September, 2004 (revised 3-2008, 11-2008)
The Reverend Moses Sanders was a well-known Baptist preacher in the last decades of the eighteenth century who was instrumental in founding several Baptist churches in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, including Grove Level Baptist Church in Franklin (now Banks) County, Georgia. In 1902 a great-grandson, Christopher Columbus Sanders, with the help of other descendants, funded a cemetery marker for the Reverend Sanders on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Grove Level Church. The tombstone has the following inscription:
Rev. Moses Sanders
In England 1742
Founder of Grove Level, Nails Creek
and many other Baptist Churches.
A soldier of the Revolutionary War
The Cross of Jesus Christ My Anchor
Christopher Columbus Sanders is probably the source of the tradition among some of the Georgia descendants of the Reverend Moses Sanders that he was born in 1742 in England, that his father was named John, and that he served in the Revolutionary War. How much of this family lore is trustworthy is an open question, and though we have a pretty clear history of the life of Moses after he made the final move to Georgia around 1798, we encounter numerous difficulties in creating a biography of his earlier life. Nevertheless, because he was remarkably peripatetic, even for an itinerant evangelist, and because he was a man of public affairs, frequently mentioned in legal documents, he left far more documents and records of his life than did his brothers.
In the 1770s and 1780s Moses first appears in legal documents issued in the Anson County area of North Carolina in the part of Anson that later became Montgomery County. Slightly more than a hundred years later, in the state of Texas, Thomas Bailey Saunders, whose ancestors were from Montgomery County, North Carolina, wrote a letter to a nephew who had inquired about their shared Sanders family history.
“My grandfather married in Virginia. My grandmother's name was Joan Bailey, of the famous old family of Virginia. My grandfather was killed in a fight with the Tories. His brother, Isaac, which is your great grandfather, was the first man that ever built a house on Cross creek below Fayetteville. And another brother by the name of Moses was a Baptist preacher and they had one sister. I have seen her myself. She married a man by the name of Hamilton. I have seen your great grandfather and his wife, and they were very old then. Your grandfather had two brothers, Ben and Joe, they moved to Alabama and their families are there yet. I saw an old lady in New Orleans a few years ago, she was a Saunders and she told me the same story about the Saunders. I have told you all about the old generation that I know…This letter from the 1890s clearly refers to the Reverend Moses Sanders and two of his brothers:
T. B. Saunders”
Therefore, this letter gives us valuable clues. We know all of these people lived at one time in the Montgomery County area of North Carolina, and although Thomas Bailey mentioned only three sons, it is likely that there were other brothers and sisters of Moses. One of Moses Sanders' grandsons, Moses Martin Sanders (1803-1878) provided the name of at least one more brother, Francis, and Francis is also documented as having worked with Moses Sanders at his Georgia church. We do not have any firm documentary evidence identifying the parents of the brothers, but any plausible theory of the origins of this family must begin from the premise that William Aaron, Isaac, Moses, and Francis were brothers and they lived in Montgomery County, North Carolina. For these basic facts, we have a solid family tradition and DNA evidence.
There are, of course, other theories of Moses' parentage. If one consults the World Wide Web, numerous references are found to John Sanders and Barbara Unknown as the parents of Moses, yet I can find no one who offers any documentation on the Web for that theory, nor for another popular theory, that the parents were John Sanders and Jane Crews, two well-known Quakers who lived in Guilford County, North Carolina. If there are indeed people out there who have evidence different from what I offer here concerning the parents of Moses Sanders, it would be helpful if they would come forward and share their knowledge with others.
What I intend to present in this article is the evidence I have now accumulated, with the help of others, about the life of Moses Sanders.
