The Revolutionary War, like all long-continued wars, was followed by a period of moral unrestraint; tension broken, a rebound followed. Dr. Alexander, of Princeton, of the Presbyterian church, and the Methodist Bishop Asbury are in accord in the view that in the period succeeding the War of the Revolution, vital piety was at a low ebb. The people were insensible to the genuine spirit of religion, and "full of the spirit of the world."1
A like condition obtained among the people of Franklin who had derived from the older sections, and who had removed to the border in search of fortune. They plunged whole-heartedly into a conflict with the forces of nature. The reckless hardihood bred by the war now found vent in grim struggling with elemental forces for the right to exist. Their spiritual natures, if claimant at all, might wait until tyrannous necessity relaxed its hold. Men were compelled to think more of the means of living than of the meaning of life.
And with this border people another war was unending. The redmen to the south were ever-threatening and often out‑breaking foes. War‑strain did not cease. This condition was a challenge to the churches. It was not unheeded.
The Presbyterian church had been first in the field; and it now saw that there was need of an augmented ministerial force if the ground was to be held. From Liberty Academy in the Valley of Virginia Revs. Samuel Houston and Samuel Carrick came to aid Samuel Doak in spreading the gospel among the people; and Rev. Hezekiah Balch came across the mountains from the stronghold of Presbyterianism, Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, on the same mission.
It is interesting to note that contemporary with the declaration of separate statehood in this region, there was a demand for a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Presbyterian church. Prior to 1785, the Presbytery of Hanover was regarded by the Synod of p271New York and Philadelphia as including the settled parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. In that year, Doak laid before the Synod an application, signed by Balch, Cummings and himself, that Abingdon Presbytery be created; to be bounded on the north by New River, and on the east by the Appalachian mountains, the southern and western limits left unfixed. The request was granted, and the first meeting of the new Presbytery was appointed to be held in the bounds of Franklin, at Salem church, Doak to preside as moderator. The time fixed was the first Tuesday in August, 1785. It is not improbable that the idea of the new ecclesiastical jurisdiction was suggested to Doak by the establishment of Franklin in which he was taking part at this time. The planting of new churches kept pace with the outward flow of population; and when the State of Franklin came to an end, there were more than twenty churches of this denomination established within the limits of that State.
Two other denominations came to dispute, and not without success, this undoubted earlier supremacy of the church of the Scotch-Irish settlers. That deep student of American institutions and government, James Bryce, has well characterized the South as a region of "high religious voltage"; commenting upon which, Francis J. Turner says the characterization is especially applicable to the Upland South, which has always been responsive to emotion and intensely democratic.2
In the efforts to cover so wide a field with a corps of well-educated ministers of the Presbyterian faith, these few perforce were well nigh as much itinerants as the circuit riders of another church came to be. But as towns were established and demanded the continuous service of pastors, the country districts and far‑flung settlements were left more and more to the ministrations of the Methodist circuit-riders and the Baptist preachers who, with a zeal worthy of admiration, preached a soul-stirring gospel that was gladly heard by the common people of the hill country.
The Baptists had come into the region before the Methodists; and, as early as 1779, established a church at Buffalo Ridge in Washington county, with Tidence Lane as pastor. They were only one year later than the Presbyterians in forming a separate and independent association in the new State. Holston Association was organized October 30th, 1786, at the Cherokee Meeting House, in Washington county, Tidence Lane serving as moderator and William p272Murphy as clerk. The following churches were in the Association: Kendrick's Creek (Double Springs); Bent Creek (Whitesburg); Beaver Creek; Greasy Cove (Unicoi county); Cherokee Creek; North Fork of Holston (near Kingsport); Lower French Broad River (Dandridge).
In the original minute book, yet preserved, is the "Plan of Association" of this first Baptist association in Franklin, and one of the earliest, if not the first, west of the Alleghany mountains:
1st. We hold it necessary to associate together in council in order to give counsel to the respective churches that compose this Association, in order to maintain our Christian fellowship.
2nd. Not as a legislative body to impose laws or exercise any supremacy, each church being an independent body.
