First Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Murfreesboro, Rutherford County, Tennessee


First Cumberland Presbyterian Church
907 E. Main Street
Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37128

(615) 893-6755

A History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church at Murfreesboro, Tennessee

by Robert E. Corlew and Mary S. Corlew

The Murfreesboro Cumberland Presbyterian Church, located on the corner of Bilbro and Vine Streets, has stood for over a quarter of a century as a place of worship and as a memorial to God. Cumberland Presbyterian congregations were in Murfreesboro, however, long before the present place of worship was constructed. For well over a hundred years Murfreesboro and Rutherford County have been bulwarks in the history and development of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Camp meetings were held in the area not long after the founding of the denomination in 1810.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church as a denomination was organized in the home of the Reverend Samuel McAdow [The name is spelled both McAdow and McAdoo. Both methods of spelling appear in the court records of Dickson County where Samuel McAdow lived.] approximately eight miles south of Charlotte, in Dickson County, Tennessee. The new denomination was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening (sometimes called the Great Revival of 1800), [The "First Great Awakening" had occurred in 1734.] which began in New England in the mid-1700's. This powerful movement soon spread to the West--then the Tennessee-Kentucky area--where it was embraced with great fervor by the frontiersmen. A history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church must begin, therefore, with that significant revival.

The originator and perhaps the ablest leader of the revival in the West was an earnest Presbyterian minister named James McGready. He came into the frontier area from North Carolina, because he believed that preaching the gospel to the frontiersmen in Tennessee and Kentucky offered the greatest challenge. When he began preaching in Logan County, Kentucky, in 1796, the gospel fell upon deaf ears. Man of the people of the Tennessee-Kentucky area were frontiersmen of the rougher sort, who cared nothing for religion, but who desired to exploit the pioneer country only for its material resources. Members of the Presbyterian General Assembly observed in 1798 that there was "a visible and prevailing impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of religion, and an abounding infidelity, which in many instances tends to atheism. . . .Profaneness, pride, luxury, injustice, intemperance, lewdness, and every species of debauchery and loose indulgence greatly abound." [O.P. Chitwood and F.L. Owsley, A Short History of the American People, p. 587.] Within four years, however, a great transformation took place. The roughest of the frontiersmen became awakened to the need of salvation under the preaching of McGready and others, and camp meetings, now held throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, attracted large crowds. At one gathering the assembly consisted of between 10,000 and 25,000 people. [O.P. Chitwood and F.L. Owsley, A Short History of the American People, p. 588.] Families came in covered wagons over long distances, and were prepared to stay for the duration of the "protracted meetings."

An important result of the great revival was an enormous increase in membership for all denominations. Such made necessary the ordination of many new ministers to preach the gospel to the new converts. The Methodists and Baptist, the former still in their infancy in America, began to ordain many, all of whom were good men but some of whom had little or no formal education. The Presbyterian Church, however, refused to ordain men without the required amount of formal education, even though their character might be blameless, and insisted upon an elaborate classical education. While this was a most worthy aim, the revivalists contended that the "golden harvest" suffered for want of workers in the field.

Difficulty then arose in the Presbyterian body between those who wanted to participate wholeheartedly in the revival and ordain men who failed to meet some of the formal educational standards, and those who believed the standards should be retained. Ten years of debate ensured. During the period of Presbytery in the area ordained several men who failed to meet the proper standards. These men were then ordered by the Synod to submit to examination, which they refused to do. Also, a doctrinal issue arose. The revivalist group alleged that the Calvinistic principles of predestination and foreordination were equivalent to "fatality," and this they wholeheartedly rejected.

After ten years of strife and dissension the Reverend Finis Ewing, the Reverend Samuel King, and Ephraim McLean decided to seek the counsel of the Reverend Samuel McAdow, a distinguished minister who sympathized with the revival movement, but whose advanced age had compelled him to retire from preaching. Ewing and King were among those who had been ordained by the Presbytery, but who did not have the proper educational qualifications. McLean was a candidate for the ministry. They arrived at McAdow's log cabin on the evening of February 3, 1810. They proposed to McAdow that they organize a new Presbytery, distinct from the existing Presbyterian Church. Here they laid the groundwork for the formation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It is significant that these men of God prayed for the entire night before reaching a decision. They then proceeded to organize a separate presbytery, and from this grew a new branch which one historian has called "the left wing of American Presbyterianism." [Thomas H. Campbell, Studies in Cumberland Presbyterian History, p. 85.] The new church met the needs of frontiersmen, and they joined it by the thousands. Within twenty-five years after the meeting in McAdow's log cabin in 1810 there were nine synods, thirty-five presbyteries, three hundred licensed preachers, seventy-five candidates for the ministry, and over fifty thousand members. [Thomas H. Campbell, Studies in Cumberland Presbyterian History, p. 109.]

