River baptism in Morgan County, late nineteenth century.


Religion is a word that almost defies any consensual definition. Most people reflect some of their own religious beliefs, or at least those of their own culture, in defining religion. Thus, those from the Semitic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) tend to make belief in a god or gods essential to being religious. Those from the great Eastern religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) often make the quest for enlightenment essential, not theism, since early Buddhism was nontheistic. Those familiar with African religions may key their definition to ecstatic types of experience. Fortunately, one does not have to choose among these options when writing about religion in Tennessee, for at least since European penetration into the area that became Tennessee, the Judaic-Christian tradition has been completely dominant. An essay on religion in Tennessee has to be an essay largely about Christian churches and a very few Jewish congregations and the more recent arrivals of the followers of Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism (today clustered in the larger cities).

Before the Europeans came, various Indian tribes had their own, very complex religions. Europeans were so ethnocentric, and so unselfconsciously Semitic in the cosmology, that they either consistently failed to understand the nuances of Indian beliefs and practices or illegitimately tried to understand these through Christian presuppositions. Contemporary scholars, most from a Native American background, are correcting this bias, but with such a degree of complexity as to defy any brief summary. Suffice it to say that almost all popular images of Indian religion are simplistic if not completely mistaken. In many cases, present-day Native American spokespersons, often for political reasons, have utilized such simplistic perspectives, or perhaps even believe them. Among the most prevalent is the easy, but simplistic, view that all Indian religions supported a type of piety or respect for nature.

Europeans migrated across the Appalachians and into what would be Tennessee after 1769. They came largely from the piedmont of North Carolina or southern Virginia or down from the Great Valley of Virginia. This meant that most immigrants were of British background, and in so far as they had a church affiliation (most did not) were Presbyterian, Baptist, or lapsed Anglicans. This meant that largely British versions of Protestantism, rooted in the Reformed or Calvinist rather than Lutheran tradition, dominated. This evangelical Protestantism provided the most basic cultural bridge between whites and blacks and between the varied geographic regions of the state. Tennessee’s evangelical orientation was a southern, rather than state, characteristic.

The largely English populations of tidewater Virginia and North Carolina moved west into the piedmont in the early eighteenth century. Nominally Anglican, many converted to the more evangelical Baptists, particularly in North Carolina. These Baptists, Calvinist in doctrine, were largely the product of revivals that periodically broke out from 1740 to the Revolution. The Baptist missionaries, who established congregations in North Carolina and formed the Sandy Creek Association, were originally from New England. Scots-Irish Presbyterians (Scottish Presbyterians from Ulster), who often moved south from Pennsylvania, joined the Baptists on the frontier and dominated the early settlement of the Great Valley. Thus, the early congregations in what would become Tennessee were doctrinally Calvinists.

Baptists and Presbyterians both claim the first congregations in Tennessee. In the pre-Revolution period, some Presbyterian ministers did missionary work in the Watauga settlements, and in all likelihood some lay Baptist ministers preached to congregations. In 1778 Samuel Doak, a graduate of the Presbyterian College of New Jersey at Princeton, moved to the Watauga settlements, and by 1782 he had helped establish a settled church in Sullivan County. Possibly three years earlier, Baptists from the Sandy Creek association had established congregations in both Hawkins and Washington counties. Doak has received the most attention because of his credentials and educational role. In 1784 he founded a congregation and academy (Washington College) in Limestone in Washington County and later began an academy in Greene County (it merged with Greeneville College, established by Presbyterian rival, Hezediah Balch, to become the present Tusculum College). As a result of Presbyterian commitments to education, all early Tennessee colleges had a Presbyterian heritage, including Maryville College, Blount College (later the University of Tennessee), and Davidson Academy (George Peabody College for Teachers).