3rd. We are not an association of ministers, but of churches, each church being represented by her own delegates, freely chosen.
4th. Whereas, a church is constituted externally by the parties entering into mutual agreement in writing to maintain the worship of God, according to the Gospel order, and referring to the articles of their faith; so churches by their delegates constitute themselves an Association by the confession of their faith maintained to each other.
The independence and individualism manifested in these articles accorded with the spirit of the frontiersmen; and has remained to the present time a distinctive feature of the polity of the denomination. A more rapid growth would have resulted but for the anti-missionary and non‑progressive spirit of the early Baptists. In 1788, according to Morse's Geography, there were but ten Baptist churches in Franklin, and those of small membership, as against twenty-three large Presbyterian congregations.
Most of the Baptists were of the Separate order; a few were Regulars, and the tenets of all were essentially Calvinistic.3
The ministers at this period were: Tidence Lane from North Carolina; William Murphy, Isaac Barton, Jonathan Mulky, James Keel, John Frost and Alexander Chambers, from Virginia. Most of them continued to be permanent residents of the country.
A Methodist circuit was formed in the country the year preceding the formation of the new State. In 1783 the Holston circuit embraced a portion of Southwest Virginia along with the Holston-p273Nolachucky country. Rev. Jeremiah Lambert was appointed to take charge of it, and was the first Methodist preacher in what is now Tennessee. At the end of the first year of his labors he reported a membership of seventy‑six. Rev. Henry Wills succeeded him in 1784. In 1785, the year in which American Methodism was placed on an independent foundation, Wills was presiding elder, and Richard Swift and Michael Gilbert were the senior and junior circuit riders. In 1787, the circuit was divided into two, Holston and Nolachucky circuits. Bishop Asbury sent south to serve on the Nolachucky circuit, a well-educated young man from New Jersey, Rev. Thomas Ware, aged twenty-eight years. Ware left an interesting relation of his experience among the frontiersman, which appears in another chapter. He was the first preacher to visit and to minister to the people south of the French Broad (in the fall of 1787). The gospel of free grace and free will met with a ready acceptance, and Methodism grew rapidly. It reached an element of the population to which Calvinism did not appeal, and vitalized the experience and rendered less sombre the lives of many.4
Colaborers with War, under Rev. John Tunnel as presiding elder, were Jeremiah Mastin, Nathaniel Moore and Micajah Tracey, circuit riders, and several zealous "local preachers," some of whom had preceded the itinerant preachers and broken the bread of life to the settlers in the cabins and woods.
Bishop Francis Asbury did not come to the region until the spring of 1788, but he had, on journeys through Virginia and Carolina, conceived that a second great epoch in American history would be the conquest of the wilderness beyond the Alleghanies and sensed the importance of tincturing that conquest with religious idealism; and he had urged young ministers in the older States to accept appointments on the frontier.
The Lutherans and the Quakers were yet to send ministers into the country; and the Episcopalians seemingly did not seek an opportunity to reach out from their stronghold on the seaboard and serve the needs of the backwoodsmen.
The Moravians, in 1784, sent Rev. Martin Schneider on a visit to the Overhill Cherokees to ascertain the feasibility of establishing a mission among the Indians. He found few of the brethren in Franklin, and it was no part of the plan of his church to begin religious work in the borders of that State.
p274 There can be no disguising of the fact that a considerable fraction of the population felt little or no concern about religion. In the nature of things, some wild and turbulent characters were drawn to the border and some of higher type found vent in the adventurous activities of border life, and in breasting the blows of circumstance, looking chiefly to the acquisition of lands as reward for their aggressive courage.
1 Dr. Archibald Alexander in Biblical Repository, April, 1848; Asbury's Journal.
2 The Frontier in American History, 167.
3 Benedict, Baptist Denominations, 790‑4. The Holston and Watauga Baptists came from the Sandy Creek church or Association in North Carolina founded by Stearns and his company of Separates or New Lights from New England.
4 Price, Holston Methodism; McFerrin, History of Methodism in Tennessee.
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