Days Gone By - stories from the past

Presbyterian Ministers traveled in pairs in the wilds of early Alabama

Continued – The following has been transcribed from Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society: New ser, Volume 4 By Alabama Historical Society 1904


By The Rev. James H. B. Hall, Birmingham

Part II

The Logan Presbytery comprised the Kentucky district and the regions beyond; the Cumberland, the Nashville and indefinite eastern and western fields; and the Elk, southern Middle Tennessee and the unlimited territories south, embracing, of course, the present fair and fertile Alabama.

It will be borne in mind, however, that at this date there was no Alabama. This history has been given because it will help us in knowing by what authority the work of the Cumberlands was inaugurated and performed in the future State of Alabama.Mississippi_Territory_dark

A Little Alabama History

Perhaps a little Alabama history here will the better enable the reader to understand the introduction and growth of the church in the State. I find this so well done by the Rev. B. W. McDonnold, D. D., that I quote him here:

  • “The country was all claimed by Georgia under its original charter from England. Several efforts were made by Georgia to place colonies on this soil, but as the whole land was in the hands of Indians and Spaniards, who claimed the country, it generally cost the Georgians their lives to settle there. * * * *
  • “Then the United States bought Georgia’s claim to this country, but Spaniards and Indians still had not only their claims, but also what is called ‘nine points in law’—possession. A territorial government was, however, established, and all the country was called ‘Mississippi,’ and continued to be so designated till 1817.
  • “In 1805, the Indian claim to a small portion of what is now Madison county, Alabama, was purchased, and settlements were established and the Indians withdrawn in less than two years afterward.
  • In 1813, the long-promised, long-delayed evacuation of South Alabama by the Spaniards was accomplished. In 1814 the Creek claim to that portion of Alabama was extinguished, but hostile Creeks still roamed over it and made it unsafe for Americans.
  • “In 1816 the country east of Cotton Gin Port, on the Tombigbee river, was brought from the Chickasaw Indians. In 1818, the first Territorial legislature assembled, Alabama being then severed from Mississippi. In that legislature there was but one senator.

Some counties only cast ten votes

Some of the counties represented had in their elections cast but ten votes. There were just three settlements of Americans in the Territory—one centering at Mobile, one at Huntsville, and one on the Tombigbee river.


There were hostile Creek Indians, and a Creek war on Alabama soil as late as 1836. The way to the American settlements in South Alabama was open and free from danger only by the sea, though Georgians and Carolinians sometimes took their chances and traveled along the land route from the east.

Travel from Tennessee and Kentucky was sometimes accomplished on rafts down the Tombigbee, but there was very little emigration by that dangerous route.”

Did you know that religious persecution of Presbyterians occurred in early America? Read about it in this historical series by Alabama author Donna R. Causey

Places Were Found For Preaching

As the tide of immigration flowed from Kentucky and Tennessee west and south, it brought with it many who had found Jesus precious under Cumberland Presbyterian influence, and many of whom had cast their lot with the young church; while the influx from Georgia and the Carolinas knew nothing of these people.03-0123FirstPCRaleighNC

Places were found for preaching

As a result, a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher was not long in finding a cordial welcome on his arrival in any neighborhood, particularly in North and Middle Alabama.

Places were found ready for preaching, and gladly accepted. These led to monthly appointments and also to camp-meetings. The former were seed sowing and pastoral; the latter, seasons of harvesting.

Closely on the heels of these followed the organization of societies or individual churches. This was the order of development in the work everywhere. Indeed, it was, in large measure, the course pursued by all the churches laboring in this newly opened church

Pioneer historian must wander through wilderness of tradition

It may very readily be seen how difficult it is to give, at this late day,—and owing to a carelessness for dates amounting almost to contempt,—definite localities, precise dates, and exact numbers. One can give only such facts as he, after long and diligent search, may have unearthed.

The work of a pioneer historian is easy only to him who has never been called to wander through a wilderness of tradition.

I have not been fortunate enough to ascertain the name of the first preacher of our faith in the State. The date and the place are likewise unknown. They all belong back in the unrecorded period. Most likely he was “a visiting brother.” The place was most probably some “new comer’s” log cabin, and the hour an evening one lighted by the “pine torch” or “the tallow candle.” The auditors were “the settlers from the States,” then called “squatters.”

Usually They Traveled in Pairs

In the formation of “the council” it will be remembered the ministers, as well as the probationers—licentiates and candidates, were subject to its direction and control. These orders were many times very inclusive as related both to fields and duties; embracing many counties and often large tracts of different States and territories, requiring many months of time to complete the hundreds of miles made almost without exception on horseback; and every form of ministerial service.