Murfreesboro lies approximately seventy-five miles east of Dickson County where the organizational meeting took place. Little is known about the development of the faith in Rutherford County during these early years, but camp meetings were being held in the County within a decade after the organization, and probably some congregations were formed. One of the largest camp meetings held in Middle Tennessee was convened near the present site of Murfreesboro in 1820. Cumberland Presbyterians, Methodists, and probably members of other groups participated. Three hundred fifty people were converted, and probably well over a thousand attended. A contemporary Methodist minister described the meeting:

On Sunday morning the sun shone out and a vast congregation assembled. Brother Douglas announced one hundred conversions already at the tents. The manifestations of convicting and saving power increased daily. . . .men and women would fall as men go down in battle. . . .Some would start to leave the ground and fall on the way, others alarmed would rush back to. . .the altar, and in many instances, never get up until they arose praising God. . . .The result. . .was 350 conversions. From that number several soon entered the ministry. I have the names of. . .Jesse Lamb a prominent member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. [Carl C. Sims, A History of Rutherford County, p. 183.]

In the following year, 1821, the Cumberland Presbyterians themselves had a revival in the County. Several years later Sugg's Creek, Jerusalem, and Lytle's Creek became names for Cumberland Presbyterian churches. [Carl C. Sims, A History of Rutherford County, p. 181.]

The General Assembly Minutes list no resident pastor at Murfreesboro until 1856, although ministers from other churches were preaching in the town years before. [Carl C. Sims, A History of Rutherford County, p. 181.] In 1856 the Reverend W. M. Sellers, A.S. Ivy, Nathan Lyon, and W. B. Waterson preached in surrounding communities. [General Assembly Minutes, 1856, p. 71.] By that year there were nineteen Cumberland Presbyterian churches with seating spaces for 3550 in Rutherford County. The Revered Patterson was preaching in homes, and the first Cumberland Presbyterian sanctuary was not completed until 1859. It was located on the corner of East Main and Spring Streets, where now stands the City Hall, and the Reverend Provine was the first pastor. R. N. Ransom and H. Osborn were leaders and organizers of a Sunday School

While the people of Murfreesboro worked and sacrificed in order to erect and beautify this temple of God, there hovered over the country the distant rumblings of the War for Southern Independence. This needless fratricidal war began in April, 1861, after President Abraham Lincoln had declared his intentions of using force upon the Southern states. Early in 1862 Forts Henry and Donelson fell, and this opened up Tennessee to the Federals. They immediately took Nashville, and by the end of the year General Rosecrans was leading his Federal troops toward Stone's River, just outside of Murfreesboro, where the Confederates had thrown up fortifications. In a sanguinary battle the Confederates were pushed back, and by January 3, 1863, the Federals were in Murfreesboro. They converted the Cumberland Presbyterian Church into a hospital for the wounded.

After the war the people of Murfreesboro, like those of the entire South, sought to bind up the nation's wounds and to readjust to peaceful pursuits. No records are available during the war, with regard to the church in Murfreesboro, but in 1866 the Reverends L. C. Ransom, H. Anderson, and J. B. Rankin, were all living and ministering in Murfreesboro.

The year 1869 was a very important year for Cumberland Presbyterians in Murfreesboro. In that year the General Assembly, the highest judicial and legislative body of the entire denomination, convened in Murfreesboro. Membership of the local church was 173 at the time. Several Cumberland Presbyterian ministers were residing in the town at the time, including W. D. Chadick, W. M. Sellers, T. F. Batts, G. W. McMurry, and William Lewis and G. W. Jackson who were candidates for the ministry. [Carl C. Sims, A History of Rutherford County, p. 181.] A.though many matters of importance were decided at the Murfreesboro meeting, the most important concerned Negro membership. Before the Civil War slaves had attended services with their masters, although they were always seated in the rear or in the balcony. Northern bayonets freed the Negro, however, and by 1869 leading Cumberland Presbyterians believed that it was advisable to establish a separate church for the blacks. Consequently, a division was made, and the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church came into existence after the Murfreesboro meeting. There are no colored Cumberland Presbyterian congregations in Rutherford County today, although for several decades following the 1869 assembly they were fairly numerous.

During the next two decades the church at Murfreesboro grew steadily, despite the poverty which stemmed from the disastrous Civil War. Under the leadership of such ministers as W. D. Chadick, N. J. Loughry, T. B. McAmis, and others, the membership grew to 180 by 1890, and to 203 by 1895. In 1890 there were 18 Cumberland Presbyterian churches in Rutherford County, with a total membership of 1467. The church building was then valued at $8,000, and the pastor's salary was $600 per annum. [All statistical information is taken from the General Assembly Minutes for the years cited.]

