History of the Restoration Movement

Post Oak Springs Christian Church

"Mother Church" of Tennessee
Founded in 1812

Report To The Millennial Harbinger - 1861

-Millennial Harbinger, Progress of Reform, Vol. IV, No. IV, May, 1861, page 299.

Post Oak Springs Christian Church

Two miles east of Rockwood, Tennessee, on Highway No. 70, stands a neat frame church building. On a cast iron marker in the yard is recorded the following data:

Post Oak Springs, Tenn.
Christian Church
The Mother Church In the State
Founded A.D. 1812.
Maj. John Smith, Acred and Long.
Followed by Isaac Mulkey 1830
The Randolphs 1840
W.J. Owings and J. H. Acuff 1850
Continued By
Owings, Smiths, and Acuffs.
This Tablet Erected In Memory of
The Above Named Leaders
A.D. 1925

Unfortunately for the historian, to fill in the outline is not easy. Early records of the congregation have been lost. Present records go back to approximately 1876.

The only recourse for the one who would chronicle the story in detail is the memory, some of which has been written, of old descendants of the founders and early leader. Three such sources are now available: Mrs. E. C. Wilson, of Rockwood, Tennessee, widow of the late Professor E. C. Wilson, who, as the granddaughter of both W.J. Owings and J. H. Acuff, has been reared in the traditions of the church. She is now seventy-three years of age and has a remarkably memory. Her mother, Mrs. W. J. Owings, died in 1928 at the age of eighty-five. She had been reared in the Post Oak Christian Church also. So the lives of these two women cover a good portion of the history of the church.

The late W. E. MoElwee, who was born April 16, 1835, has left an unpublished manuscript entitled "A Local Reminiscence of The Christian Church." The manuscript is quaintly written, but not badly so. It is, to all appearances, at true "Reminiscence," but has, in addition, some evidence of historical research. Captain McElwee, as he was known, was a member of a pioneer Roane County family of high standing. His parents were among the early settlers of the Post Oak Springs community. Thus he also was in position to know the facts and wrote either as an eyewitness or about that which was told him by his mother and others. He was a member of the Methodist Church until he died, as were his people. Therefore, his testimony is probably unprejudiced; and as such is well suited to corroborate the story as told by members of the church.1 (Footnote: This manuscript is in possession of Miss Dorothy Tarwater, of Rookwood, Tennessee. When hereafter ref erred to, it will be designated simply as McElwee MS.)

John Staples, of Rockwood, Tennessee, is another member of the Post Oak Church whose memory, and some research, has contributed to the story as it will be told. He is the grandson of Thomas Staples, who heard some of the early preachers at Post Oak between 1830 and 1840. It was he who assembled the data that are now on the marker in the churchyard. Such records as are preserved are in his possession. On anniversaries of the church in recent years, it has been Staples who has usually related the history of the church, but he has never written the story, speaking only from notes. He is a civil engineer and capable of discriminative thinking.

These three sources, coupled with corroborative material where it can be found, will have to suffice for what the writer believes will be a fairly accurate history of the first congregation of the Disciples of Christ in Tennessee. The story has an intrinsic human interest value, which it is hoped will, in a measure, compensate for any lack of exact historical data that, in itself, might not prove of interest. The actual history of the Post Oak Springs Church seems to date from about 1812. Among the settlers who came to what is now Roane County after the Treaty of Tellico, 1805, which opened up the territory to the white man, was a group from Hawkins County, Tennessee. In this group Isaac Rice appears to have been the leader. He was accompanied by a brother-in-law, William Matlock, and Joseph Mee. The three families settled near the present site of Rookwood. Isaac Rice built his cabin on a small hill above the spring which now supplies Rockwood with water. William Matlock and Joseph Mee built cabins nearby. These three men built a log meeting-house and organized a congregation about 1812. Rice was the preacher and leader in the church work. He held religious views contrary to the majority of his neighbors and proclaimed them in an enthusiastic and uncompromising manner. This provoked antagonism to his work, but he had some success and received a number of people into his fellowship. Among these were a family of Randolphs, Sally McElwee, and Thomas Blake.2 (Footnote: McElwee MS). The Randolphs later came prominently into the history of the church as leaders and preachers. The work of Rice did not long survive. Some time between 1814 and 1817 the church was burned. Of this fact there can be no doubt. The following entries in a deed book of Roane County substantiate the work of Rice: "Hugh Dunlop and John Kenley to John C. Haley. Begins on a Post Oak marked I H, west 133 1/3 poles to two posts marked I H , near Isaac Rice's meeting house." (June 7, 1814). Under date of February 3, 1817, another entry reads: "Hugh Dunlop to John C. Haley 433 1/3 a. land. Beginning on 3 post oaks near Isaac Rice's burnt meeting house."3 (Footnote: Deed Book E, p. 139).

