Up early we rose to tend to chores, feeding the horses and livestock so we wouldn’t be late. Our farm sits in the East Tennessee mountains adjoining Smoky Mountain National Park. We had a long drive ahead, 80 miles, so we could get to church. This Sunday is not like all other Sundays. We weren’t heading to our Baptist Church in town. Instead we were headed towards the Kentucky border north of us from here in Maryville, TN. This Sunday was the first Sunday of the month. That meant service would be taking place at Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church, in Claiborne County, Powell Valley, Speedwell/Tazwell, TN and we intended to attend.
Like the olden days, we could say, “We are heading yonder over the next mountain range to get to church!” We wouldn’t be the first Davis kin over the last 250 years to say that in these here hills. The Clinch Mountains drop into Powell Valley. Powell Valley nestles between the Clinch Mountain Range and the Cumberland Mountain Range, that spread out a tad further west, though they run in a Southwesterly direction.
Unbeknownst to us just a short time ago, this church was stood up in the late 1700s by our ancestor, Rachel Davis and a dozen or so others and is the oldest church in Tennessee. In fact, the creek the church was named after, Davis Creek, was named after our ancestors who purchased this land when Tennessee first became a state in 1796/7.
We headed out early, never having been to a Primitive Baptist church in our lives, though I was raised Baptist. Excitement and a little bit of nervousness was in the air. We drove for over an hour then exited the freeways, dropping into a more rural setting as we headed closer towards Claiborne County. The clouds overhead created large fog pockets that nestled in the rolling hills surrounding Powell Valley. It was peaceful here, I thought. Cows and silos canvassed the rolling terrain with calves running about. It is that time of year. The trees were budding all around with “red bud” trees in bloom. The splatter of colors turning the valley into pastels, even against the backdrop of grays from the rainy morning skies.
At last we arrived. Nestled in a hidden valley sat Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church. With its bell tower peaking above the tree line, once used to warn the valley of imminent Indian attacks along with all other church related bell tower signals, the church was purity in white, a landmark that has stood for over 200 years.
As we neared the church we paused to appreciate how far back in time we were stepping, retracing the paths of our ancestors. This is where they prayed, grieved, celebrated and planned great things for this community, for a time. There will be a great deal more on this set of emotions our Davis lineage had further below in this story as it ties to this church.
We parked the car and entered the old church. We were met with hugs by Elder Rick and his wife Lillian Jernigan, whom we have spent many hours with already learning the Davis history of this church and this area. We were introduced to other members of the church as well. It was a small intimate group of men and women of all ages, who loved the Lord and loved this church. The warmth and kindness of the members was quite moving.
The relaxed air was something I took note of. Everyone knew each other well and felt at home in this church. The service began in prayer and then singing. In Primitive Baptist churches there is singing with just voices and no instruments. This is a great example of it (listen here).
If you loved that, listen to this.
The above links demonstrate what shape note singing is. It is also called Old Harp Singing. The Primitive and Regular Baptists have continued the centuries old tradition of congregational hymn singing without the accompaniment of musical instruments – a practice which had previously been standard for most Protestant faiths. There is such amazing beauty in the simplicity of voices without instruments and is a major historical treasure – the shape note singing of Early Appalachian Primitive Baptists. If you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to click the listen here button above.
Congregational a cappella singing was one of the identifying marks of the early church in the age of the apostles, and continued to be the standard mode of musical worship in Christian churches for the better part of two millennia. Using only the God-given musical instrument, the human voice, with the function of the Holy Spirit to magnify God the Father, our ancestors in faith offered up songs of praise to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Primitive Baptists continue to follow this New Testament example. Congregational a capella singing of foundational hymns has always been an integral and identifying practice in the old Baptist worship service … we ever seek to “sing with the spirit and with the understanding also.”
The method of reading music with shaped notes flourished in the United States at a time when our young nation was still in its infancy. Once things became more settled, organized church and music developed. By the mid-18th century, as the frontier expanded, so too did the popularity of shaped-note singing. In Southern Appalachia, where musical traditions were played by ear from one generation to the next, the main social gathering place where shaped-note songs thrived were churches.
Listening to the singing in the church on Sunday took me back in time. It was a very interesting experience. Not only were the voices in that church as they reverberated off the walls of the old place, taking me back, but the lyrics were too. I have always loved old westerns. In those movies, when the husband or child died, there’d be singing about the struggles of life and the glory of God.
After the amazing singing there was a meeting of sorts that got more at the business of things. I am not sure what they would call this segment of the service. But, it was more of an operational set of discussions regarding the church. From there Elder Rick delivered his passionate sermon. Yesterday it was about David, and his true faith in God. And, how like rocks whose edges are softened as they roll through the waters of time, so to are we softened and molded into that which the Lord would have us be. And, in that journey where we are transformed we must be tolerant and forgive others as they move through their own journeys, understanding that in all things the Lord is softening their edges to make them smooth unto the Lord’s liking.
It was a beautiful sermon, eloquent and flowing, through various concepts and metaphors, passionate and fiery then at times calm and soothing.
At the end of it all there was such a deep sense of continuity. In this old church, where our ancestors both prayed over its creation and worshipped in these same benches, there has always been prayer and the desire to lean on the Lord for our strength.