Usually they traveled in pairs—an older and a younger man, an ordained preacher and a probationer. This was not always possible as the number of the former was too limited. The orders given generally looked, in their incipiency, to the formation of “a circuit,” or “a mission.” In later days all such work took the name of “home mission field

No Records Prior To 1807

Of such efforts, as it relates to Alabama, we have no records prior to 1807. At its meeting this year the council ordered the Rev. Robert Bell, then a licentiate, to the new settlements about Hunt’s Spring—afterwards Huntsville—the first town in North Alabama.

“Within a year or two [of 1805] the settlement had begun to rival St. Stephens in importance.”

Nothing is known of Mr. Bell’s operations under this direction. His home, at the time, was Bean’s creek near Salem, Tenn. His work at most was to spy out the land—a sort of a tour of inspection.

The next year, 1808,—the same year in which Madison, the second county in the present State lines, was formed,—the council directed the Rev. Thomas Calhoun, at the time only a candidate, to the Huntsville field. He was a Tennesseean, and a young man. His father lived near Big Spring, Wilson county, not far from the present historic Lebanon.

Rev. Thomas Calhoun (1782-1855)


It is said that he preached in Mr. John Hunt’s house before it was finished. He, no doubt, followed in the steps of Mr. Bell, holding and enlarging the work. It must not be forgotten that their work was largely but introductory and preparatory.

Rev. Robert Donnell, The Pioneer Preacher

In the year 1809, the council placed the Rev. Robert Donnell, then a candidate, in this locality. He was at work here when the Cumberland Presbytery—the Cumberland Presbyterian Church—was organized, Feb. 4, 1810. He was formally received from the council into the presbytery March 22, 1810, and orders given him “to ride once around the lower circuit.”

Rev. Robert Donnell engraving published in 1867


This became the chosen scene of his life work. He was ordained by the Cumberland Presbytery Feb. 19, 1813. He was emphatically the pioneer preacher of his church in North Alabama.

From being a candidate at his coming he remained until the day of his death, being one of the foremost ministers in his church and one of the ablest divines of his day. His ashes quietly sleep in the cemetery at beautiful Athens, which was his home for many years.

First Camp-meeting Held in Huntsville

He held the first camp-meeting ever held in Alabama. It was held near where Huntsville now stands so queenly, before any town was there.

“Timber grew thick around the big spring,” says Dr. McDonnold, “though the camp-meeting was not at that, but an another spring a mile below.”

He preached the first sermon ever heard in Huntsville. Out of his camp-meeting the old Canaan congregation grew. He held, at a very early day, a camp-meeting where Mooresville is located. The people were then called “squatters,” for as yet there had been no land sales.

Mooresville Brick Church

Mooresville brick church

historic mooresville al

Meridian, afterwards Meridianville, was one of his early churches. He was one of the first preachers who labored at Hazel Green. In 1809, in company with the Rev. Robert Bell, he preached occasionally at Athens. Many who professed faith in these and other of Mr. Donnell’s meetings afterwards removed to Arkansas and elsewhere and became the nuclei of Cumberland Presbyterianism in those regions.

Mr. Donnell is the man to whom, more than to any other, the church owes her success in North Alabama. His labors appear to have been almost unlimited. Dr. McDonnold says: “Our old churches all over that country were planted by him.” At the initial meeting of the General Synod, 1813, he was made one of the committee of three whose duty it was to formulate a Confession of Faith for the church, and report at the meeting of the Synod the following year. This duty he discharged with fidelity and credit.

Alexander Wilson, First Ruling Elder Present At Huntsville

In the minutes of the Cumberland Presbytery in session at Sugg’s Creek, Wilson county, Tenn., April 7, 1812, I find that Alexander Wilson, a ruling elder, was present as the representative from Huntsville, Hermon and Kelly’s Creek churches. As I have no knowledge whatever of any other Huntsville at this primitive day, it must have been our little city. If I am correct, Mr. Wilson has the distinction of being the first elder from Alabama whose name comes through the records who ever occupied a seat in presbytery.

Mr. Donnell was very much aided in his early labors by the Rev. James Brown Porter, whose efforts were mainly evangelistic, and expended chiefly in Middle Tennessee and North Alabama. He was, in many respects, an admirable yoke-fellow for the mighty Donnell. Such men could not labor in vain. At all their meetings glorious successes were achieved.

It will be held in mind that I am speaking of events prior to and including the year 1813, when the first synod was erected.