During the next one and one-half decades (1891-1906) considerable interest was manifested in a proposed union of the Cumberland Presbyterian with the Northern Presbyterian Church. The major Presbyterian body had divided in 1861 over the sectional strife then engulfing the nation, and in 1865 the Southern branch refused to again affiliate with the Northern branch. The Cumberland Presbyterians had congregations in both North and South (but mainly in the South and West) and a union with the Northern branch presumably would create a strong Presbyterian body with congregations throughout the entire country. In 1906 the Cumberland Presbyterians voted to unite with the Northern branch, but the minority group (which was almost as large as the majority) refused to concede. They continued to perpetuate the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The bitterness which accompanied the division is reflected in the decline of membership of practically all congregations. As mentioned, in 1890 the Cumberland Presbyterian membership in Rutherford County was nearly 1500, but by 1906 it had dwindled to 1053. Only four of the Cumberland churches voted to accept the union, and they became Northern Presbyterian churches. They were the Lavergne, Christiana, Lascassas, and Eagleville churches. The last two named soon expired, while the other two still exist. The Murfreesboro congregation lost considerably. Embittered by the strife, many members joined the Methodist Church, and others joined the Southern branch of the Presbyterian church. The Cumberland pastor at the time was the Reverend R. G. Newsome, whom members of the First Presbyterian Church (Southern) invited to become their pastor. He accepted, and brought with him the majority of his congregation. Few were left in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, among whom were the families of Dr. V. K. Earthman, Frank Farris, and the Ashley's, Osborne's, Todd's, Haynes', Broghtower's, Cosby's, Hardcastle's, McCullough's, and McAdoo's. [Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro), July 5, 1949.]

During the next four decades the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Murfreesboro made little advancement. The total membership in 1909 consisted of only 18 faithful souls and no minister was employed. By 1912 the membership had swelled to 50, and it fluctuated around that number for the next twenty-five years. Pastors were employed from time to time, but there were some years when the congregation was without a pastor. By 1912 Dr. W. E. Tillett, of the Vanderbilt School of Religion, came each Sunday and preached. Other pastors during this period were the Reverends W. M. Zarecor, George Coleman, W.A. Blades, W. E. Sharp, and Vaughn Fults. During this time Miss Irene Beasley served for nearly a decade as clerk of the session. Membership reached a peak in 1936 under the leadership of the Reverend J. M. Forsythe.

In the years following the division of 1906 disaster seemed continually to plague the small congregation. In 1915 a fire completely destroyed the church. Unable to rebuild immediately, the congregation met in the Odd Fellows Hall, the Courthouse, and other buildings until 1918, when a building was constructed on the same location. W. M. Zarecor was pastor, R. H. Hightower was session clerk, and the total membership consisted of only 37, twelve of whom were inactive. Part of the money for the building had been borrowed, and a mortgage given. By 1922 the group, now consisting of 53 active members, agreed to borrow an additional $1,000 to finish the basement, put in a furnace, repair the plastering, and remodel the pulpit. Financial corners had to be cut, and interestingly enough the session books record that in November, 1922, "A motion was made by the Pastor to pay a taxi cab bill made by him. This was rejected by the session." [Session Book, 1922-1927, pp. 61, 63.] In 1924 each member was assessed 75 cents in order to raise necessary money to pay interest on the loan, and two years later a similar assessment of 50 cents was levied. [Session Book, 1922-1927, pp. 73, 96.] By 1928 the congregation, still in debt, decided to sell the building and rebuild in a residential district. W. E. Sharp was then pastor, serving at an annual salary of $315. Membership had declined to 32. Elders Frealin Qualls and M. A. Beasley were appointed to ascertain what price could be obtained for the property. On June 9 these gentlemen reported to the session that the City of Murfreesboro wished to purchase it, and would pay $10,000 for it. In a meeting held June 17, 1928 the session adopted the following:

The session having previously voted to sell the church property, located on the northwest corner of Main and Spring Streets in Murfreesboro, in order that a new building might be erected in the residential part of said city, which action met with the approval of the congregation of the church, and Mr. Qualls and Mr. Beasley having been appointed to ascertain the best price that could be obtained for said property, and they having reported to the Session that the offer of the City of Murfreesboro was the best bid procured by them, the offer being $10,000. On motion, said offer was accepted, and the trustees were directed and empowered to execute and deliver to said city a general warranty to said property, at the price of $10,000.

On June 18 they reported that the sale had been consummated. [Session Book, 1927-1930, pp. 60-63.]

