JOHN DILLAHUNTY AND BAPTIST ORIGINS IN NASHVILLE
by Robert Lyle Williams (June, 2003)
When John Dillahunty (aka De La Hunte) led a group of about 10 families in late 1775 from Craven County, NC, to southwest Davidson County, TN, who would have guessed the impact of his action on the Baptist movement? His 1796 founding of the first Baptist Church west of the Allegheny Mountains and south of the Cumberland River on the banks of Richland Creek provided the foundation for the Southern Baptist Convention. Who was John Dillahunty, and what was his role in laying the groundwork for the largest Protestant denomination in the United States?
John Dillahunty (1728-1816) was a licensed Baptist preacher with a colorful personal and religious history. Born in Kent County, MD, to a father recognized by the Huguenot Society, John was raised Catholic as that was the religion of his mother. John's mother was born in Ireland; his father was born in either Netherlands or Ireland; his parents were married in Ireland and migrated from Ireland to MD in 1715. John's "De La Hunte" grandparents reportedly fled the Lorraine region of France in 1685 to the Netherlands and moved on to Ireland in 1695. There is no documentation available regarding the grandparents, their origins or the correct surname spelling (French scholars indicate the spelling De La Hunte is not French).
In 1747, John married Hannah Neal (1732-1816) of Baltimore. Hannah was a Quaker so each was excommunicated! John and Hannah relocated to Craven County, NC, around 1751. It's county seat, New Bern, already was an established haven for protestant refugees from Europe.
John became the first sheriff of Craven County. He also sought and received a colonial land agent commission. His surname was spelled Dillahunty on the sheepskin commission and that spelling stayed with all of his TN descendants (his older sons stayed in NC and the spelling evolved there into Dillahunt). Apparently he decided to let it stand rather than risk losing/delaying this income producing commission!
In 1755, John heard the celebrated George Whitefield preach and was deeply moved. He was converted by the preaching of Shubal Stearns and was baptized by Philip Mulkey, both of whom were Baptists. The church John and Hannah were baptized into was the Trent River Chapel. Trent River was established about 1740 as the Palatine Church and became a Baptist church in 1761. John became a deacon of Trent River Chapel; a little later he was licensed by the church to preach.
During the Revolutionary War, John Dillahunty served as a Chaplain in the Army and his name was added to the Honor Roll of the Revolution. After the Revolutionary War, he returned to worship at Trent River Chapel. In 1781, he reorganized the scattered membership and combined it with the former congregation of a near-by old Anglican parish, whose Tory rector had fled to England, into the Chinquapin Chapel (which still functions under that name today following further evolutions).
It is not known why John Dillahunty moved three generations of his family and other families from coastal NC to southwestern Davidson County in late 1795. This event is referred to as "the John Dillahunty migration" in a number of published sources. It is unclear as to his motivation for this late-in-life move (he would have been 67), but his son Thomas had moved to Davidson County in 1793. Perhaps Thomas had struck out on his own and sent favorable reports "back home" which enticed John to make the move. Alternatively, Thomas could have been an advance scout under a plan his father had devised. There is no indication of a church or family split in NC as the church continued to function and only the older, landed Dillahunty sons stayed in NC.
John Dillahunty founded the Richland Creek Church in 1796, and personally acquired 640 acres of land on the south side of the Big Harpeth River on 30 Aug 1796. This latter location was still noted as "J. Dillahunty" on an 1871 map of Davidson County.
John Dillahunty died 8 Feb 1816 in his 88th year. His wife, Hannah, died soon thereafter, on 5 May 1816, thus, ending a 67+ year marriage that produced five sons and four daughters, all of whom lived into adulthood (an addendum contains information on these children and their descendants). John and Hannah were buried together in a small cemetery next to the Richland Creek Church.
The numerous descendants of John Dillahunty naturally married into other early families in the southwestern Davidson County area around Belle Meade and Bellevue. These included well known families such as Greer (in South Harpeth River valley) and DeMoss (Bellvue). Eventually most of the Dillahunty males continued westward in search of land. There there are no known Dillahunty families in Davidson County today (there likely are resident descendants from marriages into other families).
No records are known to exist for Richland Creek Church. Elder Dillahunty was assisted in establishing the church by his good friend, Rev. William Phipps, pastor of the Coor Creek Church, Craven County, NC. Although little is known about the church or its progress, one source reports that Elder Dillahunty expressed the hope that he would live to see church membership reach 150.
The church was a log structure sited on the east/south bank of Richland Creek (the creek runs from NW to SE at that point). The location was across from the present Belle Meade golf course, reportedly 300 yards west of the clubhouse. (As an aside, the first "church-edifice" in Nashville itself was erected in 1796 by the Methodists.)
