A Mere Kentucky of a Place
The Elkhorn Association and the Commonwealth’s First Baptists
“This book will become a standard source on the history of religion on the Kentucky frontier. It deserves a wide readership.”—Thomas H. Appleton Jr., coeditor of Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times
“This book captures the remarkable transformation of Baptist identity and experience with fresh and powerful insight. On the whole, this book offers a unique and significant contribution to the scholarship of religion and American life in the early American republic.” —Gregory A. Wills, author of Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900
As the story goes, an itinerant preacher once visited the Bluegrass region and proclaimed heaven to be “a mere Kentucky of a place.” The Commonwealth’s first Baptists certainly thought so as they began settling the region a decade before statehood. By 1785 a group of pioneering preachers formed the Elkhorn Association, widely regarded as the oldest Baptist association west of the Alleghenies. Often portrayed in the historiography as the vanguard of a new frontier democracy, the Elkhorn Association, on closer inspection, reveals itself to be far more complex. In A Mere Kentucky of a Place, Keith Harper argues that the association’s Baptist ministers were neither full-fledged frontier egalitarians nor radical religionists but simply a people in transition. These ministers formed their identities in the crucible of the early national period, challenged by competing impulses, including their religious convictions, Jeffersonian Republicanism, and a rigid honor code—with mixed results.
With a keen eye for human interest, Harper brings familiar historical figures such as John Gano and Elijah Craig to life as he analyzes leadership in the Elkhorn Association during the early republic. Mining the wealth of documents left by the association, Harper details the self-aware struggle of these leaders to achieve economic wealth, status, and full social and cultural acceptance, demonstrating that the Elkhorn Association holds a unique place in the story of Baptists in the “New Eden” of Kentucky.
Ideal for course adoption in religious studies and students of Kentucky history, this readable work is sure to become a standard source on the history of religion on the Kentucky frontier.
KEITH HARPER is senior professor of Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Through a Glass Darkly: Changing Perceptions of Baptist Identity and Rescue the Perishing: Selected Letters from Annie Armstrong and Other Writings. He coedited the essay collection Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists since Emancipation.