Our heritage at First Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Tennessee (now 100 years old in this church building) stems from John Calvin, John Knox and others over 400 years of reformed faith. Our church had its origins in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of which we are the Presbyterian and legal descendant. Therefore, I will begin with a brief review of this history as related by Judge Nathan Green Jr., a ruling elder of this very church at the time of its dedication, chancellor of Cumberland University, professor of law, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice, and the “father of equity jurisprudence” in this state.
In 1799, we learn that the First Presbyterian minister preached at the home of William McClain, father of Josiah McClain, the first white child born in Wilson County whose home was replaced by McClain School (1923). The history of Wilson County states that “the land was fertile, the people industrious, and the settlement soon became noted for the production of corn, wheat, rye, barley, cotton, flax, horses, mules, cattle, sheep…. “Among the first of the early settlers were David Wasson, Abner and Thomas Bone, and John and William Knox, James Warnick, Robert Smith, and others. The Presbyterians were the first to bring the gospel to the Cumberland country. The gospel was undoubtedly needed, for many pioneers had their minds centered on material possessions, and so forgot God. The Presbyterians started with prayer meetings at the homes of Thomas and Abner Bone, two and one-half miles southeast of Statesville about 1804.
A second Presbyterian minister, George Donnell began the first organized congregation in 1829 with seven women who were all wives of prominent women in town. They included Mrs. Zachary Tolliver, Mrs. Isaac Goliday, Mrs. George Cummings, Mrs. Charles Cummings, Mrs. OG Finley, Mrs. Hunt, and Miss Ivy Martin. They met at the Methodist Church building in town and later at the Courthouse where they were eventually unable to meet. Sympathy was created, resulting in a new building built by ‘handsome subscription and erection of a new house,” the lower rooms for the church and the upper rooms for the Masonic Lodge. The church seated 300 people and was first occupied in 1831. Several members were related to General Andrew Jackson who wrote to congratulate them on the new church. The husbands of the original seven ladies converted ultimately and became important members (Governor James C. Jones, Robert L. Caruthers (founder of the law school), Jordan Stokes (law partner of General Robert Hatton), Josiah McClain, Isaac Goliday (benefactor to Sam Houston) and, Nathan Cartmell, (who endowed the Cartmell scholarship). Before long the Lebanon church was the strongest and most influential in the General Assembly of the church.
In 1847, the law school was founded and became the largest law school in the nation except for Harvard by 1857. The old southwestern states were its cachement area. The theological school was begun in 1854 by Dr. Richard Beard as dean, who was also minister of the church and kept “the members together during the war.” As G. Frank Burns reported “the sounds of guns firing during battles on the square could be heard during church services.”
In 1856, the first college YMCA was founded by ruling elder of this church regarded as a man of “deep piety”, Lt. General Alexander P. Stewart. Stewart was professor of mathematics and engineering at Cumberland University, whose teaching was interrupted by the “Late Unpleasantness.” His students followed him to war.
After the war, a movement began to achieve union between the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church USA. The vote of the Presbyteries was 114 to 60 for approval of the union. This was accomplished between 1903-1906 as Cumberland Presbyterians, we became The Presbyterian Church, USA. Some Cumberland Presbyteries denied the validity of the union, divisions occurred even in Lebanon. The Supreme Court decided for the Lebanon church that the Cumberland Presbyterian church would receive the old church building for some 30 members and the remaining 200 members would be forming the Presbyterian Church USA. The plan was to move to Caruthers Hall of Cumberland University, (now to be supported by the Presbyterian Church USA) on the northeast corner of Greenwood Avenue and West Main Street for Sunday school and divine worship. On the opposite corner (southwest corner) was built the new church which had the largest seating capacity in Lebanon (1000 seats). Ground breaking was September 17, 1910. My father (age 6), Sam Stratton Bone Sr., is in the photograph.
Meanwhile, after the church was built, the Law School continued to have Sunday school for young law students at Caruthers Hall. Probably the most memorable of the Law school Sunday school teachers was Professor Sam B. Gilreath who was a legendary scholar and member of this church; he taught the students about the trial of Jesus Christ and his interpretation and the contrast of the Roman Law with Jewish Law and English Common Law. After the Sunday school, Judge Gilreath would bring his students across the street for the service at 11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary. Joining them would be the Castle Heights Military Academy cadets who filled the balcony. The theological students also came, along with as many as 11 faculty members who taught in the theological school and other faculties of the university. G. Frank Burns told me how difficult it was for the minister here on Sunday morning to preach to the congregation where the 11 theologians sat!