We have no firm records of the birth and childhood of Moses Sanders. His grandson, Christopher Columbus Sanders, inscribed on Moses' tombstone that he was born in 1742. Though there is no other documentation for this date, it is compatible with the known birth year of Moses' first son, Aaron, in 1769. Aaron was most likely born in Brunswick County, Virginia. The marriage of Moses Sanders to Mary Hamilton probably occurred about 1768 in Brunswick County. Mary Sanders is mentioned in the will of her father, Joseph Hamilton, of Brunswick County. In 1772 the name of Moses Saunders appears in a court case in Brunswick County. Moses had probably moved to North Carolina during the previous year.
Moses appears as early as 1771 in Anson County in North Carolina. At that time most of the Western part of North Carolina was divided between Rowan County to the north and Anson County to the north. Wilkes County was formed in 1778 from Surry which had been formed from Rowan. Iredell was split from Rowan in 1788. Montgomery County was formed in 1779 from Anson County. Nearly all the references to Moses in legal documents occur in the older counties of Anson and Rowan and the counties of Montgomery, Wilkes, and Iredell that were created from them during Moses lifetime.
In 1771 Moses was granted land between Duncombe Creek and the Uwharrie river in present day Montgomery County but lying then in Anson County. In 1772 Moses built a water mill on the Bumpass Fork of the Little River in the extreme northeastern part of present day Montgomery County and close to the Randolph County line. That land was to the east of the first grant. On July 23, 1774 Moses Sanders received 200 Acres in Anson County on Dumcombe Creek of the Uwharrie river(Anson County record #3449. book 26 page 37). There are several other references to Moses in documents of Anson County in the period between January 1772 and April 1775.
Other Sanders, possibly related to Moses, were granted land in what is now Montgomery County in the 1770s. In 1771 George Sanders received 100 acres on Duncombe Creek. Hisr relationship to Moses is unknown, though he may have been a brother or an uncle. On May 24, 1774 Aaron Sanders received land on Barnes Creek between the Uwharrie river and Duncombe Creek. Aaron Sanders later sold land on the Yadkin River to Edward Moore on April 3rd, 1775. Between 1773 and 1775 he received several hundred acres though several grants on or near the Yadkin River. In July of 1774 George Sanders, Aaron Sanders, and Moses sanders were ordered to help in constructing a road from Beaver Dam Creek to Rocky Creek. It is not clear whether this refers to the Beaverdam Creek in present day Rowan County or the one in present day Richmond County, which was formed from Anson in 1779. Aaron Sanders probably died in 1782 because letters of administration for his estate were recorded on November 12, 1782 in what was then Anson County. There is a reference in a land deed the following year to a widow Sanders who may have been his wife. This Aaron Sanders is the same person as William Aaron Saunders, brother of Moses, mentioned in the Thomas Bailey Saunders letter.
There is a possible reference to Moses' brother Francis on March 20th 1778 when Jos. Thompson, Jr., refers to 100 acres on the middle fork of Lick Creek, the waters of Jones Creek, joining Mathew Baileys and F Saunders Line. This F Saunders may be Francis, the brother of Moses, and the Matthew Bailey mentioned may be related to the Joan Bailey who is mentioned in the Thomas Bailey Saunders letters as the wife of William Arron Saunders. On November 12th, 1778, George Kirk, in a land transaction, refers to Duncombe Creek, below the Sanders Line, running towards the county line and joining Sanders and Steeds line. Moses Sanders and Nathaniel Steed were known neighbors, but the relationships between the Steeds and the Sanders is not fully understood. Moses Steed, the brother of Nathaniel, married a Jane Saunders, who could be a sister to Moses Sanders, though nothing definite is known about her parentage. Another Steed brother, John, had a son, Francis Steed, who was the bondman for the wedding of Francis Sanders and Rachel Sanders in 1801 in Randolph County, just north of Montgomery County. This Francis Sanders appears to be a son of Isaac and a nephew of the Reverend Moses Sanders.
