A Wilderness Saint

In 1819, several soldiers arrived at a house in Stewart County, western Tennessee, not far from the town of Dover. They had with them a riderless horse and some very bad news to deliver to the young children who lived there. The children’s father Thomas Randle had drowned in the Chattahoochee River in Alabama while on his way home from fighting in what today is called the “First Seminole War.” He was crossing the river in an overloaded boat which responded to the safety issue by capsizing. Although Thomas was a strong swimmer, he was wearing a heavy coat with a large cape, and a struggling comrade grabbed hold and dragged them both under water.

This was the second great loss for the children, as their mother Nancy Davidson Randle had died three years before. An old relative and a servant were looking after them while their father was away, but now their situation was untenable. Fortunately, other family members lived in the area and came to their aid, but at the cost of splitting up the family. As one of the boys, John Randle, described to his granddaughter many years later:

Relatives of the family came and divided the property and children among them. Martha and Thomas were taken by Uncle Wilson Randle; a relative by the name of Williams took Richmond. Other relatives took George and Sally.

As they rode away from the empty home at twilight with my sisters and brothers, I was left in the deserted yard unchosen. Cousin Henry Wall, who married my cousin Martha Randle, looked back and saw me, a little lonely, motherless, fatherless boy, and called out, “Get up behind and come home with me John.”

But John and his siblings were fortunate in their remarkable sister. Martha Davidson Randle was only about 13 years old when the family was divvied up, but she apparently maintained a personal conviction that they would live together again. She moved across the Tennessee River to the newly-formed Henry County with her uncle, and there encountered one of the first ministers who was saving souls west of river, Reverend Benjamin Peeples, a circuit-rider for the Methodist church. In 1822, at the age of 16, Martha married Benjamin and sent for her three younger brothers to come live with her (her one sister died during these 3 years apart).

benjamin-peeples

Reverend Benjamin Peeples

Benjamin Peeples had become a youthful convert to Methodism in Carter County, eastern Tennessee, where he was born. Like Martha he was an orphan who had been raised in the house of an uncle. He was an enthusiastic missionary for the Methodist church on the frontiers of settlement in Kentucky and Tennessee, and had been a rider on other circuits before being dispatched to the newly-opened lands of west Tennessee after the Chickasaw cession. He was an influential leader whose contributions are well-enumerated in history books about Methodism and Tennessee. In addition to preaching, Benjamin studied and practiced medicine and was active in local government, for many years presiding as judge of the Henry County court. He was appointed as one of two Tennessee commissioners to oversee a survey and re-marking of the state boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee.

But however powerful a figure Benjamin Peeples was, Martha was his match. It is telling that the obituary for Benjamin appearing in the Minutes of the Memphis Conference [Methodist] in 1883 spends a considerable portion of the tribute on his wife, even quoting one of her sons saying, “My mother was the great spiritual power in the family.” Another telling point: Martha’s three surviving brothers, five of her own sons, and two boys who worked on the family’s farm all became Methodist ministers, and she is most often attributed as the inspiration for their careers rather than her ministerial husband. One of her children (it is unknown which one) wrote a beautiful tribute to Martha that captures well what she meant to her family and community:

True and faithful in all walks of life; a model Christian character; deeply pious, yet possessed of a cheerful and bright spirit, life was full of joy and sunshine to her. She prayed continuously, fasted once a week; loved much, hence, was universally beloved. Servants, as well as her own children, shared her ever watchful care and prayers.

She was faithful to her church and, above all, true to God. Responsibilities weighed heavily upon her, but this was never revealed by complaint nor unhappy expression of countenance. She was always calm and contented, even amidst the trying four years of the War between the States. With four sons, one brother, several nephews and numerous other relatives facing the storm of battle, there was no difference in her peaceful happy appearance.

Many neighbors came to talk to her of their troubles and went away comforted by her counsel and prayers. Her visiting was confined to the sick and bereaved, and many of this class were ministered to by her.

The great number of souls brought to Christ through her influence can never be known, yet she never spoke of her success in this line, but was modest and humble in her deportment, ever expressing herself as being so thankful the Lord would allow so humble a creature as she to work in His vineyard. In fact, modesty and humility were the distinct qualities of her nature.

The control of her children was more by example than precept; it was ever a request rather than a command, but from some indescribable cause her requests were always heeded by her children and servants. None seemed to ever have a thought of disobeying her, and by tact and gentle deportment she made her home a happy one.

Every individual who came under her influence for any length of time became religious, save one Negro man, who several years after her death, went seven miles to the home of one of her children to say that after her death he could have no peace until he had become converted and given himself to the Lord through her influence and because of her prayers and counsel.

Martha’s son Samuel annotated the text about his father in an extract from the book Tennessee and Tennesseans, writing a similarly worshipful if grammatically-challenged remembrance of his mother (some punctuation edited for clarity):

She would not permit me to call a negro to wait on me. She always got at four and went to bed after every body had retired, her granddaughter said; Grandmother do you ever go to bed? Many are the mornings have I awoke and seen mother on her knees with her back to the fire reading that well worn family Bible, and she would fast on Friday morning. In fact it was difficult to live any but the Christ life in that home, the very atmosphere where mother was it seemed to me like that around the Great White throne. I never saw her, but of humor or say a harsh word about any one in my life, I thought she was perfection. I could never hide a thing from those pure eyes that seemed to look through and through. She was always busy and it should be no surprise that ten Methodist preachers went out from the old home, for every thing she touched seemed to turn heavenward. Perhaps I am blind but I don’t think a boy ever had a better mother.

Martha and Benjamin had 11 children, 5 boys and 6 girls. Their youngest daughter Susan Eleanor Peeples married Benjamin Thompson after the Civil War, and then became the mother of Susie Ben Thompson.

peeples-siblings

Seven children of Benjamin and Martha Davidson Randle Peeples, left to right from top: James Polk Peeples, Samuel W. Peeples, George T. Peeples, John Randle Peeples, Carolyn Peeples (“Aunt Chub”), Benjamin F. Peeples, Susan Eleanor Peeples


Here are two published biographies for Benjamin Peeples:

Benjamin and Martha are buried in the Peeples family cemetery on the Henry-Mansfield Road. Find-a-Grave links are as follows:

Martha D. Peeples Tombstone

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