Cumberland Lore

May 1997

Reprinted by permission of the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle


By George M. Apperson

George M. Apperson is professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis. His article is drawn from contemporary newspaper accounts and the letters of Lyman Whitney in the archives of the Missionary Society of Connecticut. - - Ed.

A hundred seventy-five years ago, on May 25, 1822, a Presbyterian Church was organized in Clarksville.

Presbyterianism began a major effort in 1803 to evangelize the western frontier. In 1814, more than fifty ministers were commissioned by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to make missionary tours, ten of which had potential impact for Montgomery County. [ Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A.] Gideon Blackburn was a key figure in this effort. He organized a church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on November 6, 1813, returning in 1814 and 1815 for services. Before the end of the decade, he was making regular visits to Clarksville.

Blackburn's efforts were patriotic and religious. He and his friends, General William Carroll, raised troops for Andrew Jackson, who wrote to Blackburn in 1813. "The influence you possess over the minds of men is great & well founded; & can never be better applied than in summoning Volunteers to the defense of their country - its liberty & religion." [Papers of A. J. (Knoxville, 1984) II:464.]

Exactly "where Blackburn and other visiting clergymen preached in Clarksville has been a matter of spectulation. In his research on legislation relating to education in Clarksville, Clarence W. Alright overlooked an important document. An Act for the benefit of Mount Pleasant Academy in Montgomery County. "Whereas there is a piece of vacant land adjoining the lands of Mount Pleasant Academy in the county of Montgomery, on wich [sic] of this General Assembly to give every encouragement to the literary institutions of this state, not inconsistant [sic] with the constitiution and laws of therefore

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the state of Tennessee, That the trustees of said Academy shall have a preference of entering [,] surveying, and perfecting a title to all that tract of vacant land and unappropriated land adjoining the lands of John M'Carroll, John Smith, John Shelby, Elisha Willis, Mathew Barnes and John M'Bee, for the exclusive use of said academy, church and public burial, for the term of ninty nine years from and after the passage of this act, provided the same shall not exceed eighty acres." [Acts of the General Assembly, 1815, pp. 214-215. Speight, Brief History of Campus, (TN State Library, 1962.)

For more than thirty years, newspaper announcements of religious services specified the place of preaching when it was other than the academy church. Blackburn, ecumenical in his appeal, was not identified as a Presbyterian in local papers. The press, however, often indicated sectarian, distinctions in printing notices of preaching appointments.

The Chronicle, of May 24, 1819, announced, "The Rev. Wm. Stewart, of the Presbyterian professions, will preach in Clarksville, on Monday, the 31st inst. and at the house of Abner Harris, on M'Adoe [McAdoo], the evening of that day." Stewart was active in Christian County, Kentucky, and would return to Clarksville several times. Harris became a ruling elder when the Presbyterians organized in 1822.

The Town Gazette and Farmers Register for August 9, 1819 gave notice that, "The Rev. Mr. Kennedy, of the Presbyterian profession, of Maury County, will preach at the court house, in this place, on Monday evening next, the 16th inst. Mr. Kennedy preached in this place on Sabbath last, and all that heard him were much delighted with his discourse; he is considered by all that we have heard speak of his sermon on that day, the most forceful and sound logician, exceeding in oratory any that have undertaken to illustrate the Sacred Writ in this place; and as ranking amongst the first of his profession. Mr. Kennedy will preach at Mount Pleasant Academy, on next Sabbath, 15 inst."

Blackburn and two other Presbyterian ministers were scheduled to preach in Charlotte on the second Sabbath in November 1819, and in Clarksville on the third Sabbath. These were sacramental services which began on Friday evening. [Town Gazette and Farmers Register. Clarksville, Oct. 11, 1819.]

By 1820, a group in Clarksville was seeking help from West Tennessee Presbytery and in response, the Rev. Allen D. Campbell of Nashville came to preach. [Minutes, West TN Presbytery.] On May 13, 1820, The Gazette noted "The Rev. John Alen [sic] will preach in Clarksville on Thursday in 25th inst." Allen was one of Blackburn's theological students and not yet ordained. Later, he visited Clarksville several times as an itinerating evangelist. Blackburn returned to Clarksville for three days in September 1820, when the Friday sermon would "commence at early candle light." [The Gazette, Sept. 15, 1820.]

The actual organization of a Presbyterian Church in Clarksville took place under somewhat unusual circumstances. Lyman Whitney, a member of Londonderry Presbytery in New Hampshire, was sent to Kentucky in 1821 by the Missionary Society of Connecticut. He was born in Vermont and educated at Middlebury College and Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His brother, Deway Whitney, studied theology with Blackburn and became a member of the Synod of Kentucky in 1821. Lyman Whitney itinerate widely from Kentucky to Alabama and in his letters, seventeen of which are extant, Gideon Blackburn appears as his most important contact in the area. Ralph Cushman, who was at Andover Seminary with Whitney, became minister of the Hopkinsville Presbyterian Church in November 1821, and also preached in Clarksville.

