A HISTORY OF JOHNSON’S CHAPEL
by Jeffrey Marks
Late in the eighteenth century as settlers began pouring into the rich bottom lands of the Harpeth River Valley, many of the early pioneers brought to their new homes, along with the pioneering spirit, a fervent belief in John Wesley’s doctrine of free grace, free will, and sanctification by good works- the basic tenets of Methodism. The often harsh winters, the arduous journey across the mountains from Virginia and North Carolina, and attacks from hostile natives gave Williamson County’s earliest settlers plenty of reason to pray. By the early years of the nineteenth century the Methodist congregations of Middle Tennessee were being served by circuit riders who, following the example of Francis Asbury, rode thousands of miles on horseback and braved extreme conditions to bring their enthusiasm for Wesley’s Methodist faith into local frontier communities.
McCrory’s land grant is one of the locations where the circuit riders held their camp meetings. Winter weather often forced worshippers to meet in local homes, but during the milder seasons many baptisms were held along the shady banks of the nearby Little Harpeth River. These popular gatherings often drew thousands of worshippers together to fire up their souls with some spirited sermonizing. In 1796 Major John Johnston, an Irish immigrant who fought in the Revolution, purchased this part of the McCrory grant. In 1803 Major Johnstone’s son Mathew built the first church on this property, a log cabin used by several denominations for the purpose of spiritual renewal. An early history of the congregation compiled by Lawrence Evans indicates that this building was located in the woods behind the present school building near the graveyard. It was apparently a small structure for when revivals were held, they generally took place in the grove by the Little Harpeth on the old Tyler place, then called the “Edney Camp Ground.” People would come great distances and camp for days at a time, igniting their spirits with fire and brimstone oration, uniting their hearts with the old hymns that rang in their heads long afterwards, and nourishing their families and friends with savory dishes from long cherished family recipes.
In 1831 Mathew deeded the land to the Methodist Episcopal Church which later became the UMC. The spelling of the chapel’s name has streamlined over the years from Johnstone to Johnson. One of the early ministers serving the congregation on this site is Levin Edney, who presided over many of the popular camp meetings and is believed to be the first minister to hold services at Johnson’s Chapel. The log structure is reported to have burned in 1850 and was immediately replaced by a weatherboard building. Evans’ chronicle tells of early members holding services on week days one day each month. Many of the women would walk to the church barefooted, carrying their shoes in their hands, stopping to dignify their entrance just before reaching the grounds. They would also bring their knitting with them and work on a garment for one of their brood until the preaching began. Some of the first members of our congregation were Harvey Tucker and his wife Mary, Louis Castleman and his wife Eliza, John Lazenby and wife Sarah, and Susan Tucker and her daughters- Francis, Mary, Catherine, and Rachel.
A wonderful gentleman mentioned warmly in church records is Cajah Carpenter or “Mr. C.” He seems one of those Zen-like souls who bring warmth and kindness to those fortunate enough to break bread within his ken. He was known to raise a dandy oration when he found himself in the pulpit but more significantly, he kept a caring eye on the folks of the congregation and offered a hand or an uplifting word when he sensed the need. He and Mrs. Carpenter raised four girls, who were likewise willing spirits and helpful hands to the members of the church community. Cajah is the first, but not the only, Carpenter to grace the lives of Johnsons Chapel regulars.
We recently received family documents that illuminate another Carpenter in the Johnsons Chapel family. William B. Carpenter was born in Virginia in 1792 and his family was among the many who joined the westward migration as Americans trudged across the eastern mountain ranges and descended the rivers of the beckoning frontier. After arriving on the Little Harpeth and beginning his ministry, Carpenter was appointed an itinerant Methodist preacher in 1820. As a circuit riding minister he gave sermons in various residences throughout Wilson, Davidson, and Williamson Counties, traveling on horseback and finding lodging among the welcoming households of a widespread congregation. This was a rough and precarious existence and we must marvel at the spiritual strength and physical fortitude of these early firebrands of the Christian faith.
In 1825 Carpenter rode to Shelbyville to a district conference to receive full ordination as a Methodist minister. In addition to delivering inspiring sermons, Reverend Carpenter and the circuit riders would conduct weddings, funerals, and camp meetings in the outlying wilderness communities. Few of the early itinerant preachers lasted long at this grueling lifestyle, and within a few years Rev. Carpenter’s health began to deteriorate. Although Carpenter gave up circuit riding, he continued to preach and in 1835 bought the old McCrory place near Johnsons Chapel. By this time the church and its adjoining cemetery were institutions in the Methodist community on the Little Harpeth River.
Although Carpenter may never have known the man who built the house he moved into, he became well acquainted with McCrory’s descendents who lived and worked in the neighborhood where Carpenter managed his small farm and served the Johnsons Chapel congregation. In 1848 Carpenter’s son James married a McCrory and, sadly, the following year a cholera epidemic struck. Within a short period of time Rev. Carpenter buried several members of the McCrory family.
