Saturday, October 29, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History October 30

Recognized Historic Site #1 Dedicated at Oak Island, Bexar County

Regular readers of this column are aware of the Recognized Historic Site program of the General Commission on Archives and History. A list of recognized sites may be found at

One notices immediately that Texas has far more historic sites than any other state. (106 of a total of 462 sites) The presence of several annual conferences within the boundaries of Texas helps explain the large number of recognized sites. The vigor with which the various Texas annual conferences Commissions on Archives and History pursue their mission also explains the large number of sites.

One also notices that Historic Site #1 is in Texas. It is at the Oak Island Church in Bexar County about 15 miles south of downtown San Antonio near the Highway 16 crossing of the Medina River. The cemetery beside the church contains the final resting place of the Rev. John Wesley Devilbiss, the subject of several previous columns. In October 1880 Devilbiss retired to his ranch home, Palo Blanco, at Oak Island. He died on January 1885 and was buried at the church cemetery where he had worshipped in his retirement.

Mrs. W. W. Jackson was the local church historian who researched the history of Oak Island Church necessary for a successful historic site application. On November 2, 1969 Bishop O. Eugene Slater of San Antonio led a celebration in honor of the Historic Site #1 designation. The guests included Senator Ralph Yarborough. The most recent Historic Site designation was recently held at First UMC Euless.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist HIstory October 23

Quarterly Meeting in Harrison County Passes Resolution in Favor of Mission to African Americans, October, 1843

One of the areas of the Republic of Texas that benefitted most from changing transportation patterns was the region around Marshall and Jefferson. Before the Texas Revolution there were two main routes by which travelers came to Texas. One of those routes was the Natchitoches to Nacogdoches route which crossed the Sabine at Gaines Ferry. The other was in extreme northeast Texas where travelers crossed the Red River at Fulton, Arkansas, where the river turned in a great bend to the south. In the early years of the Republic a third route became more prominent. U. S. Army engineers under Henry Miller Shreve cleared a huge raft of logs and other debris from the Red River. Instead of stopping at Natchitoches, travelers could now go further upstream to where the Texas Trail crossed the Red River. Grateful town developers named their community Shreveport in honor of the man who made navigation possible. Westward bound travelers at Shreveport had both land and water options for going into Texas. Some chose the water route and snaked their way through the shallow waters of Caddo Lake and Cypress Bayou to Jefferson (laid out as a town in 1842). Land travelers naturally wished to avoid the low country so they took a more southerly route to Marshall (made the county seat of Harrison County in 1842).

The Shreveport to Marshall-Jefferson route became the route of choice for thousands of immigrants. Methodist circuit riders always followed settlement so it was natural that Harrison appears as one of the original Texas Conference appointments upon the organization of that conference in 1840. In only two years, there had been enough growth that the Lake Soda District was formed for the churches in the area.

Many of the travelers on the Texas Trail were involuntary immigrants. Because it was the route of choice from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, many of the immigrants were enslaved African Americans. The area around Marshall and Jefferson eventually achieved African American population percentages comparable to the Brazos, Trinity, and Colorado River bottom lands. The 1860 Census revealed that 59% of the Harrison County population was African American.

Slavery became an issue in Harrison County in 1843 in two different ways. On Aug. 19 William R. Alexander (Robert Alexander’s brother) wrote Littleton Fowler that William O’Conner had made some dinner table remark criticizing slavery. Since O’Conner was an Ohio recruit, perhaps Alexander was testing the northern preacher who was now in the South. Fowler took the accusation of the anti-slavery remark seriously enough to write O’Conner a reprimand and also to instruct John Woolam to look into the matter.

Unfortunately the O’Conner flap ended because the 27-year-old Ohio recruit died in October and was buried near Marshall. On October 21 the Rocky Creek Quarterly Meeting passed a resolution asking John Woolam to inquire among the slave holders if they would allow the circuit riders to preach among the slaves. The resolution is a good example of a popular argument Methodist preachers used when trying to obtain permission to preach to slaves. Here is part of the resolution:

. In the Southern States where the M. E. Church has established missions to the slaves the consequence has been that of a great moral and religious reformation of this class of population which tended to make them honest, industrious and more obedient to those who controuled them greatly to the advantage of both both the servants and masters. This enterprise had the full consideration of the members of this conference from the fact that near one half the population in the bounds of this circuit are slaves and hitherto have had but little preaching because the preachers had as much as employed their whole time in filling the numerous appointments within the bounds of their charge.

There is no “Harrison Colored Mission” listed in the appointments at the next annual conference, but between the establishment of the MECS and the Civil War there are numerous appointments to “African Mission” and “Colored Mission” in Texas.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History October 16

Yellow Fever Forces Joseph Sneed out of Houston, October 19, 1839

Joseph Perkins Sneed (1804-1881) is one of the pioneer Texas circuit riders who helped lay the foundation for Methodism in the Republic of Texas. At the Mississippi Annual Conference of December, 1838, Bishop Thomas A. Morris honored his request for a transfer to the Texas Mission of that conference. On February 8, 1839, he entered Texas via Gaines Ferry and began his Texas ministry.

