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A pioneer minister is attributed with saying that "Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place." Such rhetoric aside, Bluegrass Kentuckians have always had their sights firmly set on the real thing.
Religion has played a central and cherished role in Bluegrass life beginning with the arrival of the first settlers in the late 1700s. Some scholars contend that, except for the Mormon expansion into Utah, no other region in America was settled with the level of religious fervor of early Kentucky.
In fact, what has been called "the most important religious gathering in all of American history" - the Great Revival of 1801, which led to the formation of the Christian Church and Church of Christ denominations - took place at Cane Ridge, a short drive north of downtown Lexington. Thousands of Christians visit the Cane Ridge Shrine each year.
Another Lexington-area attraction important in American religious history is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Pleasant Hill is the nation's largest restored Shaker community.
Lexington's present-day churches include congregations whose histories go back to the region's earliest settlement days, as well as some of the largest congregations in Kentucky. Today, fast-growing Lexington combines longstanding religious traditions with a growing religious diversity.
More than 50 denominations and religious groups are represented in the hundreds of churches in the Lexington area. As you might expect in the Southern "Bible Belt," Baptists are the largest group. But there also are Catholic and Hindu, Methodist and Mormon, Mennonite and Chinese Christian congregations.
Religion plays an important role in the region's educational heritage. The area is home to top-ranked Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries.
Many area churches have strong musical traditions, with choirs and singing groups that perform regionally and nationally. ICHTHUS, America's longest-running Christian music festival, was held annually in nearby Wilmore for over 40 years. In 2014, it moved to the Kentucky Horse Park.
Whether you are looking for a welcoming place at which to worship; are planning a religious convention or meeting; are interested in religious history; or simply enjoy admiring the architecture of churches old and new, you'll find plenty of points of inspiration in Lexington and the Bluegrass.
Bluegrass Note: Lexington's central location, flexible meeting facilities, affordable accommodations and family atmosphere make it a popular place for religious meetings, conferences and conventions. Rupp Arena and the adjacent convention center in downtown Lexington have hosted many religious groups including The Worldwide Church of God, The National Missionary Convention, the Evangelical Free Church of America and the interdenominational Time Out for Women Conference and The Franklin Graham Festival.
A Shrine to Christian History
Each year, more than 15,000 visitors from around the world come to see Cane Ridge Shrine, probably the most famous "frontier church" in America, and the birthplace of religious denominations that today have more than five million followers in the United States. The large log meeting house, located on KY 537 in Bourbon County, north of Lexington, was built in 1791 to serve a Presbyterian congregation. At 30-by-50 feet, it is thought to be the largest one-room log structure in the nation. But the most important reason for Cane Ridge's attraction is what happened there in 1801.
The Great Revival of 1801 at Cane Ridge attracted an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people. For a week, 25 to 30 Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist ministers preached from wagon beds and tree stumps, inspiring thousands to emotional professions of faith. The event established the tradition of camp-meeting revivals in America. Even more importantly, it led to a new denomination at Cane Ridge under Rev. Barton Stone.
In 1832, in Lexington, Stone's "Christian" movement merged with the Disciples of Christ, creating what is now the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Modern-day Christians come to Cane Ridge to learn about and celebrate church history. In 1954, the meeting house was enshrined in a building of local limestone. Medallions in the windows depict some of the important events in the Christian Church. Inside is the restored meeting house along with a museum of church and pioneer history.
For Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations, a service, reunion or other event at the shrine has special meaning, and many groups plan activities at Cane Ridge, especially during summer months.
Independent and group visitors also are welcome. Cane Ridge is open for tours April through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Groups larger than a carload should call first. Admission is free, with donations encouraged.
Reservations for group meetings, services, weddings or other events are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis after January 1 of the event year. Every year the shrine hosts Cane Ridge Day with picnics, music and guest preachers. For more information or to schedule a visit or event at Cane Ridge call (859) 987-5350.
Bluegrass Note: Only two pioneer log meeting houses survive in the Bluegrass, Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, and Old Mud Meeting House near Harrodsburg in Mercer County. The first Dutch Reformed Church west of the Alleghenies, Old Mud was built in 1800. Its name reflects its construction: framing of sturdy oaken timbers and walls filled with mud mixed with straw and sticks. Old Mud is located on Dry Branch Road off US68 south of Harrodsburg; arrange a guided tour through the Harrodsburg Historical Society. (859) 734-5985.
A Community Built on Faith
One of the best known attractions in the Lexington area reflects a fascinating chapter of Kentucky and American religious history. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, southwest of Lexington, is the largest restored Shaker village in the United States, and is a monument to the 19th-century members of the Society of Believers who strived to create a heaven on earth. It stands on a fertile rise overlooking the Kentucky River.
As followers of a charismatic woman named Ann Lee, whom they believed to be the Second Coming of Christ in female form, Shakers were committed to celibacy, pacifism, equality, shared labor and common property. Everyday endeavors were viewed as acts of devotion, and, consequently, the name Shaker came to mean quality in everything they produced - furniture to cattle.
At its zenith around 1830, when the population reached 500, Pleasant Hill was the third largest of 18 Shaker communities in the United States. Although no Shakers have lived at Pleasant Hill since the early 1920s, today visitors can experience aspects of Shaker life, work, music and worship through interpretive exhibits and events. There are 34 restored buildings on 2,800 acres. Shaker Village is open year-round, with riverboat excursions offered spring through fall. Admission charged. Meeting facilities available. For information call (859) 734-5411 or toll free, (800) 734-5611.
Bluegrass Note: Bishop Francis Asbury was among those attending the first Methodist Conference west of the Alleghenies, held in Lexington in 1790 at Masterson's Station, the home of Richard Masterson, a Methodist settler from Virginia. A historic marker notes the site along what is now Leestown Pike.
Faith and Education
Visit college campuses in the Bluegrass, and you'll discover not only historic buildings and scenic campuses, but strong religious traditions.
Bluegrass Note: Lexingtonians enjoy celebrating Easter at sunrise services amid the floral gardens at Lexington Cemetery. In 1998, five churches (Main Street Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church, The Salvation Army and Calvary Baptist Church) held Easter services there....Since 1992, the drive-through Nativity at South Elkhorn Christian Church, 4343 Harrodsburg Rd., has been a Christmas season traffic-stopper. More than 200 church members participate in the program's 11 scenes set along a candlelit route. For more information about the hundreds of special services, concerts and events sponsored by Lexington churches throughout the year, check the Saturday religion page in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Sanctuaries Old and New, Large and Small
Gothic to contemporary, historic to modern - Lexingtonians' enthusiasm for religion takes many beautiful forms. To see for yourself, stroll or drive along almost any road in Lexington. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
In downtown Lexington:
Bluegrass Note: Religious musical traditions in the Bluegrass range from spirituals to contemporary rock. The Jimtown Male Choir from Jimtown Baptist Church, 2231 Jimtown Lane. (606-299-1944), has performed spirituals throughout the region for more than 40 years. The longest running Christian music festival in the U.S., the ICHTHUS festival will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2014.. Begun as a Christian alternative to Woodstock in 1970, this three-day outdoor festival attracts top Christian performers - and some 15,000 fans each year.
Charming and historic rural churches dot the countryside around Lexington:
For a more comprehensive listing of churches by denomination contact the Lexington Visitors Center at 800-845-3959.
By Teresa Day, a freelance travel writer based in Georgetown, KY
updated June 2015
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