Gospel roots run deep into the dark, fertile soil of central Kentucky - a region of farms, families, folk music and faith.
It was this area that Stephen C. Foster made famous in his song, "My Old Kentucky Home." Foster received inspiration for the tune while visiting his cousin John Rowan in Bardstown, 27 miles northeast of Lebanon. And it is here that gospel seeds planted in the early 1830s have germinated and are bearing fruit.The first missionaries known to have visited Kentucky were Samuel H. Smith and Reynolds Cahoon. En route from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri, they passed through the northern part of the state in the summer of 1831. About the same time, the Prophet Joseph Smith and several of the brethren, traveling by steamer on the Ohio River, stopped at Louisville, where they tarried three days. (Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, page 397.) The Prophet also stopped in Louisville in 1832.
In April 1835, Elder Wilford Woodruff and Elder Warren Parrish crossed into Kentucky, where they labored for the next 18 months. In Kentucky and Tennessee they found that several branches had been formed by earlier missionaries in the region. (Encyclopedic History, page 886)
Among those early converts to the Church was Abraham O. Smoot, a Kentucky native, who later joined Elder Woodruff as a companion.
At the end of 1835, Elder Woodruff said he had traveled thousands of miles, baptized 43 persons, organized three branches and ordained two teachers and one deacon.
The first company of Kentucky saints gathering to Zion left for Missouri in September 1836. This started what became a 50-year movement of the saints from the Southern States area. (Encyclopedic History, pp. 197-198.)
Church growth was very slow as the saints left the Southern States through the late 1800s to gather in the West. A history compiled in 1989 by long-time resident Doyle T. Crenshaw - who has served as branch president, district president and counselor to four mission presidents - traces Church activity in the region since the early 1900s.
In 1907, Elder M. P. Stinson and Elder Kossnth Dyal, two traveling missionaries, visited the tiny community of Jonah, Ky., several miles east of Lebanon, and baptized Alfred Crews and his wife, Fannie. In late 1908 or early 1909, a branch was organized, called the Jonah Fork Branch of the Kentucky Conference. There is no record of a branch president, but one of the first Church buildings in Kentucky was completed and dedicated at Jonah in 1910.
With the advent of the automobile and improved roads, Bradfordsville, six miles west of Jonah and seven or eight miles south of Lebanon, became the gathering place for saints in the surrounding communities. Meetings were held in homes and in the open air into the 1920s and 1930s, as missionary activity in the region continued. One annual tradition was a July 4 fish fry, attended by up to 200 people, including many non-members of the Church. Fiddle and banjo music would accompany the meal, which was followed by "preaching" by the elders.
As Bradfordsville became the gathering place, a branch was formed and a tiny meetinghouse was started there in 1936 and completed in 1937. On June 24, 1937, Apostle George F. Richards presided at the first conference in the new building, most likely a dedication of the facility. Elder George Albert Smith presided at a conference in the same location on May 4, 1939. The Lebanon Enterprise noted that on March 23, 1951, Elder Marion G. Romney, then an Assistant to the Twelve, spoke at a special meeting at the Bradfordsville building.
In April 1956, Brother Crenshaw was called as branch president by William Wells, president of the Kentucky Central District.
"Our first task was to get fully organized with all the auxiliaries functioning," recalled Brother Crenshaw, who now serves as high priests group leader in the Lebanon Branch. "The missionaries were having great success bringing young converts into the Church. We needed more space for classrooms and recreation. It soon became apparent that if we were to build the kingdom of God in this area we must provide the facilities. We worked and prayed for many months trying to find the way to accomplish the thing we felt the Lord wanted for this area."
Due to the distances many people had to travel, Primary and MIA were held on the same day. With less than 1,400 square feet, the little Bradfordsville building couldn't accommodate the members. "It became apparent that we had to have a larger building," Brother Crenshaw remembered.
In the summer of 1959, the first counselor in the branch presidency, Charlie Coyle, and his wife, Ethyl, called Brother Crenshaw to come to their home. "Pres. Crenshaw," Brother Coyle said, "we have been praying about the building, and we believe it is possible to get the building now."
