St. John’s Episcopal Church
Maury County, Tennessee
Text and photos by Dan Hardison
1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee marched past St. John’s Episcopal
Church on its way to face Union troops at Franklin, Tennessee. General
Patrick Cleburne, while passing by the church, is said to have remarked,
“This is the most beautiful and peaceful spot I ever beheld . . . It is
almost worth dying to be buried in such a beautiful spot.” Several days
later Cleburne, along with fellow Generals H. B. Granbury and O. F. Strahl,
died at the Battle of Franklin and were buried at St. John’s.
Located in an area known as Ashwood between the towns of Columbia and Mt.
Pleasant in Middle Tennessee, St. John’s Church is one of Maury County’s
most treasured historical sites. Built by Leonidas Polk and his three
brothers: Rufus, Lucius, and George – cousins to President James K. Polk –
the church is located at a point where the brother’s estates came
together. The land and material for the church was donated by the brothers
and built by slaves. The pulpit, reredos, and altar rail were made from a
single wild cherry tree that grew on the site. It was a plantation church
meant to provide a place of worship for the Polk families, their slaves,
and their neighbors.
Construction began in 1839 and completed three years later. Bishop James
Hervey Otey, the first Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee, consecrated the
church on Sept. 4, 1842. Leonidas Polk served as St. John’s first rector
and would later become the first Bishop of Louisiana and a general in
the Confederate Army know as the ‘Fighting Bishop’.
During the Civil War, St. John’s was used as a Confederate hospital,
although it did not see many patients. Union troops briefly occupied the
church and although they did not cause great damage, they did carry off
the organ pipes. Behind St. John’s is the traditional churchyard burial
ground where Generals Cleburne, Granbury, and Strahl were buried. Years
later their remains were removed and re‑buried in other states, but their
gravesites at St. John’s have never again been used.
The first burial here was that of Rufus Polk in 1843. All but one of the
Polk brothers would eventually be buried at St. John’s. It was the desire
of Leonidas Polk to be buried here, but instead he was buried at Christ
Cathedral in New Orleans where he served as Bishop. Resting at St. John’s
are members of the Polk family, Civil War soldiers, and five Episcopal
bishops. Bishops Otey, James Matthew Maxon, Theodore Nott Barth, John
Vander Horst, and W. Fred Gates are buried at St. John’s. The last regular
priest at St. John’s, The Rev. Richard N. Newell who died in 1887, wished
to be buried as near the church as possible. His grave is located by the
steps at the rear of the church.
St. John’s continued regular services until 1915 when the congregation
dwindled to just one family. Since 1921, services are held only once a
year on Whitsunday – the Feast of Pentecost. After the service, a picnic
is held on the grounds. St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Columbia sponsors
the annual pilgrimage and oversees St. John’s today.
St. John’s remains today much as it was during the 1800’s. There is no
electricity and no running water. It still has the original furnishings,
hand‑blown leaded glass windows, and the 1890 Packard reed pump organ.
Also the original silver chalice used by the Polk family is once again
used for the Whitsunday service.
For 160 years, St. John’s kept a peaceful existence that not even the
Civil War could betray. But the peace and serenity at St. John’s came to
an end when two present day teenagers broke into the church and vandalized
it in May 2001. The tragedy occurred just one week before the annual
pilgrimage to St. John’s to celebrate Whitsunday.
The church windows were broken out, the Baptismal font was damaged, and
the organ that sat in the choir loft was thrown to the sanctuary floor
below. Tombstones in the graveyard were toppled or destroyed. Two young
men, ages 18 and 19, were arrested and charged with the destruction.
After news of the vandalism spread, the community – regardless of
denomination – turned out to help cleanup the church and make temporary
repairs so that its annual service could be held. Donations came from
people near and far sympathetic to the tragedy the church had suffered.
Today the repairs at St. John’s have been completed and after two years of
work the pump organ has been restored and returned to the church. The
anger and grief over what happened, as well as the show of support,
demonstrate the affection for the historic church. Apparently these two
young men see St. John’s Church as just an old building – everyone else
see it as much more.
Mary Polk Branch described St. John's Church in 1911 with these words,
"This church of many memories stands in a cemetery of seven or eight acres
surrounded by a stone wall. The large oak trees and the carpet of blue
grass make it a lovely spot, but the doors of the church are closed, the
windows unopened, the iron-gate in front locked. . . . In the distance is
heard the sound of the automobile and the roll of heavy wagons upon the
pike, and we realize the brightness of the world without and the busy life
which surrounds the old church with its story of the past."
Maury County, Tennessee
engraving of St John's Church originally appeared for the article "The
Country Church in America" in Scribner's
Magazine, November 1897.