Our Presbyterian church soon appointed missionaries to the city of Lebanon in 1915 and subsequently to the western United States; foreign missionaries to China and Japan, as well as the Philippines, followed. Perhaps the most familiar were the missionaries to Japan, Dr. and Mrs. W.F. Hereford and their daughters, Grace, Nannie, and Julia. When they were here on furlough, they always sat in the second row on the right side of the church. Dr. Hereford went to Japan in 1899 and returned to this church on his retirement in 1939 after 40 years of missionary work in Hiroshima, Japan. His return was just before the Pearl Harbor attack. I remember, as a little boy during World War II, that when Dr. David Harrison was away, that the supply minister Dr. Hereford would deliver the sermon. Dr. Hereford, would frequently cry because he thought his life work (with the Japanese people) had been lost.
His daughter, Nannie, was born in Japan and grew up in Hiroshima, returning here for high school, Cumberland “Prep.” Following that, she received her Bachelors degree from Cumberland University in 1930 and was a classmate of Elsie Mae Baker. She received her Masters degree from Peabody College and was then appointed by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to return to Japan and was assigned to Hokkaido. As war approached, all the American teachers were required to leave and were therefore transferred to Silliman University in the Philippines, arriving there six months before Pearl Harbor. She was imprisoned and interned at Santo Tomas University, Manila, and continued her mission work there among her fellow captives. In 1945, she was liberated by the American Army and returned home to Lebanon. She then returned to the Philippines for five more years of mission work, followed by evangelistic work in Japan at the Presbyterian Mission School for three more years. She retired in 1974 and settled in Nashville with here sister, Dr. Julia Hereford, Dean of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing, who was also honored with the most prestigious honor society for the school of nursing at Vanderbilt University being named for her.
All of this came home to me in 1963 when I was visiting medical institutions around the world. I learned about four Presbyterian missionary physicians who had been expelled from Communist China in 1949 and who reestablished their mission hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. I visited them just before Easter 1963. On Thursday evening, they took me to a Maundy Thursday Service on the east end of Bangkok, where a large group of Christians were assembled. We heard a very inspirational sermon from an English speaking person who was neither American nor Thai but rather from somewhere else. After the service, the doctors and I all went over to meet this preacher. As we spoke, he told me that my accent was familiar to him; he said that he was here in Bangkok because of someone who spoke like I did. It turned out that he had been imprisoned by the Japanese in his home country, the Philippines, and had become a Christian missionary himself through the influence of a fellow prisoner and American missionary named Nannie Hereford!
Dr. David Harrison, grandfather of Kenneth Harrison, who usually now sits in the balcony, was known as “Scotty” (as was his son) Harrison and was a minister here on two occasions. He was called to this church in 1919 by the moderator of the church, Judge Nathan Green, who presided at the groundbreaking of this building in 1910. One week after accepting the call, Judge Green died and Dr. Harrison stayed for thirteen years. After two other ministers, he returned in 1938 and remained until 1946. When he left the first time, he was replaced by Dr. W.P. Bone (Professor of Theology at Cumberland University).
Dr. W.P. Bone was a graduate of Trinity College in Austin, Texas. Interestingly, this church established, in the 1840s a missionary college in Larissa, Texas, which subsequently moved to Tawakoni, Texas and thence to Waco and then finally to San Antonio where the name was changed to Trinity reflecting the previous three sites in Texas as well as the Triune God. Dr. Bone attended Union Theological Seminary (for his doctorate) as well as the University of Berlin (for his post-doctorate study), in 1878. He returned to Cumberland University Divinity School, as professor of theology. The seminary for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was here in Lebanon. The theological school was located on the hill where the Foutch house (formerly its dormitory) is on West Main Street. Dr. Bone wrote the definitive history of Cumberland University as well as its multiple links with the First Presbyterian Church. After this, he taught philosophy, ethics, and Bible until he died in 1942.
From a newspaper article of 1911, we have this interesting article of the opening ceremonies of the church (courtesy of Jack Howard):
“The new Presbyterian church, U.S.A., which has just been completed will be dedicated Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. The entire week will be given to dedication exercises and the Nashville Presbytery will hold a three-days’ session beginning Tuesday.
