Up to 1883: The Pioneer to Post-Civil War Era
Building Information Source:
Legends and Stories of
White County, Tennessee
|The first official record that we have of Union Church's affiliation with the Cumberland Presbyterians is from an October 1811 Cumberland Presbytery meeting. However, there is evidence to suggest that the Union Church may have been assisted sometime in 1810 by Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider, William Barnett. During this 1810-1813 era, the Cumberland Presbytery was only a renegade presbytery that had hopes of being united with the Presbyterian Church of the USA.|
"Old" Union and "Old" Zion churches were sister Cumberland
Presbyterian congregations, both located in White County. The
Zion church location is about eight miles west of Sparta and the
Union location is about eight miles south of Sparta.
A September 22, 1866 entry* in the "Old" Zion Cumberland Presbyterian church minutes states:
This statement appears to be made with more confidence than the "about A.D. 1811" statement in the Union Church 1883 minutes. It is probable that both the Union and Zion churches were organized by William Barnett during the same missionary circuit to White County. Thus, if the Zion Church was organized in 1810, then the Union Church would probably have been started in 1810 also, since Joseph Vincent Williams (whose father served as minister of both the Union and Zion churches) indicated that no Presbyterian church in White County pre-dated the Union Church.
If the 1810 date for the founding of
Zion and Union is correct, then these churches would have been
a part of the Cumberland Presbyterian movement from the first
year of that denomination's existence.
sketchy history of
the Union church, assembled by C.T. Haston and Rev. W. Smith in
1883, states that "the church was organized about A.D. 1811
by Rev. William Barnett."
We do know that Spencer Mitchell, an early settler in southern White County, TN, deeded a plot of land for what was called the "Union Meeting House" on August 24, 1811.
Monroe Seals statement in the
History of White County implies* that the Union Church was at
first "Presbyterian" (Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.
denomination) and then later switched to Cumberland
Presbyterian in the 1820s.
The October 1811 Cumberland Presbytery minutes clearly contradict the Monroe Seals idea that the Union Church did not become a Cumberland Presbyterian affiliated church until the 1820s.
However, it is possible that the Union Church might have been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. prior to October 1811 and then made a switch in affiliation at that time. Spence Mitchell's obituary does indicate that he "was first a member of the Presbyterian church but after he settled in Tennessee he joined the Cumberland Presbyterians."
Monroe Seals stated, in the History of White County, that Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church was known as the "mother of White County churches" and that twelve other churches were formed out of its membership. Perhaps the Union Church was one of those twelve. If that were true, it would mean hat Union Church was indeed first a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation (since the Cherry Creek Church was Presbyterian), prior to its affiliation with the fledgling Cumberland Presbyterian group in 1810 or 1811.
|April 7-9, 1812* -- Spence Mitchell represented Union, Concord, & Zion at the Cumberland Presbytery meeting at the Suggs' Creek meeting house in Mt. Juliet of Wilson County, TN.|
|April 6-8, 1813*
-- Robert Gammel
(Gamble) represented Union and Zion at the Cumberland
Presbytery meeting at the
Beech meeting house in Sumner County, TN. He paid
$1.00 (as did the others present) to assist a "committee to
draft a complete, though succinct, account of the rise,
doctrines, etc., of the Cumberland Presbytery."
Note: By 1832, if not before, Robert Gamble was (apparently) a leader of a church on Cane Creek, south of the Caney Fork River.
*Source: Minutes of the Original Cumberland Presbytery 1810-1813, from pages printed in the Cumberland Presbyterian Review. Bound in Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbytery and Synod Minutes, 1810-1828 at the Historical Foundation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN (hand printed page numbers 17-23, 24-27, 36-38). Original manuscript archived at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA.
The 1883 sketch of the history of the Union church, assembled by C.T. Haston and Rev. W. Smith in 1883, stated that "the church was organized about A.D. 1811 by Rev. William Barnett." This statement, when compared to other historical evidence, raises two questions:
We do not have documented evidence to support any specific founding date for Old Union. However, we can speculate a possible explanation for this apparent contradiction between the 1805 (as stated by Rev. Monroe Seals) and "about 1811" dates (as stated by C.T. Haston and Rev. W. Smith).
Spencer Mitchell, an early settler in southern White County, TN,
deeded a plot of land for what was called the "Union Meeting
House" on August 24, 1811. Perhaps this is the source
for the "about A.D. 1811" date as given by C.T. Haston and
Rev. W. Smith in their 1883 account of the church's history.
They, no doubt, would have had access to this deed and possibly
could have gotten the
1811 date from it.
was probably started prior to the year in which Spence Mitchell
gave the land for the church's building. A couple of facts
given in his obituary would seem to suggest that possibility.
