BRICK CEMETERY-MAURY COUNTY TENNESSEE-SPRING HILL
This is the only known picture of the first Presbyterian Church built in Middle Tennessee south of Nashville, Tennessee. It was at one time located on the property of Nathan Cheairs in sight of a (Manual Labor Academy) college built by the early Settlers who came to the land about two miles south of Spring Hill, Tennessee. The church was located near the Absolom Thompson Plantation, west and on the south side of the road in what is now an open field. It is believed that it backed up to a bluff on Rutherford Creek in the back and to the front was the old historic cemetery that served its members along with the college as their are students & faculty interred there. The site is now largely un-recognizable except for scattered brick and the cemetery. The first recorded stone in the cemetery was of a man named James Kerr (died 1818, came to this place in 1807) It is believed Kerr played a part in founding the above church by all his descendents that know the character and nature of this family, but the historical records I have seen do not mention him.
It is not known when the above brick building was constructed. The bricks are slave made of locally obtained fire clay. The church was used for worship by both slave and plantation owner. This painting was done by Myra Thompson, maiden aunt of Myra Thompson McKissack. Myra was the daughter of Absolom Thompson. This painting was given to the Carl E. Kinnard in May of 1958. It hangs in the Rippavilla Plantation home open to the public for tours near the Saturn Plant.
HISTORY OF BETHESDA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, by Wayne Austin Revised 12/6/2005
(Also called Sanford's
Meetinghouse or Old Brick Church) This Church was located at one time “on the
bluffs above Rutherford’s Creek” about 1 mile south of Spring Hill Tennessee
off of what is today Brown Road about a half
mile. This location is now so far off the beaten path of Spring Hill and the nearby giant
Automobile industry that few persons today are aware of this old extinct but
historic church, school
and remaining Cemetery site.
The first concrete evidence of the Church Existence occurred when Ezekiel Polk the grandfather of our 11th US President James Knox Polk deeded five acres of land on June 15, 1811 to John Johnson, David Lucky and Robert Campbell who were the trustees of Bethesda Church. The word Bethesda is an old Bible term meaning place of comfort for the sick and lame and the name arose out of the hardships of the early settlers. There was a meeting house already in use by the devout old-school Presbyterians in North Maury County. Since the founding date was only four years after Maury County was formed the earlier movement was likely started while that region was still a part of Williamson County.
The Bethesda Presbyterian Church was located less than five hundred yards to the east from the school that was to become the Manual Labor Academy. We know this school was also deeply integrated into the Presbyterian faith with many of the students attending both the school & the church. Later the School would become Jackson College and and eventually move into Columbia and have in attendance as many as 300 students. The School was established by Dr. Robert Hardin, Presbyterian Minister and Professors William Williford and Benjamin Larabee in 1820. On November 30, 1830, Colonel James T. Sanford a former War of 1812 soldier deeded eleven and three fourths acres of land near his home for the site of the school. James was also one of the Trustees.
This area was sparsely populated in 1806 when James O. Cooke wrote that there was scarcely a person to be found here. One prominent and previously mentioned Presbyterian who came here was James Sanford. He qualified as Justice of the Peace of the county in Sept of 1809. He served as county court chairman for several years and was born in 1770 and died in 1830. Sanford was one of founders of the Manual Labor Academy. This school was the forerunner of Jackson College. He is buried in the Church Cemetery under a large box tomb with much written about this on his tombstone. He was referred to as Colonel Sanford by those who addressed him. It is a title that cannot be disputed by the written records though it could be a part of his name. He was known to have the rank of Captain while serving in the War of 1812.
The Robert Campbell Family was another who came here early. They were in the county during 1811 when church property was deeded as mentioned below to Robert (b. 1776 d. 1840) as one of the three Founders of this Church. He, his wife Martha and some of the members of his family are interred in the Church Graveyard under what is today a stand of Maple Trees.
Another family that came here early on was the James Kerr (b. 1854, d. 1818) Family. The Kerrs were also devout Presbyterians setting foot on this land in 1807 from Orange County North Carolina. Though we have little records denoting their role the Kerrs' were no doubt a part of the first families to begin meeting as a Presbyterian Church for we know they brought the religion with them from North Carolina. A grandson of James Kerr had this to say about James in a letter written to a Texas relative about family history matters: "Grandfather (James Kerr) died about the year 1817 in this County near where he first settled in Spring Hill. His religion was old Presbyterian he was a leading member in that Church. I remember hearing him sing, pray and exhort at the meetings. When I was small I thought he was a preacher. I can remember hearing him sing and shout in the field while following his plow. He cared but little for the things of this world, a competency was all he desired." James Kerr is buried in the Church Graveyard nearby under an inscribed stone, under the earliest stone found to be inscribed.
Other early families involved in this Church and possibly the school were the Stephensons', Johnsons', Browns', Thompsons', Hollands', Greenfields', Mitchells', McKissicks', Odils', Blackburns' and others that I am not aware of. We know there was a connection to the Greenfield Bend Presbyterian Church because one of the daughters of Colonel James T. Sanford married Dr. G.T. Greenfield a prominently educated doctor of the early county. Also F. A. Thompson one of the sons of this church preached here and also at the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church (later known as REESEs Chapel).
The first recorded death in the church cemetery is a man previously mentioned by the name of James Kerr born 1754 died March 6, 1818 . The Kerr sons were later known to be leaders in the development of early schools around Maury County. It is a given that James would have been involved in any early church and school movement even prior to the above formation dates of the subject church and schools.
