Sunday, April 29, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 29

Class Meeting in Marshall Disciplines Members, April 29, 1850

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of class meetings in the development and spread of Methodism in the first half of the nineteenth century. A "class" would be formed when a small group of people would covenant among themselves to meet regularly to help each other in the Christian journey. The class meeting combined elements of a prayer meeting, confessional, self-help group, and social hour. The class had a lay man who was officially designated "class leader." That class leader was subject to examination of character at quarterly conferences as were local preachers and exhorters. Since many circuits in 19th century Texas took 6 to 8 weeks to complete, the class leader was important in keeping the flock together in the long intervals between preacher visits. Class leaders assumed roles of spiritual counselors.

Let each (class) Leader carefully inquire how every soul of his class prospers; not only how each person observes the outward rules, but how he grows in the knowledge and love of God. (MEC Discipline, 1860)

One of the other functions of class meeting was judicial. The behavior of class members was subject to scrutiny. Violations of church law or community standards could result in punishment, even expulsion. John Woolam reports on a class meeting in Marshall, April 29, 1850.

Bro. Talafero charged with having a party at his house.
Bro. Harris charged with roling (sic) ten pins.
Bro. Martin charged with drinking. Cais (sic) laid over til next meeting.
Jas. Lambert charged with immorality.

The list of cases considered by the class, now preserved at Bridwell Library, SMU, goes on and on. Action on most of the cases was deferred. Similar documents from the period list infractions that seem harmless to most Methodists of the 21st century. They include wearing gold jewelry, attending a circus or theater, attending an oyster supper, and other similar actions.

Modern readers may wonder, "How did Methodism grow so quickly when it made such strict demands upon its members?" One would think that the strictness of the rules would prevent persons from joining. Sociologists of religion argue to the contrary. They maintain that strict behavioral standards in the early years of denominations actually help their growth. As denominations mature and make concessions to worldliness, the proselytizing zeal of its members diminishes. Those concessions to worldliness were already occurring in Methodism as this class in Marshall was disciplining its members. General Conferences from the 1880s through the 1920s chipped away at the restrictions on such matters as attending circuses. Although Class Meetings remained in both MEC and MECS Disciplines in the 1920s, few Methodists participated in classes. Some of their functions, including public confession, continued in Wednesday night prayer meeting. The era of the class meeting was over.

Friday, April 20, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 22

A. A. Kidd Debates Adventist in Malakoff, April 28, 1898

Theological debates were a common feature of church life in 19th century Texas. In the first half of the century two favorite topics were predestination (against Presbyterians) and infant baptism (against Baptists). Toward the end of the century, however, other contentious issues emerged. The Holiness Movement provided new topics especially concerning the second blessing and entire santification. Many of those debates were between Methodists and led to considerable enmity and the founding of new denominations.

As Texas became more integrated into the national economy by an expanding rail network, new denominations made their appearance in Texas. One of those was Adventism, a religious movement that traced its origins to the Ante Bellum revivalism in western New York. By the 1890s Adventism had spread, most notably to Battle Creek, Michigan, where its teachings on vegetarianism had contributed to the rise of the breakfast cereal industry and revolutioned American dietary patterns. Texas Methodists had no quarrel with the Adventist prohibition against alcohol and tobacco usage, but two of their doctrines provided grist for controversy. The first was the Adventist practice of observing the Sabbath from dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday. The other was their doctrine that doomed souls would not spend eternity in hell, but would be destroyed. The Rev. A. A. Kidd begam a debate against an Adventist on those two propositions at Malakoff in April, 1898. Here is how the Texas Christian Advocate reported the event. One wonders how the same event would have been reported in the Adventist press.

