By: Jonesborough Genealogical Society
Stephen Brooks and William Burk were on the Green Circuit in 1792-3, Brooks being in charge. Mr. Burk gives the following account of the conversion of Felix and the establishment of a Society in the Earnest Settlement.
“A peculiar circumstance took place some time in July. On the Nolichucky there was a rich and thickly settled neighborhood, which afterward went by the name of Earnest Neighborhood. There was but one Methodist in the neighborhood – the wife of Felix Earnest – who attended preaching when she could travel about five or six miles for the appointment. Felix was a very wicked man. One day at a distillery and partially intoxicated, the spirit of God arrested him. He immediately went home and inquired of his wife if she knew of any Methodist meeting anywhere on that day. It happened to be the day that Brother Brooks preached in the adjoining neighborhood, and he immediately put off for the meeting. He arrived there after the meeting had begun and stood in the door with his shirt collar open and his face red and tears running down his cheeks. He invited Brother Brooks to bring preaching into his neighborhood. He did so, and in two weeks (Burk) came round and preached to a good congregation. The word of God had free course and was glorified. The whole family of Earnest was brought into the church, with many others, and by the first of September we had a large Society formed. I left the work in September, but the work continued. In a short time they built a meeting house, and in the spring of 1795 the Western Conference had their annual sitting at the meeting house and Felix Earnest was a local preacher.”
The establishment of this Society was an important event in Holston Methodist history. It became a flourishing church, and exerted a great influence in East Tennessee. The Earnest family has been financially, socially, and religiously one of the most prominent families in the State of Tennessee. It has retained to the present day the Methodistic bias given to it in 1792. The principal families in the organization of the Ebenezer Society were those of the brothers, Henry and Felix Earnest. According to a statement of the late Felix Earnest, Esq., Henry Earnest, his grandfather, was born in 1732 and Felix in 1762.
The brothers moved to what is now Greene County, Tennessee, and located on the south side of the Nolichucky River, a few miles east of Greeneville, in the year 1788 or 1789. At that time there were very few families north and west of the Alleghany Mountains and these were often compelled to flee from their homes to avoid massacre by the Indians, who were still troublesome in this section. The faithful and ubiquitous itinerant soon visited the settlement. Among the first to preach to these people was Jeremiah Lambert. According to Mr. Burk, a solitary Methodist woman, a faithful and preserving soul, was the prime instrument, under God, of bringing Methodist preaching into this neighborhood, and thus laying the foundation of a large and influential Methodist Church. Great events often turn on little pivots, and individual men and women often gave direction to the mighty and far reaching current of events of great importance. The younger brother seems to have preceded the older into the Kingdom.
The Ebenezer Church was built on Henry Earnest’s land. Henry Earnest and wife and most of their eleven children became members at its first organization. The meeting house was located on one of the most beautiful and picturesque spots in East Tennessee. The original house, which was on logs, was in after-years displaced by a more modern structure. In the old house some six sessions of the annual Conference were held between the years 1795 – 1821, more often than at any other place in the Western Tennessee Conference up to the date of the organization of Holston Conference.
Felix Earnest was licensed to preach shortly after his conversion. He was ordained a deacon by Bishop Asbury at Ebenezer, September 16, 1806, and an elder by Bishop Soule at Jonesboro, October 3, 1825. He died in 1842 at the ripe age of eighty years. He had a son, Stephen W. Earnest, who joined the Holston Conference in 1827. The five sons of Henry Earnest all raised large families and nearly all of them joined the Methodist Church in early life. Four of the six daughters married Methodist preachers. Henry and Felix Earnest did as much to plant and foster Methodism in East Tennessee as any other men.
The Stone Dam Camp Ground was established a mile and a half north of Ebenezer Church near what is now Afton, a depot and village on the Southern Railway six miles east of Greeneville. Among the first to erect tents at this camp ground were the five Earnest brothers just mentioned, and for forty years they left the comfortable homes annually to enjoy the Fest of Tabernacles on this historic ground. Thousands were brought to Christ at this camp ground, among them almost all of the children of the Earnest families. The name originated from a stone dam across a creek in the vicinity, and the name touches many a tender chord in the older Methodists of this section. An old class book of Ebenezer shows that up to 1843, sixty-nine Earnests had belonged to the church at that place, to say nothing of those who married and thereby changed their names before joining the church.