was at 2:30 p.m. and had over 500 in attendance.  A fellowship dinner was held at noon and many people from all over the state and even other surrounding states attended.   Visiting members of the Presbytery were in attendance and brought messages, including Versailles Presbyterian Church minister emeritus Dr. Robert Sanders, Lexington-Ebenezer Presbytery Executive Secretary Reverend Walter Maude, and  Elder H.D. Bastian.  The Sharpsburg Christian Church choir, along with the Stanton Presbyterian Church and Elizaville Presbyterian Church choirs, performed as August Schmidt from New Orleans played the piano.  Frank Taylor, the minister of the newly dedicated church,  praised the tireless efforts of the people of Bath and surrounding communities during his service by saying, "We have reopened Old Springfield, and we intend to keep it open."

The Springfield Church was known as the "Mother of Churches" as it's members spawned the organization of the Gilead Presbyterian Church in 1839 at Sharpsburg, the Sharpsburg Presbyterian Church in 1848, and the Owingsville Presbyterian Church, now the St. Julie Catholic Church, in 1876.  Indian Point Presbyterian Church in Maynard County, Illinois was also organized by members from the Old Springfield Church.   Several important meetings of the Presbytery were held at the church, including one in 1836 that debated the issue of slavery.   A petition to include the Old Springfield Presbyterian Church on the National Register of Historic Places was initiated in 1971, and finalized in 1979.  Today, a bronze marker is on the front of the church as a standing monument to the early settlers who paved a spiritual way of life in the wilderness of Kentucky.   In recent times, the congregation and ministers of Springfield Church have came and went.  According to the site Find A Grave, the cemetery holds 279 interments dating back to the late 18th Century to just recently.  Many of these graves are illegible now but for the most part, the stones are still standing.  Many other places where the ground is sunken are tell-tale signs of a grave with no marker and scatter the grounds here and there.  Several very old above ground stone boxes adorn the grounds, sealing the remains of those souls below.  The church once again is dormant and no longer holds services; I've been told it has been several months since the Gospel was delivered before a congregation. 

I recently visited the site for the first time and found it rather peaceful and intriguing; the history the site holds is immeasurable.  Just inside the wooden gate, there is a curious stone step-like structure that greets visitors.
Stones used for mounting horses
At first I thought it was maybe part of the original entrance to the cabin that was once there, but during the course of this research, I learned this was a step used by women to mount horses and coach buggies that once was the only means of travel.  The cemetery is quite large and extends well past the rear of the church over the three acre tract.  The church itself is locked tight and the stained glass windows offer no glimpse into the sanctuary; it would be sacrilege to gain entry illicitly.  It is my hope that the church and the hallowed grounds around it remain intact and taken care of until the doors open once more.

If you decide to visit this historic site, it is located on a remote back road that is populated with some families who are descendants of those who organized and worshiped in the Old Springfield Presbyterian Church; so be mindful and respectful.  Recent reality television shows have glorified paranormal experiences and people have been known to gather at the site to see if the spirits of those buried around the church are in a state of unrest.  Whether of not they have truly seen or heard something is a matter of opinion.  The fact is that the Old Springfield Church is a revered and hallowed place that has outlasted the times for over 222 years.


The Old Springfield Church is located on Springfield Road (KY Route 3289) in Bath County.  Directions are:  Off Kentucky Route 11 from Sharpsburg - head south out of Sharpsburg toward Mount Sterling approximately 2 miles.  Springfield Road will turn off to the left.  Go 3.6 miles down Springfield Road, the church will be on the right. 

From Mount Sterling, exit Interstate 64 at the 110 exit, go north on Kentucky 11 toward Sharpsburg approximately 7 miles.  Springfield Road will turn to the right.  The church is 3.6 miles down on the right.  An alternate route is to travel out Route 11 to the four-way intersection at Judy Drive In.  Turn right onto Kentucky 537 and travel approximately 3.5 miles.  Springfield Road turns left at a sharp curve, almost T-intersection.  The church is one mile down on the left.

From Owingsville - Travel US 60 West outside Owingsville toward Mount Sterling, go approximately 6.5 miles to Van Thompson Road at the Montgomery County line. Turn right onto Van Thompson Rd (Kentucky 537) and go 2.5 miles to a sharp 90 degree left hand turn.  At that point, a road will go straight at the curve, that is Springfield Road.   The church is one mile down on the left.   

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your article. My family and I visit the site frequently as we live close to it. It has recently been mowed but as of today there are no services held there. Once again, thanks for the insight and research you've done.