John Dillahunty and Baptist Origins in Nashville

by Robert Lyle Williams.

 The first Baptist church south of the Cumberland River, the Richland Creek Church, was founded by John Dillahunty, a Maryland-born Baptist preacher. His father is recognized as having been a Huguenot, but John was raised as a Catholic, in his mother’s religion. His “De La Hunte” paternal grandparents reportedly fled from France to the Netherlands in 1685 and then to Ireland in 1695. No primary-source documentation has been located regarding Dillahunty’s grandparents, their ancestry, or the definitive spelling of their surname.

After John married Quaker Hannah Neal in 1747, their respective churches excommunicated them. Around 1751 they relocated to North Carolina where John became the first sheriff of Craven County. He received a colonial land agent commission which spelled his name “Dillahunty,” a spelling he and his Tennessee descendants continued to use.

Dillahunty heard the celebrated George Whitefield preach in 1755 and was later converted by the preaching of Shubal Stearns and baptized by Philip Mulkey, both Baptists. He became a deacon and licensed preacher prior to the Revolutionary War, during which he served as a chaplain.

John led a group of families to Davidson County in 1795. The following year he founded Richland Creek Church. The church building was a log structure sited on the south bank of Richland Creek. A 1925 eyewitness account placed the location across from the Belle Meade golf course, about 300 yards west of the clubhouse.

John Dillahunty died February 8, 1816, in his 88th year. Hannah died soon thereafter, on May 5, 1816. Their 67-year marriage had produced nine children, all of whom lived into adulthood. John and Hannah were buried together in a small cemetery next to the Richland Creek Church, the stone foundation of which survived into the 20th century, along with the cemetery. A 1931 Colonial Dames survey documented seven tombstone inscriptions, including those of John and Hannah Dillahunty.

Local historian and General Harding descendant Ridley Wills II recalls playing among the Dillahunty graveyard tombstones on Nichol Lane near Richland Creek. In early 2003 the Davidson County Cemetery Survey located the likely cemetery site on Nichol Lane. In March 2003, employing a probe, Tennessee State Archaeologist Nick Fielder verified the presence of two graves at this location.

The Dillahunty tombstones were moved to a memorial chapel at Baptist Hospital sometime after World War II. The hospital has since been unable to determine their disposition; their present location is a mystery awaiting resolution.

Elder Joel Anderson succeeded John Dillahunty as pastor of Richland Creek Church. Anderson moved the church one or two miles west from its original location and changed the name to Providence Church. He was succeeded by Elder John Little, then by the Rev. Jesse Cox, who served the church for 42 years. It is no longer extant.

In his 85th year Jesse Cox wrote, “I heard Elder Dillahunty preach regularly once a month for about eight years; he was a man of small stature, and was, being old, quite feeble. He was not an orator, but sound in the faith, of unblemished character and commanded large congregations. Some of his members were among the best citizens of Nashville.”

Garner McConnico, a Virginia Baptist minister, came to Tennessee around 1798. He had personal doubts about continuing his ministry but was inspired by John Dillahunty to found, in 1800, the Harpeth Baptist Church, which he led as pastor until his death in 1833. McConnico was instrumental in the 1803 organization of the Cumberland Association; he was its first Moderator and served in that capacity until his death.

John Dillahunty was also involved with the Mill Creek Church, the second Baptist church south of the Cumberland (founded in 1797). In 1806 the Mill Creek Church met in conference and chose “Brother Dillahunty” as Moderator. Mill Creek’s first and long-time pastor, James Whitsitt, served as an executor of Dillahunty’s will.

Postcard image of First Baptist Church from NHN collection

There was no Baptist church in Nashville until James Whitsitt aided Jeremiah Vardeman in establishing the first one in 1820. Its initial membership was comprised of transfers from Mill Creek. The new church adopted the name First Baptist Church of Nashville in 1830.

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