The Presbyterians, at first, outgrew the Baptists and remained more numerous than Baptists in a few upper East Tennessee counties into the twentieth century. But Baptists and Presbyterians soon lost their religious monopoly. German-speaking migrants, particularly from the Great Valley, entered Tennessee early, establishing a thin sprinkling of Lutheran, Church of the Brethren (Dunkard), and United Brethren congregations. They endured, but rarely expanded, in part because they resisted the revival institutions that came to dominate the major evangelical denominations. After 1800 a few Friends (Quakers) established small, ephemeral Meetings in Washington and Greene counties, where they began the first abolitionist publications in American history. More importantly, many English migrants proved receptive to a growing offspring of colonial Anglicanism, the Methodists. Just before the Revolution, revivals among Virginia evangelical Anglicans created a population very receptive to Methodism, which had penetrated the western counties of North Carolina even before the formation of an independent Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Methodist circuit preachers, based in southwest Virginia, preached in what would become Tennessee during the Revolutionary period and formed the first congregation in Sullivan County in 1786. Within the next generation, Methodist growth would be explosive. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Arminian (resistible grace and non-perseverance in grace) Methodists outnumbered either of their Calvinist Baptist and Presbyterian rivals.

These three denominations, plus the New England Congregationalists, who were never strong in Tennessee, made up the evangelical mainstream in American Christianity. They dominated the religious life in all parts of the United States, but were most monopolistic in Kentucky and Tennessee. In the nineteenth century, immigrants increased the religious heterogeneity in the North (Irish and German Roman Catholics, German and Scandinavian Lutherans, and central European Jews), but not in most of the South, which attracted only a few migrating Irish workers, who established the first Roman Catholic congregations in Tennessee. The label “evangelical,” one embraced by almost all Protestants, had a rather clear meaning for early nineteenth-century Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, and helped maintain commonalities that bridged wide, and at times rancorous, doctrinal differences. By 1800 the label identified Christians who placed ever greater emphasis upon a crisis-like conversion or rebirth, on a warm, free, and affectionate or spiritual style of worship and devotion, on a commitment to proselytizing or soul winning through various revival techniques, and on a rigorous or non-worldly and near ascetic standard of personal holiness and moral purity.

After a difficult last decade of the eighteenth century, such evangelical denominations entered a period of rapid growth at the turn of the century. A key to the beginning of this religious boom occurred in the Cumberland area of Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Six ministers (five Presbyterian and one Methodist) moved to Sumner County, Tennessee, and Logan County, Kentucky, between 1796 and 1800. There they ministered to new congregations that arrived from the piedmont of North Carolina. James McGready, a particularly effective preacher, and his colleagues revived the old Scottish tradition of four- and five-day intercongregational communion services. Held at individual churches during the summer and attended by all nearby congregations, these services had long been the occasion for conviction or conversion and had been responsible for several waves of revival in North Carolina and southern Virginia after 1787.

In 1800 a building religious fervor peaked in at least eight planned communions in the two counties and in Nashville. Many in attendance at the outdoor preaching fell in a near coma. This falling and other dramatic physical exercises created great excitement and had two important consequences. McGready published a long and enormously influential letter about the revival, and a meeting at Gasper River, in Logan County, stimulated the first extensive camping on the church grounds. Well publicized by the host minister at Gasper River, John Rankin, and recounted with great effects to congregations in East Tennessee and North Carolina, this precedent led to widespread development of campgrounds and annual camp meetings everywhere, but particularly in Kentucky and Tennessee. This revival in the west climaxed at Cane Ridge in central Kentucky in 1801 and only gradually abated after 1805. But its precedents–camping, falling and other physical exercises, intense conviction, new hymns of invitation, lay exhorting–remained accepted patterns in evangelical revivals, whether held at outdoor retreats or camps (soon a Methodist preference) or in extended and special proselytizing services in churches.

The fervor and the disturbing physical exercises of the revivals created doubts and divisions among the Presbyterians, who had hosted all the most explosive early revivals. The conversions, and new ministerial candidates, that sprang from the Cumberland revivals led the Kentucky Synod to create a new presbytery in the Cumberland. This Cumberland Presbytery compromised the normal classical education required for licensing and ordaining new ministers and allowed candidates to finesse the Westminster doctrine of double predestination (God elects both to salvation and to damnation). When the Cumberland’s senior Presbyterian minister, Thomas Craighead of Nashville, indicted the presbytery for its educational compromises, the synod investigated, found serious doctrinal problems, and insisted upon a doctrinal examination of all young men. Supported by their seniors–McGready and the other architects of the 1800 revival–the young men refused, and the synod expelled them. The battle raged over five years, but eventually the Presbyterian General Assembly upheld the synodical expulsion.

