Richmond Nolley is considered to be the first Methodist martyr in Louisiana. While braving the wilds of early Louisiana, he died what traveling to his next service.
Though born in Virginia in 1790, Richmond Nolley soon moved to Georgia with his parents. But soon thereafter, he was orphaned. With nowhere to go, Captain Lucas (a Methodist in Sparta, Georgia) gave him a job at his store and a place to live. In 1806, Richmond attended a camp meeting near Sparta. Since the large crowd couldn't all hear the minister, Lovick Pierce led a group of them in a separate meeting.
Standing on the top of a table, Pierce led them in an all day service that led to the conversion of over 100 people. Among those converted was a young Richmond.
Richmond lived at the Lucas' for another year, exhorting in the area to prepare himself for the ministry. In 1807, he was admitted into the Conference and appointed to preach to the slaves on the Edisto Circuit. The following year he served in Wilmington, North Carolina. The following year he served in Charleston, South Carolina. His ministry was no piece of cake; he became use to people throwing firecrackers at him while he was in the pulpit. He undertook the practice of kneeling with his eyes shut to pray and continue. It was said that he spoke with great energy ... his voice was a trumpet.
In 1812 he and three others ... Thomas Griffin, Lewis Hobbs, Drury Powell ... headed west. He went on a mission to Tombigbee, in the territory of Alabama. Here he devoted two years of hard labor, filling his appointments with fidelity, though often walking on foot with his saddlebags upon his shoulders,besides instructing the people, black as well as white, from house to house. A tall, slender man with dark, radiant eyes, he always rose at 4 o'clock in the morning. He was known to be intelligent, full of determination, and courage in his ministry.
At this time, the hostilities between the United States and Great Britain cause quite a bit of movement of hostile Indians. After Tecumseh massacred 200 people at Fort Mims, the people fled to the forts for protection. Despite the danger, Nolley would travel from fort to fort to minister to the people.
On one of his journeys he came upon a man just arriving at Choctaw Corner with his family to set up a home. Upon hearing the preacher's greeting, the man said "What! Have you found me already? Another Methodist preacher? I left Virginia to get out of the reach of them, went to a new settlement in Georgia, and thought to have a long whet, but they got my wife and daughter into the Church; then, in this late purchase; I found a piece of good land, and was sure I would have some peace of the preachers, and here is one before my wagon is unloaded." Nolley responded, "My friend, if you go to heaven you'll find Methodist preachers there; and if to hell, I am afraid you will find some there; and you see how it is in this world; so you had better make terms with us, and be at peace."
After two years in Alabama, he was traveled to the Attakapas circuit in Louisiana. After thr harsh conditions of the Tombigbee Mission, he would receive no easy appointment here. His friend, presiding elder Griffin, later said "he went without a murmur." He was exposed to the danger and hardships which are to be found in the wilderness ... bad (or no) roads, deep waters to cross, flies and mosquitoes, intense heat of the summer, and the mud and mire of the winter months. But Nolley would not let these things discourage him He went forward with determination seeking the "lost sheep of the house of Israel."
As Griffin related, "the difficulties we had to encounter were almost incredible." Nolley found that firecrackers weren't the only problems facing preachers. One planter drove him away from his fire. On another occassion, a group at St. Martinville was taking him to the Bayou Teche to dunk him. He was saved from the water by a black woman named Deborah who scared the men away with a hoe. Nolley wrote to his brother "This watery country has bayous which are large and deep with many reptiles coming through them. But the inhabitants are my friends. The most cannot speak English, but there are some natives who can. There is a goodly number friendly, and many not."
But that's not to say his ministry wasn't fruitful. On one occasion, he was late for a meeting due to rough traveling conditions. When he arrived, he found them all asleep in the room. He went to the head of the room and with a prayer and a hymn began his service.
One resident of the Attakapas who fondly remembered Nolley for years was a Mrs. Martha Skinner. She later recalled how Rev. Nolley had a habit of pausing at the threshold (before entering her home) and saying "Peace be to this house." After his death, she told a friend, "Whenever I do wrong, I feel as if Brother Nolley looked down reproachfully on me."
