Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church – Franklin’s Ryman Auditorium

Cumberland Presbyterian Church - Historic Franklin TN
Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has been penned “Franklin’s Ryman Auditorium” by Mary Pearce, former Director of the Heritage Foundation. This historic church was built in 1876 and is located at 615 West Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee. It was designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson who was the architect for Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. You will learn more about him later in this story.

Very few people know the importance of this church that sits in the heart of downtown Franklin between the Five Points District and the historic Hincheyville neighborhood. Its roots run deep in American music history from gospel to country, and even rock-n-roll. There is even an Elvis Presley connection to this church. The Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“If These Walls Could Talk, They Would Probably Sing!”

Judith Policastro, Earl Nichols, and Mary Pearce

Follow along, as church member, Judith Policastro, shares her story of this beloved crown jewel of Franklin historic churches.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Mary Lynch Jarvis who served the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church as its first female elder, clerk of session, secretary/bookkeeper and as the church pianist for 40 plus years. It was through Mary’s profound love for this church and its people and her benevolent spirit that the beautiful stained glass, air conditioning and all other renovations to the sanctuary, annex and outside were made possible through the substantial trust she left to the church when she passed away from cancer June 6, 1995.

This story is “a work of heart,” borne at the request of a longtime member of Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Barbara Frost. It was her sincere desire to preserve the history of this beautiful building and its people before it was lost or forgotten. Barbara passed away in 2021.

My husband Greg and I moved to Franklin in 2014. He served the city as Deputy Chief of Police from 2014-2020. Being fairly new to the congregation, I personally had scant knowledge of the subject matter. But being a person who loves historic buildings and preservation of “their story,” I accepted this challenge out of my love for the people who have so dearly welcomed me into their midst. And so, the work began. I searched the records at the Williamson County Archives – old newspaper clippings, courthouse records, periodicals, the few records kept by previous members, the internet, and word-of-mouth stories and quotes.

Cumberland Presbyterian Church - Historic Franklin TN

I would be remiss if I did not give special credit to Mattye Jackson, a former member whose 1986 writings provided so much information on the history of the church and its building. However, I must admit that in my research, I was most intrigued and captivated by the church’s extensive and noteworthy musical history, and I was determined to make sure it was also recorded for the generations to come.

I have done what I could and give the credit to God who brought me on my journey to Franklin and this church. As did Ms. Jackson, all I want to be remembered for is someone who genuinely cares about this church and its people.

HISTORY OF THE FRANKLIN CUMBERLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church is a Presbyterian body formed during the Great Revival of 1800. On February 4, 1810, at the log home of Rev. Samuel McAdow near present-day Dickson, Tennessee, three Presbyterian ministers (Rev. McAdow, Rev. Finis Ewing, and Rev. Samuel King) reorganized the Cumberland Presbytery, which had previously been dissolved by the Kentucky Synod of the Presbyterian Church. It grew rapidly, and in 1813, it became known as the Cumberland Synod. Then, in 1829, when a General Assembly was established, it became the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination.

Cumberland Presbyterian Chapel located in Montgomery Bell State Park, Burns, Tenn.

A replica of Samuel McAdow’s log house now stands on the same site in Montgomery Bell State Park, and a small chapel stands nearby where visitors may hold services or kneel to worship. The newly formed Cumberland Presbyterian Church met with challenges, sometimes being referred to as a “spin-off” Presbyterian group.

Despite the odds against them, the group grew, and soon churches were organized in the Nashville Presbytery. Men in Williamson County gave land for meeting houses. One such gift from Thomas Jackson, of three acres and ten poles to build a house of worship, is recorded in the Williamson County deed book on February 15, 1833.

Tennessee Female College, 1904 Franklin, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee and Williamson County Historical Journal recorded that the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized in 1871 with only 17 or 18 members. Initially, the members worshiped at the old Baptist Church, the Tennessee Female College, and at the Masonic Hall in Franklin until they could buy a site and construct their own building. 

Masonic Hall – Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

In the Williamson County Courthouse Logbooks 18 and 24 under “Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian” is the handwritten deed of more than a century ago. It reads, “Six months after date we promise to pay to J. B. McEwen, Secretary and Treasurer of Franklin Female Institute, two hundred and fifty dollars for a lot on which to build a church ninety feet front on Main Street, commencing opposite C.A. Bailey’s corner and running with Main Street towards the public square, so as to make ninety feet front and then back to the McGan lot line. Sold by order of the Board of Trustees, February 9, 1876. Signed by: E. G. Buchanan, H. P. Gray, A. Moore, James Pinkerton, and J. N. Butler.”

John B McEwen House Lovely Franklin TN
John B. McEwen, mayor of Franklin during the Civil War

Learn more about John B. McEwen, mayor of Franklin during the Civil War, and the Harris-McEwen House here.

“The Singing Was Grand!”

