Statement of Significance
Old Trinity Episcopal Church, on Charlston-Mason Road, in Tipton County, Tennessee, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C as a significant example of vernacular church architecture in Tipton County. The gable front church is characterized by a pedimented gable with diagonal boards, multi-light windows, and wood ceilings and floors inside. Remarkably for a rural church, the Old Trinity Episcopal Church has had few changes since 1921, when it began to be used for once a year services. The adjacent cemetery is an integral part of the setting
and contains numerous old gravestones.
Old Trinity Episcopal Church is the oldest remaining church building in Tipton County and an extant artifact of the religious life and social history of the county before the development of sizable urban centers here during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Built in 1847 on an acre of land donated by planter Major William Taylor, the church’s acreage has expanded over the years as the adjacent cemetery grew in size. Since 1921, the church parcel has been 1.8 acres.
The congregation began around 1837 when the Reverend John Drummond moved to the county as a missionary. Under his leadership, a congregation was organized and a vestry elected. For its first ten years, the congregation used a small storehouse, purchased from Robert Hightower, as its place of worship. Known as St. Andrew’s, the congregation remained active until about 1840-1841 when services lapsed. Regular monthly services began again in 1844, under the direction of the Reverend Samuel Litton, who was follwed by the Reverend James W. Rogers in 1845. However, that same year the St. Andrew’s building burned. The congregation remained without a church until the present building was constructed in 1847. The congregation renamed the church from St. Andrew’s to Trinity with the construction of the new building.
By this time, the plantation economy of Tipton County was in full development. The church became a meeting place for both the surrounding families of white planters and of African American slaves from those same plantations. By 1854, the Reverend J.A. Whellock was holding alternating services for white and African American parishioners. When the Reverend Charles F. Collins took over this ministry, he counted forty-one white members and twenty-one African American members. It was not unusual to find African Americans as members of antebellum Episcopal churches. It
was church policy, according to Bishop Leonidas Polk: “to elevate the spiritual condition of the slaves through religious instruction.” He expressed the ideal of this Christian duty in his statements to the 1843 annual convention of the diocese:
the Gospel of Christ… seeks to equalize the human condition; and to compensate, by the richness of its spiritual provisions, for the disparity existing in the worldly circumstances of our race.
However, rhetoric did not always match reality. As Richard Betterly has concluded:
for the antebellum planters, religion provided a means of maintaining control over their slaves. Their need to control slave behavior and compel them to work overshadowed any ideals of Christian fellowship or the salvation of black souls. Antebellum southern churches … institutionalized the broad social realities of slavery, racism, and ruralism.
Old Trinity Episcopal Church survived the Civil War unmarked; when Bishop Charles Todd Quintard visited on December 31, 1865, he confirmed thirteen new white members and thirteen African American members. However, the church would not survive post-war demographic and socio-economic changes. Back in 1855 the Memphis & Ohio Railroad had been completed through southeastern Tipton County, and by 1855 a new railway town called Mason’s Depot, was created and platted out upon the lands of James Mason. At the end of the Civil War, the new town prospered and grew. Then, in 1868, a railroad connecting Paris and Memphis was completed and the tracks passed through southern Tipton County. Entrepreneurs and railroad officials combined efforts to plat and create a new railroad town, also called “Mason.” Within two years, most social and economic activity in southeastern Tipton County had concentrated at the new town. In 1870, a new Gothic Revival Trinity Church (NR 3/15/84) was designed by Memphis architect James B. Cook. The new church was consecrated in 1871 and the families abandoned the small frame rural
church for the much larger, brick, and architecturally ornate Trinity Church in Mason. However, the founding families still used the rural cemetery at “Old” Trinity for their family burials. In addition in the late 1850s, Tipton County planters and residents in Covington had banded together to build the magnificent frame Carpenter Gothic St. Matthew’s
Episcopal Church (NR 8/16/77) in nearby Covington. This new church undoubtedly attracted some white families who once held allegiance to the rural Trinity congregation and families that may have evacuated to the city during the war.
