|East Tennessee Quakers: Tennessee's Forgotten Heritage|
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by David N. Goff, Pastor, Lost Creek Friends (written about 1996)
There are no Quakers in Tennessee! They all died out because they wouldn't marry and have children. These words were spoken to a Quaker young person at Jefferson Middle School by one of her teachers a few years ago. Just a few years prior to that, when first asked if I would be willing to preach at Lost Creek Friends Church, my immediate response was, Oh, are there Quakers in Tennessee?
If by the term Quaker you have in mind the image of the man with the long white beard on the Quaker Oats cereal box, you are correct. There are none of those Quakers here. If you are thinking of the Amish or the Shakers, two independent groups with whom Quakers are often confused, the Shakers have indeed died out as indicated by the mistaken comment about Quakers by the school teacher mentioned earlier. Despite sharing with the Amish and other Anabaptist groups a deep concern for peace and a historic emphasis on simplicity, Quakers are a unique body of Christians, formally called the Society of Friends, who draw their name from Jesus' statement in John 14:14-15:
"You are my friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you."
Friends do not withdraw from the world into private celibate communities, as did the Shakers to the point of extinction. Nor do Quakers isolate themselves from the modern world, indicating their uniqueness by the wearing of unusual clothing and by rejecting technology as do the Amish. Instead, Quakers are a diverse group of Christian believers who seek to maintain a personal relationship with God while remaining active participants in the world around them.
Historically Friends have played a leading role in feminine suffrage movements, prison reform, enlightened treatment of the mentally ill, manumission movements, temperance movements, and numerous other social justice reforms that have resulted from a personal application of their faith to their daily lives. Believing that every member is a minister, and that there is that of God in all people, Friends have faithfully blended evangelistic ministry with social concerns throughout their entire history.
Despite the fact that many are unaware both of the existence and the importance of Quakers in Tennessee, The Society of Friends has had a powerful historical impact on Jefferson County and on East Tennessee. This ignorance is indicated by the omission of any significant mention of Quakers in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Yet, despite this silence, the Quakers were one of the most powerful religious groups in Tennessee from the 1780's until the War Between the States began in 1860.
In 1795 Nolichucky (later called New Hope), whose meetinghouse still stands near Jonesboro, became the first Quaker meeting established west of the Appalachians; Lost Creek met the qualifications for recognition as a meeting a year later, and was officially recognized by North Caroline Yearly Meeting in 1797. Thus Lost Creek Monthly Meeting, the second Friends Meeting established in Tennessee and the oldest still in existence, has been a significant center of faith and worship and a powerful voice for freedom through over 200 years of East Tennessee history. Likewise, a sister meeting, founded as Newberry in 1808 and now known as Friendsville became the third major center of Quaker influence in Tennessee. Of the eighteen Quaker meetings (churches) in Tennessee today (eight of which are in East Tennessee), Lost Creek and Friendsville are the only surviving remnants of the pioneer Quaker settlements that had such a profound influence on East Tennessee history and culture during the antebellum years.
Before examining the significance of Quakers in East Tennessee, it would be in order to briefly examine the beginning of the Society of Friends. The movement began in England with a young man named George Fox who was ardently seeking for a deeper spiritual experience than he was finding in the established churches of his day. His family urged him to settle down and marry and find solace in a wife. He sought counsel from a variety of different ministers who were of no help to the young seeker. One minister suggested that he take tobacco and sing psalms, while another Fox described as being like an empty, hollow cask. A third got angry at him for accidentally stepping in a flower bed, while another wanted him to take a physic (a purgative) and then to be bled.
Finding no help from the established ministers, Fox left his home at the age of nineteen and began a quest for spiritual truth. As he traveled, he gathered a group of other seekers who were disenchanted with the established church. In 1647, at the age of 23, Fox began the ministry which came to be known as the Society of Friends. As was the case of such other reformers as Martin Luther and John Wesley, George Fox did not intend to start another church. His desire was to form a religious society that would work for reform and restoration of the founding principles of the primitive Christian church.
The theology of George Fox was a very Biblical Christianity with a radical twist. Fox rejected all ceremony and ritual, stressing the essential need for a vital living relationship with Christ. He rejected the concept of a professional clergy, teaching that all believers were ministers of God. He also rejected the idea of a church building as a sacred place or as a house of God. They strongly emphasized the New Testament concept that the church is not a building but a group of believers.
Members of the Society of Friends met first in homes and later in buildings that they distinctly referred to as meetinghouses to clearly distinguish them from the church buildings and cathedrals of other groups which were mockingly referred to as steeplehouses. The Quaker movement, despite ardent persecution from other churches, grew explosively in England, reaching an estimated 50-60,000 in England before Fox's death in 1691. By that time there were also strong Quaker Meetings in Ireland, in the Americas, and elsewhere.
The story of Lost Creek Friends Meeting begins with the movement of settlers from North Carolina into what is now East Tennessee. Large numbers of those settlers were members of the Society of Friends. Some of these early Friends settled near Jonesboro and started a meeting called Nolichucky that later came to be known as New Hope. Others settled near what is now called New Market, Tennessee along Lost Creek and in what they called Quaker Valley (now known as Rocky Valley). John Mills, a Quaker from Guilford County North Carolina, brought his family to Lost Creek where they built a log cabin. Mills began meeting with other Quaker families that were settling in the area such as the Beals, the Haworths, the Thornburgs and the Swains.