Rice suspected an incendiary and indicted a man named Brooks. At the trial, testimony was produced to show that someone had camped in the house the night before the fire and left a fire burning. Brooks was acquitted, but Rice was never satisfied with the verdict. Within a few years Rice moved to McMinn County and settled at what is now Riceville. Shortly afterwards he died.4 (Footnote: McElwee MS).

The source of Rice's religious views is somewhat obscure. It has been generally assumed, with a large degree of probability, that he had been influenced by the teaching of Barton W. Stone. Some have thought that he may have personally heard Stone preach. That is not likely, but it is at the same time within the range of possibility. Nothing is known of Rice's history more than has been stated above. This question arises: could he have heard Stone in Tennessee?

That Stone preached in Tennessee is beyond question. In his Autobiography he has recorded that he and a companion preached and founded churches throughout the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.5 (Footnote: Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone. Written By Himself, p. 67.) This work was done between May 30, 1810, when his first wife died, and October 31, 1811, when he married a second time.6 (Footnote: Ibid.) Unfortunately, he did not record the exact location of his labors in Tennessee. If his statement means that he established churches in Tennessee, and on the surface it seems to mean that, those churches did not long survive. It seems most probable that the work was in Middle Tennessee. Stone's old home was at Caneridge, Kentucky. There was considerable communication between the two states in the middle sections. John Carr, who was a resident of Middle Tennessee, wrote in a reminiscent vein of many preachers who worked in Middle Tennessee near the opening of the nineteenth century. He said that he knew Stone well and paid tribute to him as a "great and good man. "He had heard him preach often, and that he knew of his work is quite evident.7 (Footnote: John Carr, Early Times In Middle Tennessee, p.90.) That would indicate that Stone did considerable work in Middle Tennessee.

A little later Stone himself took up residence in Tennessee near Nashville. For many years, the exact time of his residence in Tennessee was in doubt. However, a recent biographer has shown that his stay covered the period from about November, 1812, to November, 1814.8 (Footnote: C. C. Ware, Barton Warren Stone, p.200.) Of his work in this period, Stone himself wrote: "While I was in Tennessee my field of labors in the word was very much circumscribed, and my manual labors took up much of my time in fixing for living comfortably."9 (Footnote: Biography, p.68). Such evidence as we have would point to the conclusion that Stone worked almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee. So it seems highly improbable that Rice was directly influenced by Stone - at least by Stone's work in Tennessee.

With the present data, it is impossible to make a definite conclusion as to the source of Rice's religious belief. He may have been influenced by others who had been in touch with Stone; or he may have been one of those independent men of his time who came to his convictions unaided. This much only is certain: his beliefs were essentially those of Barton W. Stone, and the group which he was instrumental in organizing was soon in full fellowship with the Stone movement in Kentucky.

After Rice moved to McMinn County, the fate of the group which he organized is somewhat uncertain. All evidence points to the conclusion that at least some of Rice's followers became a part of a congregation at Post Oak Springs. It seems that Rice had also preached there during, his residence near his first church. However, the problem centers around the leadership of the group there. It has generally been believed that Major John Smith was the active leader. Extensive research in the old periodicals of the time has brought to light the following news item:

Bro. Isaac Malkey [sic] of Roane Co., E. Ten. July 5 1834. Thus writes: I moved to this place 8 or 9 months ago. There were here 16 or 17, old disciples, who had been congregated 15 or 20 years ago by bro. E. D. Moore. Last Sept. we organized as nearly as we could with our knowledge on primitive grounds. On every first day we meet to break bread - we attend to the apostles doctrine, fellowship and prayers. In November I had the pleasure of seeing one neighbor come and confess the Lord; and from that time we have enjoyed glorious refreshing seasons - Between 90 and 100 have been immersed. 10 (Footnote: Christian Messenger, Vol. VIII, (Sept., 1834), p.282.

