Saturday, November 28, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 29

Southern Conference of the MEC Meets in Brenham. Conference Schools Face Challenges Dec. 2-6, 1931.

The Southern Conference of the MEC in 1931 had a tripartite heritage. It was composed of churches and preachers from three older conferences, the Gulf, the Southern Swedish, and the Southern German. The main constituency of the Southern German and Southern Swedish Conferences were linguistic minority communities. The Gulf Conference consisted mainly of churches founded to serve English speaking northern immigrants in newly created cities on the coastal plains of Texas and Louisiana.

When the three conferences merged in 1926, each brought a school into the merger. The Southern Swedish Conference owned Texas Wesleyan in Austin (not to be confused with Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth). The Gulf Conference had a relationship with Port Arthur College, a business and radio school founded by Port Arthur booster John (Bet-a-Million) Gates. The Southern German Conference’s pride and joy was Blinn Memorial College in Brenham. Blinn Memorial College had educated a very large percentage of Southern German Conference preachers and was looking forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1934.

Bishop Ernest L. Waldorf gaveled the Southern Annual Conference into session on Thursday, December 2, 1931. They were meeting in Fourth Street MEC in Brenham, just one block east of the Blinn Memorial building now known as “Old Main,” erected at a cost of $28,000 in 1906.

Much of the business of the annual conference concerned the three conference schools as they faced the challenges of the Depression. Blinn Memorial was the greatest concern. The previous year Blinn Memorial College had merged with Southwestern University. President A. A. Grusendorf became Dean and King Vivion, president of Southwestern University, became president of both institutions.

The merger agreement stipulated that the Southern Conference would still support Blinn. Financial support raised by the conference would be earmarked for use at Brenham rather than Georgetown. One of the ways the conference supported Blinn was the appointment of a field agent, the Rev. A. A. Leifeste, pastor of Norhill MEC in Houston and an ex-student.

Things did not go well for Rev. Leifeste in 1931. He was involved in a severe accident and was hospitalized for two months and incapacitated for six. When he was working, much of his time was taken up trying to secure the assets of Texas Wesleyan College in Austin.

Texas Wesleyan College, founded by the Southern Swedish Conference in 1907, was also experiencing hard times, but unlike most failing church schools of the era, it had assets. It owned a 21 acre campus between 24th and 26th streets in Austin. In May, 1931, the Texas Wesleyan Board agreed to sell its property to the University of Texas for $135,000. (The UT Law School now occupies that site.) That windfall would seem to be a godsend for the Southern Conference and its educational efforts. Why not use that $135,000 to rescue Blinn Memorial College? Much of Rev. Leifeste’s effort as field agent was directed to trying to do just that.

It wasn’t that simple. Although Texas Wesleyan sold its property, it intended to keep operating. The University of Texas agreed to let Texas Wesleyan continue using the property gratis. Since Texas Wesleyan was still operating, its board saw little reason to give the sale proceeds to Blinn which was now a part of Southwestern University.

The conference also investigated closing Port Arthur College and using sale proceeds for Blinn. That idea also came to nothing. Under the agreement with Gates, if the property ever ceased to be used for educational purposes, title would revert to the city of Port Arthur. If the president’s house were to be sold, those funds would revert to the Board of Education of the MEC rather than the Southern Conference.
As the Southern Annual Conference grappled with these educational issues, President Vivion came to Brenham from Georgetown to address the conference in person. The MECS preacher in Brenham, John V. Berglund, was a welcome guest at the conference. (Berglund was later a faculty member at Southwestern.) The Conference Board of Education reported, “. . . the experiment (merger of Blinn and Southwestern) has proven successful beyond all expectations, and this Board is convinced that the merger was a step in the right direction.”

It was not to be. In 1934 Blinn and Southwestern went their separate ways. Blinn continued and thrived as a non-sectarian institution renamed Blinn College (dropping “Memorial”). Southwestern University also survived the Great Depression and entered the 21st century as a widely-recognized liberal arts university.