In the early years of the Civil War Carpenter and his wife Eliza, their daughter Lizzie, along with the family retainers, continued to work the property and attend to the needs of the church and its congregation. Small losses to foragers were sustained by many in the neighborhood, including the Carpenters, after the taking of Nashville by Union forces in 1862. The following year a significant military action brought the war to the community’s doorstep in a dramatic way.
During a March morning in 1863 a large force of Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest marched through the neighborhood on its way to attack the federal garrison located in the nearby village of Brentwood. The garrison fell easily under Forrest’s attack, and the pathetic resistance offered surprised leaders on both sides. A report to Maj. Gen. Rosecrans respecting the affair at Brentwood indicates that Col. Bloodgood, who was in charge of the Yankee post there, and his command “were captured with such feeble resistance as to reflect disgrace on all concerned. The block house was one which could have been defended against all cavalry and infantry attack they were able to bring against it. (For example) Col. W.P. Innes and 200 men defended themselves in a small corral of rails, brush, and wagons at LeVergne against a more formidable attack. (On the other hand) the cavalry appear to have behaved gallantly, I am glad to observe, and call attention to evidences of its increasing effectiveness (and) with proper officers and arms it will soon be able to cope with its rebel foes effectually.” Initially this seemed a coup for the Rebels; however, when the Confederate force attempted to retrace their route past Johnsons Chapel after their victory, this time with some 750 prisoners, they were overtaken by a Union relief force. Eventually, the Rebel force broke free and the captured prisoners and supplies were taken to Columbia.
During the following eighteen months little military activity took place in the area; however, in December of 1864, following the Battle of Nashville, a large number of Confederate soldiers withdrew down Granny White Pike. At the tail-end of the retreating column an intense rear-guard effort was conducted by the now legendary General Forrest as he attempted to salvage some remnants of his defeated army. In a recent article from the Brentwood Journal T. Vance Little tells the following story of the retreat and brings us Pvt. John Johnston’s original memoir of his experiences there. Johnston was a member of the 14th Tennessee Cavalry.
‘After the defeat of Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville, the Confederate troops scattered and retreated in a rout down Franklin Pike. Union forces were in hot pursuit via Granny White Pike. It was their plan to cut off the retreat by crossing over from Granny White Pike to Franklin Pike by a “country road” now roughly Maryland Way. General Hood issued an urgent order to stop the Union Forces, saying that if they were not halted “all would be lost.”
The order was issued to Confederate Gen. James R. Chalmers. He dispatched a group of soldiers under the command of a Col. Rucker to do what they could to stop the Union force. Rucker’s men set about creating a barricade across Granny White Pike of fence rails, planks, sticks and stones, old barrels, and any other debris that they could find. In later years the skirmish came to be known as the “Battle of the Barrels.”
The Union army reached Rucker’s barricade late at night, and immediately there was heavy hand to hand combat by the light of gun fire and a bright moon. In the melee and confusion of the battle, Col. Rucker mistakenly rode into the middle of the Union troops. Finding himself in such dire straits, he did not hesitate to engage the Union commander, a Col. Spaulding, in a sword fight. As the two leaders clashed in the dark, their arms and weapons are said to have become entangled and they somehow swapped swords! Ironically, years later the swords were returned to their original owners. Col. Rucker’s arm was so seriously injured in the fight that it had to be later amputated. The duel in the midst of battle between Cols. Rucker and Spaulding has remained so legendary an encounter that it is carved in stone and can be found at the entrance to Princeton Hills subdivision.
The hasty maneuver proved a success for the Confederates. The Yankee army was slowed long enough for Hood’s troops to pass along Franklin Road to the northern foot of Holly Tree Gap where they went into camp for the night.
In his account of Rucker’s Stand Pvt. Johnston mentions a small open field where the conflict took place. It is not certain, but very likely, that this location is now Landmark subdivision which lies catty-corner from Johnsons Chapel.
In later years Pvt. Johnston revisited the battle site. He found that some of the buildings and features had changed since that wild night in the closing months of the war, but others had not. He also found the grave of his great-grandfather, Major John Johnston, located in the cemetery behind Johnsons Chapel Church. He offers in his memoirs that he did realize at the time of the Battle of the Barrels that he was fighting on his ancestor’s land. He also mentions the church close by, which he said was founded by his uncle- Mathew Johnston.
The rigors of war took an unquestionable toll on the community of Johnsons Chapel and in November of 1865 Reverend William Carpenter passed away. His years of service to Johnsons Chapel, however, are commemorated in a stained glass window in the southeast corner of the sanctuary. It is interesting to note that Rev. Carpenter’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, married George Andrew Jackson Mayfield in March of 1865 and the couple had seven children- three boys and four girls. Among the daughters of George and Mary Mayfield the second daughter born is Elizabeth McClanahan Mayfield who for many years compiled the history of Johnson’s Chapel and offers the following anecdote:
“My parents began taking me (to church) when I was three months old. They used to bundle me up in a buggy and take me to church.” She recalls joining the church at age 12. “We had two big pot-bellied stoves at either end of the church. The church had two entrances, one for men and one for women. We had dynamic speakers who would pound on the podium and come off with a great message. We had a couple of ladies in the congregation that shouted. They would get up during services and go up and down the aisle, shouting and praising God with their rituals. I guess they did it because they felt good. We had the biggest picnics. Johnsons Chapel was known for its basket dinners. Men would come on Saturday and put up woven wire so women could hang table cloths there before the picnic. On the day of the picnic, people would come in their wagons and buggies.”