The official board then began a search for a suitable lot on which to locate a new church. The board then consisted of Qualls, Beasley, Mrs. S. S. McAdoo, S. A. Waldron, Miss Beasley, and the pastor. They carefully examined an available lot on North Church Street which could be purchased for 1500. Then they examined a lot on Richardson Avenue, available for $550, and voted unanimously to purchase it, only to find that building restrictions prohibited the erection of a church there. Then, on motion of Frealin Qualls and Mrs. McAdoo they voted to offer $700 for a 83 by 215 lot on the corner of Bilbro and Vine Streets. The purchase was made and the building soon begun. [Session Book, 1927-1930, pp. 66-69.] By February, 1929, the building was complete, except for some interior decorating, and a few months later the Reverend Vaughn Fults was called as pastor. [Session Book, 1927-1930, pp. 70, 74.]

Membership tended to increase after the building was completed. Membership consisted of only 34 resident members in 1929. In 1930 it had increased to 40, by 1932 to 67, by 1934 to 77, and by 1936 to 89. By 1941 the total membership consisted of over one hundred, but only 78 were resident and active.

In 1943 the Reverend Hubert Covington became pastor, and two years later, upon the conclusion of the Second World War the church entered upon a period of unprecedented growth. Mr. Covington had served churches for short periods in both Kentucky and Tennessee. At the time he accepted the call to the Murfreesboro Church he had just graduated from the Cumberland Presbyterian Theological Seminary at McKenzie. His youthfulness, flame, and spirit seemed to be just what the congregation needed, and immediate growth and dedication of spirit were evident. In 1945, at which time Marvin Taylor was clerk of the session (and who remained so for the next ten years) the church membership had climbed to 175, and the pastor's salary was fixed at $1975. By the following year the congregation recognized that if growth continued the sanctuary soon would be too small; therefore, a building commission consisting of Frealin Qualls, J. D. Todd, and J. M. Puckett--with the veteran Qualls as Chairman--was appointed to make plans for enlarging the church plant. Other elders at that time, besides the building commission, were L. T. Qualls, G. Marable, Elmer Gaither, J. C. Swain, Joe Lovell, Franklin Pearson, George Harris, W. J. Woodfin, Robert Forsythe, and J. M. Green. They agreed to set aside twenty per cent of each Sunday's offering for the building fund. [Hereinafter, unless otherwise noted, material is taken from Session Book, 1944-1950, pages not numbered.]

In 1927 the "Vesper Hour"--a Sunday night broadcast from the church--was begun, and it proved to be most effective. It was continued until December, 1955. By that year the total membership had increased to 232, and the official board became more anxious about seating space. At the June, 1947, session meeting, the Clerk recorded that "The only thing done was talk and discuss plans as to the church building addition." Early in 1948 an architect was employed, who drew plans for an addition to the church. Also, the congregation purchased the Putnam house at 204 Bilbro, and converted the manse into Sunday School rooms. By January, 1949, the work of the church had expanded to such an extent that an assistant pastor, the Reverend Donald Carter, who formerly had been manager of the Cumberland Presbyterian Book Store in Nashville, was employed at a salary of $40 per month. Two months later plans were accepted for an addition to the building to cost between $20,000 and $25,000. A finance committee, consisting of Hershel Smith, Dorsey Gray, and Carl Bryant was appointed to assist in fund raising. Henry Garrant was added to the building committee, which proceeded with plans. The following year the church was enlarged considerably, and the front was remodeled. During the period of rebuilding the congregation held services in the High School building. By that time (1950) the membership consisted of nearly 250 people, and the pastor's salary had been increased to $3365. [Statistical information taken from the General Assembly Minutes for the years indicated.] Also during that year 18 persons were converted and 22 were added to the church.

The continued increase in membership and interest caused the session in 1954 to offer to purchase the nearby Church of God property. Even the enlarged sanctuary was now proving inadequate! By the following year (1955) the membership had increased to 320 persons, and during that year 38 were converted and 25 added to the church. Nearly 300 were in Sunday School, and the pastor's salary was set at $5,000. When the Church of God property proved inaccessible, the session voted to purchase a lot at Bilbro and Main Streets, and build a new and more spacious church. The lot was bought for $22,000, and was secured by notes executed and dates 1956, 1957, and 1958. The church building was put on the market for $50,000, and a fund-raising group, known as the Wells Organization, was employed to assist in raising money for the new church. The drive was successfully staged and $75,000 was raised or pledged to be paid over a three-year period. An architect was hired to make drawings, and the work on the new buildings is scheduled to begin late in 1957.

The authors wish to dedicate this small volume to the memory of J. M. (Friz) Puckett to whom service to his beloved church was ever a source of great joy.

Updated April 14, 2011

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