One enters the mouth of Mammoth Cave through a breach in the surface. The visitor climbs downward through this breach to pass through the arch of the cave entrance itself. From here it is a short passage back into the rock until this smaller corridor intersects the main passage of the cave at right angles. Turning to the left the immense main passage continues onward for several miles. About a quarter of a mile down this passage, there is a widening of the cave to form a small room. The main cave passage continues onward past the room. This room is known as “The Church” or “The Methodist Church.” Here local and itinerant preacher have preached sermons to the flock who gathered to hear them. The first published account of the church is from Bird (1838) in Peter Pilgrim. He writes:
“A hundred yards farther on, the roof suddenly sinks somewhat, forming an inclined plane, on which the clouds seem to float as in a midnight sky. And here nature, who, in these same clouds, proves she is not so good a painter below the earth as she is above, has scooped out a spacious cove on the left hand, as wide and high as the Grand Gallery into which it opens, but of little more than a hundred feet in extent. Here, among the rude rocks, has been constructed as still ruder altar– a wooden desk, or pulpit; from which, while torches shone around from crag to crag, the preacher has proclaimed the word of God, and the voices of a congregation has arisen in solemn hosannas. The services of worship in such a place must have been strangely and profoundly impressive. It is a cathedral which, man feels, has been piled, not by the art of man, but by the will of his Maker. But it is a place to inculcate religious fear, rather than pious affection. Another hundred yards beyond the Church– for so the cove of the pulpit is called– and you find yourself again among the ruins of nitre works.”
Bird, Robert Montgomery. 1838. Peter Pilgrim: or A rambler’s recollections, Volume 2. Including: The Mammoth Cave. Pp. 47- 162. Publisher: Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard. 260 pp. http://www.kentuckyexplorer.com/nonmembers/00-05030.html
I should mention that I have not yet obtained a copy of Edmund Lee’s notes about the cave written in 1835 to accompany his surveyed map of the cave. There may or may not be earlier mentions of the church in those documents.
The room is described by a series of visitors to the cave. A selection of these accounts are presented below.
1844. Bullitt, Alexander Clark. 1844. Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, during the Year 1844 by a Visitor. Publisher: Louisville, Ky., Morton & Griswold. 138 pp. http://archive.org/details/ramblesinmammoth00bull or http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16220
Martin, Horace. 1851. Pictorial guide to the Mammoth cave, Kentucky. Publisher: New York, Stringer & Townsend. 148 pp. http://archive.org/details/pictorialguideto00mart
In its capacity for sound, it is as well fitted for a palce of public worship, as in its other characteristics. Even a very slight effort on the part of the speaker would render him thoroughly audible to those seated farthest from him. Standing in this natural temple of God, older by far, than any cathedral the eye ever looked on, and as beautiful. The imagination conjures up the scene it would be present were it again be appropriated to service, and the proper ceremonies be observed. The surpliced priests, the listening auditory, the organ’s swell, the burst of voices, the form of the church itself, and the “dim, religious light” — all that tends to the completion of an ideal, fascinating in the highest degree, and not easily dispelled in a place like that of which we speak.
Concerts as well as religious services have been held here; and we have no doubt but that the very inspiration of the place has awakened melody until then unknown and unappreciated.
Taylor, Bayard. 1859. At home and abroad: a sketch-book of the life, scenery, and men. Publisher: New York, G. P. Putnam. 528 pp. http://archive.org/details/athomeabroadsket1859tayl Accessed September 1, 2013.
1859. Wright, Charles W. 1859. Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. Publisher: Louisville, Ky. : [s.n.] 66 pp. http://archive.org/details/101210597.nlm.nih.gov
1860. Winks, J. F. 1860. A Visit to the Mammoth Cave (pp. 267-274) in The Children’s Magazine and Missionary Repository, edited by Joseph Foulkes Winks, Volume XXII, 1860. Publisher: London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 384 pp. [613-620 Mr. Wilson, the Scottish songster visited it a few years ago. He says ”…] http://books.google.com/books/download/the_childrens_magazine.pdf?id=Jl8EAAAAQAAJ&output=pdf&sig=ACfU3U0sKPn8wj7O74M438SHzlCLIpRf6w
1882. Hovey, Horace Carter. 1882. Guide Book to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky: Historical, Scientific, and Descriptive, 16th edition revised and enlarged. Publisher: R. Clarke Co. 105 pp. http://archive.org/details/guidebooktomamm00hovegoog
We next come to the Methodist Church, about eighty feet in diameter and forty feet high, where those ancient miners used to hear the Gospel preached by itinerant ministers, who sought their welfare. The logs that served for benches are still in position, and many a sermon has been delivered from the rocky pulpit since the days of the pioneer worshipers. The writer can not soon forget a religious service he had the privilege of attending in this natural temple, one summer Sabbath. The band did duty as orchestra, the guests and guides were seated around the pulpit in decorous order, the servants from the hotel were a little in the back-ground, the walls were hung with a hundred lamps, and the scene itself was beautiful. Then the psalm arose, led by the instruments, and waves of harmony rolled through those rocky arches till they died away in distant corridors. The text from which the clergyman, himself a visitor, wove his discourse was particular adapted to the place and the occasion: John XIV: 5, “How can we know the way?”
The last account is the most interesting. Hovey himself describes a sermon he attended at the Church within the cave. He noted that not only were visitors to the cave present but the guides and the servants from the hotel in a non-segregated service. He even cites a specific Bible passage as the basis for the sermon.
John 14: 5 (King James Version) — Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
Perhaps the minister had a sense of humor.
Edward Forrest Frank