The people here were prominent and walked the same paths as powerful politicians. They were also distinguished Church leaders and ranking members of the armed services. The Reverends Frederick A. Thompson and Duncan Brown went into the ministry from this church. Other notable persons who attended the Church and/or school included Neil S. & John C. Brown, nephews of Col. Hugh Brown, both of whom became Governors of Tennessee; Harvey M. Watterson, State Legislator and renown editor in Louisville, Kentucky. Ministers known to have received an education here were the Reverend George W. Mitchell, George Crowford Stockard, and Samuel A. Nelson.
The Port Royal and Spring
Hill Presbyterian Churches grew out of this old Church. After their firm
establishment and the moving of Jackson College into Columbia in 1836, some
decline took place. However the church and school continued to be
attended and the influence would continue for some time. A
school named Union Seminary was formed in 1840 and operated on the site of what
was Jackson College. It is not known when services were discontinued at Bethesda, but on
February 15, 1878 the property had reverted to Polk heirs when Mrs. Annie M.
Phillips who was then of Memphis, great granddaughter of Ezekiel Polk signed a
quit claim to the church and cemetery.
The growth in the importance of the rails located to the west of here accelerated the decline of this neighborhood and caused it to be off the beaten path. This along with the decline in the use of the Old Davis Ford Road one of the early traveled north south routes of the county contributed to the eventual falling away. The centers of commerce were developing more toward the central part of the county in Columbia and north to Spring Hill and west of here near the Decatur and Nashville Rail lines.
Myra Thompson (daughter of Dr. Frederick) painted the only image known of the church about 1888. If one can take a stroll through the Jackson College/Old Brick Church Cemetery an occasional brick will be noticed that was once was a part of the Church building located 200 yards to the east on the bluff. The old school also of brick was located further to the west on a knoll where the University of Tennessee Agricultural Center has as of 2003 a livestock corral. These Church people were proud of the fact that they had a brick church to attend and thus the name Brick Church was later used. The Church was also known as Sanford's Meeting House named after James Sanford mentioned above.
From the old tomb stone records in this cemetery we know that Robert Campbell one of the three original founders remained active in this congregation until his death in 1847. No tombstone records are found there for the two other founding members. There are burials of the Administration and Trustees of the Schools there such as for a wife of Dr. Benjamin Larabee who was Eliza P. Larabee. She died in 1835 at the age of 31 years. We do not have any information about the whereabouts of Dr. Larabee after this but it is likely he moved on and possibly remarried. We know from her tombstone inscription that Eliza P. was from Stoughton Massachusetts.
One feature that made the site attractive for early settlers to develope was a nearby spring which yielded an abundance of fresh water for the school and church. In recent years that was dammed up to form a lake for the University of Tennessee Agriculture Center. The spring was located between the Church to the east, the cemetery in the middle but closer to the church and the School to the west.
This author has not researched the subject but some believe that Black families took up worship in the abandoned church building for a while after services were discontinued. The only corroborating evidence of this is a few unmarked graves on the back side of the cemetery which often were for Black family members.
The church is believe to have been torn down around 1890.
A few scattered brick remain to mark the spot. Its location was high upon the
bluff overlooking the Rutherford Creek. Just to the west of that in the
year 2003 is an old abandoned farm house in a serious state of decline, but
there are no roads back to this place except field roads.
In the Jackson College/Old brick Church Cemetery established for the worshippers of the Bethesda Church the earliest grave is 1818 that being for the above mentioned James Kerr. However, there are plenty of indications of earlier graves. One is a small hand inscribed stone with the name S. C. Kerr scrolled on it. The death date is not very clear but is believed to be 1817. There are other graves marked with common fieldstones which often predate the commercial efforts around 1815 which supplied the county with an abundance of tombstone markers for use by the early settlers.
The cemetery on the premises today is the most prominent reminder of the past and contains some of the most elegant monuments to be found anywhere. These are vivid reminders memorializing those that worshipped at the Bethesda Church and attended or were a part of the administration of the old school here. One such stone was of a student by the name of James H. Abbott and reads: "Sacred to the memory of James H. Abbott who was born in Andover Mass. Sept 11th 1812 and died at Jackson College Oct. 28th 1835, Aged 23. A pious friend, a brother dear, And beloved child is buried here."
The cemetery has long since reverted back to nature except for the occasional efforts by various concerned descendents, interested citizens, and historical organizations. So large looms the task that it now only seems to receive the benefit of an occasional surge in interest at restoration of its massive monuments and grounds. The restorers quickly realize it is an ongoing struggle that always seems to fall short of manpower and funds to maintain this massive cemetery in need of constant repair. The surge in interested is usually triggered by a concerned descendent who garners the attention of one of the Historical Societies who then gets attention from the media. This causes a minor swarm of temporarily concerned citizens and others to visit the area and began to make plans only to be pummeled by the remoteness, monumental task and inhospitable area. A visit there is almost like visiting the site of a prominent lost civilization.
The descendents and other history buffs continue to yearn for the day when the glory of this beautiful church cemetery with its monuments to the past are standing upright again. Hopeful that they will one day again deflect the evening sun with a glimmering reminder of the forebears that came to pass at the Bethesda Presbyterian Church and the nearby Jackson College. Remembrances of those who have gone the way of lost civilizations but live on as part of our rich heritage.
Originally compiled and written by Wayne Austin, December 22, 2003
References: "Churches of Maury County
Tennessee prior to 1860", published 1980 by the Tennessee Chapter of the
Daughters of the American Revolution. The source for this was written by Mrs. Marvin
Kinnard; Tombstone Records from “They Passed this Way” by Marise Lightfoot and Evelyn
Shackelford; Cemetery records on this web site by Wayne Austin; "Hither
& Yon, II", by Jill Garrett; "Kerr Family History
Project", by Frank Kerr McDaniels; "War of 1812 Soldiers of Maury County
Tennessee", by Garrett. The drawing above photoed & enhanced from the
original that hangs on the walls of the Rippavila Plantation home. This painting
was done by one of the Thompson descendents.