According to his obituary, Spence Mitchell arrived in Tennessee in the year 1804. His conversion appears to have taken place just prior to his move to Tennessee, so he would probably have been a Presbyterian-affiliated believer when he settled in Tennessee. The obituary does not say where he lived during his first two years in Tennessee, but it does indicate that he settled on the farm where he died "about two years after he came to this state." By the middle of the first decade of the 1800s, Spence Mitchell would have been seeking a group of like-minded believers, from his southern Hickory Valley neighborhood, with which to worship.
We do have evidence that indicates that church services were held
prior to the erection of a building. A
biographical sketch for William Carroll Haston, Sr., son of
David Haston, stated that his parents were "faithful members of the
Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and, before a house of worship was
erected in their community, services were often held in their home."
We might speculate that some early members began meeting as
early as 1805 or so (which was prior to David Haston's
1807 or 1808 arrival in White County), but that they did
not possess land and erect a building until about 1811.
Or, they may have built a meeting house on Spencer Mitchell's land
sometime prior to 1811, but a formal deed may not have been filed
until August of 1811.
The 1811 deed indicates that the meeting house was for all who profess the Christian Religion (except for Shakers and others whose doctrine do not accord with the Gospel of peace). The name "Union" probably indicates that various evangelical believers worshipped there, or were welcomed to do so. Whether they assembled together or at separate times, we do not know. Apparently, the Presbyterians (of whom Spencer Mitchell, the man who deeded the land, was one) were those who made the most prominent use of the church property. Thus, the property eventually came under their control.
The historical sketch of the Union Church, written in 1883 by C.T. Haston and Rev. W. Smith, indicates that the church was "organized about A.D. 1811 by Rev. William Barnett." In what sense did Rev. William Barnett "organize" this church?
This Rev. William Barnett was an active leader in the early days and years of the Cumberland Presbyterian movement, which began in middle Tennessee and Kentucky on February 4, 1810. He was received as a ministerial candidate on March 20, 1810 at the first post-organization Cumberland Presbytery meeting, just six weeks after the Cumberland Presbytery was organized.. He was licensed as a minister on October 11, 1811 and was fully ordained on February 13, 1813. Both his licensure and ordination came under the auspices of the Cumberland Presbytery (later, to be a separate denomination). William Barnett was an active Cumberland Presbyterian minister until his death in 1827.
If the Union Church was founded in 1805, it could not have been organized "as a church" by Rev. William Barnett. That would have been six years before he was licensed to preach and eight years before his ordination.
Even the "About A.D. 1811" date would have been prior to William Barnett's ordination and in the same year of his licensure. However, prior to licensure the Cumberland Presbytery did appoint candidates to ride missionary circuits to preach and evangelize ("missonate," as they called it). "Upon arriving in the assigned area, the itinerant traveled place to place preaching wherever there was an opportunity--in private homes, in church houses (if there were any and they were permitted to use them)..."*
The March 20, 1810 minutes** of the Cumberland Presbytery indicate that indeed this was the case with William Barnett. At the same meeting in which he was received as a candidate for ministry, he was appointed to "ride once round the Nashville circuit, and the balance of his time on the upper circuit." That appointment was reconfirmed in an "Intermediate Presbytery" meeting that met at "Robert Bell's on Bean's Creek, of Elk River, the 20th of July, 1810: "Ordered, that Messrs. Barnett and Bumpass supply the upper and Nashville circuits..."***
*Source: Page 128 of
People Called Cumberland Presbyterians by Barrus, Baughn, &
Campbell (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998 edition).
A good description of the frontier itinerant ministries of circuit
riders is presented on this page 128.
From the Presbytery records, it appears possible, if not probable, that on this 1810-1811 circuit through middle Tennessee, as a pre-licensed but Cumberland Presbytery appointed circuit rider, William Barnett influenced Spence Mitchell and other believers of southern White County to affiliate with the fledgling Cumberland Presbytery.
It is interesting to note that
the first record that we have of this Union Church being affiliated
with the Cumberland Presbyterians is the
October 1811 presbytery meeting at the Beech Meeting House
in Sumner County, TN. Spence Mitchell represented the Union,
Zion, and Concord "societies" at that meeting. This same
October 1811 meeting was the presbytery session in which
William Barnett's licensure for ministry was officially approved.
Based upon the information that we do have regarding William Barnett and the "organization" of the Union Church, we can speculate a scenario of the church's official organization that might have occurred this way:
*Note: "Old" Zion Cumberland
Presbyterian church minutes state that "Zion Church of the Cumberland
Presbyterian denomination was organized A.D. 1810 by Rev.
In 1813, the Cumberland Presbytery expanded into the Cumberland Synod, with three presbyteries: Logan Presbytery, Elk Presbytery, & Nashville Presbytery. Records indicate that the Union Church was affiliated with the Nashville Presbytery in (at least one point of) this period.
