SPIRITUAL GLOOM PERVADED AMERICA AT END OF 1700S, NO MORE THAN 5 PERCENT CLAIMED CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
At the close of the 18th century was found in America a deep spiritual gloominess. Looking upon the national census of 1790 was found that no more than five percent of the people claimed church membership. It was during this time period that those who traveled into the Southwest Territory, later known as Tennessee, were in total shock in regards to the spiritual immorality that preceded them. One spiritual leader reported that his entire congregation was so drunk they could not listen to him. Another told of consistent encounters with refugees, escapees from justice, while still others practiced their own vices such as gambling, horse racing, fighting and other unpopular sins.
Many Tennesseans had fallen into the trap that absorbed the anti-religious spirit of the time. Immediately following the Revolutionary War the sophisticated folks of New England and the Seaboard states were to a great extent influenced by the disbelief of the French Rationalists. Perhaps the reason for this attitude was that anti-clerical and anti-established church state of mind influenced Anglican ministers that had taken sides with the British. Other religious groups felt the consequences of this rivalry as well.
History tells us that the first preachers in the State of Tennessee were Presbyterians. Charles Cummings, a Presbyterian clergyman, journeyed down from Southwest Virginia to preach to his brethren. Samuel Doak was the first Presbyterian to take up residence in the State of Tennessee in the year 1777. Rev. Doak established Martin Academy, later to be known as Washington College in Washington County, his school being the first institute of education in the territory. By 1796, the Presbyterian organization had established 27 congregations in the new East Tennessee. These schools made a great impression on the education and improvement of the mountain citizens.
The Baptist organization also played a prominent role in the religious history of the State with the earliest Baptist churches being founded in 1765. Among the first permanent settlers in what is now called East Tennessee were Separate Baptists who had migrated from North Carolina. They had followed Shuble Starnes, a Congregationalist minister from New England.
Starnes began to preach immersion to cleanse one's soul, which was looked down on by his fellow Congregationalists who sprinkled. Due to this new procedure of immersion he and his followers were cast off and branded as Separate Baptists.
Tidence Lane, a Separist Baptist preacher led an assemblage of his people to relocate from North Carolina into the Southwest Territory (East Tennessee). They settled and built the Buffalo Ridge Church near Boone's Creek in what is now Washington County, Tennessee. A later assemblage of these Christians embraced the Gospel and fashioned one of the earliest New Testament churches in the State.
The Holston Baptist Association was formed in 1786 with seven churches. These Baptists brought with them a missionary enthusiasm along with a belief that preachers need not be educated or associated with one church. Most of the Holston Baptists men were self-supporting and preached to overflowing followers by appointment. With this association of man to God, Baptists grew by great numbers in the wild mountain country.
The religious or God seeking folks in the Great State of Tennessee also included the Methodists faith, they playing a major role in the religious foundation. The Holston Conference of Methodist churches was established in 1783, with Jeremiah Lambert being the first circuit rider in the soon to be State of Tennessee. By 1796, the Methodists claimed 550 members in the State. Subsequently, substantial progress of the Methodists was made in the following century.
At the turn of the 19th century, the "Great Revival of the West" and its happenings changed the whole religious atmosphere. This immense occurrence had totally shaken up the religious community as well as the sinful population. James McGready, a Presbyterian, set in motion this religious upheaval. He had a great influence on anyone who would listen to him.
The grand event occurred at Cane Ridge in Logan County, Kentucky, in 1799. By 1800 revival fervor had swept into Tennessee. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians alike had forgotten their own doctrines and now dealt with the un-saved. Luke-warm church members were rejuvenated; sinners poured into the churches in huge numbers. The earliest established preachers won thousands of souls to the old paths of salvation. Estimates have placed the nightly revival attendance sometimes at 5,000 with a total of 25,000 participants receiving Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.
The Methodists wisely took advantage of the camp meeting making the most of the situation. By 1800 they could boast of 10,000 members in Tennessee which made them the largest religious body in the State at the time.
The Baptists almost immediately rejected the camp meeting approach and turned to prolonged meetings to broaden their beliefs. During the 1820s and 1830s an anti-missions controversy was challenged. In 1833 those who supported controlled missionary triumphs structured the Tennessee Baptist convention.
The local floor opened the week with a sale of 106,000 pounds at an average of 22 cents, and was closing the week with a sale of more than 50,000 pounds at a price ranging around the previous sale. This week's sales bring the total sold in LaFollette to more than 900,000 pounds, with more than $225,000 released from the house to farmers.
Today, in East Tennessee, the Baptists are the leading group of church organizations. In 1790 they had 18 churches, 21 preachers, and 889 members. A few years later, in 1814, listed were 174 churches, 133 preachers, and 12,194 members. In 1845 they numbered 32,159 members and by 1860, 46,564 members.
Christian Churches of Christ did not divide at this time. However, some 40 years later, a division took place and remained clearly along sectional boundaries.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church appeared out of the Great Revival and was established in 1825. In short time this congregational group became the largest group in the State.
Catholics were scantily located throughout the State. In 1830 the first parish was organized in Nashville. By 1858 there were only 11 Catholic churches statewide.
Jews were practically non-existent in 19th century Tennessee with a population of some 2,500 in 1858. In 1867 they established a synagogue in Knoxville.
Most Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists churches were against slavery. East Tennessee remained devoted to the Union during the Civil War. Middle and West Tennessee teamed up with the Confederacy. The majority of the slave population in Tennessee were members of the assorted churches, usually serving with their masters. It is estimated that ninety percent of Tennessee's slaves attended church. By and large whites and blacks worshipped together with slaves generally seated in the balcony. The Negroes in East Tennessee were sparsely populated because the desire for cotton and the money crops were almost non-existent due to the poor terrain.
Source: "Churches of Christ in East Tennessee" by John Waddey.
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