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.


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