Five Points District – Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

The Williamson County Journal recorded that a very elegant church was built in 1876 for $8,000 but valued at $10,000. The new church building had a floor space of 44 feet by 66 feet. The cornerstone was laid with Masonic ceremonies, and the dedicatory sermon was preached on June 3, 1876. It was a very festive occasion with many visitors coming to the city to help celebrate. Participants moved in procession from the Masonic Lodge to the site of the new church for the laying of the cornerstone, speeches, and music by different choirs of the city. The article noted, “It is sufficient comment to say that the singing was grand.”

Many items were deposited into the cornerstone, including gold pieces, old Confederate bills, English coins, old Continental money and stamps. There were copies of newspapers, as well as a copy of the charter and bylaws of the town of Franklin. The church deposited a scroll with the names of the architect, the building committee, the stonemasons, and the tin and iron workers.

There was a photograph of John McEwen, who was mayor of Franklin at the time, and other manuscripts – including the Bible, the Confession of Faith, a hymn book and a condensed history of the organization. In just ten months, the church building had been completed and was dedicated on April 16, 1877, by the Reverend Thomas Dale. Many elder and family names on the early church roll may still be recognized in Franklin today – Pinkerton, McPherson, Crockett, and Carothers to name just a few. 

It took great determination and some sacrifices for these early members to erect this beautiful building. Nestled on a rather small lot by today’s standards, the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church still stands proudly with grace and dignity.

Blown Away by a Tornado and a New Church Steeple

Cumberland Presbyterian Church Steeple Destroyed by Tornado

The original steeple was described in an article prepared for the Review and Journal in September 1876 as “a perfect gem – a thing of beauty, brilliantly pointing the way to our Father’s home. We know of no spire surpassing it in symmetry and finish. The church over which it rears its head is almost complete, and it itself is one of the ornaments of the town.”

According to former church member Fred Reynolds, insurance photos show the original steeple was blown off in a tornado sometime between 1907 and 1913.

But a sizeable, anonymous monetary gift over one hundred years after the tornado helped jumpstart its replacement in May of 2006. “It now reaches 93 feet skyward where it claims its place in posterity, as it appears in every photograph taken looking westward from Franklin’s town square down Main Street.”

Fannie Mae Lynch, May 25, 2006, interview by Charles Dibrell, Franklin Radio Station, during the replacement of the church steeple.

As workers guided the new steeple into place, church elders, Frank Everett, Joe Templeton and Earl Nichols stood below. “Doesn’t that look great, Joe?” asked Nichols.  “It looks beautiful,” Joe replied. 

Despite having a small congregation of only about 40 people, church member Jean Templeton said she believed adding the steeple showed the community that the church was still thriving. (The $58,000 it took to replace the steeple in 2006 was seven times greater than the cost for construction of the entire church in 1876-1877.)

Hugh Cathcart Thompson – Architect for the Ryman Auditorium

Over the years, several articles have been written about the church. All of these articles have spoken about the history of the formation of this church and its building, and each has always mentioned that the church is known for its good singing, which actually began with the building itself, the architect and its design.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson, architect of the Watson House and the Ryman Auditorium (Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Most notable is the architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson who, 16 years later in 1892, constructed the Union Gospel Tabernacle in Nashville, later known as the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry (the “Mother Church of Country Music”). Is it any wonder then that the acoustics inside the sanctuary of this church are a marvel all on their own? 

The Ryman originally opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Captain Thomas Ryman, a Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and a fleet of riverboats, hired Hugh Cathcart Thompson to design the tabernacle. Ryman had the idea of building a tabernacle after witnessing the preaching of Samuel Porter Jones.  

Ryman Auditorium – Nashville, Tenn.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson is Nashville’s Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet, his name is virtually unknown to most people in Franklin. Thompson is not only the brilliant architect behind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He also designed the Franklin’s historic Haynes-Berry House in Franklin (recently renamed the LeHew Mansion), the Watson House, and the Harrison House, a beautiful Victorian tragically torn down in the Five Points district of Franklin where Sweet CeCe’s is located.

It was 1885, and Captain Ryman attended a tent revival featuring Jones with the intent of heckling him. But a surprising turn of events happened. Ryman was converted to Christianity! Thereafter, he was determined to build a tabernacle for Nashville’s large revivals. After several years and $100,000 later, Jones held his first revival there on May 25, 1890.

“The Mother Church of Country Music” made its debut when Captain Ryman began renting the building because WSM needed a larger venue for its Grand Ole Opry shows. The Opry was first broadcast from the Ryman on June 5, 1943 and continued every week for nearly 31 years until it moved to its new location by the Opryland Hotel.

McMinnville Frist United Methodist Church - Hugh Cathcart Thompson
First United Methodist Church – McMinnville, Tenn.

Thompson designed and constructed 56 homes and buildings in the Nashville area, but only nine are still standing today including his two east Nashville homes, the Utopia Hotel, now part of the Dream Nashville hotel, the phenomenal First Methodist Church in McMinnville, Tennessee (shown above), and a carriage house attached to Glen Leven Farm.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson – Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tenn.

