By William Walter Hill
William Davis Carnes, son of Alexander Carnes and Mary Davis Carnes, was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina on Oct. 23, 1805. He had a twin sister who died in infancy. He was four years old when the family immigrated to Tennessee and settled in McMinnville, county seat of Warren County. His father was a pioneer merchant in McMinnville. He also invested in considerable real estate in and around McMinnville.
His father died soon after coming to Tennessee and left his widow on her own resources. With the aid of her brother, John Davis, she disposed of the store and real estate and with the proceeds bought a home in Milton, a small village in Rutherford County, near Murfreesboro, where she had friends. William was five years old when his mother moved to Rutherford County.
He learned to read by his own efforts, before he was of school age. His mother was greatly surprised when she found out that he could read and after several tests was convinced of that fact, but could not explain how he obtained that knowledge.
When William entered school he ranked among the best in all his classes, though most of his classmates were older than he. In the country schools of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the course of study was limited to the three R's (Reading, 'Riting, and "Rithmetic). But this did not satisfy his growing mind and his hunger for knowledge. His mother had a select library, consisting of religious books of the Presbyterian persuasion (his parents were Presbyterian and he was christened when a child). He read such of these as he could understand.
Such ardent pursuit after knowledge attracted the attention of Dr. Cowan of Woodbury, one of the few men in the circle of William's acquaintance who had the advantage of a liberal education. He became a helpful friend of the aspiring boy, invited him to his home, allowed him free use of his own library and directed his reading.
One of the characteristics of the first quarter of the nineteenth century was that it was a period of extraordinary religious activity. The movement which resulted in the establishment of the Christian Church began about 1805 in Kentucky with Barton W. Stone, pastor of a Presbyterian church. He saw the evil in denominationalism and the division of Christendom. About the same time, Alexander Campbell, also Presbyterian, began a reformation along the same lines in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Realizing that the plea of both men was the same, union was inevitable. So the followers of Stone and those of Campbell united.
This was a movement to unite all Christians by coming together and restoring the church according to the pattern laid down by the Apostles and Disciples of the first century of the Christian era: having no creed but Christ; no book of discipline except the Bible; in matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, charity; accepting the doctrines and practices of the New Testament church as given by the Apostles.
This movement and plea at once appealed to W. D. Carnes, and after reading some of Campbell's writings, he embraced it wholeheartedly. In his eighteenth year (1823), on a confession of faith he was immersed by a Christian evangelist. This movement spread rapidly, especially in the south and midwest and many denominational churches discarded their sectarian names and decided to be Christians only.
His mother, a Presbyterian, did not oppose him in these things and later became a member of the Christian Church. In his nineteenth year (1824) he entered the ministry.
Soon after beginning to preach, he was invited by an older and more experienced evangelist of the Church of Christ to accompany him on an evangelistic tour of revival meetings, beginning with the eastern Middle Tennessee counties, crossing over the Cumberland Mountains into Sequatchie Valley. One of the churches on their list for a meeting was the Smyrna church near Pikeville. The correspondence arranging for this meeting was addressed toSamuel Billingsley, an elder in that church. While holding the meeting there they were entertained in his home. While there W. D. Carnes came in contact with Elizabeth Billingsley, daughter of Samuel, and was charmed by her beauty and grace. She was converted during the meeting and the young preacher baptized her. There a romance began; he fell in love with Elizabeth and he had reason to believe she reciprocated it.
After they finished the meetings in the tour of churches, where they were engaged to hold meetings, the preachers went to their respective homes. But W. D. Carnes could no longer be content to remain in Rutherford County. He was charmed by the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains, and the beauty and fertility of Sequatchie Valley. But the greatest magnet that was drawing him back was Elizabeth Billingsley, his sweetheart in the Smyrna Community.
So when spring came to Sequatchie Valley W. D. Carnes came with it. He justified his hasty return by reasoning that the Lord needed workers in that part of his vineyard as well as elsewhere.
