Dennis Kiefer Teams with Town and Church Historians
Rachel McKinney and Susan Gore to add Insight - and some
Confusion - to the Colorful History of Bethel College
and One of West Tennessee's Original Frontier
Among those present to
lay fresh memorials to Bethel College's early leaders
were (l to r): McLemoresville Historian Rachel McKinney,
Bethel College Development Office Representative
Virginia Claire Edwards, and Cumberland Presbyterian
Church Historical Foundation Director Susan Knight Gore.
(Back row, l to r): Bethel Alumnus and Project Spearhead
Dennis Kiefer, Harold Blow, President of the
McLemoresville Cemetery Association, and Pete Ramsey,
Session Clerk of the Bethel Cumberland Presbyterian
Church in McLemoresville.
In January this year Bethel College Alumnus
Dennis Kiefer of Memphis met with Susan Gore,
Director of the Historical Foundation of the
Cumberland Presbyterian Church, at a minister's
conference at Bethel College. The two embarked
upon a journey to discover more about the roots
of the college that in time led them to visit
Mrs. Rachel McKinney of McLemoresville who,
Dennis says, "had a lot of information and
also gave us a tour of the cemetery."
In the cemetery, located along
Highway 105 and West College Street in McLemoresville,
lies the bodies of two Cumberland Presbyterian officials
who played important roles in the early history of the
college: Reverend John Roach and Reverend Reuben Burrow.
Rev. Roach, who was the third
principal of Bethel Seminary according to the Historical
Foundation, reportedly rode into town on horseback with
his wife behind the saddle.
Rev. Roach is credited by the
group as the first president of Bethel College since he
was principal of Bethel Seminary (which was chartered by
the State of Tennessee in 1847) when the institution
became a college.
The tall, aged marble monument
in the cemetery confirms his status as Bethel President,
reading in both English and Latin, "REVEREND JOHN
NEAL ROACH, PRESIDENT OF BETHEL COLLEGE: In memory of
whose many excellent virtues and distinguished abilities
as an eloquent, divine and able instructor of youth, and
in admiration of whose character as a patriotic citizen,
a kind neighbor, a devoted husband, and affectionate
father, this marble statue is erected by his beloved
pupils and friends. He was born in Wilson County,
Tennessee, May 15, 1816, embraced religion and entered
the ministry at a very early age, consecrated his life
to the great interests of education and religion and
died a martyr to his calling November 19, 1852, aged
Unspoken was the controversy
that was alluded to in his funeral service, which was
conducted by Bro. A. E. Cooper, to a crowd that
reportedly filled the church to overflowing. Church
history reads, "The speaker correctly remarked,
that 'the deceased shared the fate of all bold and
fearless minds, determined on doing good - 'Envy heard
his fame, and saw his works of love with envious eye;
Slander at him hurled her poisonous darts; but all in
vain. In conscious rectitude he stood, and defied the
storm, and labored on, As though he thought each day
might be his last.' Like the pure gold tried in the
furnace, he passed the fiery ordeal unhurt. The
poisonous shafts of calumny and persecution fell
harmless at his feet, and he has gone down to his grave
in peace and full of hope of a glorious blissful
immortality. He has left a rich legacy to his bereaved
family and friends in his good name, and in his noble
deeds and labors of love. The memory of the just is
Reverend Burrow, to whom has
been credited the first presidency in college
literature, is not listed among the presidents cited by
the Historical Foundation, which include - spanning a
time period from Rev. Roach's death in 1852 through the
Civil War, when the college was temporarily closed -
Professor Philip Riley (1852-1854, maybe interim), Rev.
Azel Freeman (1854 - 1855, maybe interim), Rev. C.J.
Bradley (1855-1856), Rev. Felix Johnson (1856-1858), and
Rev. Michael Liles (1858-1861).
Their records are also
confusing, however, considering the fact that the
1852-53 Bethel College Catalog stated: "The vacancy
occasioned by the death of President Roach has been
recently filled by the appointment of the Rev. C.J.
Rev. Burrow's own extensive
written history (which can be read at www.cumberland.org/HFCPC/minister/BurrowR.htm)
states that in 1807 in Bedford County "the country
was new, and covered with a thick and heavy forest. I
was trained to industry, but was surrounded on all sides
by dissipation, irreligion, and the desecration of the
Sabbath, and for several years the state of society
seemed, instead of growing better, to grow worse. There
were schools of the common kind, conducted by
incompetent teachers, but very little, if any,
improvement was made for some time. Consequently, the
opportunities afforded for an education were very
Around 1820, he wrote, "I
found peace with God in the dreary forest of what is now
Carroll County, about twelve miles from what is at
present McLemoresville. This occurred in the spring of
1821. That summer I returned to Middle Tennessee, and
joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church."
