Saturday, May 28, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 29

Woodrow Seals Lifts Up Society of St. Stephen, May 29, 1972

One of the most colorful and dedicated laymen in Texas Methodist history was Judge Woodrow Seals (1917-1990), a member of St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston and an active participant at all levels of United Methodism. He could be unpredictable. His speech was colorful, and his imagination for pushing the conference into greater fields of service seemed limitless. No wonder all other conversation stopped when Seals had the conference floor.

As the 1972 Texas Annual Conference convened, Seals was completing a quadrennium as chair of the Conference Board of Christian Social Concerns. The continuing struggle of African Americans for civil rights and the Viet Nam War and the associated peace movement had put the Board front and center during the 1968-1972 quadrennium. On June 3, 1969, three young men disrupted the morning worship at the Texas Annual Conference demanding reparations for African Americans. Woodrow Seals led the negotiating team that defused the situation. Judge Seals’ influence was so great that he was able to secure the entirety of an afternoon business session of the 1971 Annual Conference for debates about abortion and setting a date for withdrawal of U. S. forces from Viet Nam. In addition to the events occurring in the secular world, the United Methodist Church was in the process of ending institutional racial segregation by abolishing the Central Jurisdiction. Petitions submitted to General Conference during the quadrennium reflected the divided state of the church. There were petitions on both sides of practically every contentious issue of the day—civil disobedience, conscientious objection, the right of farm workers to form unions, the pace of racial desegregation, the right of peaceful protest, the war on poverty, boycotts of businesses with unfair labor practices, and more. The church was no ivory tower as some might think. It was in the thick of all these issues as Methodists struggled to find solutions based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For Woodrow Seals church, personal, and professional life were all of one piece. President Lyndon Johnson reluctantly appointed Seals to the federal bench in 1966, and his belief in caring for poor, the outcast, and the marginalized can be found in his decisions. When the state of Texas and several school districts finally started to comply with Brown vs. Board of Education, they sometimes did so by mixing African American and Latino students—and leaving Anglo students in lily-white schools. Seals ruled that Latinos were a distinct group, and true desegregation must take that fact into account. The Supreme Court later upheld his ruling. When Quaker and Mennonite and other Christian pacifist draft resistors appeared in his court for violation of the Selective Service laws, he tried to steer them into alternative service instead of prison.

The Texas Annual Conference convened On May 29, 1972. The printed report from the Board of Christian Social Concerns highlighted two programs that Seals started during the term. He may have been a global thinker on the great issues of the day, but both programs were very personal—the very embodiment of the bumper sticker phrase, “Think Globally—Act Locally”. They were as follows:

Operation Understanding—a program that paired historically African American and historically Anglo churches for informal, monthly meetings. There was no agenda, no program, just a chance to form cross-racial friendships.

Society of St. Stephens—a program to help people who, through circumstances beyond their control, needed help with food, utilities, rent, transportation, or other necessities.

Even though Seals was active at the conference level, he remained active in his local church. Most Saturdays found him, in suit and tie in the Houston heat, knocking on doors near St. Stephens. “I’m Woodrow Seals, if you don’t have a church home, please come to St. Stephens.” When the weather was bad, he would go to a shopping mall and pass out cards inviting strangers to church. When Bering UMC opened its facilities for homeless people on severely cold nights, Seals spent nights there as a volunteer. The number of times he visited churches to promote the Society of St. Stephen can probably never be known. He taught an adult Sunday School class in which almost always the lesson was not taken from Sunday School literature, but from his experiences of the previous week. His circle of friends of all faiths was prodigious. On any given Sunday his class members might hear about Rev. John Osteen of Lakewood Church, the Roman Catholic Bishop’s plans for Houston, or what he had learned from a lunch date with a rabbi.

