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John M. James, the grandfather of Frank & Jesse James, arrived on the Kentucky frontier in 1782 in the company of the Traveling Church of rebel Baptist preachers. In 1799, John donated a portion of his estate land in Pulaski County for the construction of the Flat Lick Baptist Church. John’s son, Joseph Martin James was thrown out as pastor of this church for being “talented, but erratic.” A brother-in-law of Joe, Robert McAlister, was installed as pastor. Pastor McAlister was succeeded in 1851 by John’s grandson John James, who graduated from Georgetown College in 1843 with Frank & Jesse’s father, Rev. Robert Sallee James. Flat Lick Baptist Church survives and thrives in the 21st century as a symbol of enduring faith and ministry.
1799 – The Founding of Flat Lick Baptist Church
John M. James (1751-1823) was one of the founders of Flat Lick Baptist Church. This mother church of Baptist churches in central Kentucky is located outside Shopville, east of Somerset, in Pulaski County, Kentucky.
This modest church built first of logs and later of stone out of necessity on America’s first western frontier was a far cry from the James family’s first church in the New World. The ancestors of John M. James brought their Anglican beliefs to worship first at the Aquia Church in Stafford County, Virginia.
Most of his fellow founders were rebel preachers like himself. In their Virginian homeland, they were persecuted by the government and Anglican authorities for preaching without a license. The band of rebel preachers and their congregations made their exodus from Virginia in 1781 in a Traveling Church. They were bound for the Shawnee temple of New Canaan, called the Cain-tu-kee. John M. James provided the land for this mother church. The original log church was built in 1799.
Early Pastors of Flat Lick
The first pastor at Flat Lick was James Fears, followed by Stephen Collier.
The third pastor was John’s son, the “talented, but erratic” Joseph Martin James (1791-1848). Joe was expelled from the church and defrocked for his alcoholism. Overriding his addiction was Joe’s scandal-ridden bigamous marriage with a young parishioner Permelia Estepp. The progeny of the bigamous marriage was equally ostracized by their community. Generations of those progeny were unfairly branded as “the bastard bunch.”
When Joseph Martin James was driven out, Joe’s brother-in-law, Robert McAlister (1782-1851) assumed Joe’s role as pastor. Robert was followed by Joe’s son, John James (1816-1902). John graduated in 1843 from Georgetown College with his cousin Reverend Robert Sallee James, the father of Frank & Jesse James.
List of Pastors 1799-2021
1899 – The 100th Anniversary of Flat Lick Baptist Church
This image of the Flat Lick congregation was taken in 1899, on the 100th anniversary of Flat Lick Church.
Kneeling center, in his white shirt and suspenders, is another son of Joseph Martin James, Edward Perry James (1847-1931).
The family of Edward Perry James occupied the stone house of Joseph Martin James when he died.
The original log structure of the Flat Lick Church was replaced in the late 1840s when Joseph Martin James was pastor. Ransom Carson supervised the enslaved servants of Rev. Joe who built the new church of stone.
At the same time, Reverend Joe had Ransom Carson and the enslaved build Joe a stone residence, which Joe then occupied on the knoll above his storehouse at Dahl Road and Flat Lick Creek.
In June of 1987, John Oliver James (1897-1987), son of Edward Perry James made a final pilgrimage to the stone of house of his grandfather Rev. Joseph Martin James, where he had grown up. Facing his expected demise, John Oliver James wanted to focus on his memories and the history of his family’s former years. A newspaper reporter, covering the event, wrote about the visit instead to highlight the kinship of John Oliver James with Frank and Jesse James.
Early Church Register
The original register of Flat Lick Church remains preserved today in a safe among the church’s archives.
Among those listed in these pages appear the names of Martha James and Rachel McAlister, the wife of Pastor Robert McAlister.
Other James family members populate the register, including one of the James family’s enslaved persons, Nutty James.
The Enslaved Among Flat Lick’s Congregation
Enslaved people were an integral part of Flat Lick’s congregation.
The policy to include enslaved people in Flat Lick’s congregation was initiated by John M. James and his son-in-law Rev. Jeremiah Vardeman. Jerry Vardeman, as he was called, is the son of Johannes Vardeman, an ax man for Daniel Boone who helped build Boone’s fort at Boonesborough. The Vardeman family first settled adjacent to the land of John M. James at Walnut Flats in today’s Lincoln County, Kentucky. John M. James later built a brick home nearby for the use of Jerry and John’s daughter Betsy.
At Flat Lick church, the Anglo men and women sat on the ground floor level. Along the center aisle, they faced one another. The enslaved stood in the loft that was constructed off the back wall of the church.
Many of those enslaved who rebuilt Flat Lick Church from log to stone construction, and who constructed under Ransom Carson a stone house for Rev. Joe Martin James, are believed to be buried in the slave section of James Cemetery, opposite Route 80 from the Vardeman Tract at James Road.
1927 – The Church Walls Collapse
In 1927, two portions of the church’s stone wall collapsed. The church was being excavated to build a basement meeting room. The collapse resulted in a fire that was extinguished.
The estimated cost to rebuild was $18,000.
It was further estimated that the existing perimeter stone walls could be stabilized if the entire structure was raised and a basement was constructed to facilitate the social meeting space.
The congregation fully restored the church to the recommendations as soon as they could.
1999 – The 200th Anniversary of Flat Lick Baptist Church
This picture of Flat Lick’s congregation was taken in 1999, following ceremonies celebrating Flat Lick’s 200th Anniversary.
On that day, the congregation heard from a descendant of John M. James. John’s 4th great-grandson Eric F. James recounted the James family’s historical association with the Church, as Eric stood at the very lectern from which his ancestors preached 200 years ago.
Also attending the centennial celebration were former pastors still living of Flat Lick Church.
From a large number of churches that were spawned from this church throughout central Kentucky, and as far as Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas, Flat Lick gained its reputation for being a mother church.
Flat Lick Baptist Church proceeds confidently into the 21st century, fully functioning and operational.
Flat Lick Baptist Church on YouTube
When the Covid-19 Pandemic struck in 2020, Flat Lick Baptist Church began to video and broadcast church services to its congregation who were sheltering in place at home. The innovation was initiated by Pastor Brother Gerald Ashley, who was planning to retire at this time. As it worked out, Flat Lick’s YouTube channel increased church attendance and participation. The channel also became an effective media tool for presenting guest ministers, one of whom soon will succeed Brother Ashley s pastor.
The church also now maintains a page on Facebook.
Commemorative History Book
To commemorate the 200th Anniversary of Flat Lick Baptist Church, this book was published, documenting the church’s history. Copies may be purchased by writing directly to the church.
ADDRESS: 144 Flat Lick Rd, Somerset, KY 42503
PHONE: (606) 875-6436