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History of the Buckhorn Lake Area Church

This history was written by William B. Napier in 1998 and updated in 2006.

The Buckhorn Presbyterian Church

It was July 1864 near the end of the Civil War. A young Confederate soldier from Sharpsburg, Kentucky, was serving in the Virginia area. He was Edward O. Guerrant (right). Much of his time had been spent traveling through eastern Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Alabama and Georgia. As an officer in the Confederate Army, much of the time he was attached to Gen. John Hunt Morgan's army. It was during this time that he noticed the absence of churches and schools in the area. After the war, E. O. Guerrant became a physician. Then remembering the country where so many of his comrades lived, he resolved to give them what help he could.

It was at this time that he gave up his practice of medicine in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Upon his graduation he was ordained to the Ministry. After having served as a pastor, he became an Evangelist and in 1897 he organized what he called the Society of Soul Winners. He had well over one hundred workers in the Appalachian area. His mission was to establish as many churches in Appalachia as possible, without regard to denomination. He was instrumental in organizing many churches in the area from Powell County to Letcher County and beyond. There were six churches in Breathitt County alone with the closest one to Buckhorn being at Canoe.

Miles Saunders, a Presbyterian Minister from Danville, Kentucky, directed the outpost at Buckhorn. For two years he and his daughter, Louise, spent their summers there ministering to the scattered families, the father preaching to them and the daughter teaching them and both trying to lead them into better ways of living. Traditionally and temperamentally religious, these children of another age listened eagerly to the preaching of Saunders and gave their hearts to "Miss Louise". Their Tabernacle, at first a tent and later a small Chapel, was located on Laurel Point near the confluence of Squabble Creek and the Middle Fork River.

On a fund raising foray, in the winter of 1901, Dr. Guerrant was speaking at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. In the audience was a young graduate (left) of the Princeton Theological Seminary named Harvey Short Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch was the pastor of the Cumberland Street Branch of the Lafayette Avenue Church.

Mr. Murdoch's interest in the Kentucky Mountains was piqued as a result of Dr. Guerrant's visit. In describing the people of eastern Kentucky, Dr. Guerrant said, "I have no hesitancy in saying that this is the largest body of white people on this continent who are practically without the Gospel." With characteristic swiftness, Mr. Murdoch immediately had his church pledge a sum sufficient for the construction of a small church for the vicinity of Canoe, Kentucky. Work began on the church with Mr. Murdoch contributing one third of his own salary to the cause. In August of 1901, the church was completed and he dedicated the new Church. Afterwards, he returned to his own church in Brooklyn, but he could not forget the people in eastern Kentucky.

Soon, a letter came from Dr. Guerrant, inviting Mr. Murdoch to serve as Field Secretary for the Society. His duties would be to visit the various churches, give them encouragement and coordinate their efforts. By February 1902, he had made up his mind; he would return to Kentucky. His friends at the Brooklyn church tried to dissuade him, pointing out that it would be a great blow to the Brooklyn Church to lose him and that many opportunities for advancement existed there in New York. To these arguments, Mr. Murdoch would reply, "but the need is greater there." They told him that he was making a terrible mistake, but he answered that there were many to take his place in Brooklyn, but there did not seem to be anyone to take his place in Buckhorn. He came to Buckhorn, and they spoke of him in Brooklyn as a fine young man who had gone and lost himself in the mountains. Forgetting that One wiser than they had said, "he that loseth life shall find it." Those who knew him would say that he lost himself in the toil of the day, all but forgotten by the world that once knew him. Mr. Murdoch counted the world as a small price to pay for the satisfaction of service on Squabble Creek.

In Kentucky, Mr. Murdoch began a grueling series of long rides on horseback to serve the Society outposts. Soon he began to have second thoughts about circuit riding and longed for a more settled existence. He began speaking of the founding of a church college where he could help the mountain boys and girls. As he rode along on the visits to various churches, he began to look for a suitable site for his church and school.

Since he was the builder of the Church at Canoe, he considered the general area as the prime location for the new undertaking. He was first attracted to nearby Crocketsville, at the mouth of Longs Creek but friends warned him away because of a strong liquor trade and the feud there in progress among some of the people of the area.

On Mr. Murdoch's first visit to Buckhorn, he dismounted from his horse and walked into the tent where the services were held on Laurel Point. The service was almost over and "Miss Louise" (right) was playing the little hand organ and the people were singing "Just as I am". At the end of the song the service began anew. Mr. Murdoch walked to the front of the tent and preached a sermon. He then left on his horse but he was back a few days later. Mr. Murdoch had liked what he saw of Buckhorn in more ways than one. In short order, he asked Louise Saunders to marry him.

