History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
“Brief History of Chapel UMC”
Part 1 June 2019
The history of Chapel Hill cannot be conveyed in five minutes or five hours. The history of Chapel Hill is not necessarily about a building. It is about people and events. It is a story of courage, hardship, separation, faith, grace, sin, and absolution. It is a love story. A love story among its people and their creator. Before any church was built on this site in 1852, Methodism was prevalent in this community for at least 25 years. The Methodist Circuit riders were fervently preaching the gospel and constantly facing the dangers of man and nature. In the earliest days Indians were a possible threat along with attacks from wild animals and the ravages of winter. Circuit riders would sometimes find themselves frozen to their saddles at the end of their destination. For some circuit riders, the average life span was less than seven years.
Although this area was still Indian land, white settlers were constantly encroaching upon their land. The Cherokee in this area had sizable holdings with houses, barns, and rented land to the whites or employed sharecroppers. This ended in 1817 when the Cherokee were pressured to cede this area with the Jackson-McMinn Treaty thus creating the new County of Marion. The Jasper circuit assigned circuit riders to minister this area. One of the most important religious and social events was the annual camp meeting. Since young people had difficulty meeting future marriage prospects that were not close relatives, this annual meeting provided opportunities for young couples to meet and court. There were camp meetings that lasted several days and led to many future marriages. My research indicates, but not definitely proven, that the Methodist campground known as “Richland” was located at a spring presently located near the farm of Tommy and Martha Austin or approximately ½ of a mile south of present-day East Valley Baptist Church.
One of the most prominent area circuit riders was John Henniger and in 1852 the first church was erected on this site was called Henniger’s Chapel. Allen Kirkland donated the land and Norman Mansfield and his son constructed the building. The first pastor was the Rev. R.N. Price and a great revival was conducted here in 1853. Large family connections such as Kirklin, Deakins, Stewart, Barker and Anderson were brought almost entirely into the church to join other families such as the Rogers, Johnson, Thurman, Hatfield, and others. These family connections eventually produced seven ordained ministers, and indirectly from the Stewart Family, one United States Senator. The first community Sunday School was led by William Rogers who was the first individual to be buried in the cemetery in 1849. (Headstone replaced in 2018)
In 1855, a plan was devised to create a third county in the valley, aptly named Sequatchie, by taking part of Marion and Bledsoe Counties. However, the Tennessee Constitution stated that “no part of a county shall be taken off to form a new county or a part thereof, without the consent of a majority of the qualified voters in such part taken off.” Affected Bledsonians did not agree with the proposal. At this point Neill Brown, Speaker of the House of Representatives and later Governor of Tennessee, discovered an interesting loophole in the constitutional requirements. The Constitution made no reference prohibiting taking parts of counties and attaching to existing counties. Brown enlisted the help of an influential legislator to enact such a plan with the understanding that the new county seat would be named after him. William Dunlap agreed to this proposal, and on February 25, 1856. A law was enacted attaching the 1st and 2nd civil districts of Marion County and the 10th civil district of Bledsoe County to Hamilton County. On December 9, 1857, the Tennessee Legislature passed an act creating Sequatchie County by detaching the three aforementioned civil districts from Hamilton County. Bledsoe County was vehemently opposed and took the matter before the state Supreme Court to disallow the creation of Sequatchie County. The Civil War interrupted and delayed for many years a hearing on the matter. After the war the court basically refused to hear the case due to a statute of limitations. It would seem that Bledsoe County was the victim of a classical “Catch 22”. This might explain, over the succeeding years, the rivalry between the two counties, especially the athletic teams. This also explains how the church was located in three different counties from1852 through 1857.
(Part two continued in next article)
Sources and questions available in July article