Saturday, December 23, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 24

Texas Conference Organized at Rutersville December 25, 1840

The earliest Methodist activity in Texas dates to around 1815 when William Stevenson preached in settlements along the Red River. Within a few years regularly appointed preachers were serving Methodists along both the Red and Sulfur Rivers. Further to the south in Austin's Colony, there were Methodist families who were visited sporadically by Henry Stephenson from Louisiana. No formal Methodist organizations were formed there because Austin was punctilious in his observance of the conditions of his empresario grant which mandated Roman Catholicism as the sole religion of the province.

When Texas became independent in 1836, a mission door was swung open. The Board of Missions authorized a mission team in 1837 consisting of Martin Ruter, Littleton Fowler, and Robert Alexander. They were quickly followed in 1838 and 1839 by others such as Lewellen Campbell, Daniel Carl, Francis Wilson, S. A. Williams, Edward Fontaine, Abel Stevens, Robert Crawford, Thomas Summers, and Joseph Sneed.

In the summer of 1838 the College of Bishops attached the Texas Mission to the Mississippi Conference. The results were unfortunate. There was a significant pool of willing volunteers for the Texas Mission who were reluctant to do so since they could not be assured of a Texas appointment. Those fears were realized in December, 1838, when Campbell was appointed to New Orleans. He had already been working with Fowler in East Texas for six months and wanted an appointment in the Lone Star Republic.

An obvious soluntion was the creation of a Texas Conference, but conference creation was a power of the General Conference. Texas would have to wait until General Conference met in Baltimore in 1840. That conference approved a petition from the Mississippi Conference to create the Texas Conference. Its boundaries were set as the Republic of Texas except for those charges being served by the Arkansas Conference (roughtly everything north of Jefferson).

Bishop Beverly Waugh was sent to organize the new conference. He entered Texas at Galveston and made his way inland accompanied by Rev. Thomas Summers. The pair went to Rutersville, the site of the conference, and proceeded to Austin, the new capital of the Republic. Both Waugh and Summers preached in Austin on Sunday, Dec. 20, and in Bastrop in the next day. They arrived in Rutersville on Thursday, Dec. 24. The Texas Annual Conference was organized the next day. There were nine conference members and five probationers. The circuits reported a total membership of 1853 lay members and 25 local preachers.

The pariticpants were well aware of the historic importance of the occasion. Bishop Waugh commented that they were meeting almost exactly on the 100th anniversary of John Wesley's organizing the first Methodist Society in London in July, 1740 and on the 56th anniversary of the Christmas Conference of 1784 which created the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.

Then, as now, the last item of business was reading the appointments. There were three districts as follows:

San Augustine--San Augustine, Nacogdoches, Harrison, Jasper
Galveston-Galveston/Houston, Brazoria, Liberty, Crockett, Nashville, Montgomery
Rutersville--Washington, Austin, Centre Hill, Matagorda, Victoria

Sunday, December 17, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History -December 17

First Methodist Houston Worships in New Sanctuary December 18, 1910

The sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Houston is one of those sacred spaces with the power to evoke powerful memories. Since it has hosted so many annual conferences, many persons will remember services of ordination. Others will remember stirring sermons from some of the masters of preaching who have occupied the pulpit. Countless others will recall weddings and baptisms. The first worhsip service in that sanctuary was held on December 18, 1910.

Houston in 1910 was still the "Magnolia City," a cotton and lumber town whose motto was "Where Seventeen Railroads Meet the Sea." On the other hand, it was rapidly transforming itself into the petroleum capital of the United States. It was booming. Methodism was booming.

The oldest Methodist church in the city was Shearn, founded in the 1840s. It occupied a building on Texas Avenue built in 1883. It had been damaged in the storm of 1900, and although repairs had been made, it was obvious that another structure would better serve the congregation's needs.

By 1906 the Board authorized the sale of the Texas Avenue location and purchase of new property. Trustees were quite aware of other Methodist churches in the area. South End (renamed St. Paul's in 1906) and Heights (renamed Grace in 1906) had both been organized in 1905. Shearn trustees offered merger opportunities to Tabernacle (later St. John's) and Bering, a German speaking congregation.

The sale of the chuch property was quickly accomplished. Jesse Jones bought the property on Texas Avenue and later built the Chonicle Building there. Shearn moved into rented quarters. It would be homeless for four years as an economic depression called the Panic of 1907 hit the country.

Eventually property was obtained at Main and Clay. October, 1909 witnessed the ground breaking, one month after the Board changed the name from Shearn to First Methodist.

