Saturday, December 25, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 26

William Jennings Bryan Delivers Prince of Peace Lecture in Beaumont, December 31, 1907

On December 31, 1907 the Campbell Sunday School Class of First Methodist Episcopal Church South in Beaumont hosted William Jennings Bryan as he delivered his most requested speech, The Prince of Peace, to an audience of 1500. Bryan had been one of the most famous men in the United States for a decade as the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1896 and 1900.

He had risen from the obscurity of a two-term congressman from Nebraska on the basis of his oratorical skills. His Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention had made him the youngest person ever nominated for the presidency by a major party. He was thirty-six years old. In the ensuing campaign he made hundreds of speeches from his rail car while his opponent, William McKinley, sat on his porch and let reporters come to him.

His platform was rooted in his fervent Presbyterian faith. He was for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, against Darwinism, against U. S. imperialism, and for conventional moral principles. In 1896 the main issue was monetary policy. Apologies for the over simplification, but it was basically the debtors (farmers) who wanted cheap currency versus the lenders (bankers) who wanted tight currency. The Cross of Gold Speech was a plea for the monetization of silver. Such a policy would induce inflation and therefore relief for the debtor-farmers. Bryan lost to McKinley but had another chance in 1900. By this time in addition to the monetary issues, one of the most important foreign policy questions in U. S. history was added—that of the annexation of the Philippines. Bryan was against it. He lost again.

After the 1900 campaign Bryan was a superstar. He had delivered hundreds of speeches all across the United States and was well known to both the political elite and the common man.

He liked the life of the orator so rather than returning to the life of the lawyer after his second defeat, he turned to the Chautauqua Circuit. He was a robust young man of forty and was able to schedule as many as four appearances in a single day. His speaking fee was as much as $500. Bryan became a wealthy man and eventually acquired estates in Nebraska, Miami, Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Even though a wealthy man, he was known as the Great Commoner and published a weekly magazine called The Commoner.

The New Year’s Eve appearance in Beaumont was part of a speaking tour. On December 30 he gave the same Prince of Peace talk at the New Temple Theater in Palestine, boarded a sleeper car at 10:00 pm and arrived in Beaumont the next morning. Here is the text of the Prince of Peace speech from the New York Times, Sept. 7, 1913.

Soon after giving Prince of Peace to the 1908 MEC General Conference, Bryan received the Democratic nomination for president one more time, but he was again defeated. It was back to the lecture circuit. One month after his defeat he gave the Prince of Peace to students at the University of Texas. Woodrow Wilson’s victory in 1912 put a Democratic back in the White House and Bryan became Secretary of State. Although not a Christian pacifist, he was ardent for the cause of peace. His main activity was negotiating treaties between potential belligerents that promised arbitration of disputes before escalation to war.

In fact, President Wilson made most of the important foreign policy decisions without Bryan. Other members of the Wilson administration, especially David Houston, considered Bryan to be too naïve to engage in the rough and tumble world of international conflict. After the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 Wilson sent Germany a set of demands. Bryan resigned in protest because he thought the demands were too harsh.

Resignation from the Department of State did not mean an exit from politics. Bryan campaigned for prohibition and woman’s suffrage. He moved to Miami and allowed his name to be used by the developers who were creating cities in southern Florida. His final act on the public stage was the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. It was in that small town that he died five days after he had participated in the successful prosecution of John Scopes.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the epitaph, “He Kept the Faith.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 19

Austin Church Dedicated December 19, 1847

Last week’s column described travel difficulties of Homer Thrall and John W. Devilbiss as they travelled to their new appointments from the Texas Annual Conference of 1843. Both men had long careers in the West Texas Conference which was later renamed the Southwest Texas Conference. Devilbiss is remembered for establishing Methodism in San Antonio. Thrall is probably best remembered as the greatest of the 19th century Texas Methodist historians. His legacy also included founding churches. On December 19, 1847, he was the preacher in charge at Austin when Methodists dedicated a new church building.