Some of the young men, led by socially prominent Finis Ewing, refused to capitulate. In 1810 Ewing and a colleague, Samuel King, met at the cabin of an ill Samuel McAdow (one of the original migrants from North Carolina) in Dickson County to form an independent Cumberland Presbytery. This grew into a denomination, only the first of several to originate in Tennessee. By 1860 the Cumberland Presbyterians, with doctrines midway between Presbyterian Calvinism and Wesleyan Arminianism, had surpassed the membership of the parent Presbyterian Church (now the Old School Presbyterians) in Tennessee. In 1906 a majority of Cumberland Presbyterians voted to merge with the northern Presbyterian church. Several individual Cumberland presbyteries rejected this merger and, alone in Tennessee, won a court battle to keep the existing property. This left the small, surviving Cumberland Presbyterian denomination with a unique Tennessee focus. Its only remaining college (Bethel) is located at McKenzie, and its seminary, boards, and publishing are centered in Memphis.

The Cumberland schism, a lack of qualified ministers, a more ordered and sedate religious style, and the rigorous demands of orthodox Calvinism retarded Presbyterian expansion. Thus, the two confessions that gained most from the explosive revivals were the Methodists and Baptists, who remained in first and second place in Tennessee church membership throughout the nineteenth century, only to reverse the order in the twentieth. In 1916 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reported slightly over 200,000 members. The two wings of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North and South, reported 223,000. Already the SBC was the largest single denomination in the state and joined with African- American Baptists to make up approximately 40 percent of all Tennessee Christians. Black and white Methodists made up only 34 percent, with the Presbyterians (Cumberland, northern, and southern) far behind at just over 8 percent. By then the Restoration churches (Disciples and Churches of Christ) exceeded Presbyterians (at almost 11 percent). These four groups of churches accounted for over 90 percent of all Christians in the state (Roman Catholics had less than 3 percent).

The two largest Protestant confessions in America (Methodists and Baptists) have both retained a special tie to Tennessee. After both the main Baptist and Methodist denominations split over the issue of slavery, the southern branches created their own denominational agencies. The Methodists led the way, and through the generosity of a former Methodist circuit preacher who had gained considerable wealth, the Methodist Episcopal Church South located its publishing house in Nashville. Soon its bishops met there, and other boards and agencies located in Nashville, making it the capital of southern Methodism. With the 1968 merger of northern and southern Methodists, the merged church distributed its boards and commissions but, as a gesture to the former southern wing, established several of its most important agencies in Nashville, including those involved in discipleship, communications, and higher education. Perhaps most important of all, both economically and in terms of widespread religious influence, it kept its publishing house in Nashville. As the SBC created a quasi-denominational structure after its break from the Baptist General Convention in 1845, it eventually chose Nashville as home. Its central headquarters (its Executive Committee), and almost all its major commissions and boards, are in Nashville, including its huge publishing house.

By the end of the nineteenth century, one could identify deep tensions within these older, evangelical denominations. To an extent, a majority of southern Methodists and Presbyterians and a minority of Baptists relaxed some of the earlier moral rigor, became more inclusive in membership requirements, transformed the rebirth experience in something closer to confirmation, changed the former revivals and camps into milder forms of education, and variously reinterpreted central doctrines or relaxed an inflexible biblicalism. In the sense of the early nineteenth century, these mainline evangelicals were no longer very evangelical. Such shifts, and the resulting intramural controversies, led to major doctrinal counterattacks, often loosely labeled as fundamentalist and tied to a few key doctrines (Biblical inerrancy, the initiatory role of Jesus in launching a millennium, and the key doctrines tied to rebirth). At the same time others, who resisted the modernizing trends, downplayed doctrines and tried to retain, or recover, the emotional warmth or spirituality of the old time Evangelicalism and its resulting moral purity or holiness. From this wing of reaction came the late nineteenth-century holiness movement and, in the early twentieth century, a rapidly growing Pentecostal movement that added to the older Evangelicalism a new emphasis upon charismatic gifts (prophecy and healing), with speaking in tongues elevated to a key position as a necessary witness to spiritual baptism. In all these changes, Tennessee once again occupied a central position, one much more important in the history of Christianity than its antievolution legislation or the famous Scopes trial at Dayton in 1925.

