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Man had 'pearl of great price'

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At 47, the Rev. Robert Henderson had finally forsaken all, being determined to die to all selfish elements.

He had been a pastor of several churches for more than 23 years. It was 1811 and this true resignation was compelling him to travel overland from Maury County to the tiny village of Cannonsburg in Rutherford County.

In an earlier time, there had been another spiritual mandate that he could not refuse.

At the age of 24 when he became an ordained Presbyterian minister, Henderson moved with his family to East Tennessee from Virginia. It was in this wilderness that he met and studied with the popular Samuel Doak, Tennessee’s first resident minister and educator.

From Doak, Henderson learned strength and a determined zeal for the lost on the frontier.

With a grove of trees as a sanctuary and a horse as a pulpit, Doak and Henderson delivered many fiery sermons. Young Henderson had learned to be an aggressive evangelist from the energetic Doak.

As more communities were beginning to organize, Doak and Henderson crossed the Cumberland Mountains to the isolated areas near Nashville and the Rev. Henderson settled with his family in Maury County.

Doak returned to East Tennessee, but was not content in spending all his energies on his religious endeavors.

He founded the first educational institution between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River, Washington College in East Tennessee. Tennessee’s first resident minister became the area’s most prominent academic.

Consequently, Doak’s vigor for education was shared with Henderson as a young pastor.

A small group of 18 people were meeting on a hillside in a log schoolhouse near Murfree Spring (presently the site behind the Discovery Center on Broad Street), a short time before the town of Murfreesboro was established.  The strong-willed, well-muscled Henderson had wrestled with his conviction.

However, he had found the inner courage to leave his home in Maury County to preach to the fledgling but hopeful assembly. After the service was completed, the congregation proposed to organize a church of the Presbyterian order.

As Rutherford County became more densely populated, the church membership grew. The Murfree Springs Church continued to meet in the old schoolhouse and in good weather under the trees.

In April of 1818 under the leadership of Henderson, the group took the initiative to construct their first permanent house of worship. This structure, a brick building about 40 feet by 60 feet was located at the present site of the Old City Cemetery on East Vine Street on land donated by Capt. William Lytle.

The Murfree Springs Church later became the First Presbyterian Church, the first organized church in Murfreesboro, which is presently on the corner of  College and Spring streets.

Henderson became the first resident minister of the county. No doubt, the church has played a significant role in the history of our community not only for Rutherford County, but also for the state and the nation.

When the County Courthouse burned in 1822 while Murfreesboro was the state capital, the General Assembly held their meetings in the church. During this period many distinguished state and national figures frequented this building: James K. Polk was the clerk of the Senate. Sam Houston served as the adjunct-general during this time. Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett attended the legislative sessions and began their political career in the chambers of the First Presbyterian Church.

Like his spiritual mentor, Samuel Doak, Henderson became intensely interested in education becoming one of the founders of the Bradley Academy.

While he was pastor of the Murfree Springs Church, he gained popularity as a teacher with the students at the school, one of those students was James K. Polk who was to become governor of Tennessee and later President of the United States in 1844.

Although Henderson could not see into the future, his simple act of submission had extraordinary results. His spiritual life of obedience created an environment which birthed a community, state, and nation. He had found the "pearl of great price” that the Bible speaks of:

“Again the kingdom of heaven is like a man who is a dealer in search of fine precious pearls, who, on finding a single pearl of great price, went and sold all he had and bought it.”(Matthew 13:45-46)
Tagged under  History, Religion, Rutherford County, Voices

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