His record ends before his 1852
appointment as Professor of Systematic Theology at
Bethel College. He also became pastor of the church in
McLemoresville and, in 1853 or 1854, received the Degree
of Doctor of Divinity from the school.
He became ill in 1867 and died
in Shelby County on the 13th of May 1868, but was
brought home to McLemoresville for burial. During the
course of the Civil War, which raged from 1861, when the
college was closed due to the war, through 1865, Dr.
Burrow lost three sons among his nine children, also
losing his wife, Elizabeth, in 1863.
A group composed of Mr. Kiefer,
Ms. Gore, and Mrs. McKinney, along with Mr. Kiefer's
wife, Dr. Patsy Kiefer; Harold Blow, President of the
McLemoresville Cemetery Association; Virginia Claire
Edwards, a member of the Development Office of Bethel
College; and Pete Ramsey, Session Clerk of the Bethel
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in McLemoresville, met on
August 15 to lay new markers alongside the marble
monuments memorializing the two significant gentlemen in
Dennis solemnized the occasion
by playing "Amazing Grace" on the Highland
pipes, known colloquially as "bagpipes."
Adding excitement to their
quest, Dennis and Susan learned Mrs. McKinney had in her
possession a photo of the original Bethel College
building. Mrs. McKinney also advised them the site of
the school was not on the side of the highway that bears
a historical marker attesting to its presence, but was
actually located where the West Carroll Elementary
School building now stands.
Bethel College evolved from the
McLemoresville "Brick Academy".
"The Brick Academy was a
good school that attracted students from other
communities, Alvin Hawkins among them," said Mrs.
McKinney. Alvin Hawkins was the Kentucky-born legislator
who served as a Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court
from 1865-68 and was Governor of Tennessee from
The Cumberland Presbyterian
Church bought the Brick Academy and established Bethel
College in 1842, initially calling the school Bethel
Seminary. The school was devoted to training young men
for the ministry as well as those seeking higher
During the Civil War, both Union
and the Confederate Armies occupied the facility.
Consequently, much of the laboratory and classroom
equipment and supplies were destroyed while many of its
students served in one or the other of the armies. Union
forces confiscated a large telescope they thought was
used as a spy device. Later returned to the school, the
telescope is now in the safe keeping of the college
though Mrs. McKinney wishes it were on display in the
Bethel reopened in 1865 under
the administration of the Rev. Mr. B.W. McDonnold. At
this time, women were accepted into the institution for
the first time.
Before the War, Mrs. McKinney
related, McLemoresville was a thriving town that was a
shopping and shipping center as well as being a center
"There were also plenty of
refreshments with several saloons in town," she
Plans had been made for the
construction of a railroad that Mr. Kiefer says would
have cut between the cemetery and the school.
"The war changed the lives
of many people," said Mrs. McKinney, "the
construction of the railroad moved to McKenzie and
Bethel went with it to be near transportation."
The Methodist Episcopal Church
bought the college property from the CP Church in 1886
and established the McLemoresville Collegiate Institute,
whose first president was L.S. Mitchell, the grandfather
of current McLemoresville resident and city board member
"That was also a good
school," Mrs. McKinney said. A new building was
built in 1912 and in 1926 a separate church building was
built in order for the schoolhouse to devote its entire
space to education. In 1930, the school became a public
It's the years between 1872 and
1886 that perplex Mrs. McKinney. "The school for a
little while was privately run by somebody," she
said. A "subscription school" taught by Johnny
Hall may have filled or partially occupied the missing
"If they didn't have money
they paid him in groceries," she related. "I
wonder sometimes what happened between 1872 when Bethel
moved and Methodists bought the school in 1886. I don't
know who ran it during that period; I wonder if that's
when they had the subscription school or if it was when
the town was young."
"I turned a deaf ear to a
lot of things like we all do when we're young,"
laments Mrs. McKinney, feeling she could provide more
history had she only paid closer attention. Her
father-in-law Conrad (Connie) McKinney and E.H. Harrell,
she says, taught school a long time and left notes from
a long time ago.
"Those people knew the very
first people in the area," she says. She hopes to
have time this winter to devote to deciphering the
information that is still in longhand form. For now,
however, Mrs. McKinney, at 85 years old, has an acre of
lawn and a yard full of flowers to look after. Check
back next week for the personal side of McLemoresville's
This was the first building to
house Bethel College, according
to local historian
Rachel McKinney of McLemoresville.