Perkins School of Theology presents a Woodrow Seals Award annually to a lay person. The Houston Young Lawyers Association also presents a Woodrow Seals Award. His greatest legacy, though, is probably the Society of St. Stephen. The program of helping families in need was adopted by the denomination. Today, there are tens of thousands of persons who know that the United Methodist Church cares about them because of acts of mercy channeled through the Society of St. Stephen.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 22

81st (and last) Texas EUB Annual Conference Meets in Wichita Falls, May 22-25, 1967

Fifty-four delegates to the 81st session of the Oklahoma-Texas Annual Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church met in Wichita Falls May 22-25, 1967. Twenty-five preachers and twenty-nine lay delegates conducted the business of the conference which had only a few churches scattered across such a vast area. There were eight EUB churches in Texas; the host church in Wichita Falls; Greenway Trinity in Houston; Lissie; El Campo; Post Oak Zion (30 miles se of San Antonio);, Temple; San Antonio Grace; and San Antonio First.

The main issue facing the conference was, of course, the proposed EUB-Methodist Church union. The presiding bishop, Paul Milhouse, asked Superintendent Roderick Gray for a membership report. Gray reported that since 1956, the year the EUB Church was created by merger from its predecessor denominations, and the Oklahoma-Texas Conference was formed from the Texas and Oklahoma Conferences, membership had dropped by 27.5%. Corresponding declines occurred in average worship attendance and Sunday School attendance.

Immediately after the grim statistical report, the conference considered the proposed union. The vote was forty-nine in favor, six opposed, and two abstentions. The other thirty-six EUB annual conferences were also voting on union. When all votes from all conferences were tallied, the plan of union carried by seventy-one per cent. (A two-thirds majority was required.) Annual Conferences in the Methodist Church were also voting on union. They cast ninety percent of their votes in favor.

Approval by both denominations paved the way for the creation of the United Methodist Church on April 23, 1968 in Dallas. Former EUB churches and pastors in Texas became dispersed in several annual conferences. Lissie and Greenway Trinity became part of the Texas Conference. The Southwest Texas Conference received El Campo and the San Antonio churches. Central Texas received Temple, and North Texas received Wichita Falls.

Paul Milhouse, the bishop who presided over the final session of the Oklahoma-Texas Annual Conference of the EUB, was assigned to the Oklahoma area of the United Methodist Church in 1968. He held that position until his retirement in 1980.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 15

Martin McHenry Arranges for Fowler to Take Enslaved Woman to Texas, May 16, 1845

A poignant letter in the Littleton Fowler Collection at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology is a letter of May 16 from Martin McHenry to Littleton Fowler in which McHenry confirms arrangements for Fowler’s taking a slave woman from Kentucky to Texas.

At the MEC General Conference of 1844 the issue of slavery proved to be too contentious to resolve. Delegates from the slave states agreed to meet the following year, May 1-19, 1845, in Louisville, Kentucky, to plan their next steps. Fowler had been a delegate in 1844, and the Texas Conference chose him again for the 1845 convention. The other Texas Conference delegate in 1844 was John Clark, who was the only southern delegate to vote with the northern delegates. He did not return to Texas. The Texas Conference then elected Robert Alexander to go to Louisville.

Martin D. McHenry, an attorney living in Shelbyville, Kentucky, had two sisters living in Texas, Lydia McHenry and Maria Kenney (Mrs. John Wesley Kenney). On at least one occasion, Lydia McHenry wrote to Kentucky asking her brother John to send her a slave child 8 or 10 years old. (Lydia McHenry to John McHenry, May 7, 1837, in Hardin Collection, Chicago Historical Society) In May, 1845, Martin McHenry asked Robert Alexander to take a slave woman from Louisville to his sister Maria in Texas. Alexander lived about five miles from the Kenney household.

Alexander demurred, not because he objected to slavery or transporting slaves across international boundaries (the USA and the Republic of Texas), but because he intended to return to Texas after the convention in a leisurely manner through Tennessee to visit relatives. Alexander then asked Fowler to accommodate Martin McHenry’s request. Fowler agreed, and arrangements were made to deliver the woman to Fowler’s custody in Louisville. Fowler agreed to take the woman as far as San Augustine. John and Maria Kenney would then arrange transportation from San Augustine to their home in Austin County.

One can only imagine the thoughts the unnamed woman must have had. She was being torn from family and familiar surrounding in Kentucky and being taken all the way to Texas. She would have had no prospect of ever seeing her family again. What made the situation even more poignant was the location. Louisville was a river port on the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 excluded slavery from the territories north of the Ohio River. As she boarded a steamboat in Louisville, she could have looked north to Indiana and seen a land without slavery. As she proceeded down the Ohio River, there was always slavery on one river bank and free land on the other. When the Ohio reached Cairo, Illinois, and met the Mississippi River, every turn of the paddlewheel took the unfortunate woman deeper into an unknown world and further from everything she knew.