Elk Presbytery, First Prebyterial Organization

The Elk Presbytery, formed that year, was the first presbyterial organization any part of whose bounds embraced Alabama soil. I transcribe here in extenso the order providing for said body:

“Resolved, That a part of the present Cumberland Presbytery shall be and is hereby directed to constitute a presbytery known by the name of the Elk Presbytery. The boundaries are as follows, to wit: Beginning at the mouth of Duck river, thence a due north course to the top of the Tennessee ridge, thence eastwardly along the top of said ridge to Cumberland mountain, thence south to the Tennessee river, thence easterly, southwardly and westwardly to undefined boundaries, to be composed of the following members, to-wit: The Rev. Messrs. William McGee, Samuel King, James Brown Porter, Robert Bell, and Robert Donnell, to meet at Mt. Carmel meeting house [near the present town of Winchester, Tenn.] on the first Tuesday in August next [Aug. 3]. Mr. McGee, or, in case of his absence, Mr. Bell, is hereby directed to open the Presbytery by a sermon. The following persons shall be considered under the direction of said Presbytery, towit: John Carnahan, James Stewart, and Elisha Price.”ElkPresbytery1900

Only Mr. Donnell Made His Home In Alabama Lines

Of these men only one—Mr. Donnell—is positively known to have had his home permanently, at the time, inside Alabama lines; Mr. Carnahan’s home was in Arkansas, yet he was a member of this far off body. It seems fitting here to speak of one who, most likely, was the first to enter the ministry from the Alabama field. I quote Dr. McDonnold:

“In 1817, a family that had just arrived from South Carolina, visited Donnell’s camp-meeting at the Meridian church [Meridianville], and several of its members were converted. One of these was a boy seventeen years old, who from that day helped to preach Jesus to the people of North Alabama. His name was A. J. Steele.”Home of Rev. J. W. S. Donnell

Home of Rev. Robert Donnell finished in 1851. He died in 1855

(See more of home at Sweet Meanderings)
pleasant hill home rev. donnell

Mr. Steele, if not the first, is among the first, Alabama ministerial fruits. He lived a long and useful and honored life, dying Nov. 9, 1887, in his eighty-eighth year. He was an uncle of the Rev. Isaac Donnell Steele, present pastor (1903) of the First Cumberland Presbyterian church, Birmingham.

Dr. McDonnold says: “John Carnahan and Steele rode the circuit together, in 1819, through North Alabama, attending all of Donnell’s camp-meetings.

Group of Ministers from Madison Presbytery 1900 
Front row, left to right: Isaac Donnell Steele, Robert Austin Alexander Moorman, William Menefee Norment, Francis Marion Cude, Robert W. Black, William H. Crofford
Back row, left to right: Charles Larkin Cochran, John J. Williams, Andrew Newton Stockard, Laurence Eugene Foster
madisonpresbyteryministersc1900 (1)

John Morgan and Albert Gibson Joined the Alabama Preachers

A little later John Morgan and Albert Gibson joined the band of Alabama preachers. There came other noble laborers, and North Alabama bloomed like the garden of the Lord.” It is said the distance round Mr. Morgan’s circuit was four hundred miles.

Mr. Steele states that he established the first year three new camp grounds. By the way, these camp grounds with their camp-meetings were in those days what in modern times we call chautauquas and summer assemblies.

They were centers and occasions of assembling for social, religious and spiritual quickening. In view of what has been said it is not strange that many strong churches were energetically laboring in the State prior to 1820; and the same was equally true of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.


FreeHearts: A Novel Of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) (Volume 3) Inspired by true events, Col. John Washington (ancestor of President George Washington), Randall Revell, Tom Cottingham, Edmund Beauchamp ward off Indian attacks and conquer the wilds of Maryland’s Eastern shore in 17th century colonial America in this historical novel. – Read eBooks using the FREE Kindle Reading App on Most Devices

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. Sally Sanders Sinclair

    My ancestor Rev. Henry Bryson was a traveling preacher for the Presbyterian Church. His travel journal beginning in 1826 was published in 1980 in the Alabama Historical Quarterly Vol. 42 no 1 and 2. You can also read it here from the history of one of his churches in Tennessee:
    His journal gives great insight into the life of a traveling preacher in early Alabama. He traveled all through eastern Alabama from the north to the south, and to Lincoln County TN.

  2. Doreen Dumas

    My ancestor, John Franklin King, was an early Cumberland minister in Florence, Alabama, who moved to Arkansas about 1834 & was a contributor to the first Arkansas state constitution in 1836.

  3. Phyllis Cardwell Turner

    My great grandfather, Anderson Mills Sadler, was ordained as a Cumberland minister in 1833 and served around Bessemer. He was described as the last one of James Gutherie’s “sons of thunder”.

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