History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
“Francis Asbury comes to the Holston”
When Francis Asbury settled to his annual circuit of reaching all sections, he was experienced, and his skill, integrity and authority were recognized. The church grew with the country. The migration of peoples flowed in streams and was to him a divine call. Out of the heavily populated coastal plain, people were flowing into the Appalachian Mountains, reaching out into Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Western North Carolina, as well as into the North and South. Soon he was to follow and cross those mountain walls, as he did again and again until he died on the way back to Baltimore.
The Holston country was named after a German settler named Holstein. He built the first cabin in the region, on the three-forked river that yet bears his name and is a tributary of the Tennessee River which begins at the confluence of the Holstein and French Broad Rivers. Jeremiah Lambert was the first appointed minister to the new Holston Circuit in 1783. As settlements penetrated the wilderness, that circuit evolved into our present Holston Conference which at a previous time, encompassed all the present Virginia south of the New River in the region southward of Radford; all the portion of North Carolina and small part of South Carolina that lies west of the Blue Ridge; present Mercer and McDowell counties in the southern end of present West Virginia; all of East Tennessee; and a small portion of North Georgia.
After one year Jeremiah Lambert died. The mortality rate of these pioneer circuit riding preachers was high.
“They climbed the steep ascent to heaven,
Through Peril, toil, and pain;
Oh God! May grace to us be given
To follow in their train.”
In 1785 Asbury made his first trip to Charleston, S.C., but he was listening to what scouts, hunters, and pioneers were saying. Francis Asbury claimed and held this big Holston territory for nearly thirty years, 1788-1816. He crossed and re-crossed it more than twenty times. He always respected the high, and hard mountains. Perhaps he was frightened a few times by the ruggedness and vastness of the forest and the swift deep streams, but he never let the challenge go unheeded. He climbed the mountains, forged or ferried the rivers, endured the torrents of rain and snow, but went to reach the people. He was a big factor in “Winning the West”, as Theodore Roosevelt so eloquently recognized. He said that “the bishop left his autograph in hoof-prints.” He always kept in sight of tides of needy and friendly people pouring into the west. He was called to bring to them the word of God.
When preaching places in any area began to multiply, it was the custom of Francis Asbury to visit in person, so in 1788 at forty-three years of age he planned to meet the Holston and Kentucky preachers at Keywood near present day Saltville, Virginia. He had already been as far south as Georgia that year. A conference had been held in Charleston , S.C. in March and another in Elberton, Georgia, in April. This was followed by extensive travel and preaching in Western North Carolina. After finishing his work in the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina, Bishop Asbury steered north to conduct the famous Keywood Conference in the wilds of Holston country. This was the first conference west of the mountains.
There was some misunderstanding about the date of the Conference and none of the Kentucky preachers were present when Asbury arrived. Asbury had learned about the armed conflict between followers of John Sevier and Colonel Tipton over forming a state in the new territory (now Tennessee). Sevier and his friends were attempting to establish a state called Franklin. Colonel Tipton felt the territory should remain in North Carolina. Asbury was disturbed about the trouble, and since his preachers had not arrived, went to Jonesboro area to preach. Years later the famed Tennessee historian, J.G.M. Ramsey, was to write about this disturbance, he indicated that Asbury’s preaching had helped to calm the spirits of the people and bring peace.
The preachers had arrived in Keywood during Asbury’s absence. They had not wasted their time. They had preached. Among the results was the sound conversion of Madam Russell and her husband, who became able adherents of Methodism for years to come. Attending this Conference were thirteen preachers, three elders, and Bishop Asbury. They met in a cold upper room in the Keywood home. As they made their reports it was discovered that the membership in the churches in the Holston area had risen from the original 60 to 743. After the business and prayers were completed, the appointments were made. This concluded the first visit of the “Prophet of the Long Road” to Holston. After Conference, Bishop Asbury left Holston Country to visit again in North Carolina. He was to travel many more weary miles and conduct five more Conferences, as far north as New York, before the year ended.
Sources: Holston Historic Heritage Vol 8 N0 1 Spring 2008
Last month’s question: In the old part of Chapel Hill Cemetery is the grave of Bill Emery. Why is this burial significant? Bill Emery was an Afro-American and a former slave. During this era of segregation, this would have been highly unusual.
Next month’s question: True or False. Chapel Hill community suffered greatly under Union occupation during and after 1863 because Sequatchie County voted for secession.
Next article will reflect on historical and sometimes humorous tidbits of Methodism