Monday, December 31, 2007

A Brief History of the Reverend Francis Asbury Owen (1804-1883)

I first researched and wrote this brief history back in 1999. F.A. Owen was my great-great-great grandfather's brother.

Francis Asbury Owen was born February 8, 1804 and died March 16, 1883. His family moved to middle Tennessee from Brunswick County, Virginia. This move took place when F.A. Owen was a young child.

In a June 1822 Conference in Columbia, Tennessee, several young ministers were licensed to preach by the Methodist Church. F.A. Owen was one of these young men. He was 18 years old at the time. This information originally came from Mrs. Annie Ruth Brown of Horn Lake, Mississippi. Mrs. Brown is the great-great granddaughter of the Rev. F.A. Owen.[1]

According to Methodist Church historian John Abernathy Smith, an awakening of Methodism occurred in middle Tennessee after the War of 1812. Thomas L. Douglass came from Virginia in 1813 to lead this revival in middle Tennessee. Subsequently Douglass was named “presiding elder of the Nashville District.”[2] Smith writes: “His [Douglass’] shock troops were young preachers stirred at the annual campmeeting at Mt. Pisgah in 1817.”[3] Among these preachers was F.A. Owen. Although F.A. Owen would only have been thirteen years old at the time, it was far from uncommon for the Methodist Church to send out preachers as young as ten years old at this time.[4] Smith also notes that Owen was “a future Southern publishing agent,” which is an accurate fact (see below).[5]

According to a history of the Methodist Church in Memphis, the Rev. F.A. Owen started the first Methodist Church in Memphis at Poplar and Second Avenue.[6] This would have been in the early 1830s (1831?). F.A. Owen’s brother, the Rev. S.W. Owen, was the minister of the Methodist Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee at this time. So far no information exists to corroborate the dates of his tenure in Spring Hill. S.W. Owen was born in 1814 and died February 26, 1845.[7] He married Sarah C. Nicholson, who was born in Williamson County, Tennessee on April 3, 1816. According to the obituary, Sarah married S.W. Owen on January 24, 1833, and she joined the Spring Hill church the following year. She died while visiting her son, Dr. Richard Watson Owen, in Tunica County, Mississippi on July 17, 1888.[8] She is buried behind the Owen homeplace in Tunica County.

According to Henry G. Hawkins, the Rev. F.A. Owen replaced the Rev. Hawkins at the Methodist Church in Natchez, Mississippi during 1833 and 1834. Concerning Owen’s appearance and character, Hawkins writes:

F.A. Owen was a man of fine appearance; neat in his attire, polished in his manners, and in every respect an elegant gentleman. He was also a good preacher and a man of well-rounded character. Some years after this he filled the honorable and responsible position of Agent for our Publishing House, at Nashville. During the later years of his life he was in the pastorate in the city of St. Louis. He died in 1882, having completed a laborious and useful ministry of sixty years.[9]

Hawkins’ account differs on the date of Owen’s death from family records.[10] Hawkins also notes that “It throws some light upon the ecclesiastical methods of the period to know that a woman was expelled from church for quarreling with a neighbor.”[11] Apparently Owen took church discipline very seriously!

According to another undocumented obituary, the Rev. F.A. Owen married Elizabeth Harding on December 11, 1834. Mrs. Harding’s maiden name was Clopton. She was born near Nashville on September 29, 1811. Her first marriage to ended after two years when her husband, William Harding, died in May of 1832. Willie Harding was the only child from the first marriage. Willie married David H. McGavock, a prominent man of Nashville. According to an undocumented obituary for Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen, “Mrs. [Willie] McGavock did not know for years that [Rev. F.A. Owen] was not her own father, so tender, judicious, and loving was his care for her.” In 1875, Mrs. McGavock “gave the diamonds which had studded her wedding veil for a girls’ school in China.”[12] She named it the Clopton School after her mother. Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen died on March 26, 1893.

F.A. Owen is listed as the editor of the Memphis and Arkansas Christian Advocate from 1851 to 1854.[13] Along with Edward Stevenson, F.A. Owen helped open the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee in 1854. According to one source, Owen had previously been a “Tennessee Conference leader.”[14] Stevenson and Owen acted as agents of the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville from 1855 to 1858.[15]

According to undocumented Memphis Conference Notes, Owen was assigned to the Mississippi Bottom District (1859-1865), the Memphis District (1866), and the Sunflower District (1867). The Mississippi Bottom District included Commerce Mission and Tunica. F.A. Owen moved to St. Louis in 1874 and was placed in charge of St. Paul’s Church. In 1875 he worked at the Chouteau Avenue Church. But by 1877, “his health was such as compelled him to superannuate, in which relation he continued till death” in 1883.[16]

According to stories passed down to his great-great granddaughter Annie Ruth Brown, F.A. Owen was a conscientious objector during the Civil War. Family lore holds that Union troops stole some of Owen’s horses. In anger, he sued the federal government for his property on the grounds of his neutrality during the war.

