TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE
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Almost half of Tennessee's 2,616,556 population are active churchgoers today, with the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Churches of Christ comprising, in the order named, nearly go per cent of the combined church membership. Unquestionably the State is one of the chief strongholds not only of Protestantism but of Fundamentalism in the United States. These parallel forces have taken major roles in shaping the history of Tennessee and the character of its people.
Among the North Carolinians of the Watauga and Holston settlements in the 1770's were many Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. They welcomed preachers of that faith, such as the Reverend Charles Cummings, who held a meeting in Watauga as early as 1777. In the following year Tidence Lane, a Baptist, and Jeremiah Lambert, a Methodist, visited the East Tennessee settlements.
More successful than either Presbyterians or Baptists in early Tennessee were the Methodists. The Wesleyan doctrine, that all men were equal and each the master of his own destiny, was identical with the democratic philosophy of the frontiersman. Moreover, the circuit system introduced into Tennessee by Bishop Francis Asbury in 1778, when he organized the first Methodist conference west of the Alleghenies at Half Acres, had among the Protestant groups no equal for effective evangelization of a backwoods people. The circuit rider, equipped with Bible, hymn book, and wiry pony, rode the wilderness traces to isolated settlements and farmsteads, sharing the want or plenty of the people, speaking their language, and respected by them as a man among men.
The Methodists also had lay or local preachers who worked on the land six days in the week and served without pay.
At first, however, none of the churches was strong enough to influence greatly the lives of the settlers, for most of them had long been out of touch with civilization and knew or cared little for formal creed. Lorenzo Dow, the somber Methodist Savonarola, voiced the opinion held among churchmen generally when he said that Tennessee was "a Sink of Iniquity, a Black Pit of Irreligion." The unrelenting grind of daily life in a wilderness dictated for the pioneer settler some violent emotional outlet, and he found it in hard drinking and gargantuan carousing. He was extremely unlikely to adopt any religion which did not provide a compensatory release for his emotions. This accounted for both the form and the success of the Great Revival, a wave of mass religious hysteria which swept the western frontier in the early nineteenth century.
The Great Revival had its beginning in services known as camp meetings. In the new settlements buildings large enough to house even small audiences could seldom be found, so many preachers began holding their meetings in the open fields and in brush arbors or straw pens in the woods. For miles around the people came, bringing their food and drink, their children, slaves, and dogs, as much for the pleasure of getting together, gossiping, and love-making with their far-scattered neighbors as to hear the preaching.
These meetings were growing in popularity throughout Tennessee and Kentucky during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Only a spark, a sense of unity and direction, was needed to touch off the flame of revivalism.
In the summer of 1800 country folk of the Red River section of southern Kentucky flocked by the hundreds along the route of James McGready, a Presbyterian minister with a reputation for being a powerful exhorter. His fiery sermons made such an unprecedented number of conversions that other preachers rode in from central Kentucky and Tennessee to hear and assist him. Afterward, they returned home with high enthusiasm for McGready's methods.
One of them, a Methodist named William McGee, persuaded Baptists and Presbyterians to join him in a five-day meeting at Drake's Creek, in Middle Tennessee. The venture was wildly successful. Bishops McKendree, Whatcoat, and Asbury, touring Tennessee after the second western annual conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, stopped and preached with McGee. Vastly impressed, they and other preachers who had visited Drake's Creek organized similar meetings. From these, in turn, new evangelists scattered. The movement spread like an epidemic, and before the year was out the entire region had been affected. Camp meetings sprang up everywhere. Farmers left their plowing, merchants their shops, drovers their herds, and blacksmiths their forges, to attend.
The backwoods evangelists were, in their way, as adept with fire-and-brimstone as had been the great preachers of Puritan days, and the congregations responded with muscular spasms known as the "jerks." They leaped and crawled and rolled on the ground, pounded each other, wept, moaned, and screamed in gibberish as they wrestled with the Devil. "Presently," wrote Peter Cartwright, one of the foremost evangelists, "the gloom would lift, a smile of heavenly peace would break forth, and conversion always followed."
Meetings went on for days, often for weeks. At the height of the revival, preaching continued through the night in the ruddy flickering glare of bonfire and torch. When one preacher was exhausted, another took his place and in the larger gatherings as many as seven or eight might be exhorting at the same time. Between sermons there was singing. "Not since the Crusades", wrote an English traveler, "has the Christian world witnessed the like of these massed hundreds singing their hymns under the open sky with such deep and crashing fervor that the earth underfoot and the very hills rock and tremble"
A stern uncompromising austerity accompanied the revival. It became the rule of the day for men and women to sit on opposite sides of the gathering place because "there was no marriage in Heaven." Dancing, parties, and instrumental music were largely abandoned by the people. Methodist Bishop McTyeire, preaching in a Bristol church where a melodion was used, declared, "When you brought that ungodly box of whistles in here, you brought the devil with it!"