Minutes of the 1822 Synod indicate that a Lebanon Presbytery had been created prior to that meeting. It was created out of the eastern portion of the Nashville Presbytery. We know that Union Church was a part of the Lebanon Presbytery in 1838, so we assume (without documented proof) that it was attached to this new presbytery at the time of its 1821 creation.
|Spence Mitchell foresaw the need for education in the community as early as 1811 and made provision for the property to be used for educational purposes, as well as religious purposes. According to The History of White County, a school was established in the Union Meeting House in 1826 and Benny Mays was the teacher.|
In 1828 a decision was made to create a General Assembly and to constitute four synods. Franklin Synod was one of the four. It was composed of the Nashville, Lebanon, Knoxville, and Hopewell presbyteries. These synods were officially organized in the fall of 1829, when the General Assembly began its oversight of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. At that time, as a member of the Lebanon Presbytery, Union Church came under the jurisdiction of the Franklin Synod.
When White County, TN was divided into civil districts in 1836, the "union meeting house" was mentioned in the description of the Hickory Valley District, No. 2.
Joseph G. Mitchell, son of Spence Mitchell, was ordained sometime in the year of 1838, according to the Union Church register.
The Middle Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was created in 1838. The Lebanon Presbytery, formerly of the Franklin Synod, was placed under its oversight. The Franklin Synod was discontinued in 1839.
*Source: Pages (numbers scribbled as hand written numbers) from the 1836-1850 Lebanon Presbytery minutes; VAULT BX 8978.L38 A3; Original manuscript archived at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA.
Comparison of the October 1842 and April 1843 Lebanon Presbytery minutes seems to indicate that the Sparta Presbytery was created sometime between those two meetings. Union Church was specifically said to be "not represented" at the Lebanon Presbytery meeting in October of 1842. It was not represented in the April 1843 meeting either, but was not listed as a church that was "not represented." In the April 1843 meeting, mention was made of "the Sparta Presbytery" (which White County native & former Lebanon Presbytery minister, Jesse Hickman, was said to represent).
March 5-6, 1847 -- The Sparta Presbytery met in Sparta,
TN. Union Church was represented by Spence Mitchell.
It appears that Spence Mitchell also represented a Sparta
Source: Page 2 (and another page in that same issue for which the page number is undetermined) of the March 26, 1947 issue of Banner of Peace. (available at the CPC Historical Foundation in Memphis, TN)
One source* stated that Miss
Emma Shackleford was a school teacher at Union School in about 1848.
We no nothing else of her tenure there as a teacher. Her name
does not appear in the Union Church
register, nor does the name of any other Shackleford.
There is evidence to indicate that she
may have been the grandmother of Grand Ole Opera star, "Minnie
Pearl" (Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon).
*Source: Legends and Stories of White County, Tennessee by Coral Williams, 1930, her master's thesis for George Peabody College for Teachers. Now held in the Vanderbilt University library.
The comment regarding Emma Shackleford also indicates that the "old house" (presumably, the old log building) was still in use in about 1848.
March 20, 1849 -- Spence Mitchell
died at the age of 74 at his home in White County, TN*.
*Source: Obituary of Spence Mitchell published on page 3 of Banner of Peace, Vol. 7, number 50; 11 May 1849. Read the obituary.
|In front and in sight of the [Jesse Scoggins
Williams] home was Union Church, established in 1805, and
at which the greater part of the people of the Valley worshiped.
In this Church, built of logs, there was conducted a public
school. (p. 46)
Close by the Williams' home was River Hill, the post office for that section; a store, blacksmith shop, and the residence of a country doctor. This point was the shopping and gathering center for those early pioneers and their descendents. (p. 46)
It was a wholesome environment...in fact nearly every one in that community, were members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and to Old Union Church came the leading ministers of that day to hold protracted meetings. Among others were Rev. Jesse Hickman, said to be a graduate of Princeton, and Rev. John Lansden, the grandfather of the late Chief Justice D. L. Lansden [of Tennessee Supreme Court]. I heard the late Foster V. Brown, who was reared in Hickory Valley, state that John Lansden had more native ability than any man he had ever known. (pp. 46-47)
At Old Union one could have the benefit of only a common school course. Dr. Sam Denton...the only living student [as of 1938] who went to school with my father [Rev. James Tate Williams] in 1866 at Old Union. His relative, John S. Denton, was principal of that school... My mother [Matilda Wallace] was also a student at Old Union, in 1866... (pp. 51-52)
Source: James Tate Williams: His Family and Recollections by Joseph Vincent Williams. (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1938)
|Just knowing about the tumultuous times of the
Civil War and Post-Civil War reconstruction years in White County,
TN, one might assume that these years were devastating to the
Union Church. No doubt, they were very hard years, but it
appears that they were also years of revival and rich spiritual
The church's register confirms that these were indeed years of spiritual prosperity for the Union Church. After a hiatus of growth during the middle years (1862-1863) of the Civil War, there was a burgeoning influx of members into the Union Church. Some joined by transfer from other churches, but many joined by conversion ("experience").