Then on September 6, 1902, he assembled the citizens of the Buckhorn community in the home of John and Ella Gross, where Louise was boarding. There to an electrified audience, he disclosed his plan to build a college and a new church in their community and asked them to pledge assistance. The elated people came forth with pledges of land, labor, timber, stone, food, money and any other resources they had. In later September, 1902, Mr. Murdoch and Louise chose the site for the new school and church aided by Dr. Guerrant and General Oliver O. Howard (left) of Civil War fame who had recently founded the Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Soon a small chapel replaced the old tent on Laurel Point. Then a few years later the chapel was replaced by a larger building near the present "log cathedral." In 1907 the Buckhorn Presbyterian Church with 90 members was organized as a part of the Transylvania Presbytery. By the time the present church building, "The Log Cathedral", was completed in 1928, the congregation numbered 865 members.

Right up to the death of Mr. Murdoch in 1935, his former parishioners in Brooklyn furnished funds for buildings, grounds, and operating expenses for the school and churches. Buckhorn has a long history of mission involvements, continuing to the present. A number of churches and individuals, including many former church members and alumni/ae, support the church.

The present church, built in 1928, is the only remaining building of the original "Witherspoon College", other than the gymnasium, of which only the original beams remain. Its four walls, floor, and ceiling have been replaced.

The church was designed and financed mostly by Edward Geer of Brooklyn, New York. Local citizens from surrounding mountains contributed the lumber and local citizens and students at the school built the buildings. The interior of the building is somewhat medieval in appearance and Scandinavian in style. The high open beam ceiling and the rich natural oak finish of the walls give warmth and identification with its rural, wooded surroundings.

The Hook and Hasting Organ, renovated in 1982, sits like a crowning jewel in this majestic building. The pipe organ was the first of its kind to cross the mountains, having been transported from Mt. Sterling in 1928 for the dedication of the Log Cathedral. The music professor from Berea College played it. Only Mr. Murdoch (1907-1935) and Dr. Elmer E. Gabbard (1936-1956) served both as the school's President and church pastor. The first pastor to serve only the church was Samuel Vandermeer (1960-1962). Other installed pastors since Reverend Vandermeer have been Robert Undercuffler (1962-1967), Timothy Jesson (1967-1979), Stephen Montgomery (1980-1984), Jack Henshaw (1985-1989), Art Pflug (1990-1995, as Interim Pastor), Earnest C. Walls (1995-1999), and Jerry Utt (2002-2005). [The church has been served since 2007 by co-pastors Gayle and Tom Burns.]

Though the church building is often called the "Log Cathedral", the church was called simply the "Buckhorn Church" in Mr. Murdoch's days because he wanted it to serve the entire community. It was, of course, Presbyterian, but that designation was not felt necessary. When in 1970, new members were received in out-lying areas including Chavies, Gays Creek, etc., it was felt the name should be expanded to include that area as well—hence "Buckhorn Lake Area". The Log Cathedral is the name popularly used to describe the large log sanctuary, but the official name is "Buckhorn Lake Area Church" with Presbyterian understood, just as in Murdoch's days.

Throughout the years, the huge pipe organ has been a source of pride to the people of Buckhorn. It has been played by many through the years, including Mrs. Griffen, Agnes Kirby, Jean Keen Wooton, Violet DeVault, Grace Reynolds Herald, Jeannette Napier and, until recently, Jean Keen Wooton returned as organist. At present, only guest organists perform occasionally for the community.

And so Harvey S. Murdoch came to the Buckhorn Valley and Squabble Creek and that is why the church bell of Buckhorn calls to prayer at day's twilight. For he came and stayed and there is a Buckhorn school and church and a place for special children and a bell to call to prayer exists. And at each day's twilight, the call to prayer from the belfry of the community church can be heard throughout the valley. For nine years the ringing of the bell was the labor of love of a little mountain woman, Mrs. Nancy Jane Smith, and then her son rang the bell until he had gone away to the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Then Charles Riley rang it for many years. Little Leila Gross rang the bell and then Granny Ella Sandlin until it tolled the passing of her spirit. Recently other families have had the privilege of ringing the bell. Twilight now again in the Buckhorn community calls to a traveler, who, departing, climbs to the top of a rail. The hush and peace of twilight, and the Prayer Bell of Buckhorn is calling. Back there in the valley every head is bowed. No sounds save the toll of the prayer bell and the singings of Squabble's waters.


  1. Behymer, F. A. 1927 The Story of a Log House College. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Mo.

  2. Mahy, Jr., G. Gordon. 1946. Murdoch of Buckhorn. Nashville: The Parthenon Press.

Still to be added: recent history and more photos.