Construction continued through 1910. The first use of the new sanctuary was an organ recital on December 5. The congregation was invited for a tour on the 6th, and finally on December 18 the congregation held its first worship service. Bishop Edwin Mouzon preached the first sermon. The pastor, Rev. J. W. Moore preached the evening service. First Methodist Houston had a new home!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 10

Texas Conference Woman's Foreign Missionary Society Formed in Flatonia--Dec. 11, 1880

The 1878 General Conference of the MECS authorized the establishment of a new organization, the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society. The WFMS was empowered to raise funds and send women into the foreign mission field. One of the provisions of the enabling resolution in 1878 was that when an annual conference had three local church chapters of the WFMS, it could form a conference Society. The Texas Conference reached that number in 1880, and on December 11, 1880, delegates from the three churches, Brenham, Chappell Hill, and Flatonia, met in Flatonia and organized the Texas Conference Woman's Foreign Missionary Society. One of the founders was Mrs. Patience Wilson Alexander, second wife of Rev. Robert Alexander of Chappell Hill.

The organization grew quickly. One year later, December 1881, the WFMS met in Houston. Two women volunteered for missionary service. Rebecca Toland went on to Cuba where she worked for more than forty years. Annie Williams volunteered for service in Mexico. She eventually married another missionary and served as part of a missionary team.

In 1890 the General Conference authorized a Woman's Home Missionary and Parsonage Society. That organization's main ministry was to the growing immigrant population. In 1910 the two organizations, the Foreign and Home Societies, were combined into the Woman's Missionary Council. The remarkable Belle Harris Bennett headed that combined organization for the first twelve years of its existence.

After the unification of the MEC, MECS, and MP churches, most of the women's organizations were combined under the name Woman's Society of Christian Service. (An exception was the Wesleyan Service Guild, which the MEC had founded for women who worked outside the home in 1921. It remained apart from the WSCS after 1939.)

In 1972, after the merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethern Church in 1968, the WSCS and the WSG were combined into a new organization, the United Methodist Women. Even though the name is changed, Texas United Methodist Women can celebrate the 125th anniversary of Rebecca Toland and the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History Dec. 3

Texas Conference Expels Presiding Elder and Station Preacher--December 4-9, 1895

When the Disciplinary question, "Where will the next conference be held?" was asked in Cameron at the close of the 1894 Annual Conference, no one could appreciate the drama and irony that would result from the answer. "Brenham would be honored to host the 1895 Annual Conference." was the reply. While meeting in Brenham, the Conference would expel both the Brenham District presiding elder and the Brenham station preacher in one of the greatest scandals ever to rock the Texas Conference.

The preachers in question were the Rev. E. H. Harman (P. E.) and the Rev. W. W. Wimberly (P. C.). Their expulsion resulted from events which occurred in Galveston the previous August. Ostensibly in Galveston to attend the Epworth League Convention, the two divines went on a spree of drinking, cursing, and visiting "sporting houses." They would probably have escaped detection had they not tried to stiff a hack driver out of his fare. The hackman reported the incident to the police who roused the sleeping preachers from the beds in the Beach Hotel and took them to the police station. Although they were able to avoid prosecution by belatedly paying the fare at the police station, a reporter for the local newspaper smelled a good story.

Even though the Galveston News did not publish the names of the miscreants, they were soon identified. A church trial was held only two months after the incident. The prosecution was able to present testimony and despositions from hotel staff, madams of three Galveston brothels, the hack driver, police, private detectives, street vendors, and bar tenders. Physical evidence presented included the bar tab showing purchase of bottles of champagne. About fifty different persons testified for the prosecution.

The defense thus faced an uphill battle. Wimberly and Harman produced several character witnesses, but could not rebut the eye witnesses. They relied on an alibi even more bizarre than the facts of the case. The two men admitted going to the "sporting houses," but said they went in search of Wimberly's sister to try to rescue her from a life of sin. Earlier that year, her husband, a Louisiana physician, had shot her lover, killed him, and thrown his unfaithful wife out of the house. Wimberly had heard a rumor that his now homeless sister was now living in a brothel. He asked Harman, his presididng elder, to help him find her.

Wimberly's closing statement was four hours fifteen minutes in length. He ended on one knee with an open Bible in his hand. Even his defense counsel, the Rev. H. V. Philpott, was disgusted by the scene. The alibi was unconvincing. The two men were fouind guilty in the church trial. That set the scene for the Annual Conference--meeting in Brenham--home to both Harman and Wimberly--to expel them.

George Rankin, pastor of Shearn (now First UMC, Houston) who served as Wimberly's prosecutor, wrote in his memoirs that two months later Wimberly came to his office to ask for train fare to get out of Texas. Rankin obliged, and as Wimberly was leaving, asked, "You two maintained your innocence. You can tell me the truth now. Did you do it?" According to Rankin, Wimberly replied, "You guys didn't find half of what we did."