Hugh Cathcart Thompson is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery at 5110 Gallatin Pike South in Nashville, along with Grand Ole Opry legends Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, and Keith Whitley. Read the Lovely Franklin exclusive about Hugh Cathcart Thompson here

CHURCH ARCHITECT, BUILDING COMMITTEE, AND CONTRACTORS IN 1876

Architect: Hugh Cathcart Thompson

Building Committee: R. G. Buchanan, Alex Moore, H P. Gray, and W. Brandon, Superintendent

Stone Masons: James H. White, Frank Reese, Chestine Crenshaw, and Sam Young

Brick Work: Vaughn and McAlpin

Slate, Tin and Galvanized Iron Work: J. H. Rolffs

THE CORNERSTONE

As members and visitors enter the front foyer, they see a stone marker noting the date the church was built: “A.D. 1876 by F. M. Reece.” (Frank Reece was the stone mason for the building.)

Though no one remembers, or can locate, exactly where the cornerstone for the church was laid on June 3, 1876, an article published in the Williamson County News the following week notes that following the dedicatory address at the Methodist Church, the different orders of Masonry, Odd Fellows and Knights of Honor walked in procession to the site of the new building where deposits were made into the cornerstone.

The following is as complete a list of the cornerstone contents as records show: 

1) A scroll containing the following inscription: “June 4th, A.D. 1876. Cumberland Presbyterian Church. A. C. Thompson Architect; Building committee – R.G Buchanan, Alex Moore, H. P. Gray, A. W. Brandon, Superintendent; Stone Masons – James H. White, Frank Reese, Chestine Crenshaw and Sam Young; Brickwork –Vaughn & McAlpin; Slate, tin and galvanized iron work – J. H. Rolffs.”

2) Hiram Lodge No. 7 deposited a copy of the constitution and bylaws, statement of proceedings and lists of members; apron of Master Mason; square and compass; Masonic odes

3) 25-cent gold piece by P. O. Shaeffer M. M.

4) English shilling by J. L. Parkes

5) 25-cent United States coin of 1876, payable warrant Williamson County, Tenn. and pay-in warrant Williamson County, Tenn. by T. F. Perkins, Jr.

6) $100 bill Confederate states currency; $100 interest-bearing note, two cents per day; Confederate states currency by S. S. Short

7) Copy of Masonic summons and a copy of marriage license by T. F. Perkins, Jr.

8) Copy of blanks, $10 and $5 Confederate notes; 3-cent fractional U. S. currency; and a 1-cent copper coin by I. N. Butler

9) Spanish coin dated 1315 by W. H. Selph

10) 1 Centennial Memorial medal Mm. Parkes, Jr.

11) United States postage stamp and 12 ½ fractional currency State of Tennessee by Jno. W. Tucker

12) 3-cent U. S. coin by E. B. Cayce

13) 50-cent, 25-cent and 10-cent Bank of Tennessee fractional currency; 5-cent nickel coin by J. H. Crockett

14) Bavarian Kreuzer by Jno. Butler

15) English coin 10 cents by Jas. L. McGan

16) Franklin Chapter No. 2 deposited bylaws of the chapter and a roll of members present and participating

17) A copy of the bylaws and a lot of memorial badges of DePayen’s Commandery were deposited by J. H. Rolffs

18) The Knights of Honor made deposit of By-Laws, badge, roll of members and copy of Journal of Knight of Honor

19) The Odd Fellows deposited visiting card, Bible, constitution and bylaws of camp and subordinate lodge and roll of members

20) Mrs. Mary T. Moore deposited some old continental money which had been presented by her father, Col. Nicholas Perkins, who died in 1843

21) T. E. Haynes deposited a copy of the Review and Journal

22) John B. McEwen, Esq. deposited a photograph of the Grand Duke Alexis

23) A copy of the charter and bylaws of the town of Franklin, and a list of the Board of Aldermen and corporation officers; and a photograph of John B. McEwen, Esq., mayor of Franklin, was deposited

24) The Cumberland Presbyterian Church deposited a copy of the Holy Bible; a copy of the Confession of Faith; a hymn book; copies of Sabbath School gem; Sunday morning, Ladies’ Pearl and Theological Medium; a condensed history of the organization; progress and

work of the church to the present time

25) C. A. Bailey deposited $150 in Confederate money

26) A copy of the Nashville American was deposited by Mr. H. P. Gray

THE BUILDING

Built in the distinctive Gothic Revival Style of a bygone era, the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s reddish-brown, brick exterior sits on a heavy foundation of stone furnished from the Hughes Farm that was located on Boyd Hill Pike. The front steps are now weathered and worn from the tread of many feet throughout the years. The eight shutter-like vents in the bell tower mirror the massive, pointed and arched front doors. Double tin capstones, painted white, are affixed to the brick buttresses around the front and sides of the building – probably because tin was less expensive than the stones it would have taken for these.