The Richland Creek Church's stone foundation survived into the 20th century along with a small cemetery. Inscriptions from seven tombstones in the cemetery were documented by a 1931 Colonial Dames compilation, including those of John and Hannah Dillahunty and their grandaughter, Sally Becton Dillahunty (1807-1817) who was killed accidentally by her father Thomas while he was hunting.
When John Dillahunty died in 1816, he was succeeded by Elder Joel Anderson as pastor. Anderson moved the church 1-2 miles west from its original location and changed the name to Providence Church. He was soon succeeded by Elder John Little. The Rev. Jesse Cox then served the church for 42 years. It is not extant.
In his 85th year, The Rev. Jesse Cox later wrote that "I heard Elder Dillahunty preach regularly once a month for about eight years; he was a man of small stature, and was, being old, quite feeble. He was not an orator, but sound in the faith, of unblemished character and commanded large congregations. Some of his members were among the best citizens of Nashville."
Garner McConnico was a Baptist minister who had come from VA to TN around 1798. He was attempting to flee the ministry, but was inspired by John Dillahunty to found Harpeth Baptist Church (aka Big Harpeth Church and McConnico's Church) in May, 1800. This church was about 4 miles from Franklin on Murfeesboro Road and 18 miles from Nashville.
McConnico, who was pastor of "his church" until his death in August, 1833, also helped organize the Cumberland Association in 1803 and was its Moderator. By 1813, his church was the second largest in the association with a membership of 256. Its first building was shaken off its foundations by an 1813 earthquake. This church was still operating in 1880.
John Dillahunty also was involved with Mill Creek Church, the second Baptist church south of the Cumberland River (founded 15 April 1797) and the "seed" from which the First Baptist Church of Nashville evolved. On 15 June 1806, the Mill Creek Church met in conference and chose "Brother Dillahunty" as moderator. In April 1808, at another Mill Creek conference, Richland was recorded as being represented by "Brother John Dellahunty... Thomas Dellahunty... and George West". Thomas was John's son and George was a son-in-law.
Mill Creek's first, and long-time, pastor, James Whitsett was named as an executor in John Dillahunty's 1810 will. The Mill Creek church is noted as "Whitsett's Church" on an 1881 Davidson County map. The location was in the Glencliff area some 8 miles south of Nashville.
There were no Baptist churches in Nashville itself until 1820. Up until this time in Tennessee, the Baptists tended to organize their churches in rural areas while the Presbyterians tended to organize their churches in settlements.
One reason for this dichotomy was Baptists neither expected nor received remuneration for proclaiming the gospel. They supported themselves by tilling the soil, and they preached on Sunday at least 1-2 times per month. Presbyterians usually taught school for a living and preached every Sunday making a subsistence by combining the two occupations.
The above pattern changed for Nashville in 1820 when Elder James Whitsett of Mill Creek Church aided Rev. Jeremiah Vardeman in establishing Nashville's first Baptist church on 22 July 1820. The initial membership was comprised of a number of transfers from Mill Creek. That first Baptist church in Nashville adopted the name First Baptist Church of Nashville on 10 October 1830. As they say, the rest is history!
Addenum No. 1 -- The Missing Tomstones
In 1816, John and Hannah Dillahunty, nee Neal, were buried in a small cemetery next to the Richland Creek Church on the south bank of Richland Creek. A Dillahunty descendant who visited the graves in 1925 described the location as about 300 yards west of the Belle Meade Country Club golf course's clubhouse. At that time, the land was owned by Colonel Luke Lea of Nashville.
In the Tennessee State Archives family files, there is a circa 1925 photograph of John Dillahunty's tombstone at its original Richland Creek site. The photograph also includes one of his descendants, Elizabeth Neely, the then chair of the Committee for Preservation of Historic Spots, Old Glory Chapter (Franklin, TN), D.A.R.
A 1931 Colonial Dames publication shows the two Dillahunty tombstones as being in a small cemetery located "in a field southwest of the Belle Meade Golf and Country Club". It gives the inscriptions as "JOHN DILLAHUNTY; Dec. 8, 1728 - Feb. 9, 1816; was for 60 years a
minister of the gospel, Baptist order" and "HANNAH DILLAHUNTY; Mar. 30, 1732 - May 5, 1816".
Ridley Wills II, a local historian and General Harding descendant, recalls playing as a boy in the early 1940s among the tombstones in the Dillahunty cemetery. He recalls the location as being on Nichol Lane near Richland Creek and across from the Belle Meade Country Club. In early 2003, Mr. Wills provided information to the Davidson County Cemetery Survey group who located the likely cemetery site on Nichol Lane, near its intersection with West Tyne Blvd., in the City of Belle Meade. Tennessee State Archaeologist Nick Fielder verified by probe the presence of two gravesites at this location in Mar 2003.
