Founded, divided and freed: three words to describe the history of those who first gathered around a fresh water spring flowing from the ground in the south central hills of Kentucky.
John Mulkey brought them into this part of the “Old West,” coming from North Carolina through Tennessee. They built a meetinghouse some 300 feet from the spring, a log building, rectangular, with alcoves centered on the long sides, one for the door and one for the pulpit. The surrounding graveyard includes some of the famous Boone family.
It was known as the Mill Creek Meetinghouse; the year was 1798.
But true to Baptist tradition, the unity and enthusiasm ran headlong into dissenting doctrines, strong-willed leaders and freedom-loving people. The public issue was the old theological knot known as predestination. Some were for it, some were against it. In 1809, the congregation split over the issue.
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Gooden E. Clayton wrote a book about it, entitled A Fork in the Road.
Over the years such disagreements-turned-divisions have meant the multiplication of churches, producing a church on every corner, or in this case, a little further down the creek.
What began as Mill Creek Baptist Church became the Mulkey Meetinghouse. The congregation drifted about on the waters of frontier religion for several decades before aligning with the Restoration Movement, moving into town, and taking the respectable and understandable name, Tompkinsville Christian Church. So it remains named to this day.
Today, their original site is a state park on the southwest edge of town, the only one in the Commonwealth centered upon a religious building, according to Cindy Thrasher, director of the Mulkey Meetinghouse State Park.
The Baptists moved downstream and constructed a building identical to the original: four sides, three doors, nine windows and two alcoves, one for entering, the other for preaching. They claimed the name of Mill Creek Baptist Church and maintain that name to this day.
The old log walls were long ago encased in brick and drywall and now are used as a fellowship hall; adjacent is the new sanctuary. The original pulpit is on display; two pewter bowls sit atop, for foot washing.
There is yet a third structure, an ancient artifact to another fascinating aspect of this story.
These were years when the abolition of slavery was a matter of intense debate in civic and religious circles, even among these Christian people along the banks of Mill Creek. Not prosperous by any standards, some of them set free what few slaves they owned and presented them with a gift of 400 acres.
In addition, they gave them a plot of land for a meetinghouse and a cemetery. Today there stands on this lot on SR 100 near Gamaliel, a hewn log building, originally known as the Mt. Vernon African Methodist Church, or more simply, Free-Town Church.
“This is a rare and unknown treasure,” Thrasher said, pointing out the original furnishings, suitable once upon a time for both worship and education. Now it is used for neither. The site is forsaken, save for an acre just to the south where the cemetery gives clear evidence of continued use.
Mulkey, abandoned but restored as an historical artifact; Mill Creek, renovated and expanded for use by a living, worshipping congregation; and Free-Town, dilapidated, forgotten, unused except to mark this African American cemetery.
Three structures, so different in their various states of repair and use, share a common history. They mark the fascinating saga of religious life in Kentucky, and are worth a visit by any who treasure the spiritual foundations of our common life.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.