How about Texas Wesleyan and Port Arthur College? Most of the $135,000 from the sale of Texas Wesleyan College in Austin ended up at Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth in a process I will save for another column. Port Arthur College became part of Lamar University in 1975. After the unification of 1939 the churches and preachers of the Southern Annual Conference of the MEC became members of the various annual conferences of the MC in Texas and Louisiana. All three of the Southern Conference’s schools have some continuity of heritage in contemporary institutions.

Finally, what about the 4th Street Church in which the annual conference met? It is still there, one block from Blinn College. It is a beautiful church now occupied by the First Presbyterian Church of Brenham.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 22

Francis Asbury Mood Attends Texas Conference for the First Time November 25, 1868

Few preachers in Texas Methodist history have transferred into more dismal prospects than did Francis Asbury Mood who came to the Texas Conference from the South Carolina Conference in the fall of 1868. The thirty-eight year old Mood had had already accomplished much in South Carolina and had accepted the presidency of Soule University in Chappell Hill. Unfortunately Soule University did not appear to have a bright future. It had a charter, a building, and a board of trustees, but the building was in bad shape, it lacked students, and was $17,000 in debt. The Civil War and yellow fever epidemic of 1867 (see column for July 23, 2006) had all but killed Soule University.
Mood arrived via rail in Chappell Hill and was greeted by chair of the trustees R. W. Kennon. He also met another transfer from South Carolina, W. G. Connor, who had previously arrived to take over the Chappell Hill Female College. That night a heavy rain fell so the next day when he went to inspect the facilities, Mood discovered the difficulties of the “black waxy” soil. It was wonderfully fertile cotton growing soil, but almost impossible when wet. Mood arrived at the building and found that the roof leaked badly. The whole building wet and musty.

Mood settled his family in Chappell Hill. That was easy. The yellow fever epidemic had created an exodus. The Mood family was offered their choice of six empty houses. He then hurried the short distance to Brenham where the Texas Conference convened on Nov. 25. The rains had delayed the arrival of most preachers. On Monday, Nov. 25, only 8 were present so they adjourned to await more arrivals.
The presiding bishop was David S. Doggett who had presided at the South Carolina Conference the previous winter. He was thus in a good position to introduce Mood to his new colleagues in Texas.

It was only when the Education Committee gave its report that Mood discovered the $17,000 indebtedness. The Soule Board of Trustees met at conference, and Mood asked for $150 to repair the roof. He was told that even that small sum was beyond their means.
He returned to Chappell Hill and threw himself into the difficult task at hand. Mood did reopen Soule in January, but he realized that a stronger university, a “Central University” supported by all the conferences in Texas, was needed. He devoted himself to that task. The result was Southwestern University.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 15

Reformers Meet In Baltimore to Begin Planning for Methodist Protestant Church, Nov. 15, 16, 1827

The Methodist Episcopal Church’s early years were marked by bitter disputes between rival factions. Most readers of this column would be aware of the dispute over slavery in the 1840’s that resulted in northern and southern branches of the church. Less well known was an earlier dispute between democratic reformers and guardians of the old order.

The reformers had a strong argument. The Methodist Episcopal Church was an authoritarian, hierarchical organization. Enormous powers were vested in the bishops and presiding elders. As the United States entered the 19th century, forces were at work expanding social and political equality. The age of Jacksonian Democracy and the “rise of the common man” saw a reshaping of civic life with the expansion of the franchise. There were corresponding democratizing forces at work in commerce and industry.

The MEC was not immune to the forces of democratization. Two of the flash points were the participation of the laity in church governance and the office of presiding elder. As early as the 1812 General Conference Nicholas Snethen introduced a resolution calling for the election of presiding elders by the annual conference. The resolution failed. The 1820 General Conference took up the issue again. It voted that presiding elder vacancies would be filled by a two step process. The bishop would name three candidates for each vacancy, and the annual conference would vote on those candidates. Joshua Soule, newly elected bishop, announced that he would not serve under such a restriction of episcopal power and refused the office. The General Conference then voted to delay the implementation of the rule for four years.