THE SANCTUARY

Doors to the right and left lead into the tranquil sanctuary. Eyes are drawn upward to the high, vaulted ceilings with their dark oak beams contrasting against the white ceiling and walls. 

Looking forward, one sees the handmade pews, which are themselves works of art, boasting beautifully turned arms and seats made of alternating strips of red and white oak, constructed with pegs instead of nails. 

The wainscoting on the walls repeats this pattern. But what may catch the eye is the low partition down the center of the room, which separates the pews. This was in keeping with accepted practice of the Old South where men and women sat on opposite sides of the church. This was meant to inhibit the natural tendency to be distracted around members of the opposite sex, so as to preserve modesty and attention during worship services.

Facing the pulpit, one will note the beautiful, lighted, stained glass figure of Christ that fills the arch behind the choir in the chancel. This memorial to Felton Jarvis, an elder and devoted member of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, was given by his wife, Mary.

THE WINDOWS

The original tall, narrow, cathedral windows on each side of the sanctuary were made of pebbled glass. The replacement of these windows with beautiful stained glass was made possible through a substantial trust left to the church by Mary Lynch Jarvis when she passed away in June 1995.

(The stained glass figure of Christ in the front of the sanctuary was designed by Dennis Harmon of Emmanuel Stained Glass Studios in Nashville. The remaining windows were designed by Heidi Hyatt of Glass Design Studios in Nashville.)

Now, beams of sunlight passing through the windows bathe the church in hues of rich reds, blues and greens, and those who gaze upon them see scenes from the Bible – a host of heavenly angels, the Good Shepherd, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Jesus Blessing the Children. You will also see lighted stained glass transoms depicting a dove bearing an olive branch above the doors to the right and left of the pulpit. A beautiful, circular lighted glass design of a cross is found in the back of the sanctuary.

MUSICAL HISTORY: “IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK, THEY WOULD PROBABLY SING”

The focus of this section is on the church’s music, its musicians, and its musical history including gospel, country, and rock. The fact that the architect for the Ryman Auditorium designed this church before he built that incredible tabernacle is just incredible.

No matter where you sit in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, from the front pew to the back, the voices of the individual vocalists, ensembles, and choir reach everyone. The handmade pews have welcomed some of the most renowned names in Southern Gospel music, country music, and in fact, in music history itself. The current music director, William Puckett, once said, “If you think the music in the Mother Church is great, then you should hear the music in our Father’s house!”

The Stephens Family

W. T. Stephens, Fannie Stephens Lynch, Gladys Skelley, Ray Stephens, and A. W. “Bud” Stephens

While the wonderful acoustics play a big part in the sound of the music played here, the church also has a rich history of members involved in the music industry. It may be said that the W. T. Stephens family, extended family and descendants have contributed greatly to this reputation. W. T. Stephens was the lead singer for the Stephens Quartet. His sons, Ray and A. W. “Bud” Stephens, were also a part of this gospel group, as was his daughter, Fannie. Gladys Skelley was their pianist.

W. T. was not the first musician in his family. His father, John Stephens, was a musician in his own right. He wrote the hymn, “Just Across the River.” W. T. was called to lead the singing at the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1925, and he brought his family with him – his wife, Mary Frances, and his children, Roy, Willie Davis, Ray, Bud, Lillian and Fannie Mae. His 12-year-old daughter, Fannie Mae, was his accompanist on the organ and piano; she played by ear and never had any formal training. Years later, Fannie joined the Stephens Quartet and sang with them for 30 plus years.

Franklin Elementary School (Rick Warwick)

W. T. Stephens was the founder and leader of the Fifth Sunday Singing Conventions, which were held on the fifth Sunday in a month. Initially, they were held at the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church until they grew so big that they had to be moved to the Franklin Elementary School that stood next door to the church. On January 13, 1962, fire destroyed the elementary school. It was located where the Williamson County Archives and Museum is today at 611 W. Main St. Classes were held at this school from 1907-1956. Thankfully, it was only being used for storage at the time of the fire since the new Franklin Elementary had opened on Cannon Street. Years later, after the school burned and W. T. had passed away, his son Bud ran the singing convention.

Pictured here are the Reverend Rupert Cravens, writer and singer, from the Vaughan Music Company; Governor Gordon Browning, three-term governor of Tennessee [in office from 1937-39 and 1949-1953] and six-term U.S. representative from Tennessee [in office from 1923-1935]; and W.T. Stephens.

