Harlan Baptist Church - The First 50 Years

For this month’s Cornerstone article, we are taking a look back with some interesting historical facts about the history of Harlan and Harlan Baptist Church. Remember the goal of history isn’t to simply find joy in discovering the past. Learning the history of our church gives us an opportunity to examine the good, the bad, the ugly, and the glorious of what all has transpired in the life of our church. 

So, let’s read some background into the history of the church, but ask questions. Why did they gather? What were the founding principles? How did they distinguish themselves from other churches? What can we learn from them? How can we be inspired by their story to see growth and faithfulness in our present situation?

Here we go…..

Harlan County was separated from Knox county in 1819.

Harlan County is named after Major Silas Harlan who fought in the Battle of Blue Lick Springs, the last battle of the Revolutionary War west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

The city of Harlan we now know was originally called Mt. Pleasant. It did not become the city of Harlan until 1912.

The “church at Mt. Pleasant” was founded in 1868 with 12 charter members with the help of Wallins Creek Baptist Church which was founded in 1855.

When one of the charter members was killed trying to break up a knife fight in 1873, the Baptists didn’t meet for two years.

When the first Sunday School was started it was through a joint effort of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. The town consisted of a population of just over 200 people. One local missionary was actually very vocally opposed to Sunday Schools saying, “the least my people know the better it will be for them in eternity.” 

The Union Sunday School would continue to serve the community until a disagreement in 1894 when the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Christian churches began to have their own schools.

From 1875-1878, the church met in the court room of the old court house and in a room known as “Court Hall” in town.

The town of Mt. Pleasant had only grown to about 400 persons by 1890.

The congregation of the Mt. Pleasant church had met in borrowed rooms for worship services until 1891 when they purchased a lot on the corner of Central Street and Howard Alley for the sum of $100. They met in that building until 1905.

Pastor J.W. Mahan was appointed in 1897 by the Baptist Mission Board (What we now know as the North American Mission Board) to serve in Harlan County and by agreement became the pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church with a salary of $300 from the Mission Board and $100 from the church.

In 1897 rent for a 4-room cottage was $4 a month. A ton of coal was $1.25. Beef was $.055 per pound. Eggs were $.10 per dozen.

When J.W. Mahan resigned after 10 years of service to the church and the county, he and his wife had to take a raft down the river to Pineville (Wasiota) and then catch a train to Louisville where he would resume his theological studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The first passenger train arrived in Harlan on July 15, 1911 and from that point on there was a huge economic boom in the area.

Mount Pleasant became the town of Harlan in 1912 and the church changed its name to follow suit.

There is little recorded church history for the period between 1912 and 1920, but that may have been because of the commotion of newcomers flooding into Harlan. The population in 1910 was 657, but by 1920 it had already increased to 2,647. Meanwhile the county as a whole had grown from a population of 10,566 in 1910 to a total of 31,546 people in 1920. 

Big things were in store for Harlan and Harlan Baptist Church. The first 50 years had seen lots of changes, but if you want to find out the history of the church for the next 50 years you’ll have to read next month’s Cornerstone.


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