Two sources indicate the tombstones were moved from the original Richland Creek site to a memorial chapel at Nashville's Baptist Hospital when it was still known as Midstate Hospital (the hospital name change occurred in the late 1960s). A 1950s source places the tombstones in the Dillahunty Chapel at Midstate Hospital. A 1971 source indicates that the chapel at Baptist Hospital was a memorial to John Dillahunty's ministry. Another source indicates that the tombstones had been moved before 1962.
Together, these various "leads" indicate that the tombstones were moved from their original site to Baptist Hospital sometime between the mid- 1940s and the mid-1950s, and they remained there until at least the early 1970s. Lenard Measures, retired minister of the West Nashville Baptist Church recalled in July 1999 that there was a Dillahunty chapel at Baptist Hospital "3-4 chapels ago".
The Baptist Hospital chapel in June 1999 had no evidence of the tombstones, any memorial or any Dillahunty references. Hospital officials contacted then and again in 2002 were unable to provide any additonal information as to the location or dispositon of the tombstones.
Addendum No. 2-- Descendants of John Dillahunty & Hannah Neal
John and Hannah Dillahunty had 9 children during their 67+ years of marriage-- 5 sons and 4 daughters. All lived to be adults. They were:
- John Dillahunty, Jr., 1749-1797 (aka Silas Dillahunty), also was a Baptist minister. He moved from NC to TN with his father. John, Jr. had married Rachel Baker in NC. Their children were Hannah, who married Jeremiah Loftin and later moved to TX; Silas who married Sarah De Moss and lived his life in Davidson Co; and John of whom nothing is known. After Rachel Baker's death in about 1791, John, Jr., married Rachel Koonce. They had two sons-- James and William. William Dillahunty, became a plantation owner circa 1827 in Henry County, TN. William was the third great-grandfather of writer's wife, Lorene Linnet Dillahunty.
William's wife was Luzaney Greer, a daughter of Green Berry Greer (1764-1842) whose home still stands in Davidson County's South Harpeth River valley. William and "Zaney" acquired land in Henry County, TN, are buried in a family cemetery at their plantation site, on the west side of Macedonia Road about one mile south of Routon, Henry County, TN.
- Hannah Dillahunty (abt 1750-1817) apparently had two marriages, first to John Quilling and then to Jeremiah Loftin.
- Samuel Dillahunty (abt 1752-bef 1818) married Sarah Morris. They remained in NC and their 3 sons-- Samuel, Jr.; Asa; and Thomas all used Dillahunt which continues as a surname today in the NC counties of Craven, Jones and Lenior.
- Daniel Dillahunty (abt 1753-?), apparently named after his grandfather, also stayed in NC. In his 1810 will, his father, John Dillahunty, confirmed that he had given Daniel land in NC at some prior point... probably between the time Daniel reached adulthood, circa 1775, and when John left NC for TN about 20 years later.
- Mary Anne Dillahunty (1758-?) married George West in NC. They followed John Dillahunty to TN. George West was one of 3 executors named by John Dillahunty in his 1810 will.
- Anna Dillahunty (1763-bef 1800) married John Colvett II in NC. She died in NC. Some of the Colvett descendants later came to Davidson County.
- William Dillahunty (abt 1764-bef 1810) married Sarah "Sally" Johnston. He stayed in NC.
- Thomas D. Dillahunty (1765-1828) married Sarah Becton. They came to Davidson County from NC a couple of years before John Dillahunty made the move. Thomas may have been the reason his father made the move. Thomas was commissioned a justice of the Davidson County Court in 1798. He and Sarah had four sons-- Edmund, Lewis, Harvey and John B.-- and two daughters, Harriet and Elizabeth.
Edmund Dillahunty became a noted lawyer and judge in Maury County, TN, while Thomas and the three other sons moved on to Lawrence County, Alabama. One of those other sons, Lewis Dillahunty, distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and became an Alabama congressman when Alabama became a state in 1822. Subsequently, Lewis's brother, Henry, also was elected to the United States House of Representatives. The fouth son, John Becton Dillahunty died in 1878 in Lauderdale County, AL.
- Rachel Dillahunty (abt 1770-?) married Col. Joseph E. Johnson in Davidson County. In 1801, she and Col. Johnson moved to Grove Plantation, 6 miles south of Woodville, Wilkinson County, MS. They had no children.
The descendants of John De La Hunte/Dillahunty spread the Dillahunty name into other parts of Tennessee and into Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and later on to California. The Davidson County Archives contain many records of John Dillahunty and his descendants, including his original will.