The photo above was taken outside the church at a Fifth Sunday Singing. Most of the main songwriters of the Vaughan Music School attended the Fifth Sunday Singings. Some of those included W.B. Walbert, who wrote “Peace Like a River,” “Oh, What a Blessing,” and “Tell it Everywhere You Go;” James D. Vaughan, known as “the father of Southern gospel music,” wrote more than five hundred songs; Keifer Vaughan; Adger M. Pace, who wrote “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem;” Reverend Rupert Cravens, who wrote “Beyond the Gates” and “There Waits a Better Day;” and others. In addition, Dewey Yeager, a great Irish soloist, as well as a member of the Vaughan Quartet, and his wife, Flora, were also regular attendees of the Fifth Sunday Singings.

Imagine the hands that have touched this original doorknob over the years.

W.T. served as the music director at the church from 1925 to 1954. He also served as a Sunday School superintendent and an elder of the church. When he passed away, his son, A. W. (Bud) Stephens, served as music director until early 1964. His brother, Ray Stephens (also an elder), followed as music director and continued until 2004 when his health became too bad for him to continue. Don Frost took over the music in 2004 and was the choir director. Bud’s grandson, William Puckett, became the church’s song director in November of 2009 and is the fourth generation of the Stephens family to lead the singing over the past 91 years.

Fannie Stephens married Leo Lynch four days before she turned 16 years of age, and they remained members of the church for the rest of their lives, as did their three daughters. Their oldest daughter, Mary, played the piano for the Stephens Quartet after the original piano player quit. But this was not Mary’s only contribution to music. At one time, Mary served as president of the Statesmen’s Quartet Fan Club. The Statesmen Quartet was an American Southern gospel music group and was considered the most successful and influential gospel quartet of the 1950s and 1960s.

Felton and Mary Jarvis Met a Boy Named Elvis Presley

Felton and Mary Jarvis

Mary Lynch was involved in the music industry for 34 years, serving at one time as the executive assistant of RCA Victor, as well as executive assistant to Chet Atkins. She also had a tenure as executive assistant to Fred Foster at Monument Records who was instrumental in Roy Orbison’s career and the early careers of Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Mary was well-loved and respected by all of the artists and musicians at both labels. Waylon Jennings wrote about Mary in his autobiography, telling how she kept him out of trouble with Chet Atkins. It is no wonder then that in 2003, Mary was inducted into the SOURCE Hall of Fame, a foundation that honors women who tirelessly dedicated their careers to the music industry. 

In 1969, Mary Lynch married Felton Jarvis, a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. After their marriage, Felton became a member of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church where he later served as an elder until his death in 1981. Mary was also an elder and clerk of the session and served as the pianist for the church for over forty years.

Felton Jarvis Elvis Cumberland Presbyterian Church - Historic Franklin TN

Born in 1934, Felton Jarvis, like many young southerners of the time, sang in church, listened to country music on the radio, and liked the gospel music of groups such as the Blackwood Brothers. Years later, Felton became a musician in his own right, recording several records; however, he eventually found his niche as a record producer.

Felton Jarvis, “Chips” Moman, and Vernon Presley (right) at American Sound Studio – Memphis, Tenn.

The first record he ever produced was “Every Beat of My Heart” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. He also worked with many other renowned artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jim Ed Brown, Floyd Cramer and Skeeter Davis.

Felton Jarvis’ first record he produced

Felton was best-known as the record producer for Elvis Presley from 1966 until Elvis’s death in 1977. When they met, Felton and Elvis seemed to click immediately, and they became close friends.

Felton Jarvis and Elvis

The first album Felton produced for Elvis, How Great Thou Art, won him a Grammy. It featured the great gospel groups, The Jordanaires and The Imperials. The famous album art for the cover features the First Church of Christ, located in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Notice the similarities of the Cumberland Presbyterian steeple.

By June of 1970, Felton quit his job with RCA and became an independent contractor working exclusively with Elvis on his studio and live concert recordings. 

But by July 1971, Felton Jarvis became very ill and began experiencing kidney failure, and less than a year later was requiring dialysis several times a week. It was Elvis Presley who paid for a kidney transplant for Felton in 1972. 

Elvis and Felton Jarvis

It has been said that it was Felton’s heartfelt warmth and genuine sincerity that enabled him to bring out the best in people and develop their talents to the fullest. To the members of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Felton Jarvis and his wife, Mary, will always be known as elders who contributed so much to their church. 

Felton Jarvis and Elvis

To others who knew Felton outside of the church, he will always be known as “the man behind the King.” It comes as no surprise that Felton served as a pallbearer at Elvis’s funeral in 1977. In 1981, Felton Jarvis died from complications of a stroke at the age of 46. It was Elvis’s renditions of “How Great Thou Art,” “Stand by Me,” and “In the Garden” that were played at his funeral. 

Felton Jarvis and Elvis

Many musical greats attended Felton’s funeral at the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and/or sent flowers and condolences – to include Jerry Bradley, Joe Esposito, Chip Young, George Klein, Jerry Reed, Larry, Steve and Rudy Gatlin, Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Milsap, Colonel Tom Parker, Carl Perkins, Ray Stevens, Willie Nelson, Dottie West, Charlie Rich, and Tex Davis. Felton’s brother-in-law, Don Frost, conducted the service.