Austin had a rocky beginning. Its creation was a project of President Mirabeau B. Lamar who had visions of expansion to the West. The government moved to Austin in the fall of 1839. Rather than a sophisticated city of monumental government buildings and a state university as it is today, it was a crude frontier village of less than 1000 inhabitants in 1840. There was a Methodist presence in Austin, mainly through the efforts of John Haynie who lived down the Colorado River in Bastrop County. Haynie became Chaplain of the Congress of the Republic of Texas and rode the Austin Circuit to the Methodists of Bastrop and Travis Counties. Nathaniel Moore, James Caldwell (Haynie’s son-in-law), James Gilleland, Middleton Hill, Charles McGehee and their families constituted an important cluster of Methodists. Lamar’s Attorney General, James Webb, was a prominent and active Methodist lay man. When Lamar sent Webb on a diplomatic mission to Mexico, his replacement was Francis Asbury Morris, son of Bishop Thomas Morris.

In addition to this Methodist community, there were also Methodists among the members of Congress who came to Austin to transact the business of the Republic. Methodists, were not, however, the organizers of the first church in Austin. That honor went to the Presbyterians. Methodists had class meetings, and preaching services, usually in the Capitol building, a one-story frame building that was located at 8th and Colorado Streets. Bishop Waugh, who was coming to Rutersville to organize the Texas Annual Conference, preached in the Capitol on December 20, 1840 and gave the invocation when Congress met on Monday the 21st.

When Sam Houston replaced Lamar as president of the Republic, Austin’s fortunes declined. Houston made no bones about his dislike for Austin which had been a project of his political rival. When a Mexican army captured San Antonio in March 1842, Houston used the incident to move the government (except for the Archives) eastward away from the dangerous frontier, first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos.

In 1842-1845 Austin experienced decline and loss of population since it no longer functioned as the Capital of the Republic. Methodist activity all but came to an end. The class Haynie had formed in 1840 dissolved. Austin is not mentioned in the appointments for 1845.

Austin got another chance. The convention called to act on annexation to the United States met in Austin and designated Austin as the capital of the new state of Texas until 1850 when the people would choose a permanent capital. The 1846 Annual Conference appointments listed Homer Thrall appointed to Austin.

When Thrall arrived, he found no organized Methodist activity and no place to live. Rowan Hardin, a distant cousin of Lydia McHenry and Maria Kenney, let him sleep on the floor of his law office. Thrall organized a school in the Capitol to earn some money and organized a Sunday School. By April 1847 he was able to have a quarterly conference authorize a building program. In Thrall’s own words, he was “building committee, collector, paymaster, and general manager” of the construction project.

The church in Austin that Homer Thrall built was dedicated on December 19, 1847. Ten days later, on December 29, 1847, Annual Conference met, and Thrall was transferred to the Washington Circuit. As is often the case, the preacher who builds the church does not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In 1853 the building was sold to another denomination.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 12

Fourth Session of Texas Annual Conference Convenes at Robinson’s December 13, 1843

December 1843 must have been a very rainy month. The rains were so heavy that we have two travel accounts highlighting the difficulties faced by attendees of the fourth session of the Texas Annual Conference. Those accounts provide interesting insights into transportation patterns in the Republic of Texas and how physical geography impacted those patterns.

Robinson’s Settlement, eight miles south of Huntsville, was to be the site of annual conference. Getting there was the problem. The presiding bishop was James O. Andrew whose status as a slave owning bishop would become a main topic of contention just six months later at the MEC General Conference in New York City. Andrew arrived in Galveston by sea and took a steamboat to Houston. He and his travelling companions, Thomas Summers and Charles Shearn, had a decision to make. There were two possible routes. The most comfortable would be a steamboat back down Buffalo Bayou to Galveston Bay, then up the Trinity River past Liberty, Cane Island, and assorted plantations in the Trinity bottoms to approximately Riverside where they would disembark and proceed overland to Robinson’s. The other route, which they chose, was overland. They proceeded northwestward approximating present-day Highway 290 to Cypress. It was at Cypress that the difficulties began. Both Little Cypress Creek and Cypress Creek were out of their banks. They had to wait in the company of teamsters who were also stranded.

