Saturday, August 13, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History August 14

William B. Travis Writes Appeal for Methodist Missionaries, August 17, 1835

About six months before he wrote his famous appeal from the Alamo, William B. Travis wrote another appeal, this one for Methodist missionaries who would “produce much good in this benighted land.” The letter was published in the New York Christian Advocate and became a favorite source of quotations for generations of Texas Methodist historians.

The full text of the letter is so readily available in secondary works such as Phelan (vol. 1) that I will not reproduce here.

Travis presents an interesting problem for Texas Methodist historians. How tightly do we embrace Travis as a member of the early Texas Methodist community? William B, Travis was definitely part of the Methodist community in 1835. Besides the August 17, 1835 letter, there had been a previous letter to the Mission Board from Travis, David Ayres, and Lydia McHenry. In a characteristic act of bravado he offered to provide security at the September, 1835 Caney Creek Camp Meeting. He left his six year old son, Charles Edward Travis, in the custody of David Ayres at Montville where Lydia McHenry and Ann Ayres were operating a boarding school. John Wesley and Maria Kenney admired Travis so much that after his death at the Alamo they renamed their daughter, Emily Travis Kenney (b. Dec. 10, 1835). His name appears on the list of persons at the Caney Creek Camp Meeting who pledged to support Kenney if he would form a circuit.

So what’s the problem? It is obvious that William B. Travis was an enthusiastic participant in Methodist activities of 1835. The problem lies in that most Texas Methodist history is written from a fairly pious point of view, and William B. Travis led a life that would have excluded him from membership in a Methodist class meeting—big time!

Travis had come to Texas under a cloud. He deserted his pregnant wife and 18-month old son and fled to Texas. One persistent story is that the desertion occurred because he suspected his wife, Rosanna, of infidelity and killed the man he suspected of fathering the unborn child. His diary (edited and published by Robert E. Davis in 1966) shows he kept a running tally of his sexual conquests. The diary leaves little doubt that he was having relations with Rebecca Cummings on Mill Creek while he was still legally married to Rosanna.

Of course Travis was not alone. Immigration to Texas in the 1830s was a common response to people wishing to leave legal, family, and economic problems behind. Some of those with shady reputations became upstanding pillars of righteousness in the Republic of Texas.

Two weeks after Travis wrote his appeal for missionaries the second Caney Creek Camp Meeting convened about 20 miles north of San Felipe where Travis lived. The meeting was well attended. John Wesley Kenney and W. P. Smith (both Methodist) and Sumner Bacon and Peter Fullinwider (both Presbyterian) preached. An informal quarterly conference was organized and a pledge list was circulated. Thirty-one people pledged to support John Wesley Kenney if he would organize a circuit and preach. William B. Travis was one of those persons pledging.

Political events would dictate that Kenney would not organize the circuit. On Saturday, September 5, while the camp meeting was in full swing on Caney, there was a barbecue in Brazoria. Stephen F. Austin was finally home from his long confinement in Mexico City. The barbecue was a welcome home party. Austin gave a speech. The unjust imprisonment in Mexico City had made him reconsider his position about a break with Mexico. He was now ready to join the faction advocating independence.

Events moved quickly during the autumn of 1835. The skirmish at Gonzales, the siege of Bexar, and the organization of volunteer forces swept aside the possibility of Kenney’s being able to form a circuit. In December Travis received a commission as a lieutenant colonel. In March he died defending the Alamo. He was only twenty-seven years old. Methodists and other Texians embraced him as a martyr. His letter to the Advocate meant that he was also known to the wider Methodist community. News of the victory at San Jacinto arrived while that Methodist community was meeting in General Conference at Cincinnati. Missionaries came the next year.


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