Saturday, May 26, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 27

Annual Conferences Close Rural Churches

A previous post (October 1, 2006) highlighted the explosive growth of Houston suburban churches in the 1960s. A more complete understanding of the Texas Conference membership trends would have to take into account the simultaneous closing of numerous rural churches.

In the northern portion of the Texas Conference, where the economy had been based on cotton farming, there had been numerous rural Methodist churches. Farm families tended to be large before agricultural mechanization, and rural population density was fairly high. A typical settlement pattern was a cotton gin, a store, a school, and a church about every 6 or 8 miles apart. One factor determining that spacing was the distance school children could walk to attend school. In the southeastern portion of the Conference where lumbering predominated, the gin would be replaced by a saw mill and company housing, but the store, school, and church would be much the same. Little investment was made in those saw mill towns because everyone knew that when the pine trees had been cut down, the mill would be taken down and moved.

World War II was the great engine of social and economic change that brought about the population loss that resulted in the abandonment of the rural churches. The war-related industrial development created a huge demand for labor-- nowhere more dramatically than in the coastal portions of the Texas Annual Conference. The impact of the exodus from rural East Texas to the plants on the coast or to the military cannot be overstated. Even more important was the fact that after the war, the young people who had left did not return. A quantum leap in mechanization of agriculture during the war meant that less labor was needed on the farm. Many East Texas cotton fields were converted to pastures and pine plantations which were less labor intensive. The Texas Legislature created the Farm to Market road system. The country schools consolidated, the gins and saw mills closed. Rural Texans achived unprecedented mobility. Just as their children could go to a consolidated school during the week, the whole family could now go to a city church on Sunday.

The abandonment of the country churches did not happen immediately after World War II. Churches tended to limp along with the elderly members who had not participated in the new economic developments. Twenty years after the war, though, the demographic trends were catching up. It became the duty of the Conference Trustees to present lists of abandoned churches at every session of Annual Conference. The following list is taken from the Journals of 1966-68.

Crabbs Prairie, Dobbin, Pleasant Grove, Maple Springs, Longbranch, Ebenezer(Jasper Co.)
Glendale (Trinity Co.) Shearn Chapel (Polk Co.) Weeks Chapel (Newton Co.) Cove Springs (Nacogdoches Co.) Gallatin, Oak Grove (Anderson Co.) Meredith Camp Ground (Henderson Co.), Mixon, Peachtree (Jasper Co.) Oakland, Neuville, Mayflower, Mt. Zion, Sand Hill, Yellow Pine, Black Jack, McKendree, Odell, Zavalla, Stanley Creek, Shawnee Prairie, and Sulfur Springs. The latter seven named properties were all in Angelina County.

New Salem (Rusk Co.), Wallisville (Chambers Co.), Concord (Harrison Co.), Center Hill (on the former Pennington Circuit), Sardis (Shelby Co.), Lowe's Chapel (Sabine Co.), Oak Grove, Austin's Chapel, Red Springs, Ward's Creek (all in Bowie Co.), Lang's Chapel and Union (Camp Co.), O'Ferral and Wells Chapel (Cass Co.), Lassater (Marion Co.),

New Prospect (Shelby Co.), Baxter (Henderson Co.)

Adjusting to new demographic realities had not been pleasant. Sometimes there were legal complications. Some of the properties were turned over to cemetery associations. Some were given to churches nearby. Some were sold outright. The dispostion of such properties meant a great deal of work for the Conference Trustees.

The story continues. Other developments were at work that would reverse the population trends in rural East Texas. During the 1960s as the Texas Annual Conference was officially relinquishing abandoned church properties, massive reservoirs were being built throughout the region. One result of the reservoir construction was a flow of population back into the region--in the form of retirement/resort communities. Some of the rural churches that had managed to survive were able to attract new members from those communities.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 20

Methodists Unite in Centenary Campaign for Missions May 18-25, 1919

The MEC, MECS, and CME denominations celebrated the centennial of the first Methodist mission in 1819 with a joint campaign for missions that included the solicitation of pledges from May 18 to May 25, 1919. Each of the denominations prepared literature, trained speakers, organized rallies, assigned leaders at the conference, district, and church level. Special appeals targeted women, children, and Sunday School classes. President Wilson added his endorsement as did Alvin York. The appeal was monumental in its ambition. The Centennial Campaign designated seven mission fields plus church extension and African American colleges as the recepients for the funds to be raised. Those mission fields were Africa, Latin America, Asia, War-devastated Europe, Appalachia, Native Americans, and northern industrial workers..

The MECS conferences in Texas reported the following pledges which contributed to the eventual total of $50,000,000 the denomination pledged.
Texas $1,200,000
North Texas $1,215,537
Central Texas $1,318,000
West Texas $779,099
New Mexico, $208,000
North West Texas $416,000

The Centenary Bulletin, official organ of the campaign, sponsored a contest in which churches were invited to telegraph the Bulletin when the church’s quota had been subscribed. The first church in each conference to meet its quota would receive a banner. All over the South Methodists stayed up late on Saturday, the 17th of May so they could solicit pledges at midnight. Here are excerpts from some of the telegrams the Bulletin received.