The weatherboard structure was razed in 1925 and the beautiful chapel we enjoy today replaced it. Robert C. Forsythe served as chairman of the building committee and many congregation members assisted in the construction of the church, designed in the shape of a cross. Mrs. Ophelia McClanahan donated many logs for the building and her son Lee hauled them to Junius Morel’s sawmill where they were sawed into planks for the builders. The building was dedicated on May 27, 1925.
Johnson’s Chapel’s minister during this rebuilding period following the Great War was an energetic young man named Eli C. Shelton, who shepherded the flock from 1921 to 1926. Rev. Shelton labored greatly to restore vitality and enthusiasm to both the church service and Sunday school, while mending fences and soothing bruised egos. He helped the church undergo one of those divisive, often vapid, upheavals that congregations suffer periodically. In this era of prohibition and pre-Depression excess heaven only knows what cultural dichotomies worked on the minds of Johnson’s Chapel folks. During this period Rev. Shelton won many searching souls when an Epworth League was organized which offered inspiration to young adults in a time of dramatic social change. He offered wise leadership to Johnsons Chapel during an exciting period in its history.
For twenty-five years Johnsons Chapel offered spiritual shelter to its congregation with just the building as it sat on its foundation. In the early 1950’s, however, it was decided that greater service could be rendered by extending the capacity of the building by completing a basement which had been partially begun. Once again the congregation pitched in. Work was initiated by the church’s MYF group, led at the time by Yauteva (Teva) Mayche Oden, a popular and energetic Southern Belle who worked tirelessly in the capacity of youth leader, choir director, and pianist. Teva also organized ice cream suppers and took the young people on trips to Montgomery Bell State Park for swimming parties. Along with her husband Harry and children, Linda and Robert, she was a beacon for church youth. Teva led the MYF in digging the basement by hand and the kids excavated on weekends for the better part of a year, removing soil by wheelbarrow to make space for the basement room. Margie Scott, a former member who was raised in the congregation and married in the sanctuary, remembers that they spent many hours with shovels and picks, often resting in the cool dark to tell ghost stories and laugh together. After the digging was completed, the paneling was installed by Paul Grisham and Lem Crosswaite. Later the side entrance to the basement, as well as the bathrooms, was built and donated by John Preach. The basement room was named for Reverend Thomas Carlyle Lackey who served Johnsons Chapel from 1952 to 1964.
Reverend Lackey was one of 11 children born in Canton, Kentucky to parents James Henry Lackey and Molly Major Lackey. He was educated in Canton Schools, Peabody College, and Vanderbilt Divinity School. His first marriage was to Minnie Waggoner who passed away. He then married Grace Buttner on Dec. 7, 1930 with whom he fathered a son, Thomas Carlyle Lackey, Jr. who was a pilot for the U.S. Navy and died in a plane crash at the age of 25 in South Bay, New York. Reverend Lackey served in many Methodist pulpits in Middle Tennessee throughout his career. His funeral was officiated by his nephew, Rev. John B. Sessoms.
During this era Johnson’s Chapel was joined with Brentwood United Methodist and Bethlehem Methodist to form the Columbia District. The three churches often shared ministers and on special occasions, such as Easter, would worship together at one of the three locations.
In September of 1981 thieves broke into Johnson’s Chapel and stole the ten stained glass windows that decorated the sanctuary. Rev. Grover Butler and the 83 member congregation were devastated by the loss. “It’s as if we lost a member of the congregation,” Rev. Butler told a Nashville Banner reporter covering the story. The thieves broke through three doors to enter the chapel and very carefully removed the windows but took nothing else from the church. The replacement of the windows was partially covered by insurance and partially by the efforts of Shirley Toadvine, a member of the congregation. One of the replacement windows is now dedicated to Mr. Toadvine.
A few years ago Johnsons Chapel acquired the historic school house next door to the chapel. The building was somewhat sparse when it was deeded to the church in 2000 by a group of congregation stalwarts, including current members Bruce and Toni Cooter. Renovation of the school was donated by Sim Wilford, Jack Caldwell, and many others. Members of the Johnsons Chapel congregation, including Louise Spence Eckhardt, Sara Spence Moore, and Erma Johnson attended classes in the old school building and it has deep roots in the church community. The building has recently undergone a major kitchen restoration and now houses the children’s Sunday school. It also offers pleasant, comfortable surroundings for frequent church dinners and parties and is available for rental for community activities.
Another recent and welcome improvement to our campus is the new sign, built of beautiful stone and donated by Helen Brown and Karen Bayliss in memory of their husbands John Brown and Graham Bayliss. It gives the Johnsons Chapel congregation yet more to be proud of as we continue to evolve. We bask in the glow of the well-tended spiritual light which pervades our small campus and community, and we continue to grow stronger on this old and holy ground on High Lea Road near the banks of the Little Harpeth River in the heart of Brentwood, Tennessee.