St. John's Ashwood

St. John’s

Episcopal Church

Consecrated 1842


St. John's Church, Ashwood, one of the last remaining plantation churches in the South, was built by Leonidas Polk and three of his brothers, all sons of William Polk. Construction began in 1839. The church was completed and consecrated in 1842.


As one stands in the peaceful grove of magnolias and oaks in the churchyard, one can hear the echoes of history: the tolling of the Sunday morning church bell, a baby's cry on christening day, dramatic orations by Episcopal priests and Bishops, sighs of the bereaved as they lay their Confederate war heroes to rest in the church cemetery, even the crack of a rifle fired in skirmishes fought around the church and in the nearby fields during the War Between the States, all telling the story of this unique and well-preserved
historical structure and churchyard

Five miles southwest of Columbia, Tennessee, in Maury County, St. John's Episcopal Church sits quietly beside the busy Mt. Pleasant Pike just as it did twenty years before the Civil War. The handsome brick church, nestled in a shady grove of trees, is inviting to the traveler, if only to admire its stately elegance as architecture of a time past; but the rich history of the church and the surrounding cemetery compel the visitor to learn more and to appreciate this microcosm of plantation life at its height just prior to the War Between the States.

The history of St. John's begins somewhat incongruously with a dice game in which the stakes included scrip issued by the State of North Carolina to her Revolutionary War soldiers for the land in Tennessee. William Polk of Raleigh, North Carolina, won 5,648 acres during this game of chance with the Governor of North Carolina, and later when the land was located, Polk dubbed it his "Rattle and Snap" tract. The acreage adjoined the 25,000 acres granted to General Nathaniel Greene, and it was considered some of the best, if not the best land in Tennessee.

In 1784, William Polk was appointed surveyor-general of the middle district of Tennessee, and he soon opened an office in Nashville. The next year he represented Davidson County in the North Carolina legislature, and he continued his land speculation until he was one of the largest holders of Tennessee acreage at 100,000 acres in 1819. Polk reserved the Rattle and Snap tract for four of his sons by his second marriage to Sarah Hawkins.

    The rough and tumble pioneer period was over when Polk's sons came to claim their share of their father's land. They were not the first of their name to come to Maury County, however, as Polk cousins had been in the county from the first settlement. A son of one of the early families, James Knox Polk, would become the eleventh President of the United States. The William Polk brothers came at the beginning of the plantation era of Maury County when a more comfortable living was possible, when fine homes were
built to replace the rough frontier cabins, and when large fortunes were established in land, slaves and business ventures. The Polks were leaders in this new society.

The first to come was Lucius Junius Polk (1802-1870) who arrived in 1823, and built Hamilton Place. Leonidas Polk (1806-1864) arrived in 1833 and built the imposing mansion Ashwood Hall. Rufus King Polk joined his brothers in 1836 and built Westwood. In 1840, George Washington Polk took up his land and completed his magnificent mansion Rattle and Snap in 1845.




The idea and inspiration to build a church was unquestionably Leonidas Polk's. He chose a slight elevation at a point where the four plantations joined. Leonidas was a graduate of West Point, a roommate of Albert Sidney Johnston, and a close friend of Jefferson Davis. While these two close friends chose military and political careers, Leonidas Polk entered the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. Shortly after his arrival in Maury County, Leonidas became the rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Columbia.  


Leonidas Polk donated the land for St. John's Church, drew up the plans, supervised the construction and provided slaves for the building of the church. The other three brothers contributed to the construction. Polk hands cleared the site, quarried the foundation stones, forged the nails, and hewed the timbers for rafters and beams. The wood for the reredos, communion rail, and choir loft was black cherry from a huge tree on the site. The pews were fashioned from pine with decorative hand graining. Clay for the bricks was dug from a nearby pit, and the ironwork was done by skilled blacksmith slaves. The ivy that grew about the church began from a sprig that Leonidas Polk had cut from Kenilworth Castle in England, site of much of Sir Walter Scott's popular writing.

One minor difficulty arose when the brick mason reportedly had trouble shaping bricks to be used in the pointed arches over the doorway and windows. The matter was resolved when the mason "had a vision" in the night. Note the pointed arches of the windows and the front doorway arch which is shaped in the form of an acorn cap, the acorn being the symbol of the Polk family.



St. John's was consecrated on September 4, 1842, in a ceremony that lasted four and one-half hours. More than five hundred souls, half of them slaves, filled the church to overflowing. Black folks and white folks were literally elbow to elbow during the entire service, and this precedent set on the day of consecration, in which the races were not separated, although unusual in its day, continued through the active life of the congregation.  By this time in 1842, Leonidas Polk's talents for inspiration and organization were so noted that he was named Missionary Bishop to the South West, all territory west of the Mississippi River, and subsequently Bishop of Louisiana. Even though he thought this piece of land the loveliest in the world, he sold his home and acreage to his younger brother Andrew and moved to New Orleans.


