Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 14

Kate Mills Elected General Conference Delegate, First Woman Delegate from Texas Conference November 18, 1921

The Texas Annual Conference met in Beaumont in November, 1921. The setting was the magnificent First Methodist Episcopal Church South. The church building was fifteen years old; having been built after the Spindletop Oil Boom ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity for Beaumont. It featured an Akron Style auditorium with a sloping floor under a great dome. Sunday School rooms surrounding the auditorium had roll-partitions that increased the seating capacity.

It was a great setting for history to be made. Participants were noteworthy. E. L. Shettles retired and began a superannuate relationship of two decades that he devoted to collecting Methodist history materials. W. C. Martin transferred from the Little Rock Conference and was appointed to Grace Church in the Houston Heights. He was later elected bishop. Glenn Flinn, who had pastored this church in 1916/17, transferred back from the North Texas Conference to become Conference Educational Secretary. He later became the driving force in ministries to Texas university students. The author’s grandfather, W. W. Hardt, entered the conference as a deacon.

The presiding bishop of the conference was W. N. Ainsworth, completing his first quadrennium after being elected in 1918. Bishops in this era itinerated, and the fact that that they were non-resident meant that most conferences had a powerful preacher or small group of preachers who exercised considerable informal power. These groups were sometimes called the “Union” or the “Machine.” Bishops were infrequent visitors to most conferences; informal power lay with these small groups.

In the Texas Conference in 1921, a main wielder of informal power was the host pastor, the Rev. J. Walter Mills. (pastor at FMC Beaumont 1919-1924 again from 1931-1938 and on the Beaumont District in 1928 and again from 1945-48). One of the conference tasks was to elect delegates to the 1922 MECS General Conference to be held at Hot Springs, Arkansas the following year, and J. W. Mills was elected to lead the delegation on the first ballot.

Balloting for delegates continued, and this year was a little different. The 1918 General Conference had changed the language for lay delegates—instead of “lay man”, the phrase “lay person” was the operative term. Just as women had won the right to vote in civic elections, they were now eligible to vote in the MECS General Conference. So it was that on Friday, Nov. 18, that Kate Vernor (Mrs. J. W.) Mills received the necessary 23 votes on the second ballot and became the first woman elected a General Conference delegate by the Texas Conference.

The election was emphatically not a courtesy to her husband. She had earned it. Kate Vernor was born in Gonzales County in 1878. She attended Sam Houston State Normal in Huntsville where she met J. W. Mills. They married in 1898. They served a variety of appointments and Kate Mills became very active in mission work. She eventually assumed every leadership role available including membership on the General Board of Missions (1922-1934). Her election to the 1922 General Conference was the first of many. She was also a delegate in 1924, 1930, 1934, 1938, 1939, and 1940.

Her husband died in 1949, and she lived in Beaumont and was active in First Methodist, the church her husband had served twice. She taught a couple’s Sunday School Class and taught the W. S. C. S. and Wesleyan Service Guild mission studies. She mentored younger women, including another woman from Beaumont—Hallie Morton—to assume leadership roles in the conference. One of her grandsons,Walter Cason, was a missionary to Liberia. She died in 1966 and her funeral services were held in the sanctuary where forty-five years earlier she had made history by her election to the General Conference.


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