The Rev. F.A. Owen died at the home of his step-daughter and son-in-law in Nashville, Tennessee on March 16, 1883. The home is called Two Rivers Mansion, and is included in the Tennessee registry of historical sites.

F.A. Owen and Elizabeth Clopton Owen are buried in Mt. Olivet cemetary in Nashville, Tennessee (section 8). Their graves lie in the family plot of Owen's step-daughter and son-in-law, Willie H. and David H. McGavock. Although cemetery records indicate the place of burial, no gravestones mark the site of either F.A. or Elizabeth Owen. The reasons why remain a mystery, particularly in light of the fact that Elizabeth outlived her husband by ten years and Willie McGavock outlived her step-father by 12 years. Elizabeth Owen’s obituary says that “Dr. Owen is held in affectionate remembrance by the [McGavock] family.” Cemetary records give no indication of either the birth or death dates of F.A. or Elizabeth. Nor do they include Elizabeth's middle name of Clopton.


[1] This information is corroborated by Cullen T. Carter in History of Tennessee Conference and a Brief Summary of the General Conference [of] the Methodist Church: From the Frontier in Middle Tennessee to the Present Time (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1948). Carter’s book includes an appendix of persons listed as “Admitted on Trial” from year to year (p. 524). Francis Owen is listed along with thirty eight others as admitted on trial in 1822 (p. 525). William P. Owen was also admitted on trial in 1859, but we don’t know if there is any family relationship (p. 531). According to the St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883, F.A. Owen was licensed to preach in Columbia, Tennessee in June 1822 and was received on trial at the Annual Conference at the Ebenezer Meeting house in Greene County, east Tennessee on October 16, 1822.

[2] John Abernathy Smith, Cross and Flame: Two Centuries of United Methodism in Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1984), p. 58.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Professor Frank Gully of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, brought this to my attention.

[5] Smith, op. cit, p. 58.

[6] Cf. Paul T. Hicks, History of the First Methodist Church of Memphis Tennessee 1826-1900 (1980). See also Perre Magness, “Methodists Helped Tame River Town,” The Commercial Appeal November 26, 1992 (Memphis, TN): pp.??

[7] This information was first confirmed by the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church in Madison, New Jersey. In addition to F.A. Owen, their records indicate the Rev. M. Owen of Memphis as another brother. Rev. S.W. Owen’s obituary was published in the March 8, 1845 edition of the South-Western Christian Advocate. The obituary likewise confirms the relationship between the three brothers.

[8] The undocumented obituary for Sarah was written by T.J. Taylor and, along with many other clippings, notes, and photographs, part of the scrapbook of Sarah Elizebeth Williamson Tappan (“Dabbur”), wife of Dr. Richard W. Owen. The marriage license of Sterling and Sarah confirms their wedding date.

[9] Henry G. Hawkins, Methodism in Natchez (Jackson: Hawkins Foundation, 1937), p. 62.

[10] The St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883 confirms that Rev. F.A. Owen moved to St. Louis in 1874, having been placed in charge of St. Paul’s Church and then in service to the Chouteau Avenue Church.

[11] Hawkins, op. cit.

[12] Smith, op. cit., p. 217. Oswald Eugene Brown and Anna Muse Brown’s Life and Letters of Laura Askew Haygood (Nashville & Dallas: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1904) presents a detailed account of Methodist missions to China via the life and letters of Mrs. Haygood. According to this book, the Clopton School’s origins go back to around 1855 when Mrs. J.W. Lambuth began “receiving Christian education” in her house in Shangai, China (p. 146). The gift of Mrs. McGavock’s jewels allowed the missionaries to “erect a more commodious building” (ibid.). It was then renamed in honor of Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen. Mrs. Haygood took over the Clopton School in 1885 (ibid.). Subsequent chapters print selections from the many detailed letters Mrs. Haygood wrote to Mrs. D.H. McGavock. Unfortunately, none of Mrs. McGavock’s letters are printed (assuming they have survived). Mrs. McGavock’s involvement in foreign missions went beyond her gift to the Clopton School. She was active in the Methodist Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, and she even wrote “a manual for missionary candidates.” See Mrs. F.A. Butler, History of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, M.E. Church, South (Nashville & Dallas: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1912), p. 79.

[13] Walter N. Vernon, Methodism in Arkansas, 1816-1976 (Little Rock: Joint Committee for the History of Arkansas Methodism, 1976), p. 170.

[14] Smith, op. cit., p. 131.

[15] Rev. P.A. Peterson, Hand-Book of Southern Methodism being a Digest of the History and Statistics of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, from 1845 to 1882 (Richmond, VA: J.W. Ferguson & Son, 1883), p. 49.

[16] St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883.

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