It may be uncomfortable for us to remember that Texas Methodist founders were enmeshed with slavery. A hired slave worked Fowler’s farm while he travelled on church business. Robert and Eliza Alexander at one point kept sixteen slaves. David Ayres regularly advertised in the newspapers that he traded land, livestock, and slaves. Homer Thrall and Chauncey Richardson, who were both born in Vermont, wrote a great deal to advance pro-slavery arguments.

One of the evils of the system is that most of the enslaved people were rendered anonymous and voiceless. I would dearly love to know the name of the woman who came to Texas from Kentucky in May 1845. I would love even more to have a record of the event from her point of view. When the church is at its best, it gives voice to people silenced by oppressive systems. Giving voice to the oppressed often runs counter to the prevailing culture, but it is central in the church’s proclamation that every person is created in the image of God.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 8

Woodland and Norhill Churches Sign Articles of Union May 8, 1938

The unification of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant Churches to create the Methodist Church in May, 1939, is widely known as the great historic event of 20th century Methodism. What is less well known is that several Northern and Southern churches merged with each other before their denominations did. One such merger occurred on the north side of Houston when Woodland Methodist Church (Southern) merged with Norhill Methodist Church (Northern). The merger was highly publicized and recognized as an important step toward the unity both denominations would embrace one year later.

Norhill’s origins dated to 1875 and the organization of Emanuel German Methodist Episcopal Church. They built their church on a lot at Hamilton and Preston (one block east of Minute Maid Park). About 15 years later they relocated to the corner of White and Lubbock (between Washington and Memorial, just east of Glenwood Cemetery) and renamed the church Zion Methodist Episcopal Church. Another relocation in 1924 took the newly renamed congregation of 11th at Norhill. (immediately north of Hogg Middle School).

Meanwhile the MECS was also at work organizing a church on Houston’s north side. Woodland Heights had its first service in 1913. Woodland Methodist Church prospered and began to think about expansion. In 1927 they bought a lot in the 600 block of Pecore in contemplation of a move. The Great Depression put a damper on church building plans. Obviously people who were out of work could not contribute to a building fund, and the sale of the old church property to Woodland Christian Church brought far less than they hoped.

As the leadership of Woodland Methodist struggled with the difficulties of planning a church construction project in such difficult economic times, the idea of merger with Norhill emerged. Both churches’ membership was too great for their existing facilities. Norhill had 539 members and Woodland Heights 650. Since Woodland Heights already owned property between the two churches, a merger and construction of a new church building on that lot seemed like a solution for both of them. Early in 1937 D. L. Landrum, the Woodland pastor, and Presiding Elder H. M.Whaling went to Kansas City to approach Bishop Charles Meade of the MEC about the possibility of a Norhill-Woodland merger.

Meade reacted positively to the idea and brought A. A. Leifeste, the Norhill preacher, into the conversation. The membership of both churches embraced the idea, and committees composed of MEC and MECS members worked through 1937 to work out the details of merger, raise funds, and plan the construction of a new church.

On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the two congregations worshiped together and signed the Articles of Union which had been carried to the altar in the form of a scroll by a procession headed by the pastors’ sons, Billy Leifeste and Lawrence Landrum, Jr..
The combined churches were able to implement their building program. On February 4, 1940, Bishop A. Frank Smith preached the first sermon in the new sanctuary on Pecore Street. The merger and move had brought about a name change. The church was now named St. Mark’s Methodist church. It is now known as St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. Its history may be found in Twelve Adventurous Decades: 1875-1990 by Raymond Moers.

Postscript: The Norhill-Woodland merger one year before the Methodist unification was a major news story covered throughout the United States by both the religious and secular press. One effect of the merger was advancing the career of the Woodland pastor, D. L. Landrum. He was only 34 at the time, but had shown considerable organizational ability. His next appointment after St. Mark’s was First Methodist Longview. He was then Superintendent of the Galveston District, Lakeview, and the Beaumont District.