The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has played a part in the history of Tennessee for more than 200 years. Most familiar to Blount County residents is the small town of Friendsville, which had its beginnings in the late 1790s when several related Quaker families moved from North Carolina and established a Friends meeting about 12 miles from Maryville.
The Friends’ reach is throughout East Tennessee, however, and on April 12, Jonathan Goff, pastor at the Maryville Friends Meeting, and Joan VanSickle Sloan, a student of Quaker history, will lead a bus tour of historical sites in upper northeast East Tennessee that were significant to the early development of Friends Meetings. Participants will visit the Warner Institute building at Jonesborough; make a quick stop at the Chester Inn Museum and see Jonesborough’s historic Main Street; view the Elihu Embree Abolitionist Newspaper historic marker; visit Maple Grove Friends Meeting building and Quaker Cemetery; New Hope Friends Meeting, the first Friends Meeting in Tennessee, and its cemetery; and Lost Creek Friends Meeting, still an active meeting led by Goff’s father, David Goff; and view the Davy Crockett birthplace cabin.
Goff said the idea for the tour arose when some of the people at Maryville Friends Church requested it. “We decided going to northeast Tennessee and seeing the sites there would be a good one,” he said.
Sloan said Yardley Warner grew up in Pennsylvania and started schools for both white and black children after the Civil War. “There were probably 20-some schools in this area, then he moved to North Carolina and started more,” Sloan said. “He walked 900 miles to Tennessee because he didn’t want to waste money on public transportation. He had the money, but he wanted to spend it all on schools for black children. He started the Freedman’s Institutes in East Tennessee.” Those four schools were located in Jonesborough, Athens, Rogersville and Maryville. The Maryville school was built in 1872 and started accepting students in 1873, Sloan said. Warner was the first principal.
The Jonesborough Freedman’s Institute building still stands and is one of the stops on the tour. It was built by the Holston Association of Baptist Churches in 1854 and housed the Holston Baptist Female Institute, followed by Tadlock’s School for Boys and Holston Male Institute. Warner purchased the building in 1876 and established Warner Institute to “educate colored persons and train colored teachers.”
The Warner Institute building is the only Freedman’s Institute still extant. Sloan said, “It’s still well-cared for.” The school closed in 1910.
Elihu Embree, a Quaker, was a wealthy iron manufacturer who moved from Pennsylvania to East Tennessee around 1790. Goff said, “He started the Manumission Intelligencer, later called The Emancipator, the first U.S. abolitionist periodical. It started in 1819, only four years after the Tennessee Manumission Society was founded, and that was founded by eight charter members of Lost Creek Meetinghouse in 1815. ... The Emancipator didn’t last for very long, only a couple of years, but the influence it had was well regarded.”
New Hope Friends Meeting was established in 1795 before Tennessee became a state and was the first Friends Meeting in Tennessee. Sloan said, “Approximately 10 years earlier, it was established as Nolichucky. It’s no longer an active meeting, but the building is currently maintained by the Greene County Heritage Trust.” Goff said, “It’s from New Hope that all the other East Tennessee Quaker churches eventually trace their lineage.”
Lost Creek Meeting was reported in the minutes as being formed in 1796, but Lost Creek officially transitioned from being under the care of New Hope Meeting to an independent monthly meeting in May 1797, Jonathan Goff explained. “Lost Creek is the oldest surviving Quaker church in Tennessee. The fact that they’re still in existence 217 years later is significant. There is also the connection with the Manumission Society which started in Jefferson County and met in the Lost Creek Meetinghouse. There’s also a nearby cave that was used as part of the Underground Railroad that is currently paved over under U.S. Highway 11E.”
Maple Grove was formally established in 1894. Goff said, “The meetinghouse is really well-preserved. The Fairview Methodists met in the same building for quite some time. When they decided to build their own church building, Maple Grove had already stopped meeting regularly so they kept the building and preserved it really well. Several years later, a gentleman named Jeremiah Ward and his wife rebuilt the meetinghouse and bricked it up and made it look really nice.”
Davy Crockett has an interesting connection to the Quakers. Goff said, “Mr. Crockett had a little bit of a romance with a Quaker girl, but he didn’t get his way.” More of the story will be told on the tour.
The tour will be 240 miles, round trip. The deadline to register is March 26, and the cost will be $25 per person. Anyone interested in early Tennessee history, not only those with Quaker backgrounds, should find the tour interesting and informative.
Goff said, “Stories and history form the things we do and the people we are today. It gives some context for what we do still.”