Elder Billingsley and Mrs. Billingsley gave him a hearty welcome which he had every reason to believe was sincere. Elder Billingsley told him that the Smyrna Church would support him as an evangelist up and down the Valley, that their home could be his headquarters while establishing new churches and strengthening weak ones.
William Davis Carnes and Elizabeth Billingsley were married on June 1, 1825.
After staying a few weeks at the Billingsley home, the young couple decided they would secure a home of their own and be independent. So they began searching for a place they could afford to buy with their small capital. By a fortunate coincidence, the property they desired above all others was offered for sale at a reasonable price and on easy terms. The property consisted of a farm of medium acreage, but very fertile, with a five room house on it. But the most valuable structure was a mill, centrally located in the valley, with two sets of stones--one for grinding corn and one for wheat--with an attachment for separating bran from flour. There was also a sawmill for cutting lumber run by the same waterpower.
The man who owned this property was eager to sell so he could immigrate to Illinois. He offered it at a low price, with a small cash down payment, with interest bearing notes for the balance, retaining a lien on the property till the notes were paid. This was a perilous venture for a young man with no money. But he had faith in God and faith in himself. So he took the risk--he borrowed the money to make the down payment.
The machinery of the mills was in good condition, but the buildings were in a rundown state and the dam needed repairs. So he went to work to make these repairs. He was strong, healthy, and ambitious and would work from early dawn to sunset, sometimes in water below the freezing point. He would work through the week and preach on Sunday.
After the mills were in good running order, the Carnes family prospered financially and was on easy street. Before many years he paid off the notes he made when he traded for the property and now held it debt free.
But in the meantime five children were born to William and Elizabeth Carnes, who will be named according to the order of their birth--Mary (1826), Campbell (1829), Amanda (1831), Alva (1833), and Erasmus (1835). Alva died of scarlet fever at six years of age.
W. D. Carnes, being the best educated man in the community, where educated men were scarce, was selected to teach the district school. Thus began his career as a teacher.
But with a growing family he realized that he was not capable of giving the children the advantages he wanted for them. In Pikeville, three miles from Smyrna, there was a fairly good brick building, called Lafayette Academy, but no teacher who could teach the academic branches. He discussed getting a high-grade teacher to teach the academy with the Trustees and families who had children to educate. They agreed to do so. So by correspondence with a teacher's agency in Massachusetts they secured the services of one James Garvin and wife, both graduates of reputable colleges. They taught one year in Pikeville.
Prof. Garvin was a scientist and the chair of physical science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville being vacant, he had no difficulty in securing the position.
Grandfather Carnes himself was not satisfied with his advancement. While Prof. Garvin had been in Pikeville, he had given W. D. Carnes a select course of study. The study was continued by correspondence even after Garvin went to Knoxville. But many of the textbooks contained Latin and Greek phrases he couldn't translate. He then realized how incomplete his education was. One evening he was reading a treatise on the development of the mind. Laying the book down with emphasis, he told Elizabeth that he must have a classical education. She told him she had been expecting to hear him say that and she had no objection.
To make the story short, influenced by Prof. Garvin, W. D. Carnes moved his family to Knoxville and matriculated in the University of Tennessee. With close application and with aid of previous study under Prof. Garvin, he completed the four-year course in three years. As soon as he completed the course and received his A.B. degree, he was elected principal of the Preparatory Department of the University. Two years later when the A.M. degree was conferred on him he was promoted to the professorship of English language and literature.
During this period of study at the University, the work was laborious and his ambition to make good caused great mental strain. In the winter of 1847, Prof. Carnes was seized with a violent illness, affecting his brain and nervous system. He was delirious for some time and his recovery was doubtful. After the crisis, his vitality was weak and recovery was slow. His physician advised complete rest of mind until he regained his normal health and strength. It was decided that the farm in Sequatchie Valley was an ideal place to meet these conditions. So back to the farm the Carnes family went.