Pres. Crenshaw asked how that would be possible, since the local members needed to raise a good share of the cost and most of them lived on modest incomes.
"Charlie and I have saved a little money each year, and we have $11,000 in savings bonds in the bank," Sister Coyle replied. "We would like to cash them and give the money to the Church now."
They did, and other members contributed as well to come up with the branch's portion of $30,000 for the meetinghouse that now houses the Lebanon Branch.
"I shall never forget the experience of watching those faithful saints give all they had to the building of the Lord's meetinghouse," Brother Crenshaw mused. "What great faith they demonstrated."
In 1979, the Louisville Stake was formed, and the branch evolved into the Lebanon Ward.
Small farms are nestled among gentle hills surrounding Lebanon, a community of about 6,500 people, located about 60 miles southwest of Louisville. The farms produce primarily dairy products, beef cattle, and other agricultural commodities.
The area around Lebanon was settled in the 1790s as entire communities, mostly of the Catholic faith, left the Baltimore area during a recession. The result through the years has been large immediate and extended families with close ties. Lebanon is said to have derived its name from the cedars of Lebanon spoken of in the Bible. Cedars grow rampant in the area.
Many residents of the region commute into Louisville for employment at large industrial and corporate complexes. Then they eagerly drive an hour south at day's end to country homes, many more than 100 years old.
Besides My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, other historic sites in the Lebanon area include famous Shakertown with its stone buildings, rich farms and classic architecture in adjacent Mercer County, one county to the northeast. Counties are plentiful in Kentucky. The state has 120 of them, most with their own school districts and local governments.
Lincoln Homestead State Park is about 15 miles north of Lebanon in Washington County. Abraham Lincoln's parents were married and lived at the site. Abe Lincoln's boyhood home is 25 miles west of Lebanon in Hodgenville.
In the midst of all this is the Mormon meetinghouse in Lebanon, home of the Lebanon Branch of the Louisville Kentucky Stake. Though the building, originally completed in the early 1960s and since expanded, is not widely known like the surrounding historic sites, it is itself a center of an evolving Church history in the region.
Growth of the Lebanon Ward was slow following the move from Bradfordsville. Members still had considerable distances to travel to meetings and activities, and activity waned. Last October, the ward was divided and two branches formed -one in Lebanon and another in Bardstown. As often happens in a Church that multiplies through division, increased growth and activity have quickly followed suit.
Bardstown started with nine active members in October, and attendance is up to 35, according to Pres. William P. Norton of the Louisville Kentucky Stake. Under the leadership of branch Pres. Don Stoneking, the branch has maintained 100 percent home teaching since its inception and is preparing to send out its first full-time missionary.
In Lebanon, where Garland Buckman serves as branch president, attendance on Sundays averages about 75 people. The branch has a successful Boy Scout troop, which involves a good number of non-member young men and their parents. Pres. Buckman, prior to his call in October, and former Bishop Dan Kelly have worked with the young men for the past six or seven years.
"Bishop Kelly had a merit badge fair here recently, and quite a few non-members came," Pres. Buckman noted. "In fact, we had more non-members in the building than we probably have had for any other open house or activity. We feel like Scouting is one of our biggest assets as far as introducing our ideals to others and having them become comfortable and familiar with us as a group."
Another asset is Brother Kelly, an attorney elected in November 1990 to a four-year term as a state senator. He represents about 90,000 people in five counties, and his election was termed a miracle of sorts. He is thought to be the first Latter-day Saint to serve in the Kentucky General Assembly, in Frankfort.
"Bishop Kelly's election has certainly helped as far as people relating to the Church," noted Pres. Buckman. "It's helped a lot."
"Sen. Kelly" was the first Republican ever elected in his district, which has a ratio of 8-1 Democrats to Republicans. He ran for office on the Republican ticket against a three-term incumbent who was considered unbeatable.
He and his wife, Darlene, made the campaign a family effort with their five children, ages 8 to 16.
"We've seen that it's made an impression on the community," Sister Kelly said. "People are getting to know us, that Mormons aren't that different, that we are much like everyone else and have high values. Most important, they are getting to know that we are Christians."