In 1779 Montgomery County was split off from Anson County and a county tax list was prepared. Moses Sanders and Daniel Sanders appear on this tax list, but they are missing from the 1780 tax list, though they were apparently still property owners in the county. In 1780 George and Reuben are the only Sanders listed. Their relationship to Moses is unknown, though they appear to have been neighbors of Nathaniel Steed, previously mentioned as a neighbor of Moses Sanders. Daniel Sanders' apparently was also a neighbor of Moses Sanders and Aaron Sanders. Some of Daniel's descendants later moved to Jackson County, Alabama and to Wright County, Missouri, as did descendants of other Sanders in the area. There is a 1779 reference to a William Hamiliton whose land patent, granted in 1772, was “on the NE side of Yadkin on the waters of Barnes Creek”. This William Hamilton is believed to be the brother of Moses Sanders wife, Mary Hamilton. At that time it appears most of the Sanders from the Moses Sanders line were living in the area between Duncombe Creek and Barnes Creek, two tributaries of the Uwharrie River, though some of their land lay further west on the Yadkin River. On the 1782 tax roll of Montgomery County three Sanders appear: Isaac (the previously mentioned the brother of Moses), James, and George. Unfortunately, the relationship among these Sanders is not always clear from the land records.
According to a legal proceeding initiated by Moses in Rowan County, he was still living in Montgomery County in October 1781 but he moved to Wilkes County shortly thereafter. Wilkes County is to the northwest of Montgomery and was one of the counties formed from Rowan County. In 1782 he appears on the Wilkes County tax roll. On November17, 1783 Francis Sanders, Moses' brother, was granted 100 acres on "ye Bear Branch, the waters of Hunting Creek" in Wilkes County. It was surveyed in April of 1785 and recorded in September 1785. On the Wilkes County Tax List of 1782, Francis Sanders is listed in Alexander Gordons District, as is Moses, with 2 Mules and 3 Cattle. In the 1787 tax rolls, Captain Gordons District, he appears as Francis Sandris. He sold his land in 1792 and late moved to Georgia to assist in his brother's ministry.
Moses must have moved from Wilkes County sometime in the mid 1780s because he is mentioned several times in Rowan County deeds between 1786 and 1788. In 1786 he was appointed an overseer of a road. About 1790 he was a justice of the peace in Rowan County. Though he maintained his primary residence in Rowan County, he must have traveled frequently to other counties and to Georgia and South Carolina as part of his missionary activity. On February 11, 1787 he helped organize the Nails Creek Baptist Church in Franklin County, Georgia.
Moses Sanders filed suit in Rowan County equity court on January 18, 1789 seeking redress of a grievance and restitution of property. The suit was based on an incident in 1781 when he stated that he was arrested by a constable in Montgomery County upon the instigation of George Kirk who asserted that Moses and other Tory sympathizers had taken property from Kirk. After Moses’ arrest, he claims, he was intimidated by a threat to his life to surrender two hundred acres of Montgomery County land to George Kirk on October 3, 1781, with a mortgage of 42 pounds, five shillings. George then sold the land and obtained a judgment against Moses for non-payment of the mortgage. Moses claimed in his petition that the agreement was obtained under duress. This land was some of his holdings located on Dumcombe Creek, and the court records do not show whether Moses won the case or received any restitution.
According to family tradition, Moses served in the Revolutionary War on the American side and had several saber wounds from his service. How, then, if his loyalty to independence was unquestioned, could the planter George and the constable have been able to bring an incredible charge of being in league with the Tories? The traditional story is that he was a private in the Iredell County Regiment, North Carolina Militia. He is said to have received several his bayonet scars from combat with the British in the battle of Kings Mountain. Yet Iredell County was not formed until 1788, well after the Revolution, and land records indicate Moses was living in the 1770s in the area that became Montgomery County, not in the area that became Iredell.
