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.


Blogger Robley H said...

I am a descendant of the Munger family and named for one of R. S. Munger's four sons. Thank you for much for this informative blog post!

3:47 PM  
Blogger Terrell said...

I'm also a descendant of the Munger family. Thanks for this very well-researched and accurate account of the Munger history.

9:54 AM  

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