Book Review: A Treasury of Tennessee Churches by Mayme Hart Johnson

Mayme Hart JOHNSON. A Treasury of Tennessee Churches. Brentwood, TN: JM Productions, 1986. 142 pp.

Published during Tennessee’s “Homecoming ’86” Bicentennial celebration, Johnson’s book chronicles with text and photographs a wide sampling of houses of worship in the Volunteer State.  I counted 223 churches and synagogues in this diverse compilation.  Johnson shows us the comparatively primitive frontier log cabins and clapboarded frame meeting houses and the Gothic, Romanesque and Greek Revival santuaries of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She also includes few modern variations of these styles constructed by larger urban congregations.  For each congregation Johnson has a brief text and photographer Doug Brachey has a corresponding photograph.  For every building Brachey has at least one photograph.  While most are black and white, many are color and he includes both interior and exterior views.

That Tennessee has so many churches poses a significant problem for authors of books such as this.  A volume highlighting the congregations of even one denomination would prove to be by itself unwieldy.    For that matter, a volume highlighting all the churches of Nashville alone could run into multiple volumes.  What Johnson and Brachey attempt, is, I think, a wise and fair compromise.  First of all they sought “outstanding examples” of the various styles of religious architecture.  Secondly, they sought out the oldest example available of each style.  Finally, they sought to showcase buildings associated with some famous personage in Tennessee history (e.g. Bishop McKendree or David Lipscomb). 

There are nineteen Stone-Campbell congregations featured in the book:

Central Christian Church, Murfreesboro

Central Church of Christ, McMinnville

Downtown Christian Church, Johnson City

East Main Church of Christ, Murfreesboro

Fayetteville Church of Christ, Fayetteville

First Christian Church, Knoxville

Fourth Avenue Church of Christ, Franklin

Gay-Lea Christian Church, Nashville

Granny White Church of Christ, Nashville

Lindsley Avenue Church of Christ, Nashville

Madison Church of Christ, Madison

Owen’s [sic, should be Owen Chapel] Chapel Church of Christ, Brentwood

Russell Street Church of Christ, Nashville

South Harpeth Church of Christ, Linton

Union City Church of Christ, Union City

Vine Street Christian Church, Nashville

West End Church of Christ, Nashville

Woodbury Church of Christ, Woodbury

Woodmont Christian Church, Nashville

I cannot speak to the accuracy of Johnson’s research on any area other than the churches listed above.  But in her brief essays (some are just a few sentences) there are some errors.  For example, she has the Lindsley Avenue Church constructing a “little building in 1894, and in 1920 they purchased the building which they now occupy from a Methodist church.”  Neither is true.  They constructed their first building in 1887 and purchased their current building from Grace Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  Grace Church was built in 1894 as a Cumberland Presbyterian Church, not a Methodist Church.  Additionally, prior to 1920 the congregation was known, variously, as South College Street Christian Church, South Nashville Christian Church or South College Street Church of Christ. 

Another example: Owen Chapel church is said to have been “built in 1859 on land donated by Jim C. Owen, who was baptized by James A. Harding, co-founder with David Lipscomb of David Lipscomb College in Nashville.”  The impression is left that Jim Owen was baptized by Harding prior to 1859 and then donated the land for the church.  James A. Harding in 1859 was eleven years old.  It is also ambiguous to speak of Harding and Lipscomb founding “David Lipscomb College.”  True, in a sense, but in fact, not so.  Harding and Lipscomb established the Nashville Bible School in 1891 thirty plus years after Owen’s Chapel was established.  Furthermore, Harding had not taught at the Nashville School for nearly twenty years…and Lipscomb was dead…before there ever existed an entity known as “David Lipscomb College.”  So, one could wish for a bit more perspicuity, especially concerning the details.

Now, on Ms. Johnson’s behalf, she very likely did the best she could with the sources available to her.  Further, since her research notes for the book are housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives it is possible to check her sources.  Another quick example: for Vine Street Christian Church she has a rather long (comparatively speaking…it is a column or more of text) description of the congregation.  My hunch is that it was supplied by someone at Vine Street…Eva Jean Wrather is suspect No. 1.  If Ms. Johnson was supplied information by a member at a congregation she likely had little reason to doubt its accuracy, especially when she had over two hundred churches on her radar screen for this book.  I think its fair to point this out.  I haven’t looked at her research at TSLA, but I’m interested to see what she had available to her.  At the same time, it is fair to point our inaccuracies and errors of fact.   

A Treasury of Tennessee Churches is out of print, but worth finding.  Johnson has written clear and succint descriptions and Brachey’s photographs provide not only illustration but documentation.  It may be that some of the buildings in this book are no longer standing.  It is an excellent starting point for historical research and a fine model for bringing academic and architectural research to the public in an accessible manner.  A volume like this for each county in Tennessee would be marvelous.   It is a beautiful book which accomplishes what it intends to do: to chronicle in brief text and photograph the rich treasury of Tennessee churches.

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