In the beginning there was nearly complete tolerance among the denominations. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians joined in the meetings and their ministers took turns preaching. However, only the Methodist Church had officially espoused the movement. Many Baptist leaders had looked upon it with suspicion, and the central Presbyterian organization had condemned the new revivalism sharply, but no group on the frontier could long have stood aloof and retained its membership against the headlong sweep of the Great Revival. It was join or die, and join most Baptist and Presbyterian preachers did - though as individuals rather than as church representatives.
After a climactic series of meetings at Cane Ridge, in 1802, the revival in Tennessee lost its first irresistible momentum. Dissension between the denominations appeared. The Methodists sang:
I'll tell you who the Lord loves best-The Baptists replied:
It is the shouting Methodist!Baptist, Baptist, Baptist-Strong backwashes from the Great Revival were felt repeatedly for more than forty years, but as a unified movement it was virtually dead in Tennessee by 1810. Preachers were soon devoting much time to tirades against competing churches. Peter Cartwright called one of these a "trash trap." Another preacher characterized his rivals as "hirelings, caterpillars, letter-learned Pharisees, Hypocrites, varlets, Seed of the Serpent, foolish Builders whom the Devil drives into the ministry, dead dogs that cannot bark, blind men, dead men, men possessed of the Devil, Rebels and enemies of God!"
Baptist till I die.
I'll go along with the Baptists
And find myself On High!
Disputes also arose within the three pioneer denominations. The earliest occurred among the Presbyterians. Without official sanction the Cumberland Presbytery, of Middle Tennessee, had been very active in the revival and had tripled its membership in the first year. There were not enough men with the required education to meet the sudden demand for preachers. In 1802 the Cumberland Presbytery began licensing as pastors men of little or no education, a practice severely criticized by Presbyterians in the East. Another source of discord was the Wesleyan flavor which had crept into the doctrine preached by Tennessee Presbyterians because of their close association with the Methodist revivalists. On these and other points the Cumberland Presbytery was voted out of the main body in 1809. Attempts at reconciliation failed and a year later representatives of the Middle Tennessee congregations met in Dickson County and formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. By 1850 there were more Cumberland Presbyterians in the State than members of the parent church, and branches had been established in other southern and mid-western States.
Conflict also developed among the Baptists. From the first dispute came the Baptist Church of Christ (1808) which held to a modified Calvinism and practiced foot washing. This group also spread beyond the boundaries of Tennessee. In 1825 there was a second division when seven hundred members withdrew to form the Bethel Association. Later this group affiliated with the Church of Christ, which had been founded in Kentucky when the followers of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell joined forces. The Church of Christ made such wide gains in Tennessee that by the middle of the century it was fourth in numerical strength.
Several denominations, strong in other parts of the country, were not substantially represented in early Tennessee. A Lutheran church was organized in Sullivan County in the last decade of the eighteenth century. During the revival period several congregations of Germans from Pennsylvania and North Carolina were formed. They remained within the jurisdiction of the Synod of North Carolina until the Synod of Tennessee was established in 1820.
Roman Catholic priests are known to have traveled into Tennessee on church missions as early as 1810. Eleven years later Bishop David and Father Abell held formal masses for Catholics settled in Nashville; and here, in 1820, a Roman Catholic parish was formed and a church erected. The Diocese of Nashville - which included the entire State - was organized in 1837 and the Right Reverend Dr. Pius Miles consecrated as its first Bishop. Bishop Miles, an indefatigable missionary, was largely responsible for the formation of many parishes throughout Tennessee.
Not until 1827 was there a Protestant Episcopal church in Tennessee. This church was established by the Reverend James H. Otey at Franklin. Several factors account for the late coming of the Episcopalians to Tennessee. As has been noted, many of the first settlers were Scotch-Irish of the Covenanter strain, with a heritage of enmity toward the established Church of England. In Revolutionary times the Over-Mountain people identified the Episcopal Church with the Royalist cause. Nor did the church authorities take advantage of the Great Revival; erudite and conservative, they frowned on the spectacular emotionalism of the movement. In Tennessee the Protestant Episcopal Church gained most of its communicants in towns and cities and among well-to-do land owners. The Reverend Otey, who became first Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee in 1834, lived to see the development of twenty-six parishes with approximately 1,500 communicants. He was one of the founders of the University of the South at Sewanee, which has had marked influence on the religious thought and general culture of the entire South.
Negroes attended most of the pioneer churches, where galleries or sections in the rear were provided for them, and they participated actively in the camp meetings. It was during the revival period that many of the great Negro spirituals were first sung. Early circuit riders and evangelists frankly condemned the institution of slavery. Especially outspoken were the Presbyterians. Their dominance in East Tennessee accounted for that section as a center of abolition sentiment, as much as did economic considerations. Generally speaking, the Methodists and Baptists adopted a more compromising attitude; they attempted to humanize rather than abolish the system. From 1800 on, the three main denominations directed increasing effort to missionary work among the Negroes. By 1839 nine missions, devoted exclusively to this work, were receiving $2,700 annually from the State in addition to church contributions. At that time, one-fourth of the Baptists in Tennessee were Negroes, and there were many slave preachers of great ability.
