Plenty to be learned from the Rev. William Keel


Slowly, time and progress had transformed the landscape of Middle Tennessee. The dense forests and woodlands laden with wild violets, columbine and shooting star had changed into cultivated fields of crimson clover. Clasping his withered claw-like hands, the old man stopped briefly in the warm June sun to gaze across the countryside dotted with grazing herds of cattle and sheep. For a moment he observed,

"Undoubtedly, Rutherford County is a beautiful place where man and nature have become partners with both forest and the field."

His knees were twisted like old thorn trees, yet he cantered briskly along a path lined with aged sycamores, beech, ash, and maple. Finally, as he came closer to his destination, the old man ambled steadily and slowly through the misty solitude near a stream cooled by the morning air. Alongside as he walked, schools of lazy catfish lingered in dark, green pools flopping and rippling concentric rings.

He was heading for the open-air brush arbor where he had preached for more than 45 years ago. A large limestone slab had been his sanctuary, outcroppings had been benches for his congregation, and piles of protruding rocks had been his pulpit. Like many frontier preachers, Elder William Keel had been called to preach though his formal education was limited. As a young, iterant Baptist preacher, nothing could contain his bondless zeal and passion for lost souls.

In 1811, his congregation met in a grove on a large flat rock at Colonel Norman's house about six miles from the center of the newly established town of Murfreesboro. In those days, after much wrangling, Murfreesboro became designated as the county seat of Rutherford County changing the name of the pioneer village from Cannonsburgh to Murfreesboro.

Now it was 1856, Elder Keel had returned to a much different Rutherford County. Until now, little was heard of him in the area. Nevertheless, Keel had made an appointment to preach in the same place on the rock, 45 years from the time of his first sermon. A generation had past, and now he had come with a message to the members who had been children on his first visit.

In his absence, Rutherford County had become one of the most prosperous counties in the state. Murfreesboro, the once small settlement community of taverns and trading posts, had been transformed by small stores including hardware, jewelry and book stores constructed in a square configuration near Murfree Spring. In addition while he was away, Murfreesboro had been a place of political activity, the state capital of Tennessee from 1819-1821. Many famous people such as James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crocket and Sam Houston began their career here.

Toll roads with gates every five miles had replaced navigation on the creeks and rivers as important arteries of commerce. Recently, 22 turnpike companies been chartered by the state for operation in Rutherford County to develop new roads. New communities such as Fosterville, Smyrna, La Vergne, Lascassas, Milton, Eagleville, Christiana and Salem were emerging. Another high point of transportation and progress had occurred July 4, 1851 when the first railroad rolled into Murfreesboro.

In addition, the market for farm and forest products was expanding the County's economy. Since Keel's 45-year absence, the county had become one of the largest corn producers in the United States. Cotton gins were erected as cotton had become the major crop. The cash value of farms by 1850 was approximately $4.5 million with livestock valued at close to a $1 million. Elegant mansions detailed in rich furnishings and lavish amenities were a visible part of the changing landscape. Needless to say, all of this lifestyle and the entire system of agriculture were being sustained by slave-labor.

The old man approached the rock piled pulpit bending forward holding one of his hands to the side of his face as if he was struggling with a toothache. His peculiar appearance mesmerized the crowd as they gathered into the wilderness sanctuary. Infused in the scene was a kind of intuitive awareness that this occasion was more than a reunion with Reverend Keel. While many had come to have their faith invigorated and a religious conversion, a few could sense that Reverend Keel had more than an evangelistic message. With a thunderous exhortation, he began shouting, "Turn from your wicked ways and do better. I tell you what it is, ah-if you don't repent and believe, ah-you will, every one be damned-ah!"

This brief story is documented in The Annals of Rutherford County, Volume I. by John C. Spence. What really was behind the old evangelist's message in 1856 to this new generation of Rutherford County citizens? Could Reverend Keel have had a premonition about the future? In just six years during the Civil War, Rutherford County would be totally transformed into a battlefield. The splendid mansions and rolling plantations sustained by slave-labor were just a few years away from being torched. Rutherford County would face total economic ruin.

What can we learn from the words and sentiment of Reverend William Keel? Is he sending us a message again to another generation of citizens in Rutherford County? Could it be that we are so driven to grow and expand that we have forgotten what the consequences of a totally materialistic mindset?

As in the time before the Civil War when many slaves bore the symptoms of a society driven by materialism, today in Rutherford County there are many who are symptom bearers. Underneath our prosperous veneer are those disenfranchised -- the poor, the elderly, the homeless and the young people who have no direction or opportunity.

We need to slow down in order to discover God's vision for Rutherford County. We need a time of silence,a time for focus and redirection. God speaks in the silence, like a soft wind that whispers the truth about our circumstances. The silence conveys truth without a voice or audible word. Being silent before God is trust in action. Where there is silence, a true vision is imparted through God's inspiration rather than man's aspiration.

Wonder what our community would be like if each one of us would silently turn inward for revelation, direction and strength? No doubt, His plans and purposes for us would be illuminated with clarity through the Light of heaven.

© 2015 The Murfreesboro Post

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