Photos courtesy of Judy Fisher.
BY LANDON WOODROOF
Johnson’s Chapel United Methodist Church is a site so steeped in history that at first glance the men wearing Revolutionary-era garb and brandishing muskets may not have seemed that out of place there this past Sunday.
The men were members of the Lt. Andrew Crockett Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and they were at the historic church, which was organized in 1803, for a special grave dedication ceremony.
Behind the present-day church, built in 1925, lies an old cemetery, many of its monuments broken and epitaphs rendered illegible by time and the elements. Among the non-anonymous dead there, however, rest two figures whose biographies grant them the status of “Patriot” to the Sons of the American Revolution chapter.
On Sunday, these men, Thomas Cox and John Johnston, were honored and SAR markers placed in the ground in front of their graves. A 21-musket salute was given and a bugler played taps as well.
W. Blake Brock is the president of the Lt. Andrew Crockett Sons of the American Revolution Chapter, which is based out of Franklin. He said that even though the Civil War looms largest for most people when discussing the history of Williamson County, that the American Revolution played a big role in the early settlement of the area.
“The main reason it goes back so far here is because Middle Tennessee was a large area for bounty warrants at the end of the revolution,” he said. “They couldn’t afford to
pay the soldiers so they gave them land. It got people to settle the area, and it got them paid.”
Brock said there are about 150 Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Williamson County, many just out of sight. For instance, he said that right behind the Academy Sports on Mallory Lane is buried Roger Mallory, a member of the Virginia militia during the war. Another Revolutionary War veteran, David Johnston, is interred on the grounds of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes on Franklin Road.
Each May, the chapter tries to do a grave dedication ceremony for Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Williamson County.
As for those honored on Sunday, John Johnston was a soldier who fought at the Battle of Colson’s Mill in North Carolina and the Battle of Camden in South
In 1796, Johnston received a land grant encompassing the space where Johnson’s Chapel and its cemetery sit. Johnston’s son, Matthew, decided he wanted to form a Methodist church on the site in 1803 and a log cabin housing the church’s original congregation was constructed, Johnson’s Chapel UMC member William Fisher, who is writing a history of the church, said. Over the years, the “t” from Johnston’s name was somehow dropped and the church became
It is not completely clear if Thomas Cox actually fought in the American Revolution or not, but military service is not actually a prerequisite for SAR recognition. As Brock explained, “patriotic service is defined in a lot of ways.” He said that “as long as you were faithful to the cause and not a Tory there were a lot of things that would have made you a patriot.” By way of example, he mentioned that a clergy member who spoke out against British rule or an official who worked for the new Revolutionary-era government would be considered a patriot by the SAR.
What is definitely known is that Cox was granted 1,500 acres near Johnson’s Chapel. He came to the region as part of the same expeditionary party as Nashville
founders James Robertson and John Donelson. As such, at the age of 18, Cox was one of the 256 signers of the Cumberland Compact, which established a system of government for settlers in this part of Tennessee.
“In a sense, no he was not at King’s Mountain and no he wasn’t at Yorktown or anything like that, but they were out there protecting property and protecting the interests of the government in the frontier,” Charles Cox, a
descendant of Thomas’s who spoke at Sunday’s ceremony, said. That service was more than enough to meet the SAR’s criteria for patriotic duty.
The cemetery in which Johnston and Cox are buried was formally dedicated in 1813, Fisher said, although he suspects it was in use before then. Researchers have been able to identify 111 graves there, although many of them are nameless due to damage and erosion.
A decade or so ago the cemetery was obscured beneath impenetrable layers of tall grass and downed trees. Fisher and fellow members of his men’s breakfast club decided “go there and put that cemetery back the way it should be so we could honor the people that were buried there.”
Several years of hard work ensued and today it is easily passable. People can walk right up and see Johnston’s epitaph and make out that he was buried there in 1816. Still, however, many headstones stand at warped angles due to displacement by tree roots and others lay broken in pieces about the grounds. The church group has had some of them fixed, but a lot work remains.
That work is well worth it to Fisher.
“When we had that ceremony [Sunday] I can’t tell you how many young people came to the cemetery along with their parents,” he said. “That was just amazing to me. We have to leave these things for the future so they can understand something about it also.”
He plans to do his part by finishing his book and continuing to encourage others to learn about the history of the church.
Fisher sees Johnson’s Chapel, with its cozy atmosphere and even cozier sense of community, as something of a throwback to an earlier age. In the midst of megachurches, Johnston’s Chapel can fit 80 people and usually has a crowd of 40 to 50 on Sundays. The congregation gets together regularly for fellowship meals and “music jams” in the historic schoolhouse next door.
“We have a lot of people come by to visit and like it because it’s so small and quaint,” Fisher said. At the end of services, the congregation joins hands in a circle and welcomes new visitors.
A big part of the appeal for Fisher is the sense of history that permeates the church.
“It’s a neat church, and it’s neat to be part of that family and to know all that history is there,” he said. “That’s what’s incredible to me when you’re sitting in there and you’re looking and think, I can walk back to this cemetery and know the church was built in 1803 right behind this schoolhouse.”
As long as Johnson’s Chapel has been there, its uniqueness make Fisher confident the church still has a bright future ahead of it.
“People are drawn to it, and I think it will be there for a long time to come,” he said. “It’s something you can pass to the generations coming up.”
To learn more about the Lt. Andrew Crockett Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, visit their website.
For more information about Johnson’s Chapel UMC, click here.