Henry Stephenson Starts Camp Meeting in Sabine County, July 17, 1834
Although William Stevenson preached to settlements along the Red River well before 1820, and the Arkansas Conference regularly supplied preachers to circuits along the Sulfur River in northeastern Texas well before 1834, Henry Stephenson’s grand tour of camp meetings in the summer of 1834 has captured the imagination of Texas Methodist historians more than those earlier Methodist activities in northeastern Texas. In 1934, for example, Texas Methodists honored Henry Stephenson’s organizing a society at McMahan’s Chapel in 1834 and designated that event as the starting point for a Centennial Celebration. The celebration occurred in spite of the fact that Methodist activity along the Red and Sulfur Rivers pre-dated McMahan’s Chapel by almost 20 years. (Another curious facet was that the Centennial Celebration was held in San Antonio which had the most tenuous links to early Texas Methodism of any major city in Texas.—more about that in another column.)
Henry Stephenson (b. 1772) was a member of the Mississippi Conference who at the 1833 Mississippi Annual Conference was instructed by his Presiding Elder, O. L. Nash, to spend some of his time west of the Sabine in Mexican Texas. Stephenson had been in Texas as early as 1824 when he travelled to San Felipe and met with Stephen F. Austin. Ten years had passed, and conditions were much more favorable for Methodist missionaries so Stephenson tried again.
Stephenson made a written report to the November, 1834, Mississippi Annual Conference which was printed in the New York Christian Advocate and Journal
(Dec. 26, 1834). The report has not been widely reprinted and is the earliest first person account of a Methodist preacher in the interior of Texas
so I present it here, beginning with July 17.
. . .I appointed a camp meeting to be held on the Sabine district, beginning on the 17th of July following. When the time arrived I attended the camp meeting, where I met several of the brethren from the United States, who had “come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” The weather proved unfavorable; but our heavenly Father visited us in this “moral waste” and manifested his loving kindness unto his children. Sinners were convicted—mourners converted, and of a truth we were permitted to “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The people were orderly and well disposed. From this time all prejudices gave way, and a more effectual door was opened unto us to preach Jesus, and him crucified, in all the lengthy and breadth of the land.
At the request and by the advice of the presiding elder, the Rev. O. L. Nash, I started on a more extensive tour than I had taken through the colonies, on the 22nd of July. In Nachidoches (Nacogdoches) I preached to an orderly and well disposed congregation. From thence I took my course to the Brasas (Brazos), preaching in all the settlements where I could get hearers—On reaching the Brasas settlements, finding it practicable, I appointed a camp meeting, to commence on the 4th of September following. In the mean time I prosecuted by journey through Coles’ and Clokey’s settlements (Washington Co.) preaching the Gospel of the grace of God to the dear people wherever I could. From thence I went to the Bastrop, a small town on the Colorado River, where again I stood forth as the messenger of peace to the dear people. I rode about 40 miles down the river; from thence I steered my course to the Gonzilos (Gonzales), a small town on the Gaudaloupe. (Guadalupe), in DeWitt’s Colony, where I found some precious people, with whom I rested several days. I preached to a large congregation the everlasting Gospel. They heard attentively, and some apparently with deep interest. At the conclusion of the last service I rendered them, I requested all in the congregation who wished the M. E. Church to send preachers among them to signify it by standing up. I think all rose up at once. It was enough to move the very stones to see these dear people in this distant land pleading for the Gospel to be sent to them! May the Lord visit them, and send men after his own heart to dispense to them the word of life.
I am now at the farthest part of the American settlements, and so far have met with no opposition; all treat me with kindness and hospitality. Not unfrequently am I entreated to stay among them; and all wish to extract promises that I will visit them again, or that the Gospel may be sent to them.—From the place I returned to the Untied States, and on my return visited the settlement on the Labacka (Lavaca) and Navedad (Navidad), west of Colorado, making my way to the camp meeting I had appointed on the Brasos, at which place I arrived on the 31s of August. Considerable preparation was made, much more than could have been expected, in view of all the circumstances. At this meeting I had Brother John W. Kenny (sic), formerly of the Ohio Conference and brothers Wm. Medford and Benjamin Babit (sic), of Missouri, all of whom live in this province, to assist me. About 400 attended the meeting. The great Head of the Church was with us to our comfort.—Several professed to find peace in their troubled souls and 28 joined our Church. In this wilderness I found some of the Rock Christ, and administered the symbols of the body and blood of Christ to 24 even in the heart of Texas. Surely this “wilderness begins to blossom as the rose.” From this place I started to another camp meeting I had appointed on the Inesh (Ayish) Bayou, within a day’s ride of the United States, to commence on the 18th of September, where I met the Rev. I. Applewhite from the United States, and brothers J. C. Lawhorn, a local preacher that has settled here who assisted me at this meeting. At this meeting I formed a society of 98 members, in whom I administered the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. On the Saturday and “Sabbath” following I held another two days’ meeting in the Sabine district. Here I formed a society of 16 members. The Rev. James English, a local preacher in the Tonehaw (Teneha) District, has formed another society of 20 members, making in all 102 members that we have been able to collect in this new but extensive field of labor.
From all that I have been able to learn of the government, I am persuaded the government does not, nor ever will oppose any barrier to the introduction of the Gospel in Texas; but it is hard to conclude on any thing certain in reference to that government, as it is any thing else but stable and fixed in its operations. The Mexican congress, in December, 1833, passed a law that granted liberty of conscience , and that all might worship the Lord Jehovah according to their own judgment and conscience. Although this law has been loudly complained of as unconstitutional, I believe it is yet a law, and will remain such so long as the present incumbent hold the reigns (sic) of government. I see no ground to fear any things from any source that should or could hinder the introduction of the Gospel. ‘The harvest is even now white, and the loud cry comes from the farthest point of the American settlements, “Come over and help us.” Come teach us and our little ones the way of life!’
Thus dear brethren, I have attempted to lay before you an account of my expedition in the province of Texas. You can do as it may seem good to you, but I must be permitted to plead in behalf of these dear people. Let us send them the Gospel. “the Lord has opened unto us an effectual door—it is now wide open, and the rich harvest before us should induce us to go up to their help at once.
May the great Bishop of souls, the Head of the Church, preside over you! May He look upon benighted Texas, and make known his saving energy in their salvation.
Yours affectionately in the Lord Jesus
Clinton, Hinds co. Mi., Nov. 20, 1834