When they finally were able to cross Cypress Creek, they headed north toward New Kentucky on Spring Creek, and then the San Jacinto River bottoms. The San Jacinto basin in this area is now flooded to create Lake Conroe. In 1843 it presented a formidable obstacle of water, mud, fallen timbers, and other obstacles. Bishop Andrew and his party arrived at Robinson’s cold, wet, and tired by the journey.

Bishop Andrew presided over the conference which reported an increase in membership from 3,738 to 5,016. (Wouldn’t you like a percent increase like that!) Bishop Andrew made the appointments in the five districts in the conference, transferred his travelling companion, Summers, to the Alabama Conference, and started back to Houston to catch the steamboat back to Galveston.

He wanted no part of the San Jacinto bottoms. Instead of retracing his route, he went west into Grimes County and thus “headed” the San Jacinto. When he got back to Cypress, he found the wagon train still waiting to cross the creek.

The other travel account is that given by Homer Thrall. He and his travelling companion, John Wesley Devilbiss, left Robinson’s and headed for their new appointments (Egypt and Gonzales). They went from Robinson’s to Washington and then took the road south toward San Felipe. After passing Robert Alexander’s Cottage Hill and David Ayres’s Centre Hill, they had to cross the Mill Creek bottoms. (As a modern reference, think of about three miles east of Highway 36 between Bellville and Sealy.) Mill Creek at this point has a wide flood plain as it nears the Brazos River. Only seven years earlier, Sam Houston had used this same route as he withdrew his army from San Felipe. Although the soldiers complained about having to slog through the flooded bottoms, they also knew that the heavy vegetation provided a defense against the elite Mexican lancers whose superb equestrian skills were most effective on the open plains. After finally emerging from the Mill Creek bottoms, the two preachers headed to the Colorado River crossing near Columbus. Before they could get there, they had another ordeal, what Thrall called the “quicksand” in the San Bernard River.

Modern day travelers on Interstate Highway 10 passing Columbus will observe the gravel pits along the Colorado River. Those gravels have been transported by the river from the Central Mineral Region (Hill Country) and have proved a valuable construction resource for decades. The San Bernard River is much shorter than the Colorado so its headwaters do not extend to the Hill Country. Rather than depositing gravel, it deposits only sand. The San Bernard crossing between San Felipe and Columbus ordinarily presented little difficulty, but in extremely wet years, the water lubricates the sand grains and makes them incapable of supporting significant weight. That was the situation Thrall and Devilbiss found.

As the flooded Mill Creek bottoms played a role in the Texas Revolution, so did flood conditions along the San Bernard. Texas history buffs will remember that the bulk of the Mexican Army was not defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. There was an organized Mexican army of 2500 still in the field. Why didn’t they continue the fight? One of the reasons is that they were engulfed in the “sea of mud” between the San Bernard and West Bernard. Gregg Dimmick, a Wharton pediatrician and avocational archeologist, discovered the remains of Mexican equipment and wrote a most interesting account of the Mexican Army’s difficulties very near to where Thrall and Devilbiss were almost eight years later. The Mexican Army was unable to affect an organized withdrawal and reorganize because so many of its carts and draft animals were mired in the mud. Many soldiers were exhausted in their efforts to extricate the equipment.

When one reads accounts of 19th century circuit riders and the travel difficulties they faced, it is most often the lesser streams that presented more problems than the larger rivers. The large rivers such as the Brazos, Colorado, and Trinity all had ferries. The San Bernard, Mill Creek, Yegua Creek, and a host of other secondary and tertiary streams were fordable most of the year so they had no ferries. Those were the streams that caused problems for the circuit riders.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 5

First Lay Delegates Seated at Texas Annual Conference December 11, 1867

The 1866 General Conference of the MECS is rightly considered by many historians as one of the most significant. The 1862 General Conference had been cancelled because of the Civil War. When delegates to the 1866 General Conference arrived in New Orleans, they faced a mountain of problems. Many of the church buildings had been destroyed or neglected during the Civil War. African American Methodists were leaving the MECS by the thousands. No bishops had been elected for eight years, Prospects looked dismal.

