Monday, December 16, 2013

The First Missionary Trial in Tennessee

Early in the history of the LDS Church in Tennessee, two missionaries found themselves facing angry citizens. It wasn't the first time people had assembled in anger against the Church’s missionary efforts. But is was the first time those actions ended up in a court of law.

In June 1836,[1] a Methodist clergyman named Matthew Williams[2] presented a complaint to the Benton County court that three LDS missionaries – David W. Patten, Warren Parrish, and Wilford Woodruff - were preaching false doctrine, namely “That Christ would come the second time before this generation passed away,” and “That four individuals should receive the Holy Ghost within twenty-four hours.” On June 19th. an officer of the court, Sheriff Robert C. Petty[3] led an armed group of about forty men to the home of Seth Utley where Patten and Parrish were staying – Woodruff was at the time in Kentucky. Upon presentation to the magistrate - probably George W. Farmer - they were given a court date of June 22nd, and were freed on $2,000 bond. Local members (Seth Utley and Albert Petty) of the Church provided collateral for the bond.

On the morning of June 22nd, Patten and Parrish presented themselves at the courthouse for the trial. The two were disarmed, including Patten’s walking stick and a penknife. The one room log courthouse would not admit the entire assembled crowd, so many were forced to wait outside. Ephraim Perkins[4] was the attorney for the prosecution. According to Woodruff, the trial proceeded without the defendants being allowed to present a defense, or call witnesses. At the end of the prosecution’s case, the magistrate pronounced them guilty on all charges. According to Woodruff, after the guilty verdict, Patten responded.

Brother Patten being filled with the Holy Ghost rose to his feet and by the power of God bound them fast to their seats until he addressed them. He rebuked them sharply for their wicked and unjust proceedings. Brother Parrish afterwards said, 'my hair stood up strait on my head for I expected to be killed.' When Patten closed, the judge addressed him saying, 'you must be armed with concealed weapons, or you would not treat an armed court as you have this.' Patten replied, 'I am armed with weapons you know not of, and my weapons are the Holy Priesthood and the power of God. God is my friend, and he permits you to exercise all the power you have, and he bestows on me all the power I have.'

Ultimately the Court decided that the defendants could be released if they would pay court costs and leave the county within 10 days. In the interest of avoiding violence, the two missionaries agreed to the terms. Payment was arranged and they were released. Patten and Parrish retired to the Utley home where they prepared to spend the night.

While the guilty decision of the court was certainly what was hoped for by those who issued the complaint, the punishment clearly did not satisfy them. News that a mob was gathering to serve their own justice reached the Utley home, where the missionaries prudently decided to move to another members home for the night. The mounted their mules and took a back woods road to the home of Albert Petty where they retired for the night. Wilford Woodruff went on to explain…

They had not been long asleep when some heavenly messenger came to brother Patten and told him to arise and leave that place for the mob were after them and would soon be at that house. Brother Patten awoke Parrish and told him to arise and dress himself, for the mob would soon be upon them. They arose, saddled their animals and started for Henry County, in the night.

As expected Brother Petty soon found his home surrounded by an angry mob. They were not dissuaded when told that the missionaries had already left, choosing to search the home and the surrounding area. It wasn't until dawn that the mob discovered Patten and Parrish’s mules tracks. They followed them north to Henry County, but gave up pursuit when the tracks crossed the county line.

[1] Benton County was formed in December 1835. The County government was formed in February 1836 in a small log building just west of Camden.

[2] Matthew Williams was born in North Carolina in 1797.  He settled along Cypress Creek near Cowell Chapel just south of present day Camden, before 1824 when he built the first water powered mill in the county. He and his wife show up in the 1840 Census for Benton County with four daughters and two sons and in the 1850 census with just three adult daughters still at home. The 1850 census confirms that he was a Methodist clergyman. 

[3] In a Benton County history by Jonathon K. Smith, the Sheriff’s name was Jones, and Robert Petty was one of the men who worked for Jones. Woodruff likely pointed out and (perhaps unknowingly) inflated the level of Petty’s participation because he later joined the Church and in 1844 was ordained an Elder.

[4] In the Tennessee County History Series: Benton County, Jonathon K.Smith described Perkins this way "One of Benton County's earliest settlers and an astute politician, Ephraim Perkins, acquired a large farm on Burnside Creek, about two miles north of Camden. A veteran of the War of 1812, he was chairman of the county court several times, a local land entry-taker, and a land speculator."


Bessie said...

I really enjoyed reading this account. Thank you for sharing it.

JB said...

It is really fascinating to read this account again. Which of Woodruff's published accounts are you relying on for the quotes? The only one I recalled was from his journal entry on 19 July 1836. Given the account you shared of what they said to the judge, no wonder Woodruff described them as "appear[ing] at court to plead their own cause like St. Paul"!

BruceAllen said...

Thanks Bessie

JB, I have relied on Jensen's quotation of Wilford Woodruff in his LDS biographical Encyclopedia entry on David Patten.

Mike said...


It is nice to see that Tennessee carries its own treasures of Latter-Day Saint History. Thanks for continuing to uncover them.

This particular account was interesting.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work. You have wonderful stories of the great faith of the missionaries and members in Tennessee. I served as a missionary in Columbia and other towns for a year and a half in 1962 and 1963. I have a great love for the people there. It is a miracle to see the growth of the Church in the state. David Smith

BruceAllen said...

In the southern states, Tennessee has the greatest amount of history for the period. It wasn't until later years that the work moved to the surrounding states. That means that yes, we do have a treasure of history with which to work.

BruceAllen said...

I attended the Columbia Ward for a couple of years and keep in touch with many people who still live there. Drop me a line sometime and we can reminisce if you'd like.

Lynne said...

I am researching Robert C. Petty in Tennessee and this is helpful. One thing that was new to me is that Robert Petty was in the Chalk Creek branch before he was made branch president of the Eagle Creek branch. Do you have a source for this? Do you have any insights for where that places his residence as it puts him in both locations? Also, the sheriff of Benton County is listed as Thomas Jones, 1836-42 in the "Tennessee Trails" Goodspeeds History of Tennessee, which would indeed make Robert C. Petty an assistant. Our family tradition is that he went along with the mob to ensure the peace, which, after serious study of his life for the past 5 years reconciles with his profile better (an angry mobster does not compute to me, although I could be wrong!)