No doubt the item concerns the Post Oak Springs congregation. But who was E.D. Moore, and what part did he have in the organization of the church? Most probably he was some traveling evangelist who came along soon after Rice left and organized the group at Post Oak Springs. The indefinite" 15 or 20 years ago" given by Mulkey leaves room for such a conclusion. Taking fifteen years from the date of Mulkey's moving to Roane County {1833} leaves 1818 as the probable date for the work of E.D. Moore. That is about the time that Rice left Roane County. Following Moore's work, the leadership probably devolved to local men.

Major John Smith owned a large tract of land near the Springs, and it was he who, although not a preacher, became the leader of the congregation. Through his influence the group was regularly called together for singing and prayer under some large oak trees near the spring. In this work Smith was joined by Acred and Long. Of these men little is known other than that they were interested leaders in the work. Long is thought to have come from Claiborne County and Acred from upper East Tennessee.

Long is reported to have been a Presbyterian and bitterly opposed to the new teachings. An only daughter married Alfred Owings, a member of the so-called "Schismatic" group, and through her influence Long was won over and became an ardent supporter of the new view.11 (Footnote: McElwee MS.)

The exact site of worship for the church in these early years is somewhat in doubt. Some say that John Smith built a mill near the spring and that the congregation worshipped in the building in bad weather. Others say that early in the history of the church a log building located near Post Oak Springs was used. It is impossible to draw a positive conclusion, but in all probability both views are correct. The first frame building was constructed about 1842, and it seems unlikely that the group was without a church building for approximately twenty-five years. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that the log church was constructed and used.12 (Footnote: The McElwee MS. tells of the mill, and John Staples of the log church, which he says burned.)

At the death of John Smith, the land and mill came into the hands of Thomas Trower, a local Methodist preacher. Again the congregation was without a leader and possibly a place to worship. That the congregation had no legal title to property seems evident. The Roane County deed books from 1801 to 1860 show no transfer of property to trustees of the church. It is certainly possible that they were without a church house after the death of Smith.

For a few years the church was more or less disorganized and without a leader. Occasionally some minister passing through would a s semble the group and preach for them.

In 1833 a new leader appeared in the person of Isaac Mulkey.13 (Footnote: McElwee MS. See also Christian Messenger, Vol. VIII (September, 1834), p. 282.) Mulkey came to Post Oak Springs from near Dandridge, Tennessee. It is generally believed that he was a member of the Baptist Church before he came to Post Oak.

In 1786 there was organized a Baptist Church in Jefferson County, Tennessee. The records of this old Baptist Church describe it as " The Baptist Church of Christ, constituted on French Broad River by Jonathan Mulkey and Isaac Barton."14 (Footnote: The original copy is kept in the bank vault at Dandridge, Tennessee; typed copy in University of Tennessee Library.)

Isaac Mulkey is said to have been the son of Jonathan Mulkey. That Jonathan Mulkey had a son Isaac, who was a Baptist preacher, is clear.15 (Footnote: J. J. Burnett, Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preach). It is highly probable that he was the Isaac Mulkey who preached at Post Oak Springs.

Among the charter members of this Baptist Church were a James Randolph and a Margaret Smith. James Randolph is said to have been the father of the Randolphs who became members of the church which Rice established. Margaret Smith was related to Major John Smith, also. So the families of French Broad Baptist Church and Post Oak Springs Christian Church seem to have been tied together.

Perhaps that will partially explain the following statement from McElwee: "The membership of this church, under the preaching of John W. Stone and 'Raccoon' John Smith, connected themselves with what is now the Christian Church. "An attempt to verify that statement has not proved altogether satisfactory. The records of the old French Broad Church cover the years from 1786 to 1842. They give no hint of a division or serious disturbance in the church. However, this is not conclusive evidence thatthere was none, for the records are not complete; and then, too, the changes in the church could have come later than 1842. The records are equally bare of any reference to John W. Stone; but a certain John Stone was excommunicated from Beaver Creek Baptist Church in 1800.16 (Footnote: French Broad Baptist Records, p. 52.) No hint is given as to the charges, but it was a frequent practice to excommunicate those who took up new ideas.

One more fact lends probability to McElwee's statement. "Raccoon" John Smith was born October 15, 1784, in Sullivan County, Tennessee. He became a Baptist preacher and later took up the views of Campbell and Stone. He spent several years in active evangelization in Kentucky and Tennessee. He baptized thousands of converts and, to use his own phrase, "capsized" even more Baptists.17 (Footnote: J.A. Williams, Life of Elder John Smith.) If he did not preach at Dandridge, Tennessee, and disturb the Baptists, it was simply because he did not have time to do so. In all probability he did, and McElwee's statement is true. At least someone had taught Isaac Mulkey the views of the Reformers.

