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SPOTLIGHT ON HISTORY: COVE’S ROOTS

Following are excerpts from a history presentation, “Cove’s Roots,” delivered at Anniversary Sunday services on Sept. 26, 2010, by church historian Ben Sutherly:

Often on Anniversary Sunday, we remember the good old days here at Cove Spring: the fellowship, the fund-raisers and milestones of our lives, former pastors, friends, neighbors and characters. Some remember the way things used to look. Not many of us can recall the old church that burned nearly 65 years ago. It stood right here for a century before it burned, but it’s a memory now. And none of us can remember the small log schoolhouse in a cove by a spring that first housed our congregation in 1815. Sure, we know the general vicinity of where it stood, but we’re not even sure of the exact spot. That building, and the memories of it, are gone, too.

But the church that gave birth to our church is still standing. And its story, which may be less familiar to you, is worth sharing today. It is the story of Cove’s Roots.

How many of you have heard of Cane Ridge, Kentucky? Have any of you been there? I have to admit, even though I’m the church historian and had heard of Cane Ridge, I didn’t know until a few months ago that the church there is still standing. It was the site of a Great Revival in August 1801 that drew an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people. Think of that! We count ourselves lucky if we can get 195 people here for Anniversary Sunday! But think if you emptied out the city of Troy and had all its residents gather for a revival. It’s hard to comprehend today, let alone in the early days when Kentucky was still at the edge of the frontier.

Have you ever driven northeast out of Lexington on U.S. 68, the same route that runs up through Xenia, Springfield and Urbana east of here? On our way home from a weekend trip this summer, Julia and I decided to take that route home. There are immaculately kept horse farms with their stone walls hemming the highway. And if you follow that highway through Paris, Ky., there’s a little sign with an arrow pointing off to the right that reads, “Shrine.” You drive through the rolling hills for a few miles, and there, on the left side of a state highway that looks like just another country road, back a lane and by a cemetery, is a large limestone building. It looks like a church, but it’s not. If you step inside, there’s an old log meeting house. Measuring 30 feet by 50 feet, it’s said to be the largest one-room log structure standing in North America. And you really do feel like you’ve entered a shrine, a holy place.

The curator told us slaves once sat in the loft of this old building to listen to worship services. In 1829, the loft was removed. When the church was restored a few years after its membership disbanded in 1921, locals recalled that the old church loft had become a haymow in a nearby barn. It was removed from the barn and reinstalled in the church in 1932, where it remains to this day. The pulpit was reconstructed based on a description of the original.

Scots-Irish settlers from North Carolina built this church in 1791, the year before Kentucky became a state. They used blue ash logs for the walls, and oak and chestnut trees for the beams and rafters. It was a Presbyterian church, and in 1796, a young minster named Barton Stone became the church’s pastor. He was the pastor who presided over the large gathering of Methodists, Baptists and the unchurched who came on foot and on horseback. If you go to caneridge.org, it tells of a contagious fervor that took hold at Cane Ridge. People fell to the ground, cried aloud in prayer and song, and exhorted others in their responses. Methodists gave the meeting a certain emotional evangelical quality that Presbyterians had tried to stifle. The meetings continued day and night, until provisions for both humans and horses ran out.

A few years later, in 1804, a small group of Presbyterian members, including Barton Stone, signed a document called “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” It marked the end of their days as Presbyterians, and the birth of a movement seeking to unite Christians along nonsectarian lines.

These people called themselves simply Christians. Some scholars today think this new movement was the first Christian religion to get its start on American soil.

Samuel Kyle, born into a Presbyterian family in Pennsylvania, was part of Barton Stone’s splinter movement that became part of the New Lights. These New Lights embraced revivals and tended to be more evangelical than other churches. Many of us are familiar with the story of Samuel Kyle’s family, and how they brought this new way of thinking to southwest Ohio. They were against hierarchy, they weren’t much interested in theology, and they didn’t have much use for creeds, believing Scripture was all you needed and that character showed a Christian’s true colors. Those were among the core beliefs when Brother Kyle gathered early settlers here in Elizabeth Twp. in 1815 to form Cove Spring Church.

I’d like to begin to wrap up this talk by having us consider what happened to the Christian church since the days of Barton Stone and Samuel Kyle. In 1931, during the early days of the Great Depression, it joined with the much larger Congregationalist movement to become the Congregational Christian Church. There were 9 Congregationalists for every 1 Christian. Then, a generation later, in 1957, it merged with the Evangelical Reformed movement to form the United Church of Christ. Our church withdrew from the UCC a decade ago, but it is interesting to note that of the 5,000 UCC churches today, only about 250 have their roots in the Christian tradition.

This past April, I received an invitation out of the blue to come to the United Church of Christ over in Pleasant Hill for a conference. The conference brought together several local churches that have their roots in the Christian movement that started at Cane Ridge.  Even though there are only about 250 or so Christian churches remaining, you’d be surprised how many there still are locally. Among the churches at the meeting in Pleasant Hill were the Polk Grove UCC in Montgomery County; the Piqua Congregational Church; the Nashville UCC, Versailles Christian Church, the First Christian Church of Troy, the First Christian Church of Franklin south of Dayton, West Liberty UCC, the First UCC in Springfield, Knob Prairie Christian Church near Enon and, of course, the Pleasant Hill UCC.

This meeting was part of the Christian Preservation Project. As many of the old Christian churches fade and die, much of their history is lost. There are efforts to preserve that Christian heritage, with many documents being donated to the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts. In some Christian churches, there were no old documents to donate. Many early Christians weren’t big on rules, so they often didn’t keep church records. Sitting through that talk in Pleasant Hill, hearing all of this, I felt very lucky to know that we have so much of our history preserved here at Cove Spring. And so I hope you’ll take a few moments to look through those old clerk books and scrapbooks before you leave today and these materials return to our archives for five more years.

But you know, sitting there, I also felt proud to be able to inherit such a great heritage. It’s neat to think that your church is an outgrowth of the first Christian movement that got its start on American soil. But it’s even more heartening to know the roots of belief that grew in that soil are still so relevant today. Our early Christian leaders didn’t get caught up in the small stuff. They didn’t let small differences divide them. They took the Holy Scriptures as their only rule of faith and practice. They focused on the fact that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church. It was enough for them. It is enough for us today.