The Nashville-based SBC was not unaffected by liberal and more inclusive trends in the mainline denominations. But it was much more resistant than the reunited Methodist and Presbyterian denominations and never moved close to any union with the northern American Baptist churches. Since the early 1980s, the Convention (technically a fellowship and not a denomination) has moved, at the central level and in elected leadership, to a clear and emphatic defense of both the doctrines and the devotional style of nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, and is today the largest voice for this tradition. As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, it both reflects and fosters a religious style that is quite pervasive in Tennessee.

Even as the Baptists held firm, or moved back toward an older Evangelicalism, the largest Methodist and Presbyterian denominations more fully embraced a broad, latitudinarian approach. Since much of East Tennessee remained Unionist, northern Methodists and Presbyterians remained dominant in some heavily Unionist counties, and eventually both denominations ended the Civil War divisions. Today, these denominations tolerate a wide spectrum of beliefs but have a national profile that is decidedly liberal in its inclusiveness in tests of membership, flexibility in Biblical interpretation, openness to Biblical scholarship or to the implications of scientific knowledge, and commitment to social outreach as well as to individual salvation. Thus, in Nashville, a few blocks apart, one can observe the polarities in the formerly mainstream evangelical denominations, with a growing and ever more monolithic and exclusive SBC challenging the shrinking and tolerant United Methodists.

Other conservative or evangelical denominations have their home in Tennessee. From the eighteenth century on, a small Free Will Baptist movement, with salvation doctrines close to Methodism, challenged majority Calvinist Baptists. Many of these Free Will Baptists remain independent or associate in loose local fellowships. Membership statistics do not exist, but impressionistic evidence suggests that independent Free Will Baptists have been growing very rapidly in the last two decades, particularly in the mountains of East Tennessee. Some, but far from all, southern Free Will Baptists joined in a conference in 1921 and united with a smaller northern counterpart in 1935 to form the present National Association of Free Will Baptists. Its headquarters, Bible college, and several boards are located in Nashville.

To further establish the priority of Nashville in world Baptism, one must chart its centrality in the black, National Baptist movement. Black Baptists first organized independent boards or commissions under the guidance of American Baptists (northern), but then formed a loose National Baptist Convention in 1886. Its subsequent organizational history is complex and contested. In 1895 several black Baptist agencies combined to create the first large union of black Baptists, also named the National Baptist Convention. In 1915 the original National Convention split over publishing (the occasion was a publishing enterprise in Nashville), and now the National Baptist family includes four related but separate denominations. The largest wing of this movement, the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., has its national headquarters, a new and impressive world center, a seminary, and a publishing house in Nashville. This largest black Baptist denomination (over five million), when added to the 15 million Southern Baptists, means that well over 20 million American Baptists have their headquarters and publishing houses in Tennessee.

Black Methodists eventually formed three major denominations. The smallest of these, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (today the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), reflected a friendly separation of blacks from the Methodist Episcopal, South. This 1866 separation, effected at a General Conference in Memphis, led to another Tennessee denomination. Its main boards, including one on publications, are now in Memphis, further documenting the centrality of Tennessee in black Christianity. The CME’s school, Lane College, is in Jackson.

In the upper South, the first effective competition with the three main evangelical denominations came from the Restoration churches (variously denominated Christians, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ). One branch of this movement, led by Barton Stone, originated out of the Kentucky revivals of 1801. By 1831 Stone’s western churches, usually called Christian, effected a partial and unofficial merger with a movement founded by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, by then called Disciples of Christ. Both the Stonites and Campbellites won early converts in Tennessee, and by 1850 Nashville was one of the leading centers of this movement. The Restoration churches were not evangelical, in the sense that they did not emphasize an explosive conversion or rebirth, but instead a reasoned, step-by-step response to the Gospels, climaxing in a remitting baptism. They also repudiated the extreme emotionalism associated with most revivals. Much more than most Baptists, they eschewed any denominational organization, although a major Baptist reform movement, Landmarkism, which originated in Nashville, came close.

