The walking distance from the home of Alfred Mathes in Tennessee to Princeton Seminary in New Jersey is just short of six-hundred miles. If the journey was made today it might follow roads including I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley to Lexington, I-64 on to Charlottesville, then Highway 29 through Culpepper, Highway 15 and I-66 on through the District of Columbia until I-95 is taken through Philadelphia, then across the Delaware River to Trenton, and on to Princeton via Highway 206. One website proposes that to walk the distance would take about two-hundred hours at a pace of three miles per hour. However, when young Alfred left home in the late summer of 1852 his route would have taken him through farmland, across streams, over mountains, and on trails. Young Mr. Mathes walked from Tennessee to Princeton for theological studies and when he arrived in town was asked which means of travel he had taken. Showing his sense of humor, or maybe wryly expressing frustration and sore feet reminding him of his trek, he answered, “by private conveyance.”
Alfred Harvey Mathes was born to Alexander and Orpha (Wood) Mathes in Greenville, South Carolina on May 7, 1828. When he was four years of age the family moved to Washington County, Tennessee, which is located 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. The congregation was founded in 1780 by Rev. Samuel Doak who was a student of John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Alfred’s great grandfather, grandfather, and father were all elders in Old Salem Church. Elder and surveyor Alexander Mathes, Sr., donated fifty acres of land to the church which were used to build initially a sanctuary and classical school, but in later years other buildings were added. Alfred became a communicant member of the Old Salem congregation on profession of faith in 1848.
Alfred’s early studies were directed by Benjamin Bolden of Anderson Academy in Newport, Tennessee. He then attended Washington College which was located on the land his ancestor donated to Old Salem Church. The college had grown out of Martin Academy, the classical school Pastor Doak established, and it was chartered by the first state legislature in 1796. Alfred began at Washington but then left to be tutored by his uncle, Rev. Allen H. Mathes, for a time, before returning to Washington and graduating in 1852. He taught school for a few years in Carter County, Tennessee, he also read law, but then he believed he was called to the ministry. The grandson of Samuel Doak, Rev. Archibald Alexander Doak, served two non-consecutive terms as the president of Washington College between 1840 and 1857. It is likely that A. A. Doak, a Princeton seminary man, steered young Mathes to take the longer trip to Princeton instead of one of the shorter journeys to either Union Seminary in Virginia or Columbia in South Carolina.
Once Alfred Mathes arrived in New Jersey, he pursued a full course of study successfully completing the divinity curriculum in 1855. He returned to his family homeland to be licensed by the Presbytery of Holston, Old School, PCUSA, on April 28, 1855, and was then ordained an evangelist by the same presbytery, July 25, 1857. His first call was supplying the Providence and Rocky Spring churches from 1857 to 1866. He resigned the dual charge and moved south to Georgia to become stated supply for about five years for a church in Fort Gaines, Presbytery of East Alabama, Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). He also opened an academy in Fort Gaines and taught there while supplying the church. In 1873, he relocated south to Florida to be an evangelist in the panhandle at Freeport. By 1876, he settled in Apopka, just north of Orlando and 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 most 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 were married on May 24, 1855, and continued together until her death on 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 were 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 in New Jersey for his theological education 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 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. A six-minute video of the remaining buildings of the Washington College campus may be viewed at the link. 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; it is not uncommon for a congregation isolated at the edge of its proper geographic judicatory to be allowed membership in another judicatory that has more nearby churches. 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.