Presbyterians of the Past

Alfred H. Mathes, 1828-1878

Map, Section Eastern US, circa 1811-1829, Cropped For in Article, 11-24-2015 (2)The walking distance by the most direct route from the location of what was once Washington College in Washington County, Tennessee, to the Presbyterian seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, is just short of six-hundred miles. If one was to make the trek today it would run parallel to modern roads including I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley to Lexington, Virginia, where the path would follow I-64 on to Charlottesville, then along Highway 29 through Culpepper, Highway 15 and I-66 continue the route through the District of Columbia until I-95 is accessed through Philadelphia, then across the Delaware River at Trenton, and on to Princeton following Highway 206. One website proposes that this walking journey would take about two-hundred hours which gives a pace of three miles per hour. However, when Alfred Harvey Mathes left his rural home in Tennessee in the late summer of 1852 there was a system of private turnpikes and highways in the states he would go through, and old routes such as the Great Wagon Road that brought settlers from Pennsylvania into the Carolinas, but for the purpose of this article it will be assumed he trekked a fairly direct route that would provide the lowest cost for his limited resources. His path would likely have taken him through farmland, across streams, over mountains, and through mud and along trails for a rugged journey. Yes, young Mr. Mathes walked from his Tennessee home to Princeton. When asked after his arrival at Princeton how he had travelled from Tennessee, showing his sense of humor, or maybe his frustration and sore feet, he replied, “by private conveyance.”

Alfred Harvey Mathes was born to Alexander and Orpha (Wood) Mathes in Greenville, South Carolina, May 7, 1828. When four years of age, Harvey’s parents moved the household to Washington County, Tennessee, which is just west of the mountains dividing Tennessee and North Carolina and south of Kingsport. The Mathes family had considerable history in the community and in the local Presbyterian congregation, Old Salem Church, which was founded in 1780 by Rev. Samuel Doak. Rev. Doak had graduated in 1775 from Nassau Hall, currently Princeton University, during the presidency of minister, patriot, and educator, John Witherspoon. Alfred’s great grandfather, grandfather, and then his father all served as elders in Old Salem Church. Elder Alexander Mathes, Sr., who was a surveyor, donated fifty acres of land to the church for a site to construct a church building and a classical school. Alfred united with the congregation on profession of faith in 1848.

Alfred’s education began with his early studies directed by Benjamin Bolden of Anderson Academy in Newport, Tennessee.  He then attended Washington College which was located on a portion of the land his ancestor had donated to Old Salem Church. The college had grown out of Martin Academy which was the classical school founded by Old Salem’s first pastor, Samuel Doak in 1785. Washington College was chartered by the first state legislature in 1796. However, Alfred did not complete his college studies and moved to New Market, Tennessee, where he was tutored by his uncle, Rev. Allen H. Mathes. Alfred then taught school for a few years in two locations in Carter County, Tennessee, he also read law, but then he believed he was called to the ministry. He returned to Washington College to complete his studies graduating in 1852. The grandson of Samuel Doak, Rev. Archibald Alexander Doak (Princeton Seminary, 1835), served two non-consecutive terms as the college president between 1840 and 1857 and supplied local churches including Old Salem. It is likely that A. A. Doak steered young Mathes to take the longer trip to Princeton Seminary instead of one of the considerably shorter journeys to either Union Seminary in Virginia or Columbia in South Carolina.

Once Alfred Mathes arrived in New Jersey and recovered from his lengthy journey, he pursued a full course of study successfully completing the divinity curriculum in 1855. He returned to his family homeland where he was licensed by the Presbytery of Holston, Old School, PCUSA, on April 28, 1855, and just over two years later he was ordained an evangelist by the same presbytery, July 25, 1857. The first call for newly ordained Rev. Alfred H. Mathes was supplying the Providence and Rocky Spring churches from 1857 to 1866. He resigned the dual charge and moved south to Georgia where he was stated supply for a church in Fort Gaines, Georgia, Presbytery of East Alabama, PCUS, 1866 to 1871. He also opened and briefly taught in an academy at Fort Gaines along with his supply ministry. In 1873, he relocated further south to Florida where he first worked as an evangelist in the panhandle of the state at Freeport. By 1876, he had settled in Apopka, just north of Orlando, where he organized the church that he served until his death caused by consumption on September 4, 1878. The diagnosis of “consumption” was often made for diseases of the lungs in general, though it often referred to one of the fearsome diseases of his era, the red death, tuberculosis. Maybe his changes in ministry in the later years were his attempt to find a better climate for his illness as he moved further south.

Rev. Mathes was married twice. Lydia Eliza Glasgo and Alfred Mathes were married on May 24, 1855. They were married almost ten years when she died, May 8, 1865. His second spouse was the widowed Frances Elizabeth Clark who was the daughter of Rev. Stephen Pilley of the Methodist Episcopal Church. They had married in Judson, Alabama, March 14, 1867. Frances died August 16, 1873, in Florida. Two daughters and a son survived Rev. Mathes. The Tennessee boy who had walked so many miles from his home to a very different culture for his theological education in New Jersey had experienced a ministry of about fifteen years.


Sources—Other than standard Presbyterian reference works, Historic Presbyterian Churches of Tennessee, by Joanna Emerson and Mary Ana Van Osdell, 2006, provides a brief history and photograph of the Old Salem Presbyterian Church. The map is from sometime between 1811 and 1829 and is from Olney’s School Atlas. The route of travel for Mathes was added by the author, is very approximate, and is based on information from Google Maps using the “Directions” feature.

Notes—Washington County, Tennessee, is between the Appalachian Mountains and Kingsport, and the county seat is Jonesborough. Another alumnus of Washington College with a biography in the Presbyterians of the Past collection is Rev. James A Lyon. Also, to read about another minister on Presbyterians of the Past whose life involved some walking, see William Swan Plumer’s walk in the biography of John McElhenney. It may seem surprising that Rev. Mathes served in Fort Gaines, Georgia, but was a member of the Synod of Alabama. It may be that because Ft. Gaines was on the Georgia and Alabama line, the synods believed the ministry of Mathes was better served by the Synod of Alabama. He may have been laboring in a church that was not in the PCUS because the General Assembly minutes for 1867 show him as a stated supply but no church is named nor statistics given.

A brief paper, “Private Highways in America, 1792-1845, by Dr. Daniel B. Kline, University of California, Irvine, notes that in the era 1552 turnpikes were constructed, so young Mathes might have been able to use these depending on the charges involved. See the list of articles at,

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