At the 1814 Mississippi Annual Conference, he was reappointed to the same circuit. Membership had increased by 33% during his ministry and he was needed. Returning to Louisiana, Nolley and Griffin crossed the Mississippi River. After spending the night at Sicily Island, Nolley decided to proceed despite the bad weather. He knew "his people needed him." So they parted to go in different directions. On Friday, Nov. 25, 1814, Nolley continued towards Jena until he came to an Indian village. He figured that Hemps Creek up ahead would be difficult to cross, so he hired an Indian to assist him. He wanted to cross the creek, located northeast of Jena, before it got too late, else he would have to stay with the Indians for the night. He left his saddle-bags, valise, and some books with his Indian guide. He mounted his horse and attempted to ride through the creek. The current was so swift, they were soon beyond the landing place on the opposite shore and could not climb up the steep shore. The rider and horse were soon separated. The horse went back to the Indian while Nolley was able to grab a tree limb and climb up the steep bank. Nolley yelled to the Indian that he would walk to a Mr. Carter's house a couple of miles distant and asked the Indian to keep his horse till the next day. Cold, wet, and physically exhausted, he was only able to travel almost a mile. A traveler found him there the next day. From his muddy knees and the prints on the ground, it was clear that he spent some of his last moments on his knees in prayer.
The next day, when the creek has subsided, the Indian crossed over. He found the preacher's coat on the ground. Just ahead he found Nolley, with his eyes neatly closed, his left hand on his breast, his right hand fallen to the side, nestled beneath a big pine tree. His body was taken to the nearby house. Mrs. Polly Francis told the story for many years of how she made his shroud and Mr. Young hammered out the nails and a coffin was built. On Sunday afternoon, he was buried "in Catahoula Parish, near the road leading from Alexandria to Harrisonburg, and about 20 miles from the latter place." A board with the initials "R.N." was nailed to the tree nearby. The grave appeared lost for a time. Then, at the opening of the Annual Conference in 1921, Rev. J.D. Harper read of how the grave had been found ... a short distance from the highway heading east from Jena.
The name of Richmond Nolley lives on in the heritage of the people in Alabama and Louisiana. His devotion to the ministry and his Lord remain an example to United Methodists of all ages. He became Louisiana's first United Methodist martyr, at the young age of 24 after only 8 years of ministry . In 1952, his remains were moved to the lawn of the Methodist church in Jena ... renamed Nolley Memorial in his memory.
A Compendious History of American Methodism, Abel Stevens, Carlton & Porter: NY, NY 1867.
Cyclopedia of Methodism, M. Simpson, Philadelphia, PA 1881.
The History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Nathan Bangs, Mason& Lane, NY, NY 1839.
Louisiana Methodism, Robert Harper, Kaufmann Press, Washington, DC 1949.
The Story of Methodism, A. B. Hyde, Willey Publishing Co., Greenfield, MA 1887.
AN APPROPRIATE MEMENTO
We learn that some of the brethren of the Methodist church in this State have erected a monument on the upper Alexandria Road, near Jena in this parish, to commemorate the spot, where in the year 1814 or 15 a Mr. Nolley, an itenerant Methodist preacher perished by the road side, while traveling on his work. As explanatory of the incident of the death of this faithful servant in whose memory this monument has been erected, we extract from DeBow’s Review the following scrap from the history of our parish: “Mr. Nolley was a delicate feeble man and traveled on this circuit about 1815. In the winter while attempting to swim the Hemphill’s Creek, up where Squire Heard now lives, he got very wet, and the cold benumbed him so, that he perished by the road side, where he was found by the neighbors. He was decently buried at old Mr. Brown’s place near by and every preacher who since that time fills his circuit, pays a pilgrimage to the grave of the faithful minister, who fell in the harness and died at his post.”
We are informed that the monument is of white marble structure, very neat and bears appropriate inscriptions. It stands on the right of the road going from this place and between the residences of Messrs. Coleman& Hanes.
We think it highly commendable in those who have had it done, very appropriate indeed, and hope it may long stand to mark the historic spot.
From The Ouachita Telegraph, Fri., March 5, 1880; p. 2, col. 3