The Restoration churches eventually splintered into three major fellowships. Even by the Civil War, tensions had developed between rural, most often southern, rigidly anti-mission or antiorganization and rigidly restorationist Disciples, and many of their northern, less rigidly congregational and separatist, ecumenically oriented brethren. One leader of the conservative, restorationist, or purist congregations was Tolbert Fanning of Nashville, who edited the most influential periodical (Gospel Advocate) in this very conservative faction of the movement, one that rejected any form of intercongregational organization or any instrumental music. After the war David Lipscomb, the new editor of the Gospel Advocate, became the leading spokesman for the conservative wing of the movement, one with most of its strength in the defensive, post-Civil War South. These cleavages led by 1900 to two distinct fellowships (no denomination existed), and the choice by these conservative congregations to distinguish themselves in the religious census of 1906 from the main body of Disciples of Christ.

As a result of the influence of Fanning and Lipscomb, the conservative faction outgrew the more liberal church in the Nashville area and in the state as a whole. Today, these Churches of Christ make up a loose, deeply splintered national fellowship with no headquarters. Yet, in a loose way, one could argue that Nashville is at the center of the fellowship, since the Middle Tennessee Churches of Christ have a larger share of the membership than any comparable area of the United States, and David Lipscomb is one of the most influential of their universities. Nashville remains a home to the Gospel Advocate and other influential periodicals and is the address of a small, private publishing house and bookstore that is unofficially linked to these congregations. The more ecumenical Disciples also later split into two fellowships, with the conservative wing–Christian Churches and Churches of Christ–well established in East Tennessee, and Milligan College (its only liberal arts college) and Emmanuel (its strongest seminary) in Carter County. The largest body of historical sources on the Restoration movement are in the Disciples of Christ Historical Society library in Nashville.

In the twentieth century, the holiness and Pentecostal movements have presented the most competition to the big four religious traditions in Tennessee, although both Seventh-day Adventists and Mormons have also established scattered congregations in the state. A modern, organized Pentecostal movement began with ecstatic experience and tongue speaking in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901. It developed within a loose holiness movement, one with roots in Methodism. Independent holiness congregations joined in several local denominations by 1900, and stressed the Wesleyan doctrine of holiness or perfection, the attainment, in a second conversion-like experience, of a type of sanctification. This second step had gradually lost centrality in the two largest (North and South) Methodist denominations. Such holiness doctrines spread throughout the country and gained local adherents in several Tennessee cities. Following mergers in 1907 and 1908, one holiness mission in Nashville became one of the outposts of what became the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene (after 1919 simply the Church of the Nazarene), the largest non-charismatic holiness denomination today. This led to a growing Nazarene membership in Nashville and a very influential college, Trevecca Nazarene University.

Even before 1908 important holiness ministers in Tennessee capitulated to a burgeoning Pentecostal revival. This began at an Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles in 1906, led by an African American lay preacher, Charles Joseph Seymour. For Seymour, the holiness second step, or sanctification, was intermediary, followed by a baptism of the Holy Spirit, testified to by tongue speaking and fulfilled through several spiritual gifts, with healing the most visible.

The largest Pentecostal denomination today, and one of the ten largest denominations in the United States, the Church of God in Christ, has its headquarters in Memphis. Its founding and first half-century of growth involved perhaps the most influential religious leader in Tennessee history–Charles Harrison Mason–a leader all but ignored by historians, perhaps because he was black and represented a low-status Pentecostal variety of Christianity. In the late nineteenth century, two black holiness ministers–Charles Price Jones and Mason–organized a small holiness denomination in Mississippi. They soon moved the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ to Memphis. Mason was first persuaded of the validity of the new Spirit baptism by a white missionary from Azusa who visited Memphis. He then joined two ministerial colleagues for a 1907 visit to the Azusa Street Mission and capitulated completely to the doctrines taught in this biracial revival. He returned to Memphis to persuade his denomination to convert to Pentecostalism but only partly succeeded. Jones was already open to tongue speaking but never accepted its necessity as testimony of spirit baptism and thus forced Mason’s followers out of the original church.

