The Asbury-Babb House is one of five historical sites maintained by the Tennessee Conference Commission on Archives and History. It is located today behind the present Bethlehem United Methodist Church, four miles west of Lebanon’s square on U.S. Highway 70. The original location was approximately one mile south of its present location on what is known locally as “Hickory Ridge.”
The William Babb family had moved to the new frontier from Franklin County, North Carolina in the 1790s. This was only a few years after James Robertson and John Donelson came to Middle Tennessee and built Fort Nashborough (later Nashville). The Babbs, along with other pioneer families, settled along the ridge instead of the low and level land in what is now downtown Lebanon. It is said they chose this location because they could get their crops in the ground earlier on the ridge, and also because they had a better lookout for Indian attacks.
The Babb House is a good architectural example of a typical early frontier cabin. It consists of two rooms and a “dog trot” downstairs. (The “dog trot” was so named because it was the watchdog’s domain.) The small upstairs room is believed to have been added so the family could provide accommodations for the circuit preachers and, hopefully, a schoolmaster.
By 1810, there were enough Methodists who settled on the ridge to build Bethlehem Meeting House. Little is known of this church building, except that it was an eight-sided, hewn cedar log structure with a fireplace and a chimney. (Note the fireplace and chimney — very few meeting houses had a heat source.) It was located a few hundred yards west of the Babb Cabin.
Before 1810, traveling circuit riders probably used the Babb house as their preaching place. This was typical in the early settlements. The circuit rider would go to an appointed home, and wored would be sent out that the preacher had arrived. Then everyone would gather at the appointed cabin where the circuit rider would stand on a stool or chair, in front of the fireplace. The men would sit on the floor at his feet, and the women and children would sit on the beds in the corners of the cabin. To accommodate more people, boards would be stretched across chairs, and the children might climb to the loft. During the summer months, the men would sit outside under the trees or on the “dog trot,” and the women and children would stay inside the cabin. The circuit minister would stand in the doorway so everyone could hear.
The Methodist Episcopal Church grew numerically by leaps and bounds during the early 1800s, thanks in large part to the hard-riding and hard-preaching Methodist circuit riders who had been sent to the frontier communities west of the Appalachian Mountains. The 1812 Lebanon Circuit offers a vivid example both of the geographical size of these circuits, as well as the fact that most preaching places were pioneer homes. It contained the following 23 sites: Ebenezer, Bethlehem, Hank’s, Ross’s, Crabtree’s, Eatherly’s, Rice’s, Hancock’s, Center, Eckle’s, Baker’s, Shaw’s, McMinn’s, Dunkin’s, Felt’s, McGiner’s, Lankerster’s, Harvey’s, Smith’s, Hodge’s, Douglass’s, Malone’s, and Casey’s. (fn#1) Notice that all but three of the appointed preaching places were actually family homes!
By the spring of 1812, the General Conference split the Western Conference into the Ohio and Tennessee Conferences, with the northeastern part of Kentucky becoming part of the Ohio Conference. The Tennessee Conference included not only Tennessee, but also the remainder of Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Northern Alabama.
Because of the incredible growth recorded in the Tennessee Conference between 1812 and 1815, General Conference in 1816 decided to split the Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana districts off of the Tennessee Conference.
In 1815, the Tennessee Conference met at Bethlehem Meeting House, October 20-28, with Bishops Francis Asbury and William McKendree co-presiding. It stretches the mind to realise that circuit riders came from as far away as Louisian and Illinois to attend this meeting! Though nobody knew it at the time, it would be the last annual conference at which Asbury would ever preside.
Asbury, the first bishop of American Methodism, had traveled far every year since arriving in America. He never married or owned a home, but made the Methodist laity and clergy his family. By traveling more than a quarter of a million miles, he not only initiated the era of the circuit rider, but established itineracy firmly in American Methodism. He kept a journal throughout his ministry and recorded the following thoughts concerning the Annual Conference of 1815:
“Friday, 20. We opened our conference. Saturday, great peace, great order, and a great deal of business done.
“Sabbath, 22. I ordained the deacons, and preached a sermon, in which Doctor Coke was remembered. My eyes fail. I will resign the stations to Bishop M’Kendree — I will take away my feet. It is my fifty-fith year of ministry, and forty-fifth of labour in America….. My health is better, which may in part be because of my being less deeply interested in the business of the conferences. But whether health, life, or death, good is the will of Lord: I will trust him; yea, and will praise him: he is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — Glory! glory! glory! Conference was eight days and a half in session — hard labour. Bishop M’Kendree called upon me to preach at the ordination of the elders.” (fn#2)
As you can note from Asbury’s journal, Bishop McKendree (the first American-born bishop) handled much of the business of the conference that yeara, including stationing the preachers — the first time he had ever done so. Bishop Asbury rested in the upstairs room of the Babb family home during much of the conference. However, many believe that when he was called to preach during the ordination of the elders, he did so from the small window in the upstairs room, because he was so feeble. Other circuit riders noted in their memoirs that Asbury preached the last sermon of the conference from horseback; again, because he was to feeble to stand.
After the close of the conference, the two bishops crossed the mountains into North Carolina. There they separated, with Asbury headed for Charleston, the location of the South Carolina Conference that year. He hoped to arrive in time for the beginning of the conference on Christmas Day. Realizing, however, that he was not going to make it to Charleston in time for the conference, he turned northward to Virginia, determined to reach the General Conference at Baltimore in the spring. He made it as far as Spotsylvania, Virginia, where he collapsed and died two days later. Therefore, the last conference that Asbury attended was the Tennessee Conference of 1815 at Bethlehem Meeting House.
Asbury’s years in America saw the Methodist Societies, and then the Methodist Episcopal Church, grow from 600 members and six preachers in 1771, to more than 200,000 members and 700 preachers in 1816. He truly is the father of American Methodism.
Today, if you visit the Asbury-Babb House, you will find historical documents and books concerning Asbury and the Methodist Episcopal Church. You will also find saddlebags, said to hold all that a circuit rider carried with him when traveling his circuit. You will get a better feel for what it was like to be a Methodist on the Middle Tennessee frontier by obsrving a drawing of a camp meeting, Bethlehem’s mourning benches, and many other pictures and portraits displaying Methodist history. There are even period furnishings in the cabin, including a rope bed in the upstairs bedroom.
If you need more information about the Asbury-Babb House, or would like to schedule a tour, please call Mrs. Linda Collier at (615) 449-1942. We will be glad to give guided tours to individuals or groups, especially senior and confirmation church groups.
1. Paul Neff Garber, The Methodist Meeting House (New York: Editorial Department, Joint Division of Education and Cultivation, Board of Missions and Church Extension, The Methodist Church, 1941), p.28.
2. Francis Asbury, The Journals and Letters of Francis Asbury, 3 vol. Volume II The Journal 1794 to 1816, ed. Elmer T. Clark (Nashville: Abingdon, 1958), p.794.
Originally published in Methodism in the Tennessee Conference, Volume 1, No. 1, Summer 1999 by the Historical Society of the Tennessee Conference UMC. Used by permission.