During the summer of 1858 Tolbert Fanning, President of Franklin College and a leader in Middle Tennessee for over twenty-five years, toured the congregations surrounding Nashville. He recounts this tour in the September 1858 edition of the Gospel Advocate (“Prospects in Middle Tennessee,” pp. 257-263).
He visited Hartsville and Bledsoe’s Creek congregations in Sumner county; Lebanon and Bethel in Wilson county; New Hope in Canon county; Ebenezer, Millersburg and Murfreesboro in Rutherford county, Shelbyville in Bedford county; Fayetteville in Lincoln county; Petersburg, Berea and Lewisburg in Marshall county; Williamsport and Columbia in Maury county; and Nolensville, Hillsboro, Thompson’s Station and Boston in Davidson county.
He drew three conclusions from his tour (pp. 262-263):
1. We have labored in Tennessee in word and teaching for twenty-nine years, and we never witnessed half the anxiety generally to hear and examine the Truth.
2. We never before saw half so many brethren determined to labor for the Lord. More churches are meeting for worship than have been at any previous date engaged.
3. We conscientiously believe that the brethren no where on earth possess a higher appreciation of the Truth, and of spiritual life, than in Tennessee, and with all our reverses the prospects are flattering. A faithful perseverence [sic] in well doing will remove mountains.
The recent “reverses” is an allusion to the devolution of the Nashville church under the leadership of Jesse B. Ferguson who embraced “spiritualism” as a theological method. His youth, popularity, and rhetorical flourish led the church away from its 1820s-1830s roots, according to Fanning.
However, this has occasioned a revival of sorts.
The apostacy and opposition of several popular men, who were numbered with us, have doubtless had the effect to induce the brethren to re-examine the foundation on which we are building, and the result is, that an unusual degree of intelligence is evinced by all who read and study, especially the Divine oracles. We regard it not the least flattery to intimate the probability that there are perhaps more independent thinkers, and devoted and intelligent Christians in Tenn., in proportion to the numbers professing faith, than in any other State in the Union. Our church afflictions have had the effect to weaken the confidence in the infallibility of men, to teach us humility, and we are not sure but they have had an influence to better qualify us for grappling with difficult questions.
Fanning reports that he has seen evidence of a great growth in the “spiritual life” of congregations in Middle Tennessee (p. 257). One of the major pieces of evidence for him was the growing practice of “meeting weekly to worship” (p. 262). It was more common, as Fanning notes, for churches to meet only once a month or only when an Evangelist was in town (as was still the case for some communities like Lebanon). For Fanning the “Lord’s Day” is a critical part of what it means to be a church, to cooperate in the work of the Lord, and to fulfill the mission of Christ.
In future blogs I hope, as time permits, to explore this theological idea as Fanning seeks to inculcate a reverence for the Lord’s Day on the part of Middle Tennessee congregations.