First Baptist Church

Historical Marker #2327 is erected on the present day grounds of the First Baptist Church in Garrard County. Organized in 1851, the current church was built in 1871 and was the first Baptist church for the slaves in the county. Pre-dating Emancipation, the first reverend of the church was African-American Bob Irvine, who was given permission to baptize slaves, although they would not have their own meeting place for twenty years.

“There was no church for slaves, but we went to the white folks church at Mr. Freedom. We sat in the gallery. The first colored preacher I ever heard was old man Leroy Estill. He preached in the Freedom meeting house (Baptist). I stood on the banks of Paint Lick Creek and saw my mother baptized….”

Although rarely forced to attend, slaves joined their owners’ church. When they did attend services, slaves were forced to sit in the back of the church, sometimes separated by a gate, or in the balcony or overflow space. In the slaves’ minds, even when they wanted to go, they knew it was only for white men. Though both owner and slave attended the same church, sang the same songs, and heard the same sermon, there was no true equality. It was made clear in sermons given by white preachers that there was never the same equality of all before the same Supreme Being they worshipped together. After the 1820s, sermons that began as speeches about peace and compassion, turned into cautionary stances on hard work and obeying ones master.

Seeking their own ministers and religious services, African-Americans who were called to ministry often had a hard time being accepted by the white community. White preachers and community members would often question the ability, credentials, and right for African-Americans to preach and perform baptisms. Once they went through and passed a series of “tests” these slave ministers were given formal recognition and licenses to be able to legally preach. If given formal letters of dismissal, slaves were able to form their own organization and have services separate from their owners. However, the white community worried that slave sermons would become rebellions. As a result, the “mother church” would often instill an oversight community, white church-goers who acted as clerks or offer other advice, in order to try and retain control of the African-American branch.