(405) 425-5070
Zack Martin talks about the history of the Cedar Springs Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky.
National
Photo by Audrey Jackson

The oldest Church of Christ in America? It’s complicated

The rural Kentucky congregation at the top of 21st Century Christian's list began with Baptist ties in 1792.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — What’s the oldest Church of Christ in America?

It’s the Cedar Springs Church of Christ in Kentucky’s rural Fern Creek community, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.

In actuality, the answer is more complicated.

Yes, the Louisville-area congregation’s roots go back 231 years — to its launch as the Chenoweth Run Baptist Church in 1792.


Related: One of America’s oldest Churches of Christ celebrates its 200th anniversary


That founding date is why the directory puts the Kentucky church at the top of its list of the oldest known Churches of Christ in the U.S. But the chart explains, too, that some of these congregations — such as Cedar Springs — started in other religious bodies prior to the Restoration Movement.

The Kentucky group didn’t identify itself as the Cedar Springs Church of Christ until moving into a new building in 1851 — 172 years ago.

“So, most people date us to 1851 because of the Baptist history,” said Zack Martin, the church’s minister since 2016. “So when I came here and started digging into the history, I felt like I was opening up old wounds because nobody ever talked about it.”

Zack Martin, minister for the Cedar Springs Church of Christ, stands in his office.

Zack Martin, minister for the Cedar Springs Church of Christ, stands in his office.

‘Treasure trove of history’

Nonetheless, understanding the past is helpful in navigating the church’s future, said Martin, a 2007 Bible graduate of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.

“The Lord is my first love, and history is my second love,” said Martin, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in historical theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s a treasure trove of history,” he said of the Cedar Springs church. “Like, we go all the way back to 1792, and there’s even a connection to Daniel Boone.” 

A cousin of Boone, the famous American frontiersman and folk hero, gave the land for the original Chenoweth Run Baptist Church, Martin notes.

Martin summarizes the history of the church, located about 15 miles southeast of downtown Louisville, this way:

The congregation began its theological shift in the 1820s after the hiring of a preacher named Zacheus Carpenter, who identified with the teachings of Alexander Campbell, a key figure in the Restoration Movement. As a result of Carpenter’s influence, the church split, and those left behind practiced simple New Testament Christianity.

Zack Martin holds an archived gospel meeting invitation from decades ago.

Zack Martin holds an archived gospel meeting invitation from decades ago.

For a few decades, that group kept worshiping under the Baptist name. But in 1851, members relocated and built a new building. At that time, they became the Cedar Springs Church of Christ.

The church moved to its current site in 1919 on farmland donated by an elder, Roscoe Stout.

“By that time, people had automobiles, so they thought: Why not move up to the main road?” Martin said. “So the story goes that they put the building on logs, and a team of mules moved the building.”

The existing building was erected at the same site in 1958. A fellowship hall was added in the mid-1980s.

Fern Creek, Louisville, KY, USA

Restoration roots

Cedar Springs’ complex history mirrors that of many congregations associated with the Restoration Movement, sometimes called the Stone-Campbell Movement in recognition of key reformers Barton W. Stone and Campbell.

“While we can use the phrase ‘Stone-Campbell Movement’ as a useful shorthand, the goals of restoring New Testament Christianity preceded those two men and were not limited to them, even in their day,” Restoration Movement scholar John Young said in an email.

The next-oldest congregations listed by the 21st Century Christian directory are the Parksville Christian Church in Kentucky (established in 1796); the Church of Christ of Philadelphia, Pa. (circa 1800); the Pleasant Ridge Church of Christ in Tennessee (circa 1800); the Rock Springs Church of Christ in Celina, Tenn. (1805); and the Rocky Springs Church of Christ in Bridgeport, Ala. (1807).


Related: 21st Century Christian’s full data sheet on the oldest Churches of Christ


“Many individual Christians — and occasionally even entire congregations — felt a need to move away from various practices, beliefs and institutions in pursuit of those aims,” said Young, a theology professor at Amridge University in Montgomery, Ala. 

“Sometimes, that resulted from the preaching and teaching of believers who were already part of ‘our’ movement,” he added, “but in other instances, it was the result of their direct, profound encounter with the Word.”

Church member Nannette Dawson sorts and organizes historical documents from the congregation's archives.

Church member Nannette Dawson sorts and organizes historical documents from the congregation’s archives.

Film photos on a table at the Cedar Springs Church of Christ await filing.

Film photos on a table at the Cedar Springs Church of Christ await filing.

A daughter’s legacy

Here in Louisville, church member Nannette Dawson, whose husband, Will, grew up in the Cedar Springs church, is helping Martin research the congregation’s history. 

The Fern Creek community where the church is located was an unincorporated area until the city of Louisville annexed it in 2003.

The church basement is filled with thousands of old bulletins, ledgers and photos that help piece together that history.

Dawson said she wants her 16-year-old daughter, Jasmine, whose grandfather and great-grandfather both served as Cedar Springs elders, to understand her roots.

“My daughter’s got a legacy here, and she doesn’t know that,” Dawson said. “Kids need that foundation.”

The mother recalled that the congregation lost a lot of members during the COVID-19 pandemic — some from the virus itself, others from old age.

“My daughter’s got a legacy here, and she doesn’t know that. Kids need that foundation.”

Those deaths reinforced the need to preserve the church’s collective memory, Dawson said.

On a similar note, Martin shared how the historic documents benefited him during the pandemic.

He was able to check the ledgers and learn that the church closed for a full month during the global influenza epidemic of 1918.

“They simply wrote (on the ledger), ‘No meeting on account of flu,’” he said. 

The lesson for Martin while the church grappled with COVID-19: “We’ve been here before. They shut down and still survived. We’re still here because of their strength and their faith and their legacy. So we need to pass that down to the next generation and let them know where they come from.”

An old directory is among the historical documents kept by the Cedar Springs church.

An old directory is among the historical documents kept by the Cedar Springs church.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Cedar Springs’ attendance ran about 200 on Sundays.

Post-COVID, that number averages 50 or so.

But Martin points out that families were larger in the congregation’s numerical heyday.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, there were a lot of young families who averaged about four kids apiece,” he said. “So that really bulked up the numbers through those decades.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Barton W. Stone Cedar Crest Church of Christ churches of christ history Fern Creek community Kentucky Louisville Milestones National News old churches old Churches of Christ People Restoration movement Stone-Campbell Movement Top Stories

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time