Marker #2082 "Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church"

The story behind Historical Marker #2082, located outside the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, lies in the stories of the founding generation, who created a community bound by worship and defined by the collective building of a woodland chapel. As neighbors contributed land and labor to construct the church out of thick forest trees, a congregation simultaneously grew, rooted in the values of mutual responsibility, neighborhood, and attachment to the natural land.

In 1836, three neighbors, Isaac Gray, Josiah Wilson, and Abraham Whitenack, went on a hunting trip through the dense woods northwest of Harrodsburg. Each were Kentuckians born around the Revolution, and lived in a small, woodsy farming town where most adult men owned a modest plot of land. Towering trees of hickory, poplar, maple, and white oak adorned the landscape, yet made traveling to the established Presbyterian churches of New Providence and Harrodsburg quite arduous.

As Gray, Wilson, and Whitenack traversed the forest, they discussed the need for a local church. Even without one, neighbors hosted church services in different homes or held sermons in the woods. The three hunters stopped for prayer around the stump of a fallen tree atop the highest hill. Looking out at the surrounding woods, they became determined to build Mt. Pleasant in that very spot.

From then on, a nascent congregation grew as town residents and their children worked to physically construct the church meeting house over the next 15 years. Wilson, Whitenack, and Cornelius Vandersall provided land for the church property that sat just west of the Salt River. Neighbors helped clear the plentiful poplar trees to use as timber for the rectangular, one-and-a-half story building and inside furniture. The meeting house was completed in 1851, and featured two front doors. The chapel included segregated seating by gender, with men on the left and women on the right. Potbellied stoves with elongated pipes sat on either side of the central pulpit.

Reverend Thomas Cleland gave the inaugural sermon on March 31, 1852. Cleland was a Transylvania graduate and learned from David Rice, an early Presbyterian leader in Kentucky. Centre College in nearby Danville gave Mt. Pleasant unique access to highly educated evangelicals who came to preach, including G. W. Nicholls and William T. McElroy. In more rural counties, preachers “rode circuit,” and spent part of their time cyclically attending to the smaller, outskirt congregations. Cleland frequently preached at Mt. Pleasant until his death in 1858, and in one visit baptized nearly a dozen children.

Strong communal ties continued to define Mount Pleasant as the small hillside clearing grew to include a cemetery and school. Students learned in a small classroom, planted trees outside for class projects, and enjoyed “playing church” during recess. During the Civil War, a few men from the church, including Abraham C. Whitenack, fought in the 19th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry for the Union, and were buried in the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery alongside neighbors who fought for the Confederacy. There are numerous unmarked graves that belonged to the enslaved persons of white church members.

The Presbyterian Church had a complex relationship with slavery. The 1837 schism over Calvinist ideology split the national presbytery into the Old and New Schools that quickly polarized around slavery, leading to further internal divisions. Mt. Pleasant followed the New School, which took hold much stronger across the free states, and over time deepened in anti-slavery sentiment. Despite this, Cleland and most Mt. Pleasant families owned enslaved persons. New School Presbyterianism in Kentucky was aligned with gradual emancipationist movements and the American Colonization Society, both of which advocated for compensated means of phasing out slavery over time, and required some form of mandated relocation for freedmen.

On the initial list of congregants in 1851, a woman of color named “Milly” appears as a member. Despite local stories, there is little evidence that enslaved people attended the church, voluntarily or otherwise. Enslaved persons would not have been allowed to freely sit, pray, and worship alongside white families, nor formally join the membership of a white church. Religion often played a central role in the lives of individual enslaved persons and the broader enslaved community as well. Clandestine services in the woods at night allowed for freedom to worship without surveillance or censorship, and fostered ties of kinship through personal spirituality.

Danville and Harrodsburg, in addition, had burgeoning, interconnected free Black neighborhoods in the early 1850s, and it is more probable that Milly was one of many free women who lived and worked outside the city. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Milly being Milly Meaux. In 1826, enslaver John Meaux of Harrodsburg emancipated his 61 enslaved persons in his will, most of whom kept the surname. The free Meauxs became a staple of the Black community in the region, with many becoming property holders of decent size across Boyle and Mercer Counties. In 1848, Milly Norris married Jasper Meaux, a hatter, and lived near other skilled laborers, both Black and white, outside Harrodsburg two years later. Numerous Meaux families lived just houses down from Gray and owned farms alongside other neighbors who provided land and labor to the early church. Although the identity of Milly and other congregants of color may remain inconclusive, the enslaved workers whose labor maintained the town and the flourishing free Black communities that shaped the neighborhoods of Harrodsburg helped define the creation of Mt. Pleasant.