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.


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