Tennessee Mountain Stories

Family, Religion and Politics

We mountain folk are a bit clannish and proud of it.  I’ve recently been learning about our Scots-Irish heritage and our ancestors seem to have passed their devotion to clan along through the generations.  Family means a lot to us and it is largely the center of society on the mountain.  While there’s always been the occasional ‘black sheep’ that didn’t seem to fit the rest of the herd, we are usually quite alike across the family and usually across several generations.

This leads me to ponder where changes creep into families.  And nothing is more creeping than differences of opinion on religion or politics.  My own great-great grandfather, Daniel Todd, came from a family of Methodists.  He said, “There’s two things I could never be, a Democrat or a Baptist”. 

Daniel was the grandson of a Virginia plantation owner.  Our family historian has found no evidence that William G. Todd kept any slaves on that plantation yet he stayed in Russell County, Virginia until the end of The Civil War.  It seems his anti-slavery sentiments rendered him too unpopular with his neighbors and very shortly after the war he headed west.  After a few years, he settled on the Cumberland Plateau in the Martha Washington community.  He had sixteen children and while the five eldest were already adults when he left Virginia, he brought a houseful with him. 

History has not preserved a lot of either William or Daniel’s political opnions, but the Republican Party was pretty new when they presented Abraham Lincoln as their candidate in 1860.  This was the liberal party of the day, urging modernization of the economy and of course demanding freedom for the slaves.  More than half a century later, some still thought of democrats as being pro-slavery. 

The Democrats were fractured in 1860 and presented a Northern Democratic candidate on the platform of completing the railroad to the Pacific, buying Cuba and a strong support of the Supreme Court.  The Southern Democratic party’s platform read much the same but with a bit more emphasis on territorial rights and especially the clause that territories would be admitted as states whether they would be free or slave states.

When Daniel’s oldest granddaughter announced she would marry, her father’s only comment was, “he’s a Democrat you know.”  When she repeated that to her own son years later, they believed it was still the slavery issue that held the family solidly in the Republican party after nearly three-quarters of a century.

Now we know that when mountain people get ahold of a belief, we hold on strong.  But an old lady from Cooktown told me once that her family was Republican until President Hoover ‘nearly starved us all to death’ and they vowed they would never again vote for a Republican.  She was only ten years old when the stock market crashed and plunged America into The Great Depression, but she remained faithful to that vow into the twenty-first century.

Understanding the politics of the late nineteenth century and the Todd’s suffering for their decision to not own slaves, seems to make Daniel’s political party choice obvious.    Yet he raised eleven children and while his politics held strong among them, only two children remained in the Methodist church.  That trend seems out of whack since this family was much stronger in their religion than their politics.

The Todds and their descendents were faithful church members.  Daniel’s wife Lottie and his sister-in-law Gracie are largely credited with the founding of the Martha Washington Baptist Church despite their dedication to Methodism.  Walking all the way to Clarkrange from their Martha Washington homes wasn’t very practical in inclement weather, or when the circuit preacher wasn’t in attendance.  So, these ladies sought permission to hold Sunday School in the building of the Martha Washington School.  I suppose that was rather non-denominational and in fact, there were other groups represented in that congregation before it finally settled as a Freewill Baptist Church.

Daniel had only three sons but two of them were preachers, both in the Baptist church – although the younger son spent some time in the Holiness Church.  The oldest of the Todd children married a family that was charter members of the Campground Baptist Church and raised her own family as Baptists.

It’s a lot easier to research the changing positions of America’s political parties than the changing face of our churches over the years.  For many years travel limitations and scarcity of preachers led us to whatever church was having services and wherever we could reach.  Remember that the Campground Church housed not only Baptists and Methodists but a Presbyterian congregation as well.  Many have long held that the denominations that shared the basic tenet of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ were all brethren and could therefore be accepted.  Even the Holiness church that Daniel Todd’s youngest son preached in got its start from early Methodists.

Once again, as I look at these changes in this family over five generations, I’m left with more questions than answers.  Some facts and lots of stories remain but no one seems able to answer my ever-present, “Why?”.

In the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, we see Scarlett O’Hara in a rare fit of conscience fearing she’ll die and go to hell.  Rhett Butler comforts her with the idea that “…maybe there isn’t any hell.” But Scarlett replies, “Oh there is.  I know there is.  I was raised on it.” (The dialog was a little different in the novel.) 

Scarlett had a reason for her belief, but I’m not sure that was what Peter had in mind when he directed us in 1 Peter 3:15 “…[to] be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…” As shallow as the answer may seem, I can’t help but wonder how many of our beliefs are really built on “I was raised on it.”

Daniel Todd's Daughters

Daniel Todd's Daughters