The Adventists had been preaching their doctrine to the hurt of a few and the vexation of many of our people. Bro. Adams (P.E.) gave a fine sermon on the "Eternal Punishment of the Wicked" on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. , and one on the "Indeterminate State of the Soul" at 11:00 on Sunday, and Bro. Kidd gave a conclusive sermon on the "Law and the Gospel" Saturday night and on "The Sabbath and its Obligations" at 3:00 p.m. Sunday. This ended the Quarterly Conference. . . .But our Adventist friends were only wrought up and dissatisfied. They wanted a joint debate, and they got it. Bro Kidd was fully equal to the occasion. Bro. Kidd and T. W. Field signed an obligation to debate, "the Sabbath and the future punishment" questions. Two nights were spent on the Sabbath proposition and at the close of this Bro. Field hollered "calf rope". He refused to debate the other proposition at all. So this ended the debate, and they saw Adventism fall in the contest.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 15

General Conference Committee on Boundaries Recommends Creation of Northwest Texas Conference April 16, 1866

The 1866 General Conference of the MECS which met in New Orleans reshaped Texas Methodism in actions that have continuing impact. There was much catching up to do. The 1862 General Conference had been cancelled because of the Civil War. The bishops had become more infirm. One of the main business items would be the election of five younger men to the episcopacy. That class included Enoch M. Marvin, the first bishop to have served a Texas church as pastor. Another business item included authorizing lay delegates to General Conference. Yet another issue at the General Conference was a membership crisis. African American members were leaving the MECS by the thousands to join the MEC, AME, AMEZ, and Baptist churches.

Even with such a full agenda, the conference found time to reshape the boundaries of the annual conferences in Texas. The Texas Conference had been created in 1840. In 1844 it was split into eastern (East Texas) and western conferences (Texas) with the Trinity River as the boundary. In 1858 the territory of the Texas Conference was reduced by the creation of the Rio Grande Mission Conference. That boundary was approximately the Guadalupe River. Here's what happened at the General Conference of 1866:

1. The Rio Grande Mission Conference became the West Texas Conference, and its boundary was moved northeast away from the Guadalupe. That conference was later renamed the Southwest Texas Conference.

2, The northern portion of the Texas Conference was struck off to become the North-west Texas Conference. The boundary between the two would be the southern county line of Leon, Robertson, and Milam Counties.

3. The northern portion of the East Texas Conference was struck off to become the Trinity Conference. That conference later became the North Texas Conference.

And the aftermath. . .? Only eight years later the Texas Conference came back to General Conference and said, "We gave up too much territory." It petitioned General Conference for the return of Leon, Robertson, Milam, Freestone, Falls, and Limestone Counties. Its petition was successful in getting almost all it asked for. In 1910 the Northwest Texas Conference was itself split into northern and southern portions, thereby creating the Central Texas and Northwest Texas Conferences.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 8

Bering Celebrates its Centennial April 11, 1948

April 11, 1948 was a day of celebration and remembrance at Bering Methodist Church in Houston. The celebration was occasioned by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the "German Congregation" by the Rev. Charles Goldberg. A considerable German population lived in Houston of the 1840s as merchants, laborers, and artisans. Methodist preachers had found receptive Germans in Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Mobile so that German language Methodist literature was available.

The German Congregation grew so that before the Civil War it was able to erect its own building at the corner of Milam and McKinney. By this time it was part of the German District of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. After the Civil War the "northern" church or MEC made a considerable effort to attract German MECS churches back to the "Mother Church." Bering did not affiliate with the MEC. (Upon merger in 1939 only three MECS historically German churches were part of the Texas Annual Conference--Bering, Beneke, and East Bernard. Most of the MECS German churches became part of the West (now Southwest) Texas Conference.)

In 1911 the congregation adopted the name Bering Memorial in honor of Conrad and August Bering, two stalwarts of the church. In the 1920's Bering moved to the corner of Harold and Mulberry. It was in that relatively new sanctuary that the 1948 celebration was held.

Bering' preacher in 1948 was the Rev. (later Bishop) Eugene Slater. The resident bishop, A. Frank Smith, lived only a short distance away. He was invited to preach the centennial sermon. An afternoon of historical programs followed, and the celebration was concluded with a a pageant at 7:30 p.m.

It was a grand event, but as Bering entered its second century, it faced considerable challenges. The 1920's relocation had been to a residential neighborhood. Would its location off a major thoroughfare limit its growth? Bering had traditionally depended upon its German families for leadership. Would its German family heritage be another limiting factor? Only a few years before some of Bering's most faithful members had left to help start St. Luke's. Would Bering be able to replace those leaders?

The ensuing years have shown that Bering was able to face those challenges by embracing a vision of a social service ministry on the cutting edge of living the Gospel. It values its heritage as one of the first "ethnic minority" churches in Texas, but more importantly it looks for imaginative ways "to serve the present age." I invite you to learn more at