After a change of employment and complete mental rest, his health improved rapidly. He intended to rest on the farm for two years, but after the novelty wore off, he became restless. Teaching was his vocation; he loved it, and could not be content in any other occupation. At this time there was no place for him in Knoxville as another man had been employed to fill his chair there. The Trustees of Lafayette Academy in Pikeville solicited him to teach there. He told the Trustees that he would accept the principalship of the academy for one year.
While he was teaching in the Academy, a movement was started to build a college at Spencer, the county seat of Van Buren County, Tennessee, and situated on the Cumberland Mountains on a line between East and Middle Tennessee. W. D. Carnes, being the most eminent educator in that part of the state, naturally was offered the Presidency of the college. W. B. Huddleston and I. N. Jones, both members of the Christian Church, were the promoters of this institution and it was their aim from the first to make Grandfather Carnes its president. Here it was that he spent the happiest and most fruitful years of his teaching career.
Burritt College under the presidency of W. D. Carnes opened its doors to students on Jan. 10, 1850. The number of students entering soon outgrew the capacity of the buildings. The need for more room was so urgent that President Carnes sold his farm in Sequatchie Valley and invested the proceeds in three brick buildings on the campus of Burritt College. The number of students doubled and trebled. Most of the southern states were represented in the student body.
In the administration of Burritt College at this time, whiskey caused the greatest trouble. There was no legal restraint on the manufacture and sale of liquors, and in the mountains and valleys surrounding Spencer there were many distilleries where the product was made and sold by peddlers who would come among the students of the college. Upon the recommendation of Pres. Carnes, the Trustees adopted a regulation imposing heavy penalties on students who had anything to do with intoxicants. As a result of the enforcement of this rule many students were expelled, among the number were sons of some of his most influential supporters.
There was strong opposition to this policy of the president. He was called a fanatic, but he did not waver or hesitate for a moment. In the midst of this conflict with the whiskey powers, Pres. Carnes received a letter from the Trustees of the University of Tennessee, offering him the presidency of that institution by a unanimous vote. He visited Knoxville and finding conditions favorable and satisfactory he accepted the presidency of the University of Tennessee, effective September 1, 1858. During the eight year period of Pres. Carnes administration of Burritt College before going to Knoxville, among the graduates of that institution were two of his daughters, Mary and Amanda. Mary Carnes andWilliam Jasper Hill were graduates of the same class and were soon married. His daughter Amanda married George Rogers, who was also a graduate.
Only months after Pres. Carnes took charge of the University of Tennessee, the greatest misfortune and sorrow of his life came when it was discovered that Elizabeth, his helpmate through all these years and mother of their large family of children, was the victim of the dreadful disease cancer. After the doctors in Knoxville pronounced her case hopeless, she was sent to a specialist in Cincinnati, who said that he could cure her. After an operation, which proved of no avail but only weakened her, she was carefully brought to Knoxville by boat and railroad. While still in her fifties, death released Elizabeth Billingsley Carnes of her suffering in September of 1859. Her body was carried slated in a metal casket to Sequatchie Valley and she was buried with her kindred in the Smyrna Cemetery.
After the funeral Pres. Carnes left his youngest daughter Annette with her sister Mary who had married William Jasper Hill. William and Mary were living in Pikeville where William practiced law with his brother-in-law Erasmus Carnes.
Broken in spirit, Pres. Carnes had no heart for his work in Knoxville. He had with him his two youngest sons, Joseph Malcolm and William D., Jr. His children were scattered and he thought if they continued thus they would become estranged from one another.
About that time there was a movement launched to build a Christian Church school at Franklin, Tennessee, twenty miles from Nashville. It was started by Tolbert Fanning, an influential minister of the Christian Church. Upon his recommendation, a convention was called to meet in Nashville. It was well attended. Pres. Carnes was invited to be present and the presidency of the proposed college was offered to him. He accepted the position effective at the close of the current term of the University of Tennessee. But this presidency was also short lived, for the next year, 1861, the Civil War broke out and the school was closed as were many other colleges and schools.