Mason’s faction, which retained the denominational name and its episcopal form of organization (borrowed from Methodism), was vitally important in the first decade of an emergent Pentecostal movement. His church already had a state charter, which enabled it to license ministers. At the time, credentialed ministers alone gained valuable benefits such as free rail passes. Since none of the early Pentecostal movements had a corporate charter or could legally license or ordain ministers, many white as well as black Pentecostal evangelists came to Memphis to gain a license. Later, almost all these opportunistic ministers separated into white Pentecostal sects (most in Mason’s movement eventually joined the Assemblies of God), leaving Mason’s denomination as the strongest black Pentecostal church in the world, a church that now claims over five million members in the United States, with phenomenal recent growth. Mason remained the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ until his death in 1961. He seemed to live forever, eventually becoming the often dictatorial patriarch of Pentecostalism. Mason kept his headquarters in Memphis at what is now the Mason Temple. Here the church maintained its boards, publishing house, and periodicals. Numbers are unreliable, but the Church of God in Christ is the most rapidly growing denomination and now the second largest black church in Tennessee (behind only the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.).

The Pentecostal movement appealed to both black and white southerners and was especially strong among small farmers and textile workers. In 1908 the leading Pentecostal leader in the South, Gaston B. Cashwell, who had converted to Pentecostalism with Mason at Azusa, visited and preached in Cleveland, Tennessee, at the home church of a dynamic, at times authoritarian, holiness minister, Ambrose J. Tomlinson. In 1903 Tomlinson had become a minister in a sect that began as the Christian Union in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina in 1886. The Christian Union changed its name to Holiness Church in 1902. As early as 1896, some members of this very emotional denomination spoke in tongues, but as yet no one interpreted this as evidence of spiritual baptism. Cashwell converted Tomlinson to Spirit baptism and to the necessity of evidential tongues, and in turn Tomlinson was able to win most of the small, but growing denomination to a three-step form of Pentecostalism. Although now predominantly white, this denomination, which took the name Church of God, with doctrines close to those of Mason’s Church of God in Christ and with a similar episcopal organization, accepted black members and, for a brief time, had integrated congregations.

The charismatic but authoritarian style of Tomlinson, plus some financial indiscretions, led to later schisms. In 1923 a majority of Church of God congregations overthrew the leadership of Tomlinson and after a period of litigation, began listing itself as the Church of God. Today it is the second largest predominantly white Pentecostal denomination in American (second to the Assemblies of God), with a membership of over 500,000 in the United States and an even larger foreign membership. It has its world headquarters, boards, publications, university (Lee), and seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee. The minority in this split remained loyal to Tomlinson until his death in 1943, and usually used the title of Tomlinson Church of God. At Tomlinson’s death, it split once again, with one splinter taking the name of Church of God of Prophecy. This small denomination has its headquarters in Cleveland, plus a small publishing house and Tomlinson College (which operated until the mid-1990s), and is today probably the most successful in biracial cooperation of any American denomination and has led the way in the ordination of women.

Even this brief survey demonstrates the role of Tennessee in American Protestantism. At least ten denominations have a special tie to the state, and by most calculations publishers in Tennessee lead the nation in church literature of all types. In a comparative perspective, Tennessee remains among the three or four states with both the highest percentage of church members, and the highest percentage of Protestant membership. It thus deserves the label, both celebratory and at time pejorative, as the buckle of the Bible Belt. What so clearly distinguishes it from northern states is the low percentage of Roman Catholics (less than 5 percent), and the continued weakness of the more formal and confessional Protestant denominations; the Episcopal Church has just over 2 percent, the two major Lutheran confessions less than 1 percent. The Baptist dominance increases with each decade (over 50 percent), but the United Methodist Church and the Churches of Christ are still comparatively stronger in Tennessee than states to the south and southwest. As in much of the South, the older evangelical themes have remained more dominant than in much of the North, which again helps explain the continued growth of the SBC and the newer Pentecostal denominations.

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  • Article Title Religion
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date April 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018