Monday, October 14, 1839, found Sneed in Texana where he had just participated in a camp meeting. Texana was the home of several devout Methodist families who had immigrated from North Alabama in the late 1820’s. The Sutherland, Menefee, Heard, Rector, and Rogers families were to make a huge mark in Texas Methodist history, but Sneed had other flocks to tend so he set off by horseback. He rode 150 miles to Houston where on Saturday, October 19, he held a quarterly meeting.

The normal practice of the time was to have the quarterly conference on Saturday and then stay for Sunday worship, but yellow fever was raging in the city, and Sneed and his companion, Robert Hill left Saturday even though they knew leaving on Saturday would force them to travel on the Sabbath. After spending the night in what Sneed described as “wild country,” they reached the Brazos at Warren (about three miles east of present-day Chappell Hill). When they arrived, they were disappointed to learn that the ferry was swamped on the far bank. The river was flowing swiftly and night was falling. Here’s what they did next, told in Sneed’s words.

Sunday Oct. 20th Traveled this day contrary to my feeling and custom, about forty miles. Reached the Brazos at Warren, below the mouth of New Year’s Creek, just about dark, The river was swimming, the ferry boat sunk, and no one around. I swam my horse across and then shoved the boat over in its sunken condition. Bro. Hill got on it with our equipments: It was sufficient to bear him, and by hard work we crossed our clothes dry, I having swum his horse and swum back to him alone. By this time we had no light but the moon. Making our way three or four miles to Mr. Hubert’s we were comfortably situated for the night.

The next Thursday Sneed and Hill participated in the memorable Centenary Camp Meeting honoring the centennial of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1739.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History October 9

Ebenezer Methodist Church Organized October 10, 1858

The Texas Forest Service has been much in the news in 2011. The double tragedy of drought and wild fire has been devastating to our forests, and made many of us more aware of how important our forests are to us. The TFS does excellent work providing good stewardship for the beautiful forests of Texas. One of its programs calls attention to the importance of trees in Texas history by maintaining a web site that highlights famous Texas trees.
One of the famous trees of Texas is near New Fountain in Medina County and is important in Texas Methodist history.

New Fountain was first known as Soldier’s Camp because it was a convenient rendezvous point for soldiers patrolling the road that led west from San Antonio. Many of the early settlers were part of the Castro colony and were Alsatian Catholics. As the colony prospered, D’Hanis, Quihi, and Vandenberg were founded in the area. The settlement at New Fountain received its name because a creek disappeared in the fissures of the creek bottom only to reappear in the creek bed several miles downstream—in other words a “New Fountain.”

The Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South organized a German District with John Wesley Devilbiss as the presiding elder. (see post for Jan. 11, 2011) In 1857 he held a camp meeting in the area. The next year on October 10, 1858 the Rev. F. A. Schaper assembled a group of German pioneers under a large live oak tree. Among the attendees were John and Aalke Wiemers. They were gloriously converted. At that same meeting Schaper organized the Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal South. The oak was on the Wiemers property. The couple donated a lot for the erection of a small pole building about 16 by 20 feet. There were 15 charter members.

Just weeks after October 10, Ebenezer became one of the first churches in the newly organized Rio Grande Mission Conference which had been authorized by the 1858 General Conference of the MECS. The Rio Grande Mission Conference eventually became the Southwest Texas Annual Conference.

By 1872 the Ebenezer Church had outgrown its simple pole structure so John and Aalke Wiemers donated an acre of land in a more convenient location for a new church building. Friedrich and Antje Muennink donated two acres for a cemetery across the road. As was the custom of the time, the church members donated their labor for the construction of the new church building. It was also customary at the time for German preachers to teach school during the week. Such was the case under the pastorate of Jacob Kern. The German farmers made great sacrifices so that their children would receive good education. At least 13 of their sons became Methodist preachers.

The 1872 church building still stands in good repair. There are also modern Sunday School and meeting facilities. They are testaments to the vitality of the congregation that continues to worship and serve 153 years after organizing under the live oak tree.
What about the oak that was large enough to shade a meeting in 1858? It’s still there and promises to have a continuing presence in Texas Methodist history through one of its seedlings. On March 12, 2005, one of the seedlings was planted at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center in honor of Bishop John Wesley Hardt, a great-grandson of John and Aalke Wiemers.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

This Week in Texas Methodist History October 2

Texas University (later Southwestern University) Classes Begin, October 6, 1873

On October 6, 1873 a new school began instruction in Georgetown. Years of preparation ended as three faculty members met thirty-three students. The man in charge was Francis A. Mood, a South Carolinian who had come to Chappell Hill to assume the leadership of Soule University. It didn’t take him long to discover that Soule was in trouble. Indebtedness and too few students threatened to finish off the school that had been devastated by the loss of its student body to the Civil War and a yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the Texas coastal plains.

Mood believed that a Texas Methodist university could be successful if it enjoyed the support of all five of the MECS annual conferences in Texas and was favorably situated outside the fever belt. He threw himself into the task of building that support. Each annual conference finally gave its support. Georgetown was selected as the site.

The thirty-three students came to Texas University. It was not until 1875 that the institution received its charter, and one of the conditions of the charter was that the name had to be changed. It became South Western University. From that small beginning in 1873 came Southwestern University which has a beautiful campus, an outstanding faculty, and a student body any institution would be proud of. It continues to cherish its Methodist roots which have sustained it.