The General Conference adjourned, but the controversy simmered. It was kept alive in the pages of a new magazine, the Wesleyan Repository, founded by a layman, William Stockton. The official denominational organ, the Methodist Magazine, refused to print articles from the reform faction. When the General Conference of 1824 convened in Baltimore, some of the reformers were present as delegates. This Conference focused on allowing lay preachers and laity to have some representation in annual and/or general conferences. When they failed to achieve that change, seventeen reform delegates caucused and began planning their next moves. Out of that caucus came a new periodical, The Mutual Rights of the Ministers and Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Union Societies of reformers.

Reform leaders after the 1824 General Conference found much to criticize. They claimed that they were punished by receiving inferior appointments. Local preacher’s licenses were not renewed, and known reformers were denied ordination. In other words, they felt the entire weight of episcopal Methodism coming down on them.

The controversy was especially strong in the Baltimore Conference. Preachers and laymen were expelled for circulating Mutual Rights and participating in Union Societies. Some of the expelled Methodists met Nov. 15 and 16, 1827. They drew up petitions to the 1828 General Conference to reinstate Dennis Dorsey and William Pool to Baltimore Conference membership.

The reformers lost, but their reform efforts spawned a new denomination, the Methodist Protestant Church. It had no bishops. Appointments were made by a “stationing committee,” and voted on by the annual conference. Laity had equal representation in conferences. The denomination, which began in 1830, merged with the MEC and MECS in 1939 to become the Methodist Church.

What about Texas? There were Methodist Protestant preachers in Texas by the 1830s. The most prominent was William P. Smith who participated in the Caney Creek meetings and attended Dr. Ruter at his death in Washington.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 8

West Texas Conference Passes Resolution Asking Old Preachers Not to Come

“Stay away! You are not welcome.” That may seem like a strange thing to declare, but that’s just what the West Texas Annual Conference said while meeting in Beeville in 1893. The operative language in the resolution was

That our bishops be requested to transfer to the West Texas Conference no one that is not young, healthy, and efficient.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries people who suffered from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases had few effective therapies. Those afflicted often moved to a warm, dry climate. The territory embraced in the West Texas Conference had warm winters and a dry climate. San Angelo and Kerrville both became popular for tubercular patients. There was even a town in Tom Green County called Sanatorium. The Journals of the West Texas Conference (today the South West Texas Conference) reveal the reception of nine transfers in 1890, eight in 1891, six in 1892, and six in 1893. At least some of those transfers seem to have been sickly men trying to move to a healthier climate.

The pension policy at the time was that the conference from which the preacher retired was responisible for the pension. If a preacher served 30 years in the Kentucky Conference and then transferred to the West Texas Conference where he served five, the West Texas Conference would be responsible for the pension. The budget amount needed for superannuated preachers and widows and orphans of preachers rose. It was $3326 in 1890, $4000 in 1891 and 1892, and $4500 in 1893.

The 35% increase in expenditures for the superannuated preachers, widows, and orphans in only three years came at a bad time. The Panic of 1893 began in February. Eventually about 500 banks and 15,000 businesses failed. Among those businesses were rail road giants, Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. The markets for cotton, beef, and wool had been depressed even before 1893. Times were tough in the West Texas Conference, but still semi-invalid preachers wanted to transfer in.

The resolution had little effect. In 1902 the West Texas Conference received 16 transfers and in 1904 it received 18 more. The superannuated preachers, widows, and orphans fund increased to $5500.

The 1893 Annual Conference was historic for another reason. This was Homer Thrall’s valedictory. The Grand Old Man was a month away from his 74th birthday. That would be relatively young today, but Thrall who had come to Texas in 1842 was blind and in poor health. He addressed the conference for the last time. The following October he died.