After the preaching was over we all engaged in hugs and handshakes and moved on toward the back of the church for a wonderful potluck of home cooked ham, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, baked beans, rolls and deserts. It should surprise no one that after some time over food we all realized we were kin. And alas, we were home. Granted some of these people are 2nd and 3rd cousins likely about ten generations back. However, there was Davis lineage running through near about all of us in that church. It’s amazing what you can learn over some good Appalachian mountain food!
In speaking with my husband later last night, I asked him what was most special to him about our Sunday at Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church. He shared that he felt the people there were a special bunch. He found the people warm, loving and receptive to new comers.
LEARN MORE ABOUT APPALACHIAN SHAPE NOTE SINGING HERE
As we have learned more about our ancestors, this church really brings the purpose of it all to life. Faith, family, frontier, fidelity is our mantra for this website. Why? Take a look at the picture below of the first 12 who formed this church. I want to share a bit of history on a few of these people. And, once you know their history, you’ll know the roots of what was behind the formation of this church, Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church circa 1797.
When you look at this simple picture above, it is of the original signing book of Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church. And, it recorded the meeting minutes over the years, of which there are many volumes, I am sure.
What were the lives of these men and women like in 1786 or 1763? …. years before they formed this church? I’ll tell you. I am going to talk specifically about Peter and John VanBebber, George Yoakum, and Rachel Davis.
These people lived in Greenbrier West Virginia. Their families were slaughtered by Indians in the Muddy Creek Massacre of 1763. After the massacre at Muddy Creek, they (the Indians under Cornstalk) proceeded to the Big Levels, and on the next day, after having been as hospitably entertained as at Muddy Creek, they reenacted the revolting scenes of the previous day. Every white man in the settlement but Conrad Yolkom, who was some distance from his house, was slain, and every woman but Mrs. Glendinin. Yolkom, when alarmed by the outcries of the women, took in the situation and fled to Jackson’s River telling the story. The people were unwilling to believe him, until they were convinced by the approach of the Indians. All fled before them, and they pursued on to Carr’s (Kerr’s) Creek in Rockbridge, where many families were murdered and others captured. Many of our direct Davis line were murdered in the Kerr’s Creek Massacre; one young girl was scalped and survived only to be raided again a few years later and kidnapped by the Indians. Click here to read more about that massacre. What tragedy! It is difficult to comprehend such terror with my contemporary mind.
So, of the names in the picture above, Yoakum lost his family and moved to Powell Valley. He then married a Davis in our family. The two VanBebber boys above, Peter and John are sons of Isaac VanBebber Sr. and Sarah Davis, our ancestor as well. Her husband, Peter and John’s dad, was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1765 by Indians. Sarah soon thereafter remarried William Griffitts. Son Peter took responsibility for continuing to raise the older siblings until such time as he married his cousin Eleanor VanBebber. Youngest brother Isaac VanBebber Jr. did not want to move with new step dad Griffitts and opted to be raised by Daniel Boone instead. Isaac VanBebber Jr. would later marry Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. Sarah Davis VanBebber’s daughter would later marry George Yoakum, the other signee whose family was butchered at Muddy Creek. Rachel Davis listed as signee is the wife of Aaron Davis. Aaron Davis’ history of his father and mother is completely lost. The likely hood is that his family was at Greenbrier as well for the Muddy Creek Massacre and decimated thus making the potential father as Nathaniel Davis and these other Davis’s cousins. The entire Greenbrier settlement was destroyed and all records along with it. We know Aaron moved to Greenbrier after the massacres in the 1770s when people returned back to the lands and he was then old enough to be a land holder. All of these Davis kin travelled together. They all then moved to Powell Valley, TN. The fact Aaron was with them all in Greenbrier and then moved with them all to Powell Valley would infer kinship as there was no easy form of transportation in that period of time and folks couldn’t parachute into a new geography. Thus, though birth certificates are lacking, we can say with a high degree of certainty Aaron and the Greenbrier WV and Powell Valley TN Davis’ are all kin.
So, those were the experiences that our Davis ancestors, the VanBebber and Yoakum’s all shared who were intermarried with us. From 1758 (first Kerr’s Creek Massacre) to 1763 (second Kerr’s Creek Massacre & Muddy Creek Massacre) through 1765 – Battle of Point Pleasant – and then Indian War as Virginia Militia – on to the Revolutionary War – and then the 1780 Battle of King Mountain against Lord Cornwallis) were times of tragedy, war and strife for all of them who formed this church. They built this church because their faith warranted it and the environs they were in made it the only true shelter from the storm that was the wild western frontier of the Virginia Territory at the time.
It is amazing to think that our family was shot, tomahawked, scalped (and some even lived to tell of it), kidnapped by Indians, and killed by Indians and fought for colonial freedoms from the British, all directly before they formed this church in 1797.
It is with great reverence that I sat in that church on Sunday as a Davis, married to this lineage of Davis’. Our faith in the Lord is great. The faith of our forefathers must have been enormous. For us to sit together in spirit with our ancestors in this same church 222 years later is quite a lot to take in.
So, when I read the lyrics of this old shape note song that we still love so much in today’s modern church, I can not help but think of our ancestors who sang this song in this church and the lives they led.
“Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. Tis grace that bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”
With the greatest respect for our ancestors and our Lord and Savior, we share our amazing Sunday in East Tennessee at Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church with all of you.