John C. Calhoun, debating in the Senate with Daniel Webster in 1850, declared that the churches were the strongest ties holding the Union together. But six years before that, one of the most important of these ties had weakened. During the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in New York, feeling had run high between Northern and Southern delegates, and an abolitionist majority had passed strong resolutions condemning slavery. In the following year, the Southern body withdrew and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Southern Methodist Church), with headquarters and an independent publishing house at Nashville.
In 1845, for reason practically identical, the Southern Baptists broke away and set up the Southern Baptist Convention. Both the Church of Christ and the Baptist Church of Christ were to remain undivided because most of their communicants were within the Confederate States.
Although in 1861 the Presbyterians, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted spirited resolutions to remain loyal to the Union, the Presbytery of Memphis withdrew later in the year and urged concurring Presbyteries to meet for the purpose of organizing a Southern association. This became the Presbytrian Church in the U. S., as distinguished from the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., and was popularly known as the Southern Presbyterian Church. The various groups of Presbyterians in Tennessee were, on the whole, Southern sympathizers.
In general the Episcopalians followed their State into the Southern ranks. Bishop Leonidas Polk laid aside the cloth to become a general in the Confederate Army. Other Episcopal clergymen, among them Bishop Otey, opposed secession. Nevertheless, no official severance took place.
There were many examples of chaplains in the Army of Tennessee, conspicuous for their services to the wounded and dying, friend and foe alike. But between the branches of the disrupted churches partisanship was bitter. The Holston Conference of the Methodist Church, South, in northeastern Tennessee, expelled five of its members for disloyalty to the Confederacy. These five linked their fortunes with the northern Methodists and joined in voting their erstwhile brethren guilty "of a crime sufficient to exclude them from the kingdom of grace and glory."
As the Federal forces took possession of territory in Tennessee, southern preachers - regarded as the best recruiting officers for the South - were arrested indiscriminately, particularly in Nashville, and northern ministers "carpet-bagged" their way into the vacant churches. The Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, a flourishing business, was seized by the Federal authorities and converted into a government printing office.
At the close of the war, the rift between Northern and Southern branches of the Methodists and Baptists had grown too serious to be healed. No reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches was sought.
Beginning in 1866, Negro Baptists began setting up their own congregations. In the same year the Southern Methodists sanctioned the organization of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, which was shortly followed by two other Negro Methodist groups - the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Colored, was established in Murfreesboro in 1869. First in number of Negro communicants were the Baptist churches, with the three Methodist groups in second place, and the Cumberland Presbyterians third.
Though a Hebrew congregation had been organized in Memphis in 1852 and another in Nashville in 1853, not until after the war were there more than 500 Jews in the State. During the period of Reconstruction the number of Jews tripled and synagogues were built in Chattanooga and Nashville.
Between 1870 and 1890 wide rifts over the use of instrumental music in worship appeared among the congregations of the Church of Christ, each of which was an independent, self-governing unit. The non-instrumentalists retained the name Church of Christ while those in favor of instrumental music organized as the Christian Church.
At the end of the century the early evangelistic zeal of the chief Protestant denominations had notably lessened. The rapid increase in church membership which had followed the Great Revival and continued through Reconstruction times was checked, and emphasis was on church organization, Sunday School work, foreign missions, and educational programs. Revivalism, however, was still fairly vigorous in rural sections and even invaded urban areas when powerful evangelists such as Sam Jones toured the State. In the main, lesser groups fell heir to the revival movement and kept it very much alive especially in the uplands where frontier conditions persisted. Sects and subsects appeared, held their camp meetings, declined, split, and died or merged with new groups.
Sentiment for union of the two principal branches of the Presbyterians grew strong in 1903. After several conferences, the parent church modified its doctrines in a manner agreeable to the Cumberland branch, and in 1907 a nominal affiliation was effected. The latest effort toward church unification was made in 1937-38 by the Northern and Southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In November 1938, leaders of the two groups met in Nashville and drew up final plans for the union. The measures of the conference were approved by a majority of the delegates.
Proportional numerical strength among the four principal denominations in the State has remained relatively the same as in 1890, though there has been an increase in total church membership of more than half a million. The latest U. S. census (Religious Bodies: 1926) shows 56 denominations and branches in Tennessee, with 8,556 churches and an overall membership of 1,018,033.
On the whole, the churches have shown a growing interest in promoting better understanding between Negroes and whites, and in programs for the benefit of the underprivileged. A trend toward cooperation among the Protestant bodies has been fostered by the State-wide interdenominational Sunday School Association. Union meetings and joint work in civic movements have become more frequent each year.
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TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE