Situated in a grove of oak and cedar trees, the quaint chapel known as “ Old Trinity ” or “Trinity in the Field” is the oldest surviving church structure in Tipton County. It is the fifth oldest Episcopal church still in use in the Diocese of West Tennessee. Now in a rural, isolated area, the church was built in 1847 on what was then the Memphis to Brownsville road. It replaced an even older church, St. Andrew’s, in nearby Fayette County that had burned in 1845.
Fortunately, one of the church’s early rectors recorded a history of the church in the parish register. The first paragraph reads as follows:
In the month of March A. D. 1834, the Rev. John Chilton, then in charge of the congregation at Brownsville, Haywood Co. and Jackson, Madison Co., visited the neighborhood where the county lines of Haywood, Fayette, and Tipton corner, and preached at the residence of Mrs. Hunt, relict of Capt. Christopher Hunt, Fayette Co. after reading the morning service of the church with a few respondents. At that time there was but one communicant of the church in the neighborhood. There were three or four families who were friendly to the church and several persons attended from motive of curiosity, her forms and rituals being entirely new to them.
The church history goes on to state that over the next two years, Mr. Chilton returned several times to conduct services, “alternately at the dwelling houses of Mrs. Hunt and Mr. Geo. T. Taylor, Haywood County.” During this time, the Rev. Samuel Litton who had charge of the church at LaGrange, Fayette County, also held services in the neighborhood several times.
In the spring of 1837, the Rev. John Drummond came to the neighborhood as a missionary and boarded with the family of Capt. Dabney Collier. The Colliers were Episcopalians and had just moved to the area from Mecklenburg County, Virginia which was also the home of the Taylor family prior to their migration to Tennessee. Rev. Drummond quickly organized a congregation and a store house was purchased and converted into a house of worship. The church was named St. Andrew’s and eight persons were confirmed at the Bishop’s visitation that fall. Today the site of old St. Andrew’s is about 400 yards due east of the dead end of Freedom Farm road.
After Mr. Drummond’s resignation, the vestry elected the Rev. William Steel of Mecklenburg County, Virginia to take charge of the parish. He remained until the fall of 1839 when he moved to Texas. For some time afterward St. Andrew’s was without a regular priest. The congregation grew but little and “had to contend with much opposition from Presbyterians and Methodists.” The church history notes that the Methodists were particularly strong in their opposition and did “all they could to prevent the people from attending on its ministry.”
In March 1845, St. Andrew’s burned. The year before several members of the Collier family who had been instrumental in supporting the church all died within a short span of time. Additionally, the George T. Taylor family had since moved several miles away to a plantation in Tipton County on what was then the Memphis to Brownsville road (now the St. Paul road). These factors contributed to the relocating of the church some distance from the original St. Andrew’s. On the first Sunday in Advent 1845, the Rev. James W. Rogers preached and held services in the Taylor home. On January 25, 1846, he conducted services at the residence of Major Thomas T. Hunt who also lived on the old Memphis to Brownsville road (the section that is now the Bud Eubank road). At that time, Rev. Rogers organized a congregation and appointed a vestry. For the next year the congregation met in a free meeting house at Charleston in Tipton County.
In 1847, Major William Taylor, an uncle to George T. Taylor, gave the church an acre of land on the Memphis to Brownsville road. The site was about mid-way between the plantations of George T. Taylor and Major Thomas T. Hunt. According to the church history, “the friends of the church erected a small house on it for the worship of Almighty God naming it after the Holy Trinity.” Tradition states that the small chapel was built by the slave carpenters of Mr. and Mrs. George T. Taylor. Although Mr. Taylor was not yet a confirmed member of the church, his wife, Mary Goodloe Somervell, had been an Episcopalian for many years and was very possibly the first communicant of old St. Andrew’s. On the first Sunday services were held in the new church, she presented three small slave children for baptism and acted as their godmother. She would continue this practice for all the slaves born on her plantation. The parish register which thankfully has survived contains the baptismal records for over three hundred slaves in the neighborhood.