Mulkey was a man of persuasive eloquence, and under his ministry the Post Oak Springs Church was reorganized. Just how long he labored there is not clear, but it was probably most of the time between 1833 and 1840.

Following the ministry of Mulkey, there was a period of ten or twelve years during which the church was without resident leadership. Among the itinerant preachers who came more or less frequently for services were the two Randolphs, Gilbert A. and Gilmore. No thing of more than passing interest appears to have happened during these years. It was a period when the church was small and struggling to maintain its existence, with a flourishing Methodist Church nearby. This Methodist congregation became the largest and most wealthy church in Roane County just before the Civil War. Its old abandoned and neglected graveyard, just in front of the present Christian Church, bears mute testimony to its existence. Its relationship to this story will appear later.

About 1836, during the ministry of Isaac Mulkey, a man came into the fellowship of the church at Post Oak Springs who was later to become an important factor in its history. That man was William J. Owings. Within a few years, apparently before the church was built in 1842, Owings was ordained to preach. The ordination took place in an open-air ceremony, under the oak trees in front of the present church. One of the Randolphs and two other visiting ministers took part in the ceremony. The ordination over, Owings preached his first sermon from the text, "Jesus said, Follow me."18 (Footnote: McElwee MS). How literally he tried to follow his own preaching will be shown later. From about 1850 until well after the Civil War, Owings and his brother-in-law shared the active leadership of the church.

With the outbreak of the fratricidal war, both the Methodist and the Christian Churches at Post Oak were forced to suspend operations. As in most communities in East Tennessee, neighbor was pitted against neighbor and often brother against brother. John H. Acuff had four sons-two in the Confederate Army and two in the Union Army. One son was killed on the Confederate side.

After the war was over, each group attempted to reorganize, but it was not an easy thing to do. One succeeded; the other did not. John Acuff, whose experience with the war no doubt affected him greatly, led in the uniting of the Christian Church. He arranged for a communion service at the church on a Lord's Day. After a service, at which he presumably presided and preached, he invited all people, of whatever communion, creed, or belief, to partake of the emblems in memory of the death of Christ. Two of his sons, one from the Union Army and one from the Confederate Army, came forward and sat down together. The wounds were thus healed and the church united again. At the Methodist church a certain Rev. Hyden had called alike service. He then drew out the roster or roll list of members and called the roll. Eighty-four answered present. He then announced that he was going to organize a loyal church, and as he re-read the list of name she struck off sixty-one as being disloyal, leaving twenty-three to organize.19 (Footnote: McElwee MS. It is well to remember that McElwee was himself a Methodist.)

The expelled group left the house and assembled in the grove to consider their future. There was talk of their forcibly taking over the building as a majority. It was also suggested that they organize another Methodist Church. Others suggested that they go down to the Christian Church, where politics and old animosities had been ignored. This proposal was well received, and in time most of the excommunicated group found their way into the Christian Church. Thus the numerical status of the two churches was reversed. Further disagreement among the Methodists caused the abandonment of the building and the nailing up of its doors and windows for years.

The new-found harmony and prosperity of the Christian Church was short-lived. During the war W. J. Owings had emigrated to Kentucky and gone into the mercantile business. He prospered and amassed a considerable fortune. After the war was over he returned to his old home near Post Oak Springs and again became prominent in the Christian Church.

In the meantime, Owings had become enamoured of the idea that the early church had all things in common.20 (Footnote: Acts 2:44,45). He proceeded to put his beliefs into practice and established on a large farm about three miles from Post Oak Springs a community where the residents had all things in common.21 (Footnote: The details of this experiment were furnished by Mrs. E. C. Wilson of Rockwood, Tennessee, the granddaughter of Owings.)   Several members of the church went with Owings from conviction. Many of the shiftless and lazy of the section gravitated to the community as a means of an easy living.