“Marfa church subscribes on Centenary $63,750.00. That is one thousand percent of our quota.” (pastor’s salary was $700)
“First Church Texarkana, went over the top in a whirlwind drive of three hours.’
“First Church Dallas, reports at one minute after twelve o’clock, May 18th. Pledges taken at twelve are twenty-five percent in excess of quota. . .every member will be interviewed today. Great enthusiasm.”
The Mexican church in El Paso went over the top the first day of the campaign, raising $7,315.00 on a quota of only $1,315.00. . . .in a special service at the Sunday school the Mexican children in costume presented a pageant of our seven mission fields . . .It was an hour of great power. Not only was the quota exceeded by 500 per cent, but thirty young Mexicans publicly offered themselves for the ministry and missionary work.”
‘Kelly Memorial, Longview—since 12 o’clock, has canvassed every member in city and reports over the top at two-thirty and takes the banner for the first complete report for the Texas Conference.”

Saturday, May 12, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History--May 13

John Woolam Gives Dedicatory Prayer for New Texas Capitol, May 17, 1888

It had taken years, but at last the new Texas Capitol in Austin was finished! As early as the Constitutional Convention of 1876 Texans started making provision for a new capitol by legalizing the tranfer of land in the Panhandle to a construction company willing to accept that land in payment. The land eventually became the famous XIT Ranch, the "X" standing for "10" which was the number of counties. The original plan called for local limestone, but that material also contained iron which produced ugly rust stains when exposed to the elements. A switch to Texas pink granite was the solution, but first a narrow guage railroad had to be constructed to the quarry in Burnet County. Conroversy swirled around the use of convict labor in the quarry. After all, how could such a grand monument to freedom be built by unfree men? Scottish masons were hired in violation of the Alien Contract Labor Act of 1885 for which the contractor eventually paid a fine. (That's right, our Capitol was built by illegal alien labor.)

The magnificent building was finally finished. The public got to go inside for the first time on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1888. The dedication festivities lasted the week of May 14 to 18. On the 17th a dedicatory prayer was offered by the Rev. John C. Woolam, one of the few living men who could claim to have preached in the Republic of Texas. Woolam had come from Tennessee in 1838 and was licensed to preach by Moses Speer in March, 1840, even before the creation of the Texas Conference. That began a forty year career of appointments to Texas churches and the Confederate chaplaincy. In 1852 he married Missouri Lockwood Porter Fowler, Littleton Fowler's widow and thus became step-father to Fowler's children.

At the time of the Capitol dedication Woolam was in semi-retirement serving as chaplain at the state penitentiary in Rusk. The closing sentences of the prayer, now preserved in Bridwll Libary, Perkins School of Theology, SMU are as follows

But grant Oh, God, that never again in the history of Texas may it become necessary to dye her fair soil with human blood at the price of God-given liberty, but instead, permit us to dwell together in unity and forever remain at peace with all Thy world. For the sake and in the name of Him, Thy precious Son, we implore Thy mercies and blessings upon this assembly and the people of this state. Be with us in our trials through life, and when called from our temporal abode on earth, may we all be saved in heaven, we ask in Jesus, our blessed redeemer’s name. Amen.

Woolam lived another six years and died at the home of his step-son, Littleton Fowler, Jr., in January, 1894.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 6

First Lay Delegates to General Conference, May, 1870

One of the continuing issues in 19th century Methodism was the power relationship between bishops, preachers, and lay members. Episcopal governance was inherently authoritarian, but authoritarianism ran counter to the rising tide of democracy in the Jacksonian Era. Some democratic reforms broke away from episcopal Methodism and founded new denominations, the Methodist Protestant (1830) and Congregational Methodist (1852) Churches.

At the 1866 General Conference the MECS amended its Discipline so that future general conferences would include lay delegates. So it was that the 1870 General Conference meeting in Memphis in May, 1870, had lay delegates.

The first Texans to sit as lay delegates were conservative men of substance. The Texas Conference sent two men from Washington County. J. D. Giddings of Brenham was a former legislator and also a banker and railroad investor. He was the only Texan in the census of 1860 with $100,000 in wealth to have survived the Civil War with that much wealth reported in the census of 1870. He was joined by W. W. Browning of Chappell Hill, owner of large plantations and also a railroad investor.

The Trinity Conference sent Asa Holt of Van Zandt County who later was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention that wrote the Texas Constitution of 1876 which ended Reconstruction and restored government to the conservative elite. The North West Texas Conference sent a rising star of Texas politics, Colonel Roger Q. Mills of Corsicana. This 38-year old lawyer had been twice wounded in the Civil War and now practiced law. In 1872 he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives where he stayed until 1893 when he moved to the U. S. Senate.

The inclusion of lay delegates did not change the direction of the MECS. Those lay men who were elected tended to support the status quo over calls for even more reforms.