When the stained-glass figure of Christ that fills the arch behind the choir was installed in memory of Felton Jarvis in 1982, a memorial service was held. Bob Beckham, Chip Young, Jerry Bradley, and Fred Foster were among those who shared memories. 

Cindy Walker on the backstory of “You Don’t Know Me”

Cindy Walker sang for the service. Cindy Walker, a singer/songwriter and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, was a close friend of Mary Lynch Jarvis. She penned such country classics as “You Don’t Know Me” and “Cherokee Maiden.” She also wrote “In the Misty Moonlight,” which was recorded by Dean Martin. 

Many other well-known singers recorded songs written by Cindy. But in spite of her notoriety, accomplishments and success, Eddy Arnold said upon her death, “She’d want them to know she was close to her Lord. She was quite a religious woman…” Though Cindy’s home was in Texas, whenever she was in Nashville, she would come to the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church with her mother and Mary Jarvis. She would sing the special music for the day with her mother accompanying her on the piano.

Elvis with the Statemen Quartet

When Mary Lynch Jarvis died in 1995, it was Jake Hess who sang for her funeral here at the church. He was the lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet, member and founder of the Imperial Quartet, and background singer for Elvis’s recordings and Vegas shows. It has been written of Mary, “In all things, she was humble. She knew all these famous people in the music industry on a first-name basis, yet she never mentioned it. The people that were important were her family and friends. She never wanted recognition for any of the generous things she did.”

Don and Barbara Lynch Frost – Mary’s Sister Church Member for 85 Years

Don and Barbara Frost, long-standing members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Fannie and Leo Lynch had another daughter, Barbara, who became a member of the Frost Brothers Quartet. In 1955, Barbara married the lead singer, Don Frost, whose family had been singing Southern gospel music since 1924. In fact, Barbara and Don met at a concert where their parents from both sides of the family tree were performing. Don became a member of the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church where he served as the interim lay minister, an elder and the choir director. Barbara Lynch Frost was the longest-living member of the church, having attended here for almost 85 years! She passed away in 2021.

After Barbara and Don married, he became a part of the Stephens/Church Quartet, joining Bud and Ray Stephens and Fannie Lynch, with Mary Lynch accompanying on the piano. Like the Stephens Quartet, the Frost Brothers Quartet also evolved over the years as the original brothers (Robert, Roscoe, Roy and Raymond) aged and left the group. The new Frost Brothers Quartet was made up of Don, Alvin, and Johnny Frost, and their friend Gary Stephens, whose first album was nominated for a Grammy.

This group spent a lot of time at the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church rehearsing and practicing with a tape recorder. They played in concert with some of the greatest success stories in Southern gospel music – the Stamps Quartet, the Weatherford Quartet, the LeFevres and the Plainsmen. They traveled all over the United States and performed with many music greats such as Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, Del Reeves, Webb Pierce, Tex Ritter, Dottie West, Little Jimmy Dickens and Jim Ed Brown to name a few. They were the first all-white group to ever perform in the Jubilee Showcase with the Staples Singers, the Five Blind Boys, the Swan Silvertones, Shirley Caesar and the Sewanee Quintet. The New Frost Brothers’ first album received a nomination for a Grammy.

Over the years, Don Frost has written and recorded many songs, but one of the greatest songs he has ever written was scribbled onto a notepad while he sat at a little table in the Frost Brothers’ tour bus. Trying to pass the time while they were on the way to a concert, Don said the melody of Jack Green’s “There Goes My Everything” kept echoing in his head. 

He was thinking what a great gospel song it could be with the right words, and he began to write…”I remember my days of darkness, without sunshine or sight to lead my way. Then a whisper of His voice softly called me, to the arms of my Maker to stay. He is my reason for living; He is the King of all Kings. I long to be His possession. He is my everything. After the lightning and thunder, after the last bell has rung, I want to bow down before Jesus, and hear Him say, ‘My child, well done…’”

Don said his brother Johnny was watching him write, and before long, the entire group was singing those lyrics as they rolled on down the highway. They were so excited with the new song that they decided to sing the gospel version at their concert that night. After several encores and the reaction of the crowd, they knew this was going to be a special song. The Frost Brothers were the first to ever record “He is My Everything” after their producer got permission from the writer of “There Goes My Everything” to use the music.

Unfortunately, though the writer gave Don credit for the “idea,” he never gave him credit for the lyrics. As we all now know, this song – with Don’s lyrics – has been recorded by Elvis Presley, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Connie Smith, The Jordonaires, and Jack Green as well as many others. 

Shortly thereafter, Don left the music industry for a period of 20 years. During that time, he was approached by Frankie Avalon who offered him a recording deal. He did record one pop album, which had three number one songs on the radio; however, it was southern gospel music that truly spoke to his heart. 