In 1921, families began returning to the Old Trinity Church on Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Whitsunday or Pentecost. The initial leaders of this pilgrimage were Judge John Young Peete, J. N. M. Taylor, Sr, and Bishop James M. Maxon. The annual services have continued ever since due to a special bequest left in the will of Judge Peete. He left a farm to be sold, with the proceeds to be given to the Episcopal Endowment Corporation. In return for an annual service at the church, to be presided over by an Episcopal bishop. This fund has been used to keep the church in good
repair over the last seventy years.
The cemetery is an important element of the antebellum settlement landscape represented by the Old Trinity Episcopal Church property. Most of the gravestones date from the nineteenth century. There are also two historical markers dedicated to the memory of people buried on the property of two plantations in the area. The cemetery especially
focuses on six families who once operated plantations in the area. The church and cemetery are the only extant elements of the plantation landscape these families once controlled. Although not architect designed nor a formal style church, Old Trinity Episcopal Church, along with the cemetery, retains a high degree of integrity and documents the
vernacular nature of antebellum churches in this West Tennessee community.
The period of significance for this nomination is 1847 -1921. This encompasses the date the church was erected in 1847 and the date of the last major changes (shutters, rear addition) that were added to the building. Most burials in the cemetery date from the mid to late nineteenth century, with a few being later. Because the cemetery is an integral part of the setting and lies adjacent to the church, the continual period of significance encompasses the cemetery as a contributing resource.
Description of Church
Old Trinity Episcopal Church, sometimes known as Trinity in-the-Fields Church, is located on Charleston-Mason Road four miles northeast of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee. Situated beneath a shelter of large cedar trees on a 1.8 acres rural lot, the church built in 1847, has changed little since its initial construction. Also located on the church grounds is a historic cemetery.
The church is an unadorned vernacular building, characterized largely by its gable front entrance with its pedimented gable and diagonal weatherboards. If the church has any semblance to an academic style, it is as a minimal adaptation of a gable front Gothic Revival church. The building measures twenty feet wide by forty feet long. It rests on limestone
piers, has an asphalt shingle roof, and is sheathed in weatherboard siding. The east facade has three bays. Original nine over nine double hung windows flank the original double leaf, wood paneled door. Wood shutters, added circa 1921, protect the historic windows. A simple shed roof overhang protects the door and the three circa 1921 concrete steps.
The::north elevation has two symmetrically placed original nine over nine double hung windows, with circa 1921 shutters. A survey in 1994 showed the bottom three boards of the church had been replaced by three strips of
aluminum siding. The siding was removed in 1995 and replaced by new compatible boards. The north elevation also shows the small circa 1921 vestibule addition with a shed asphalt roof. On this elevation is a modern wood, six paneled door added circa 1990.
The west elevation shows the symmetrically located vestibule addition of 1921. Placed in the center of the vestibule is a single light square window. Flanking either side of the vestibule are original nine over nine double hung windows, with the circa 1921 shutters.
The south elevation identical to the north elevation, and has two symmetrically placed, original nine over nine windows, with circa 1921 shutters. On this elevation, the vestibule has a square single light window.
The interior of the church is an open rectangle space, with no partitions. It retains its original pine plank floor as well as the original tongue and groove pews. There is no electricity in the building. The chancel area consists only of a six inch raised platform, surrounded by a wood railing with equally spaced balusters. Within the chancel area is the altar, a
plain wood table. In 1994, vandals destroyed some of the railing and balusters. In 1995, these missing or broken elements were repaired or replaced. Asymmetrically placed in the west wall is a wood door, circa 1921, which leads to a small vestibule, which originally served as a place for the clergy to hang their clothes and store their vestments. The specific function of the room is discussed in a 1929 letter written to the “newly-appointed committee for the care of Old Trinity” by James M. Maxon, Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Tennessee. In the letter he requests that the “vestry room be put into condition, with a shelf, two feet wide, and three and one half from the floor, be built into the back end, in which to lay vestments, etc. of clergy, with proper hooks, etc. to hang up clothes.”
A wrought-iron sign near the road reads “Old Trinity Episcopal Church, 1847.”
Also on the property are two privies, one for men and one for women (NC). These are located on the rear corners, and have no modem conveniences.
Because of its isolated rural location, Old Trinity Church retains a remarkable sense of historical integrity, as a small plantation church for the local planter elite of southeastern Tipton County.
[NRHP Registration Form 1977]