A large farmhouse was further extended into the proportions of a hotel, and, in addition, eight two-room cottages were built. A commodious room in the house served as the common dining room, while an adjacent smaller building was used as the kitchen. A second-story room was set aside for a place of worship. There Owings twice daily gathered his flock together for religious instruction and prayer. The farm and a mill seem to have been the extent of the enterprise connected with the experiment. It was a financial failure from the beginning and subsisted only on Owings' money. He gave it a thorough trial, however, and lost all of a comfortable fortune in the venture.22 (Footnote: Staples says as much as $60,000 or $70,000.) The experiment, begun in 1867, lasted four or five years. Its actual break-up is a human-interest story, grounded deep in human nature. The wife of the elder Owings was industrious and had made for her cottage home fancy quilts and carpets for the floor. Other women in the community complained that she had things which they could not have. Owings took the matter up with his wife and pointed out that their ideals, if lived up to, must lead to her giving up her carpets and quilts. Her response is said to have been an emphatic "I ain't a gwine to do it!" Another Mrs. Owings, a daughter- in-law, knitted and sold the products to buy for herself a small handbag. This led to complaints and a similar refusal to give it up; this time with the reminder that if others were willing to work, they, too, could have nice things. An accumulation of such problems led to the disbanding of the community, and Owings was left penniless. Those who had gone into the experiment out of conviction came back into the fold at Post Oak Springs, and the shiftless drifted away. Owings admitted that his idea was impractical; and, having returned to the church, he spent the remaining years of his life an ardent supporter of his first views.

While Owings was busy with his socialistic scheme, J. H. Acuff had held the other group of the church together and had preached for them. There seems to have been no real animosity between the groups; but for some time after the experiment failed they continued to worship separately. Those from the Methodist Church who were in Acuff's group opened the old Methodist building and they worshipped in it for some years until a new building, the present one, was constructed in 1876. One of the sons of W.J. Owings, who had been in the community experiment, furnished the brick for the foundation of the present building. This shows that their differences were either slight or that they were soon reconciled. When this building was constructed, the trustees for the church were William Smith, J. C. Hinds, and S. J. Acuff.

In the years just preceding the erection of the present building, among the leaders in the work were grandsons of Major John Smith, one or more of whom actually preached for the church. Others were James I. Anthony and J.H. Denton, who served as minister about 1874.

In the years since Owings' ill-advised venture, Post Oak Springs Church has carried on in much the same manner as most country churches. Various ministers have served for short periods.23 (Footnote: The scattered records list the following men having served as minister: J.E. Steward, 1892-1894; W. J. Shelbourne, 1897; C. P. L. Vawter, 1901-1902; George Phelps, 1904-1905; E. L. Wilson, 1910; Joseph Morris, 1912; H. L. Hays, 1912-1913; W. E. Daughetery, 1918-1919; and J. G. Wilson. Obviously, the list is incomplete. In recent years the ministers who have served the Rockwood Christian Church have also served the church at Post Oak. Such is the case at the present, with Stanley Dysart as minister.)

Present members take some pride in relating that since the Civil War the Lord's Supper has been observed in the church every Sunday, with the exception of four or five. Those were days when few, if any, people were able to get to the church on account of bad weather. Scattered records give an incomplete and apparently uneventful history in recent years. B. F. Clay, of Kentucky, held the first revival meeting in the present building in 1882. Andy Bilingoty Whitney held a meeting in 1884; A. I. Myhr in 1890; and J.E. Stewart in 1892 and again in 1893.

Perhaps a word of explanation is necessary in conclusion. Post Oak Springs is called "the mother church in the state." That is true only in the sense of priority in time. In no sense were all churches in the state "mothered" by Post Oak. Only a few, such as the Rockwood church, have been directly influenced by this old congregation. This fact will be brought out more fully in later chapters of this study.

A backward glance over this material reveals the fact that Post Oak Springs Church has been for a century or more largely a family church. The most active leaders, at present Mrs. E. C. Wilson and John Staples, are both in the succession. The future a lone will reveal how long the line will continue.

-Wagner, H.C., History Of Disciples of Christ in Upper East Tennessee, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Online Document, Chapter 2, page 27-44.

Directions To Post Oak Springs Christian Church

From Knoxville, Tennessee, take I-40 west toward Nashville. Take Exit 350 at Kingston. Take Hwy. 70, Roane State Hwy., west for about 6 miles and you will see the newer church on your left. The old building that was still standing in 2014 is behind the newer building, The cemetery is across from the old church building. Few stones in the cemetery are still ledgible.

GPS Location

Post Oak Springs, Tenn.
Christian Church
The Mother Church In The State
Founded in 1812
Maj. Jno Smith, Acred and Long
Followed by Isaac Mulkey, 1830
The Randolphs, 1840
W. J. Owings And J. H. Acuff, 1850
Contined By
Oweings Smiths and Acuffs
This Tablet Erected In Memory of
The Above Named Leaders
A.D. 1925

Photos Taken February 24, 2014
Webpage produced August 14, 2014
Courtesy of Scott Harp

History Home

History Index Page