After a stint in public speaking, Don returned in the 1990s and began writing more gospel music. The Chuckwagon Gang recorded three of his songs on one of their albums. His hymn “Lord, Reach Down and Touch Me One More Time” became a hit for them, and that was one of the songs they sang when they appeared on The Statler Brothers Show on national television. 

Don went on to create the television show Music City Gospel Showcase, which was first broadcast in 1997 in Nashville. His show featured new, up-and-coming artists in the gospel music industry, as well as other gospel greats such as the Blackwood Brothers, Chuckwagon Gang, Bill Shaw and Roy McNeal. He has featured and produced over 300 artists on his show. When Don became the choir director in 2004, he wanted to conduct a “singing school” for the choir. He brought in Buddy Burton and his wife, Janet. Reverend Burton has spent his career in church ministry, evangelism and gospel music. In 1998, Burton was inducted into the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame. His wife, Janet, was a music teacher. On the last day of the singing school, Buddy brought his friend Mosie Lister, who was a singer and songwriter. He was best known for writing the gospel songs, “How Long Has It Been,” “Where No One Stands Alone,” and “Then I Met the Master.”

That was not the only contribution that Don made to the church choir. In the early years, the choir seats were simple metal folding chairs. In the early 1970s, Don and his wife, Barbara, purchased and donated the wooden choir pews that are still in use today. As it has since the 1920s, the musical lineage of the Stephens and Frost families continued from one generation to the next.

Donna Frost and Country Music Legend Skeeter Davis

Don and Barbara’s daughter, Donna Frost, is a singer/songwriter who has penned more than 300 original songs. She has also produced multiple CDs and albums. As a young girl in school, Donna sometimes found herself being laughed at because she was “a little bit different.” She was not particularly athletic or popular in school, but when she showed up with her guitar, nobody laughed at her anymore.

Donna Frost

Because of her uncle and aunt’s careers in the music industry, Donna had the unique privilege as a young girl to meet, hang out with, and get some rich musical lessons from some of the music industry greats, such as Carl Perkins, James Burton, and Skeeter Davis.

James Burton was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an actor and guitar player on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and the guitar player for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and others; he was one of Donna’s mentors. She would take her guitar over to her uncle’s house and sit around picking songs with James, as well as picking his brain for stories and hints on how to do “this and that.” When in town, James would sometimes attend services at the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Skeeter Davis

Skeeter Davis was a close friend of her Aunt Mary Jarvis. During the 1960s, Skeeter was one of RCA’s most successful country artists. She had a 43-year career, performing in venues around the world, including the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, and Carnegie Hall in New York City, New York. She earned five Grammy Awards, including one for the hit song “Set Him Free” in 1959. This was the same year she joined the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She toured with Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones.

Ralph Emery

She was married to Ralph Emery who was famous as a country music disc jockey for WSM radio in Nashville. He later hosted a popular TV show Pop! Goes the Country, Nashville Now, and The Ralph Emery Show. It became the highest-rated local morning television program in the U.S. He is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and National Radio Hall of Fame. Many referred to Ralph as “the Dick Clark of country music.”

Ralph Emery

Skeeter was also a very religious person, and in her last years, sang mostly gospel songs when she appeared on the Opry. Skeeter often attended our church and at times would sing the special music. She was always a part of the Christmas program where she would close out the night with her rendition of “Jingle Bells” as Santa made his appearance for the children.

During her career, Donna Frost toured for six years as the background singer for Skeeter Davis. She had idolized her for years and once told her, “I am going to sing with you when I grow up.” That opportunity finally came in 1996 to 2002. When Skeeter was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in April 2013, it was Donna who performed Skeeter’s multi-chart number one hit “The End of the World” at the induction ceremony.

In addition to being a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and artist, Donna is also an actress. She starred as Janis Joplin in a theatrical production and has worked as an extra in movies, music videos and TV, including all six seasons of the popular series Nashville. Donna has performed in the Caribbean as well as the United Kingdom. 

Donna Frost and Skeeter Davis

Donna now logs thousands of miles each year performing shows in cities across the U.S., sometimes solo and sometimes with her band. Donna gives much of her time to performing with Music for Seniors, an organization that provides live music for seniors in facilities for dementia and Alzheimer patients. She has worked with Musicians on Call, performing for patients in hospitals and hospices, and with Songs of Love, writing and producing songs for children with life threatening illnesses.

Though the Stephens and Frost families, their descendants and acquaintances have a remarkable musical history in the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church, it has also been blessed with a multitude of other members whose musical talents and abilities continue to earn the church a reputation for its good singing.

Current Members

 William Puckett is our current music director. Our talented vocalists often provide the special music, in solo or in groups, for the Sunday morning worship service, the spring concert, and/or the annual Christmas program. They are accompanied by Earl Nichols on the piano. In planning for the future, the choir continues to foster growth in its younger generation.