The handsome building is situated in the prettiest part of our town on a beautiful corner lot of West Main Street, just opposite Caruthers Hall, where the Presbyterians have been worshipping while the new church was being erected. The church is a two-story structure with basement, is built of hewn stone and brick and cost $32,000. The acoustic properties of the building are perfect. The church is so arranged that the entire building can be thrown into one large room, and the pastor can talk and be distinctly heard in the remotest corner.
The new church is built according to the Akron plan, there being one identical in construction to this one at Akron, Ohio, but this one is the only one of its architecture in the south. The style of architecture of the interior is what is known as ‘Tudor Gothic.’ The finish of the woodwork of the entire church together with the fixtures is in the early English effect which harmonize with the dark green Wilton velvet carpet with which the floors are covered, which was furnished by a Nashville firm.
There are two main entrances to the church; between these entrances is situated the ladies’ parlor, which will also be used by the missionary societies of the church. It is separated from the main auditorium by means of sliding blinds which can be lowered or raised at will; this space seats fifty people and is in the shape of a half circle. The seating capacity of the main auditorium is 500 and that of the gallery is 150, and the Sunday school room with the ladies’ parlor seats 350, making the total seating capacity of the church 1,000. Suspended from the large central dome of the auditorium is a handsome double-burnished brass chandelier containing almost one hundred Tungsten lights; there are also rows of lights around the chancel organ and balcony. The electrical fixtures throughout are of burnished brass and were furnished and installed by the Braid Electrical Co., Nashville, Tennessee.
One of the most magnificent features of the church is the handsome pipe organ, which takes up nearly one entire side of the auditorium. It is beautiful in design and magnificent in tone and voicing. It is built in the west wall and has a total of 1,375 pipes and is run by an electric motor and blower. The Ladies’ Aid Society of the church paid for the organ. The heating plant is located in the basement.
On the second floor is the junior class room, nicely arranged, also the pantry and kitchen fitted with hot and cold water. The boys’ clubroom is on this floor, also which will be used by the Boy Scouts, the church having a large membership of this club. It is to be furnished with library and other things of interest to the boys by a prominent citizen of Lebanon.
To the left of the main auditorium and connecting with it by sliding blinds is the Sunday school room, with its connecting class rooms. The Sunday school room alone seats over 200, which, together with the twelve class rooms upstairs and down, will seat over 300. Opening into the Sunday school rooms on the left is the Men’s Bible class room having a capacity of 50, and located above this on the balcony is two large class rooms, having a capacity of 30 each. To the right of the Sunday school room is a large room which will be used as a primary room for the children under nine years of age.
One of the handsomest and prettiest features of the building is the large memorial windows situated on the north and east sides of the main auditorium, both on the main floor and balcony. There are seven large memorial windows on the west side of the main floor, five of which depict “The Parable of the Sower,” and were contributed in memory of Reverend J.M. McMurry, Mrs. Elizabeth McMurry, Reverend J.D. Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Sue Kirkpatrick, Reverend Richard Beard, D.D., Mrs. Cynthia Emily Beard, Hugh McDonald and Professor James Waterhouse. On either side of these five windows is a beautiful window one depicting “The Guardian Angel,” in memory of Mrs. Alice Ready Martin and the other representing “Christ Knocking at the Door,” in memory of Reverend Samford Guthrie Burney D.D. and contributed by the members of his old class. On the balcony upstairs immediately over these windows is a handsome window contributed in memory of Professor W. J. Grannis and Mrs. Lucy Grannis, John A Lester and Mrs. Mattie Dillon Lester. This window is symbolic of “The Resurrection.” On either side of this large central window is two small windows, one depicting ‘The Cross of Calvary.’
In the front end of the church situated on the balcony, is a very handsome window portraying “The ascension,” in memory of Reverend George Donnell, D.D., founder and first pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. On either side of the large window are two small windows on in memory of Reverend Clairbone Handley Bell, D.D., first professor of missions and Mrs. Lou Washington Bell and one in memory of Reverend J. W. Fitzgerald, beloved pastor of the church. All the remaining windows of the church are fitted with beautiful art glass, which, together with the memorial windows, were furnished by the Jacobie Art Glass Company of St. Louis, Missouri.
Sunday morning at 9:45 the dedication of the Sunday school departments will take place, the address to be delivered by Reverend Alex J. Coile, of Knoxville, brother of the pastor, Reverend S. A. Coile. Short addresses will be delivered by ex-superintendents Judge Nathan Green, J.M. Fakes, Professor L.L. Rice and Professor J.I. D. Hinds.
