CHURCH membership in Kentucky has increased at a rate faster than that of the population. Almost one-half of the people of the State -- approximately a million -- are church members today, while only about one person in 12 claimed membership in 1800.
The different religious sects, of which there are nearly 60, show great disparity in size and represent divisions and subdivisions within some of the major denominations. The Baptists, the largest single group, have a total membership of 425,000, of which 300,000 are in the Southern Baptist Convention and the remainder in nine other Baptist divisions. The Catholics come next in point of numbers, with 180,000 members, followed by the Methodists with 170,000 members distributed among eight subdenominations. The Disciples of Christ (better known in Kentucky as the Christian Church) have a membership of 122,000, and the Presbyterians (subdivided into five groups) number 52,000. The remaining 50,000 church members are found in more than 50 smaller organizations.
The religious history of the State falls roughly into four periods: the time of pioneering, the decades of the Great Revival beginning in 1797, the period dominated by the slavery issue and the War between the States; and what may be considered the modern epoch, following reconstruction and extending to the present. As the story unfolds, the growth of the different denominations and their relative status today, as well as the underlying causes of their schisms, become clear.
Pioneering days were marked by the missionary zeal of the first pastors and circuit riders and, conversely, by a general indifference to religious matters on the part of the general populace. An Episcopalian minister, the Reverend John Lythe, preached the first sermon of which there is any record in 1775. The first recorded preaching by a Baptist minister took place at Harrodsburg the following year, but Baptist services were probably held before that. Increasing religious activity came in the 1780's. Three Baptist churches were established in 1781 at Severn's Valley (now in Elizabethtown), Cedar Creek, and