One of the steps the General Conference of 1866 took was to authorize lay representation in the both the annual and general conferences. So it was that on December 11, 1867, sixteen lay members of the Texas Annual Conference were duly enrolled when the conference met in Houston. Three of the sixteen lay delegates are particularly interesting because in the years to come there were churches that bore their family names. August Bering and Morris McAshan were both from Houston. Bering UMC is still in operation. McAshan Methdodist Church was once located just north of Buffalo Bayou near downtown Houston. It is no longer in existence.

The third delegate whose family name was the name of a church was also from Houston—Sylvester Munger, and the church in this case, Munger Place Methodist Church in Dallas bears the name of the suburban development of his nephew, Robert Sylvester Munger. Since Munger Place UMC has recently been in the news as the result of its becoming a branch of Highland Park UMC, we should remember the life and contributions of Robert Sylvester Munger.

The Munger family was rooted in Connecticut where R. S.Munger’s father, Henry was born. Some of the family migrated to South Carolina, then to Mississippi, and then to Texas. Henry tried his luck in the California gold fields but came back to Texas when he met and married Jane McNutt, daughter of Robert McNutt, Texas Revolution hero and close associate of John Wesley Kenney.

The couple lived in Rutersville which had been originally organized by Methodists, and it was there in 1854 that Robert Sylvester Munger was born. Henry followed the Houston and Texas Central Railway as it built its rails north, and eventually settled in Mexia where he opened a lumber business. One way that Henry Munger expressed his love for the church was his supplying building materials to churches at cost.

Living in Mexia meant that Robert S. Munger was close to one of the finest schools in Texas, Trinity University in Tehuacana, and he took advantage of that opportunity. (Trinity University was later relocated to Waxahachie and then San Antonio. Methodist Protestants bought the facilities and operated a college there.) The Munger family expanded from lumber to cotton farming, and it was in that arena that R. S. Munger made his mark.

The youthful Munger turned his attention to the ginning process. At the time most ginning was done in small-scale animal-powered gins in, or near, the cotton fields. Munger began a series of inventions that revolutionized the industry. From the pneumatic suctioning of cotton from the wagons to the bagging of 500 pound bales wrapped in burlap, Munger’s inventions increased the speed and efficiency at every step. The cumulative effect of his patented improvements was to replace the small animal-powered gins on plantations with larger steam and then diesel gins to which farmers brought their crops. The “Munger System” was so great an improvement that it was universally accepted across the South.

In 1885 R. S. Munger opened a manufacturing plant in Dallas. A few years later he built a larger one in Birmingham, Alabama, and after that spent most of his time there. The Munger family did not abandon Dallas. Robert’s brother Stephen ran the Dallas operation.

In 1902 Robert Munger sold his gin machinery manufacturing business and turned his attention to real estate development. The Munger Place subdivision was a showplace of fine homes in what some sources describe as the first subdivision to employ deed restrictions. It was conveniently located just east of downtown Dallas and soon became one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the state. There was even a possibility that the new university the Methodists were planning in Dallas would be built in Munger Place. R. S. Munger's offer of fifty acres for a campus could not compete with the 300 acres plus cash offer that was accepted. Munger Place Methodist was organized in 1913, and the present sanctuary built in 1925.

Later, though, upscale Dallas neighborhoods moved north instead of east. The location of SMU in the north near Highland Park, rather than the east near Munger Place was part of that trend. It also adds a bit historic irony to the October 2010 re-opening of Munger Place as a branch of Highland Park UMC. If SMU had been located on the east side of Dallas rather than the north side, the roles of the respective churches might have been reversed.

Robert S. Munger died in Birmingham in 1923. In addition to his impact in Dallas, he is also remembered at UMC-related Birmingham-Southern College where Munger Hall is named for him.

Thanks to Rev. William Lanigan for research help for this column.