Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives, The Church in the Southern Black Community >> Document Menu >> Summary

No Author
Biography of London Ferrill, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Colored Persons, Lexington, KY
Lexington, KY: A. W. Elder, 1854.


London Ferrill (1789-1854) was the founder and longtime pastor of the largest church in Kentucky, First Baptist Church in Lexington. He was born into slavery in Virginia and bought for $600 by Colonel Samuel Overton, a humane man who apparently set Ferrill free at his death. After obtaining his freedom, Ferrill considered "New York and Philadelphia as good places to settle, but he was persuaded to come out to Kentucky" and provide religious instruction to Lexington's African American population (p. 5). Ferrill drafted the constitution for the new church in 1817 but struggled to attract converts in his first few months of his ministry and had to support himself with other employment (the Lexington city directory of 1818 describes Ferrill as a waiter). In later years, Ferrill attracted significant numbers of converts, survived the persecution of rival African American pastors, and watched church membership swell to more than eighteen hundred. In addition to his work as a denominational leader, Ferrill performed ecumenical community service. During a cholera epidemic in 1833, he was one of only three clergymen who remained in Lexington to care for and comfort the sick. Ferrill's service won him the esteem of the white population, and the church "at length was incorporated by the Legislature, and was called the 'Old Apostolic Church'" (p. 8). Ferrill also instituted innovative practices in his ministry. For instance, recognizing that slave marriages were subject to the whims of masters, he customarily married slaves "until death or distance did them part" (Spencer p. 657). He died in 1854, shortly after the publication of his Biography, which was written by an unknown source and "published by the request of many friends" (title page).

The Biography begins with a brief description of Ferrill's early life. He receives the name London Ferrill from his first owner, Ann Winston, and at Winston's death in 1797 or 1798, Ferrill is sold to Colonel Samuel Overton for six hundred dollars. Ferrill's first experience with religion comes two years later at age eleven, when, while bathing in a river with a friend, he almost drowns but is rescued by "the timely assistance of a washerwoman," who drags him to shore by "the hair of the head" (p. 1). Convinced that they would have gone "to the 'lake of fire and brimstone'" if they had died at that moment, Ferrill and his friend vow "that henceforward they would serve their God alone" (p. 1).

Ferrill's newfound faith leads him to be baptized, and at "a prayer meeting, where the new converts, Elders and members were assembled . . . he was called on to sing" (p. 2). Continued participation in these prayer meetings leaves Ferrill with the conviction that he has been "called to preach the Gospel," and he becomes an itinerant preacher, again, apparently with the approval of Overton (p. 2). When Overton realizes that he is dying, he sends a horse to "Ferrill's place of residence . . . for his faithful servant whom he loved almost as well as one of his own children. Never did master and servant love each other better than these two" (p. 5). Though the text does not explicitly address the question of Ferrill's legal status before or after Overton's death, his apparent freedom to relocate to Philadelphia or New York implies an ability to control his own movement.

Upon his arrival in Lexington, Ferrill preaches "at private houses, first at one house and then another" before being "engaged by the Trustees of Lexington" to "become the preacher of the colored people" (p. 6). Ferrill receives the unanimous support of his parishioners in a vote, but "in one month's time he had only seven hearers" listening to his sermons, and his wife (about whom Ferrill's biography discloses little) was one of the seven (p. 7). His slow start notwithstanding, Ferrill persists in preaching, and soon the house where he meets is "crowded to overflowing" (p. 7).

Ferrill's rapidly growing congregation request baptism at his hands, but Ferrill refuses to baptize anyone until he has been ordained by someone from the governing body of the Baptist church in Kentucky, the Elkhorn Association. When the Association concludes that "they saw no good reason why a colored man should not be ordained where he was duly called," Ferrill receives ordination and begins to baptize large crowds of new members (p. 7). A large baptismal font is installed on the church lot where Ferrill baptizes "two hundred and twenty persons in one hour and twenty-five minutes . . . and has baptized, in all, upwards of five thousand" (p. 11).

Ferrill's success excites the jealousy of rival African American preachers who work to undermine his ministry. A man named Harry Quills starts rumors about Ferrill's character and tries to expel Ferrill by asking the relevant legal authorities to enforce the Kentucky law that "no free colored man could remain in this state over thirty days, unless a native of the State" (p. 8). Quills fails in his attempt to run Ferrill out of Kentucky because "[t]he whites got Dr. Fishback to draw up a petitition to the Legislature to permit him to stay in the State, as he had not only been here thirty days, bu[t] —even eight years" (p. 8).

One of the hallmarks of Ferrill's ministry is his ability to reach across the color line and win the support of both the white and black communities. In addition to ministering to his African American congregation of eighteen hundred, Ferrill also preaches to several "white men, whom by the Grace of God, Ferrill was the humble instrument of bringing from sin, who afterwards became great divines" (p. 6). The Biography concludes with a prayer from Ferrill that illustrates his love for people of all races: "God, bless the Church of which I am pastor . . . and grant that it may continue to prosper and do good among the colored race. And, merciful Father! bless the white people, who have always treated me as though I was a white man, and bless . . . the Church of Christ every where--bless Christians in every land--bless O, Lord!" (p. 12).

Works Consulted: Dunn, Frank C., Old Houses of Lexington, Kentucky Room, Lexington Public Library, 1930-1950; Lucas, Marion B., "Ferrill, London," The Kentucky Encyclopedia, Kleber, John E., ed., Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992; Spencer, John Henderson, A History of Kentucky Baptists. From 1769 to 1885, Including More Than 800 Biographical Sketches, Cincinnati: J.R. Baumes, 1886; Wilson, Amy, "Garden Helps Community Grow: Empty Lot is Fertile Ground for Seeds of Reconciliation," Lexington Herald- Leader 17 May 2008: F1-F4.

Zachary Hutchins

Document menu