By 1787 the local Friends were having what was referred to as a Voluntary meeting. They had not yet been formally recognized by the North Carolina Yearly Meeting, but were meeting regularly for worship. In 1793 Lost Creek was recognized as a worshipping group of Quakers, and in 1795 became a Worship and Preparative Meeting. By this time they were functioning in all respects as a fully organized Friends Meeting except for one formality. They had not yet been recognized as a Monthly Meeting by the North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
The reason for the delay in recognition was one that is of great historic significance to the Quakers. There has been from the beginning of the movement a strong emphasis on social justice. During the westward expansion in America, the Friends refused to recognize any meeting that could not formally prove that they had legitimately purchased their land from the Native Americans.
On May 25th, 1796, John Mills deeded the present property, approximately three acres of the land which he had purchased from the Native Americans, to the Friends of Lost Creek. As this was the date that the Lost Creek Friends met the conditions for formal recognition, this has been traditionally considered to be the founding date of the Meeting. It was almost a year later, however, before official sanction was granted by the North Carolina Yearly Meeting. Thus, by some accounts, the Meeting was not established until May 10, 1797, at which time the Lost Creek Friends Monthly Meeting held its first formally recognized monthly meeting. For Lost Creek Friends, however, the stubborn pioneer spirit which led to their departure from North Carolina, caused them to assert that they were established May 25th, 1796, one month before Tennessee became a state.
Henry Hull, a traveling Quaker minister, made the following mention of Lost Creek in his Memoir of the Life and Religious Labor of Henry Hull:
". . . next day were at the Monthly Meeting at Lost-creek (sic), where we met a considerable number of Friends, who made a commendable appearance, but evinced much rawness in the management of the discipline (115-16).
Lost Creek was a thriving center of Quaker life and worship in East Tennessee. It became an evangelistic center as new monthly meetings were started throughout the region under the supervision of Lost Creek Quarterly Meeting. Hundreds of members attended regularly the meetings for worship and business. Women and men were recognized as equals before God and had their own separate meetings for business. They had separate doors and sat on separate sides of the building with a divider down the middle. Early meetings were unprogrammed, as the members sat in silence waiting for the Holy Spirit to move one of their number to speak. It was not until the early 1800's that Quakers, influenced by the evangelical events of the Second Great Awakening, began to recognize a need for pastoral leadership and for instructive preaching as an important element of their worship. Some Friends meetings, Lost Creek among them, embraced this evangelicalism and became programmed meetings.
Quakers, however, remained an active part of their local community, a serious social issue of the early 1800's began to challenge the local Friends to make a stand. Friends had begun to recognize the evils of slave ownership, largely due to the influence of John Woolman. By the time of his death in 1772, it was considered unacceptable for North American Quakers to be slaveowners and by 1787 all Quakers are believed to have freed their slaves. Manumission, the freeing of slaves, became an important social concern to Friends and in January, 1815, the Tennessee Manumission Society was organized at Lost Creek Church under the leadership of Elihu Swain, one of the members. Another Friend, Elihu Embree of Jonesboro, began publication of the Emancipator, which was the first newspaper in the United States dedicated specifically to the cause of manumission.
This was, of course, a controversial position, and many Friends chose to leave Tennessee, migrating North to Ohio and west to Indiana. It is estimated that Lost Creek lost 400-500 members between 1803 and 1832 due to this migration. Many other friends, however, chose to remain and stand firm for their convictions.
According to oral tradition, Lost Creek Meeting became a station on the Underground Railroad. Members are said to have hidden escaping slaves in a nearby cave until they could be smuggled north to freedom. The location of this cave is no longer known, but some of the older members have said that it was under the current location of route 11-E. The Friendsville Meeting also acted as a station on the Underground Railroad and Friends there can identify the location of the cave where their ancestors hid and cared for runaway slaves before sending them on their way to freedom.
During the Civil War, the building was burned by Confederate soldiers. The current wooden building was rebuilt on the original foundation, using many of the logs of the original building as part of the structure. Later additions of classroom space, restrooms, and a kitchen/fellowship hall followed as the church recognized needs for such facilities.
In the late 1800's The two Quarterly Meetings of Friends in Tennessee, Lost Creek and Friendsville, sought permission to establish their own Yearly Meeting, the highest level of direct accountability in a Friends organization. North Carolina Yearly Meeting apparently were initially favorable to this idea, but later decided against it. In a bizarre series of events, contention broke out among East Tennessee Friends; Lost Creek Quarterly Meeting was dissolved and its meeting placed under the care of Quarterly Meetings in North Carolina. Those meetings then petitioned to unite with Friendsville Quarterly Meeting, which was approved by North Carolina Yearly Meeting. Shortly thereafter, the Friendsville Quarterly Meeting and its subordinate Meetings in Tennessee left the North Carolina Yearly Meeting and joined with the Wilmington Yearly Meeting in Ohio. Lost Creek and Friendsville today remain as members of Friendsville Quarterly meeting and Wilmington Yearly Meeting of Friends.
Of the many Quaker Meetings that once met in East Tennessee, only these two if the original meetings remain. The vibrant spiritual fervor and social activism that characterized the early Friends continues as a powerful legacy for modern day Friends. Though school teachers in Jefferson County, which was once a powerful center of Quaker life, may now confuse the Quakers with the Amish or the Shakers, and though many people in the local area could not give a visitor directions to the meetinghouse, the Quaker light still burns brightly at Lost Creek. Though relatively small in number, the Friends at Lost Creek continue to maintain the commitment to a personal walk with Christ and an active involvement with the community that has characterized their existence for over 200 years. It is to be hoped that they will remain true to those principles and continue to testify to the light for another 200 years.
Hull, Henry. Memoir of the Life and Religious Labor of Henry Hull. Philadelphia, 1864.
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