Services were discontinued during the Civil War, but the church was the scene of military action. The Union Army of the Cumberland, under Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, sacked the church enroute to Shiloh on April 2, 1862.  Yankee soldiers broke windows, cracked the church bell, hacked the organ to pieces and blew on the pipes as they staggered drunkenly down the Mt. Pleasant Pike on their way to fight the bloody battle at Shiloh. Some of Buell's officers took altar cloths to use as saddle blankets.

Leonidas Polk, retaining his holy orders, resigned his administrative post as Bishop of Louisiana and accepted a comission in June of 1861 from his good friend Jefferson Davis as a Major General in the Confederate Army. He was killed by a cannonball which struck him in the chest at the Battle of Pine Mountain on June 14, 1864. Contrary to his wishes expressed in his will that he be buried at St. John's, Polk is buried at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans.

Skirmishing around the church took place at the end of November 1864, during Confederate General John Bell Hood's invasion of Tennessee. According to the diary of Mary Polk Branch, "soldiers fought around its walls and the dying were piled upon the floor."

As Hood brought the weary Army of Tennessee north for the final battles at Franklin and Nashville, they passed by St. John's Church. General Patrick Cleburne paused for a few moments in the lovely churchyard. "It is almost worth dying for to be buried in such a beautiful spot," he said. Within a week, after his heroics at the Battle of Franklin, he would be buried at St. John's, along with Generals Strahl and Granbury. Their bodies have since been removed to other cemeteries. Confederate General Lucius E. Polk is buried in the churchyard.




Services resumed on a sporadic basis following the end of the war. The church, which by then recorded only thirteen members, shared a deacon with St. Mark's Church in Williamsport. Member-ship increased to twenty-two by 1872, when the Reverend Richard N. Newell was assigned to the parish. Newell served St. John's until his death in 1889. His devotion to the church was such that he is buried at the rear entrance of the structure where so many times he had entered and proclaimed in a strong, clear voice, "The Lord is in His Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him."




The Rt. Rev. James Hervey Otey, who organized the Diocese of Tennessee in 1828, and was the first Bishop of Tennessee, is buried in the churchyard. Many of the succeeding bishops of the Diocese of Tennessee are also buried at St. John's. These include the Rt. Rev. Theodore Knott Barth, The Rt. Rev. John Vander Horst, the Rt. Rev. James Matthew Maxon, and Suffragan Bishop W. Frederick Gates, formerly rector at St. Peter's, Columbia, for twenty-three years. Four living bishops have lots at St. John's.




The church was used on an infrequent basis until 1915, at which time St. John's was given to the Dioceses of Tennessee by the Polk family. Annual one-day pilgrimages began in 1921. Services are held on Whitsunday each year with one of the bishops of the Diocese of Tennessee officiating. A picnic on the grounds follows.

The St. John's Memorial Association was incorporated on October 23, 1906. In 1952, the Diocese of Tennessee chartered a non-profit corporation to oversee the care and preservation of St. John's Church and the cemetery consisting of officers and a board of directors.

In 1970, St. John's was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was recognized by the National Register as a significant part of American history, architecture, archaeology and culture.

The board undertook the first major and total restoration of St. John's in 1991. This restoration lasted seven years, stabilized the building, and restored the property to its historic zenith.

On Memorial Day weekend in 2001, St. John's was vandalized with a fifth of the nineteenth century floated glass smashed, one-half of the window sashes damaged, the 1890 Packard organ thrown over the balcony, and fifty-four headstones in the historic churchyard toppled over and damaged. St. John's was restored, once again, through donations from Episcopalians and friends from throughout the South and nation.




      St. John's continues to stand as a reflection of our past because of the generosity of Episcopalians, Friends of St. John's, the Polk Family, and descendants of those buried in the churchyard. The preservation of this landmark is vital so that future generations may know from whence they came and that much of America's strength is derived from both its proud and battle-scarred moments. St. John's Church, Ashwood, stands today, as in 1865, above the ruins of war, and through succeeding generations remains the simple and peaceful symbol of faith and hope in a new world.


·         Information taken from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly article by Jill Garrett, Maury County historian and previous brochures


You may contribute to the ongoing restoration and maintenance of St. John’s Church by forwarding your tax-deductible contribution to:

St. John’s Episcopal Church
1116 West 7th St. 
PMB 75
Columbia TN 38401

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