In 1788 Moses was living in the section of Rowan County that was split off in that year to form Iredell. He appears on the 1790 Iredell County in a household with 4 males under 16, 4 females (3 daughters), and 5 slaves. His brother Francis was still living in neigboring Wilkes County and appears there with a household of 4 males under 16 and 2 Females. There is also a Moses Sanders listed in the Laurens District of South Carolina census with 1 male over 16 and two females in the household. He is living next door to a James Bailey, William Bailey, and a William Bailey, Jr., who may be related to the Baileys mentioned in the Thomas Bailey Saunders letter. The South Carolina Moses Sanders is believed to be the young son of Moses Sanders, Moses Sanders, Jr., who married in 1789 in Wilkes County, North Carolina
In the early 1790s Moses Sanders, Sr., moved from Iredell County to Pendleton District, South Carolina. In 1793 he bought several pieces of property in the Laurens District, and one of the deeds indicated that he had lived in Pendleton before the move. In 1798 he sold his property in Laurens and a deed in that year indicated that he had moved again, this time to Franklin County, Georgia. In 1799 he bought nearly five hundred acres in Grove Level, Franklin County, Georgia. In 1801 he served as a juror in Franklin County.
In May of 1802 several members of Nails Creek Church met at Grove Level Meeting House and organized a church. Some of the members were as follows: Moses Sanders, Silas Sanders, David Sanders, Francis Sanders, Sally Sanders, Polly Sanders, Polly Sanders Sr. In September 1802 the Line Baptist Church was organized with Moses as minister. In June of 1804 Francis Sanders was chosen deacon of the Grove Level Baptist Church.
Minutes of the Grove Level Church show some dissension and considerable backsliding, though of a modest sort. In March of 1805, Silas Sanders, the son of Francis, was censured for fighting; again, in September of 1806 he was censured a second time, in this case for gambling. By October of that year, Silas' behavior as so bad that he was "excluded for encouraging gaming and not hearing the church." Some time after 1807 Francis Sanders and his family moved to Smith County Tennessee, and Moses' son David and his wife Mary Allred moved to Bedford County, Tennessee. Francis and his son Silas appear on the 1820 census of Smith County, Tennessee; the dates of their deaths are somewhat uncertain.
Moses Sanders continued to preach at the Grove Level Church until shortly before his death. He wrote his will on February 28, 1817 and is believed to have died on March 29, 1817. The will raises some questions that warrant further research. For example, there is the mention of Mary as Moses' wife. The tombstone erected in 1902 gives his wife's name as Sally. Some researchers have tried to explain this discrepancy away by stating that Sally died in 1816 and the elderly Moses then married Mary, but a land transaction from the 1790s mentions Mary as the name of Moses wife, and it is now appears likely that Moses was married only once, to Mary Hamilton, though she may indeed have been called "Sally" by her family. Her grandson, Moses Martin Sanders, referred to her as "Mary" in the ordinances he did for the LDS church in the 1880s. It is not known when she died, but a "sister Polly Sanders" is mentioned in the Grove Level Church minutes as having died in 1828. Since Polly was a common nickname for Mary in those days, this may be a reference to Moses' widow.
In October 2007, as part of the Sanders DNA project, a DNA test was completed on a descendant of John Sanders, one of the sons of the Reverend Moses Sanders, and the participant matched descendants of Isaac Saunders and William Aaron Saunders. This result goes a long way toward confirming the family tradition that William Aaron, Isaac, and Moses were brothers. DNA tests results released in early 2008 provide further confirmation. These tests were on descendants of David Sanders, another son of the Reverend Moses Sanders, and descendants of Francis Sanders, Moses' brother. These participants match the descendants of Isaac and William Aaron.
I am sure the preceding analysis is missing many details, and I hope that others who read this article will share doumentation they may have. There still a great deal more to be discovered about the life of one of the most significant religious leaders of the American South in the early years of our nation.
(Many thanks to Jim Sanders of California and Elden Hurst of Salt Lake City for sharing their land and legal document research with me and others. Any errors or omissions in the preceding interpretation, of course, are mine alone.--Gary Sanders)