Reporting back to Connecticut, Whitney wrote, "Monday Feb. 4th [1822]. rode to Franklin 18 miles, & passed the day with Rev. Dr. Blackburn who is well acquainted with the country & state of the destitute settlements, & who feels a lively interest, & is as active in promoting the prosperity of the churches as any man."

Whitney preached in Charlotte for three days and then, he records, "Feb. 23, I proceeded to Clarksville (30 miles) a flourishing town situated on the Cumberland River, and the seat of justice for Montgomery Co. The adjacent country is fertile - the commercial advantages considerable. The number of inhabitants is about 350. No chh yet organized; but agreeable to the wishes of several pious individuals in town a Presbyterian chh. will soon be organized. Preached in town several times. The hearers were numerous & unusually attentive, & some exhibited no small solicited with regard to their spiritual interest. This society, with the chh. in Charlotte, among whom the Presbyterian clergyman might divide his labors, would be able &, I have no doubt willing, to pay him a competent salary."

By accident, two accounts of the organizing of the Presbyterian Church in Clarksville are preserved in the archives of the Missionary Society of Connecticut. When the first was lost in the mail, Whitney composed a second eight months later. In the meantime, the first letter was delivered. It is also notable that only for Clarksville, of all the communities visited by Whitney, are the names of the original members of a church listed in Whitney's report. West Tennessee Presbytery, to which Blackburn belonged, had instructed its members to record the names of Presbyterians in places they supplied.

Whitney continued his account, "When at Clarksville Ten. last Feb. I was requested by some of the pious inhabitants to organize a chh. But for certain reasons preferring a Rev. Father in the ministry should do it, I declined, choosing to wait till I should visit him, pledging myself however to see it done."

After visiting Blackburn, Whitney wrote, "It being inconvenient for him, & being myself requested to attend to the subject; Monday the 6th of May I left Franklin . . . & passing through Russelville & Elkton I came to Hopkinsville on my way to Clarksville." Learning of a revival in a Presbyterian settlement on the Little River in Christian County, Kentucky, Whitney preached there from the ninth of May to the twenty-second. The congregation had been organized by William K. Stewart, who preached in Clarksville on several occasions.

Whitney continued, "Wednesday I proceeded to Clarksville Ten. (18 miles) where I preached on each of the five succeeding days." On Saturday, May 25, 1822, "The following individuals who were residing in Clarksville & the vicinity, by virture of their regular standing in other chhs, & their having assented to the articles of faith & thus constituted the Presbyterian chh of Clarksville." Their names were Abner Harris, Mary Harris, Lucinda Elder, Elizabeth Anderson, Jane Bettis, Catharine Patillo, John Hinton, Jane Carnes, Mary Cocke, John McCarrol, Duncan Gilbirth, John Henderson & Elizabeth Henderson. John Patton and Mariah Patillo were admitted upon examination. "Messrs Abner Harris, John Patton & John Hinton were nominated & elected to the office of ruling Elder. Mr. Hinton was also chosen clerk of the Session." The next morning two of the elders were inducted into office, but Hinton apparently declined to serve.

"After the usual services & the administration of the Lord's Supper, the chh retired & passed an hour in religious conversations & prayer & agreed to observe the monthly & likewise weekly concert of prayer."

Whitney reported, "There are 15 or 16 others who it is presumed will connect themselves with the chh at the next communion." On Monday, at the conclusion of Whitney's visit, two children were baptized before the preaching service, there was a funeral at four o'clock and a prayer meeting at candlelight. Whitney described this farewell service, in some detail. "Though the appointment was made for the chh, with permission that others who were disposed might attend, yet most of the respec{[t]able young people in town, with many heads of families, were present. I have seldom seen a more attentive & solemn assembly. There were several in town, when I left, of the first responsibility, who were anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved, and many others who felt som[e] degree of solicitude in regard to their future safety. A general wish was expressed that they might have regular Presbyterian preaching. It was said to me that $400. might be raised for preaching once a month, a fact that illustrated the degree of interest that was felt in the subject." [Letters of Whitney, archives of Missionary Society of Connecticut.]

Gideon Blackburn returned to Clarksville on October 4 for a three-day sacramental meeting, and received eight new members.

Such a detailed record of the organizing of a Presbyterian Church in this period is rare. David N. Kennedy, an elder, wrote a brief sketch of the Clarksville church in 1888, in which he ways that after Blackburn's visit in October 1822, "no record of the church was kept; there was neither supply nor pastor." Fortunately, more information is now available. The Presbytery of West Tennessee sent preachers regularly and sometimes representatives of the Clarksville church attended its meetings. Its successor, the Presbytery of Nashville, was organized in 1831 but its records, which were being kept in Clarksville at the time of the Civil War, were lost. However, another record indicates that in 1833 the Presbytery ordained Consider Parish, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, who was teaching at the University of Nashville. He came to Clarksville as stated supply for the church and principal of the Clarksville Male Academy. The records of the Presbyterian Church in Clarksville resume on January 1, 1834, with the beginning of his ministry, and have been kept continuously,except during the Civil War.

Lyman Whitney was born in Marlboro, Vermont, December 2, 1793 and died in Asheville, North Carolina, May 20, 1826, at the age of thirty-two.

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