Being free of employment, his thoughts naturally turned to Sequatchie Valley and Pikeville, the place of sacred memories to him. So he came to make his home with his daughter, Mary Carnes Hill. By this time all of his sons had enlisted in the Confederate Army, as had his sons-in-law, William Hill and George Rogers. Amanda Rogers, his daughter, had died some time before and her daughter, Ida, was left with Mary to raise. Early in the war, William Hill, who was a Captain of Co. C, 53rd Tennessee Infantry, became a victim of typhoid fever and came home and died in February 1862. Grandfather Carnes and Mary Hill were thus left with the care of the five children of Mary and William, Ida Rogers, and Annette, W. D. Carnes' youngest daughter.
When the advancing lines of the Federal Army reached Pikeville, they abolished all civil government and established martial law, confiscating everything that could be found in the shape of food, making it difficult to get the necessities of life.
In Spencer, Tennessee, President Carnes and his family had friends and the Army had not reached there. So they moved to Spencer, where conditions were better. It was off the highways connecting larger towns.
After the war was over and peace restored, an effort was made to revive the movement to build a college under the auspices of the Christian Church. Instead of locating it at Franklin, Manchester offered inducements to build the college there and a large building was erected. W. D. Carnes was elected President and his daughter, Mary Carnes Hill, was elected as one of the assistant teachers. She was ever afterward associated with her father as long as he was engaged in educational work.
Manchester was located near the falls of the Duck River. A Mr. Brown, a capitalist from Nashville, who had three sons in the college, decided to use the power of the falls to operate a flourmill. He built a dam which caused the water of the river to spread out over a large territory of timbered land, making it an ideal place for breeding mosquitoes.
It was not known then that malaria was carried by mosquitoes. As a result chills and fever became prevalent in Manchester and all the region around; the president of the college and members of the faculty were infected with malaria. Scores of students, becoming ill, went home. It was in vain that President Carnes struggled for three years to maintain Manchester College, hoping that the epidemic would pass. His strength continued to decrease and he realized that it was useless to continue the school at Manchester.
Just at this time some of President Carnes' friends bought a controlling interest of the stock in Burritt College and he was glad to come back to the place of his first love. He began his career there as its president and he returned to end it.
Under this last period of administration of Burritt, with assistance of Mrs. Hill, the school progressed rapidly for ten years, students coming from Middle and East Tennessee counties and from other states in the south. Dr. T. W. Brents, a physician and preacher, moved his family to Spencer to educate them.
It becoming evident that a large college building was needed to meet the increased student body, the Trustees employed Dr. Brents, with President Carnes' approval, to sell Burritt College stock to raise money. Dr. Brents was a success at raising money, but when he would sell a share of stock, he would ask for the privilege of voting the proxy. No one suspected his design or that he had aspirations to be elected president of the college. His education was limited and his knowledge of academic branches rudimentary.
With the proxies of those to whom he sold stock, he packed the Board of Trustees, and when the new building was nearing completion, he demanded that President Carnes retire and he be elected president.
President Carnes' friends were dumbfounded with astonishment and indignation. Two of the Trustees resigned. There were many protests but the Brents faction was in control.
As soon as it was known that President Carnes' connection with Burritt College was severed, his friends in McMinnville offered him the presidency of Walling and Waters College, a church school they had built in that city. He accepted the offer. His friends knew that he felt that his work was completed.
After a few months a pain in the right side of his abdomen, slight at first, gradually increased in intensity. His physician diagnosed it as abscess of the liver. All the doctors consulted concurred in the diagnoses and that an operation would result in certain death. When informed of this he wanted to be returned to his home in Spencer.
He was not only resigned but cheerful. He spoke of his impending death with perfect calmness. As his strength failed, his voice grew weaker. His very last conscious utterance was Fanny Crosby's "Close to Thee". His spirit passed in the evening of November 26, 1879. At 74, he was buried in the Spencer Cemetery beside his mother who had preceded him in death.
I,William W. Hill, his grandson, had the good fortune to be intimately associated with this great, good and noble character from infancy until I was seventeen years of age. His life and teaching played a large part in shaping and directing my life. I cherish and revere his memory.
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