The life and legacy of Johnny Durham

Published 11:04 am Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Recently, Boyle County lost one of its most prominent and beloved Citizens, Johnny Durham. He was a good and loyal friend to all, a patriot who served valiantly in Vietnam and an auctioneer/real estate agent who focused on farm and home properties for more than 40 years in Boyle County.

Johnny’s community service was without bounds. Year after year he was found auctioning pro bono on behalf of Boyle County’s Hospice organization, Ephraim McDowell’s fundraisers and the local Humane Society. One of Johnny’s greatest attributes and passions was his love of young people; in particular, those involved in 4-H and FFA. Over many decades, Johnny conducted farm equipment auctions, as well as the Investment In Youth Farm Animal Sale on behalf of our young Boyle County farmers.

Johnny Durham’s family’s heritage is truly remarkable: Fourth great grandson of John Durham, who back in the late 1790s helped bring Methodism and its first congregation to the region known back then as The Kentucky Territory! It was Johnny’s forebearer whose dedication helped formalize organized Christianity in Kentucky.

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With the coming of John Durham and the advent of Methodism in the Kentucky Territory, there was marked interest in the vast wilderness frontier’s potential to become fertile ground for devoted Christian circuit riders to bring the Gospel to the region. Within the rugged early pioneer population, only limited remnants of Christian belief were carried over the mountains. Johnny’s namesake, John Durham was first among devoted Christians who made the most of every opportunity to spread the Word of God. Circuit riding pastors spoke wherever and whenever anyone would listen: in crude log cabins, on horseback, in taverns, barns; often in the open.

Methodist pastors followed early settlers into the most remote backwoods. A popular expression of that time on bitterly cold winter and stormy days was, “There is nothing out but crows and Methodist Preachers.”

The late 1700s was a time of America’s westward expansion beyond the original 13 colonies. Among the newcomers were Francis Clark, a lay preacher and John Durham. They had been neighbors in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. These men were dedicated, sincere Methodists. John Durham soon became the first Methodist Bible class leader in the Territory. Working with a group of believers, Durham’s remote cabin near what would soon become Perryville became his organizational meeting place. From there, Methodism spread exponentially throughout the Kentucky Territory, which by 1792 was to become the Commonwealth of Kentucky, further accelerating both pioneer Christianity as well as America’s westward expansion.

John Durham had been a Revolutionary War soldier, having served as private in Captain Hill’s company, Colonel Alexander McClenadean’s regiment. He had married Martha Bugg several years before he came to Kentucky, and they already had several children before coming across the mountains.

Durham was said to have been a comrade of Daniel Boone, coming across the mountains with him. Since one account says that he came to Kentucky in 1781 and another that he came in 1783, it seems probable that he came first with Boone in 1781 and then, as did Boone and others, returned two years later with his family to settle on the frontier.

Records in what was then Mercer County and now Western Boyle show he purchased land from Simon Kenton on Licking River and on Quirk’s Run (north of today’s Perryville Road and west of Danville) suggesting that he may have also been closely associated with Kenton.

John Durham continued as Methodist Bible class leader until his death in 1817. His will, on record in Mercer County reveals that he had been prosperous, raising a large family and having left significant acreage to his kin. Many prominent Methodists have descended from John Durham. Through the years members of the Durham family have played prominent and dedicated roles in Churches in Danville as well as Perryville.

Our recognition of Johnny Durham today is based on not only his Faith; it comes from the extraordinary heritage his family built over the past 200+ years and many Durham generations. Our friend Johnny’s great-times-four Grandfather John Durham and his wife Martha Bugg left not only his extraordinary Methodist legacy: they raised 14 children in their strong commitment to Christ. Today, John Calvin Durham’s name is cast in a beautiful stained glass window, now prominently on display in the Chapel at Centenary Methodist Church in Danville.

To add to that Legacy, Johnny Durham’s daughters have now donated a magnificent early 1800s Oil Portrait of John Durham to be held prominently and through posterity as a treasure in our Church.

— Members of the Church Council of Centenary Methodist Church of Danville