During the 1850s, the congregation grew significantly under the care of the Rev. William M. Steel and the Rev. J. A. Wheelock. Beginning in 1854, services were commenced for the “servants” on alternate Sundays. When the chapel was built in 1847, there were not more than a dozen members. By 1859 there were forty-one white communicants and twenty-one black communicants. Most of the church’s members belonged to a network of kin all connected in one way or another to the Taylor family. In addition to the Taylors, other communicant families included the Claibornes, Clements, Colliers, Elcans, Hunts, Jetts, Maclins, Malones, McCalls, Peetes, Rives, Somervells, Tarrys and Whitleys.
In the nineteenth century, most weddings in this area took place in the home of the bride’s parents. But Old Trinity was the scene of a Civil War wedding that was talked about by the locals for generations to come. It took place on Christmas Day, 1862. The bride was Mollie Bet Taylor, the allegedly very spoiled granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. George T. Taylor. The groom was William Francis Brodnax, a successful young merchant in the thriving, railroad village of Mason about three miles to the southwest. Mollie had enjoyed every advantage that money and privilege could bring at that time including a boarding school education in Maryland and a trip abroad to Europe. But she was not happy. Her betrothed was not her first choice. Her family had forbidden her from marrying her true love, a cousin named Willis Lewis Green. At the wedding she wore a royal purple satin dress with hat to match with a beautiful white plume. As she stood for the ceremony, the plume shook and trembled. When a small boy present, John Y. Peete, asked an older relative why she was shaking so, the reply was, “because she married one man and loved another.” Within six months Mollie Bet and her lover Willis Green both died of “broken hearts.” After the Civil War, Mollie Bet’s only sister, Sallie, married Richard Brodnax, a younger brother of William Francis Brodnax. Their son, George Taylor Brodnax, later founded Brodnax Jewelers in Memphis.
At the time the church was built, most of its members buried their loved ones in family burying grounds on their plantations. The first burial in the churchyard took place in 1851 when an infant daughter of the rector, Rev. William M. Steel, was buried behind the church. Three years later his wife was also laid to rest there. Soon afterward, Eleanor Peete, niece of George T. Taylor, buried a young child there. Ultimately, eight of Mrs. Peete’s children would be buried all in a single row behind the chapel. With the many transfers of property that occurred after the Civil War, some of old family burying grounds ended in the hands of strangers. Consequently, over time more of the church’s members began to use the churchyard as a burial ground.
In 1859, a northerner, the Rev. Charles F. Collins, was called to serve the parish in return for a salary of $800 and the use of a parsonage. He proved to be an immensely popular priest with the congregation. Regarding the Civil War and its effect on the congregation, he recorded the following in the parish register:
“During the war our church services were at no time interrupted, and we found our chief comfort in our troubles and adversities in seeking God’s help in His Holy Sanctuary. About the close of the war the Parsonage building, which the Rector had purchased from the vestry, was burned by Federal soldiers.”
After the war the congregation continued to thrive and grow. By 1867 there were sixty white communicants and forty black communicants. Clearly there was a need by then for a larger sanctuary. A decade earlier, the town of Mason had sprouted about three miles to the south along the Memphis to Ohio Railroad. Mason had quickly grown as the bustling commercial center of the area. In 1870 the congregation built a new brick gothic church in Mason for a cost of $10,000. The black communicants continued to worship at Old Trinity under the charge of a former slave, Rev. Henderson Maclin, who was ordained as a deacon on March 3, 1872. In 1873 they organized a new parish under the name of St. Paul’s. The cornerstone for their new church was laid by Rev. Collins on Feb. 8, 1873 on land donated by Mrs. Frances A. Taylor, daughter of George T. Taylor.
With the building of Trinity in Mason and nearby St. Paul’s in the 1870s, Old Trinity was abandoned except for its use as a burial ground. In the early 1920s, Judge John Y. Peete and others organized an annual pilgrimage to the old chapel with services and dinner on the grounds. This ritual has been continually observed on Trinity Sunday by the faithful descendants for nearly ninety years.
The above was written by John W. Marshall in 2013.