The officials of the Sunday school are Professor O. N. Smith, superintendent; R. C. Weir, assistant; Hayden Trigg, secretary; and treasurer Miss Maude Dawson has charge of the intermediate department and Mrs. D. E. Mitchell of the junior department.
At 11 o’clock Sunday morning will occur the dedication exercises proper. Reverend Thomas R. Curtis, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, will read the 24th Psalm after which the invocation will be said by the audience, repeating the Lord’s Prayer in concert. At the conclusion of which the formal ceremony of turning over the keys of the church will take place, and Professor J. I. D. Hinds will respond for the building committee and Judge Nathan Green for the trustees.
The scripture lesson will be read by Reverend. A. J. Coile of Knoxville, and the word of dedication pronounced by Reverend S. A. Coile, pastor. The prayer of consecration will be said by Reverend W. P. Bone, president of Cumberland University. Miss Florence Odill of Nashville will give a vocal solo offertory. An excellent sermon will be delivered by Reverend Samuel A. Coile. Benediction will be pronounced by Dr. R. V. Foster.
Monday evening at 7:00 there will be a general reception for the people of Lebanon and Wilson County by the pastor and officers of the church.
Tuesday evening at 8 o’clock the opening sermon of Presbytery will be preached by Reverend George H. Mack, pastor of Russell-Street Presbyterian Church, Nashville.
Wednesday and Thursday morning at 11 o’clock will be the presentation of the memorial windows and responses by Judge Nathan Green, Professor L. L. Rice, Professor J. I. D. Hinds, Dr. A. B. Martin, Honorable E. E. Beard, Dr. W. P. Bone, Dr. R. V. Foster, Professor W. D. McLaughlin, Mrs. J. I. D. Hinds and Reverend Ira Landrith of Nashville.
At 7:30 o’clock Thursday evening, there will be an organ recital by Henry Pilcher of Louisville, KY.”
Instrumental in the life of music of this church, was Frances Sellars who directed the choir and all musical programs, special events and the Christmas Eve Service. She was graduated from Julliard School of Music, performed on Broadway, and married John Sellars of Lebanon. She and her family continues to serve this church and community.
Meanwhile, the Bellwood Church representing many of our church families today (e.g. Harris, Purnell, Bone and Phillips families) merged with this church bringing their church bell with them.
We all remember Colonel Bernie Bass (and his wife Mary Helen) who served this church, after having been base commander at Camron Bay in Vietnam and director of the U. S. Air Force Museum. After his retirement from the military, he devoted much of his time as superintendent of the Sunday school at our church.
This church owes a great measure of gratitude to Judge Rodney Ahles, a Cumberland Law School graduate, who along with his wife, Imogene, served for many years in this church and over 50 years as the administrative secretary at Cumberland University. Judge Ahles taught Sunday school and with Imogene initiated a lively puppet ministry. In dedication to the memory his wife, he traveled to Einthoven, Holland, where he commissioned the casting of memorial bells in her honor for the church steeple. Daily, at noon, the bells can be heard around the area along with the announcement of church services as well as on special occasions.
Certainly, Jack Howard has contributed as a distinguished educator, outstanding scholar in mathematics, physics, and astronomy, friend of Cumberland for over forty years and three generations of students, having been Dean of the academic School, and the recipient of the Honorary Degree of Literary Letters. He taught Sunday school as well as serving as Historian and Clerk of the Session. As a highly dedicated member of the church he continues to serve this congregation.
In closing, the influence of this church has been felt in this nation and throughout the world. The Castle Heights students, who filled the balcony for many years, the Cumberland University students and faculty in arts, law, and divinity, as well as town’s people, resulted in God’s work in many ways.
Where do we go from here? What is our future? As Judge Nathan Green said, “What a heritage we have in this record, what a responsibility rests upon us. God grant that we may feel the weight of that responsibility that we may never lower the standard nor betray the trust commanded to us.” AMEN.
A History of Cumberland University (1935) by W.P. Bone, Pg 1-303
History of Wilson County, Tennessee by G. Frank Burns, Pg 1-453
Phoenix Rising! By G. Frank Burns, Pg 1-422
The History of First Presbyterian Church of Lebanon (1919) by Judge Nathan Green
Local Newspaper clipping for September 8th, 1911 from the personal archives of Jack Howard (2011)
Any errors in this brief historical summary are mine. I hope that our members today may use this information for inspiration as we plan our future.
– Robert Carver Bone
September 19, 2010
revised February 14, 2011