In earlier years, Gladys Skelley and Mrs. Harvey Williams served as the church pianists. They were followed by Mary Lynch who became the church pianist when she was just a teenager. She continued to play for more than 40 years. After Mary’s death, June Warren and Lucille Adair played the piano until Earl Nichols joined the church in the spring of 1996. 

Born in Hillsboro (Leiper’s Fork), Earl Nichols is an accomplished musician in his own right. Though he briefly took piano lessons when he was in third grade, Earl was primarily self-taught. He also serves the church as an elder of the Session. When Earl came to the church in 1996, the annual Christmas programs had ceased. 

Earl Nichols ringing the church bell

In 2000, Earl received the blessing of the Session to plan and conduct a special Christmas concert, and that tradition continues today. The music is always outstanding, offering both traditional and spiritual Christmas music – both vocal and instrumental, to also include specials on the piano, the violin, the guitar, the mandolin and the harmonica. The event is a highlight of the Christmas season with an average attendance of 100-150 people from throughout the community who arrive early in order to get a good seat.

In addition to serving the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church as its pianist, Earl also belongs to the musical group The Glory Pickers. The group is made up of Earl on the piano and his brothers-in-law: Gary Beasley on the banjo and guitar and Jamie Beasley on the rhythm guitar. Gary’s grandson, Cullen Huff, plays the mandolin for the group. The Glory Pickers are always a part of the church’s spring concert, the annual Christmas program, and other special church events throughout the year. In addition, they play at nursing homes in the community, and participate every July in a musical event at the Ash Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church. They are usually joined at the church’s Christmas program by Earl’s great nephew, Will Nichols, and a friend, Will Harris–both of whom play violins. 

The church’s current music director, William Puckett, a fourth generation of the Stephens family to lead the singing at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, also continues to be a part of the Williamson County Fifth Sunday Singings, which was started by his great-grandfather, W.T. Stephens. He is a part of the Bud Stephens Quartet, along with his Aunt Peggy Atnip and his friend, Jerry Hall. In addition to the Fifth Sunday Singings, this group also performs at other churches throughout Middle Tennessee, as well as a senior citizen highrise.

From the time this church building was completed and dedicated on April 16, 1877, it has always been known for its remarkable music and singing. From its design by an architect extraordinaire, to the W.T. Stephens family, their descendants and extended families who followed, the many, many renowned Southern gospel, pop, country, and rock-and-roll singers and talented vocalists and musicians of the church who have passed through these doors since and shared their voices and songs, the reputation for its great music continues to follow and bless this church today. Is it any wonder then that one would say, “If these walls could talk, they would probably sing!”

PROPERTY AND BUILDING ADDITIONS

Felton and Mary Jarvis donated their home one Lewisburg Pike as an addition to the church.

The property records of Williamson County show that another deed was recorded in 1901. It notes, “For and in consideration of the sum of $50 paid in cash, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged to undersigned, William T. House and wife Henrietta of Franklin, Tennessee, have bargained and sold and by these presents do transfer and convey unto: W. A. Jordan, J. E. Walters and F. S. Reynolds, ruling elders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Franklin, Tennessee, and their successors in office, a certain tract or parcel of land in Williamson County as follows: Being a lot in town of Franklin beginning at southwest corner of Cumberland Presbyterian Church lot on Old Natchez Trace Road running eastwardly 24 feet with alley thence northwardly to line between McGan and Institute Property thence westward 20 feet to the Old Natchez Trace Road to the beginning.”

Buford Ellington Elvis Presley
Governor Buford Ellington with Elvis Presley

The first addition to the church building was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Felton Jarvis. In the early 1970s, they donated a building that was removed from their farm on Lewisburg Pike. This building was the former guest house of Governor Buford Ellington (in office from 1959-63 and 1967-71) who had previously owned the farm. 

Felton and Mary Jarvis’ home that was moved to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church as an addition.

It was also the house where Mary Lynch and Felton Jarvis were married July 20, 1969, by the Reverend Jesse Harris, minister of the church at that time. This addition now houses the fellowship hall, a bathroom and a kitchen.

The second addition was built in 1994 and dedicated “in memory of Felton Jarvis, for his love and devotion to the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church.” This addition, which now serves as the Sunday school room, church office and storage area was appropriately named the Felton Jarvis Annex.

Final Thoughts

Judith Policastro says, “It is sufficient to say that the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church has not survived since 1876 without God’s abundant grace and blessings. While the ministry and the music may be considered the backbone of this church, its people have always been, and continue to be, its heart and soul. Though always small in number, they have managed to stay the course throughout this church’s noteworthy history. As I said in the beginning, I have done what I could to record this history before it was lost or forgotten. I pray that future generations will continue to do the same.”

Thank you, Judith Policastro, for telling the beautiful story of Cumberland Presbyterian with our readers. Thank you, Trenton Lee Photography, for your breathtaking photos of one of the most important historic churches in Tennessee.

Sharing the backstories of historic Franklin with love,

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