Saturday, April 28, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 29

Texan Strikes Blow for Racial Justice  May 5, 1964

One of the main issues under consideration at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church was the proposed merger with the Evangelical United Brethren.  On May 5 the Church Union Commission presented its report. 

Proponents of racial justice listened in stunned silence as they realized that the Commission was proposing to retain the institutional racism that had been a stain on the Methodist Church since the creation of the Central Jurisdiction in 1939.  The Uniting Conference of 1939 that created the Methodist Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church created the Central Jurisdiction from the African American Churches of the MEC and MPC. 

In 1939 African Americans protested writing racial segregation into the church’s official structure.  None of the African American delegates to the Uniting Conference voted for the Plan of Union.  Now in 1964, it appeared that the Methodist Church was going to repeat the same mistake.

An alternate lay delegate, Dr. W. Astor Kirk, wrote in his Autobiography My emotions ranged from deep anger to almost uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow.”  Kirk realized he had to act.  He sought recognition from the chair and offered the following amendment, “"the Central Jurisdiction structure of The Methodist Church not be made a part of the Plan of Merger."   

The “Kirk Amendment” was debated at length and then passed 464 to 362.   Merger with the EUB would abolish the Central Jurisdiction.   Some southern conferences claimed that jurisdictions had the right to maintain segregated annual conferences, but a Judicial Council decision in 1965 quashed that idea. 

W. Astor Kirk, was born in Harleton, Texas, (northwestern Harrison County).  He enrolled at near-by Wiley, but soon transferred to Howard University. He earned two degrees from Howard University and accepted a position at Samuel Huston College (now Huston Tillotson University) in 1947.  He attempted to enroll in the graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin but was denied admission because of his race.  As part of the consultations about his matriculation, he had a personal meeting with Attorney General Price Daniel (Methodist lay man from Liberty).  Daniel first told Kirk he would have to attend Texas Southern University.  Kirk refused.  Daniel then told him he could attend classes taught by UT professors at the African American YMCA in Austin.  Kirk refused again.  After the landmark case Sweatt v. Painter desegregated the UT Law School, Kirk enrolled in the political science doctoral program at UT.  In 1958 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Texas.   

In 1961 Kirk moved to Washington to lend his skills to the Board of Church and Society.  He moved back to Austin when Bill Moyers, then an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, suggested that he become regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.  Kirk refused at first, but Johnson summoned him to the Johnson Ranch and used his considerable persuasive powers to get him to reconsider.  The acceptance of the federal office brought him back to Austin.  

Kirk’s dedication to social justice was unwavering.  At the time of his death on August 12, 2011, he was preparing materials to be presented to the 2012 General Conference concerning discrimination against gay persons. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 22

Bell and Granville Families Donate Land for Church, April 26, 1839

Settlers in the Republic of Texas were cash poor but land rich.  Abel Stevens took advantage of that fact in his brief missionary visit to Texas and solicited donations of land for the Methodist Episcopal Church. 

On April 26, 1839, two couples, Thomas and Abigail Bell and Benjamin and Nancy Granville, responded to the solicitation and donated two tracts  of land on the banks of Piney Creek in central Austin County for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  That donation led to the formation of a church that is now known as Bellville United Methodist Church

Thomas Bell and his brother James immigrated from Florida to Austin’s Colony in 1822.  Benjamin Granville, a native of England, came some years later.  Thomas Bell and Benjamin Granville married sisters in the fall of 1837 and established farmsteads near each other.  The young immigrants threw themselves into the religious activities available to them in the last years of Mexican rule and the early years of the Republic.  Thomas Bell attended the September, 1834, Camp Meeting on Caney Creek that led to the call for missionaries, and both Thomas and James Bell pledged to support a circuit rider at the second Caney Creek Camp Meeting in September, 1835.   A previous post (Feb. 5, 2012) relates the story of how Stevens and Hoes were guided through the night by Thomas Bell’s leading family devotions.

The deed of gift is particularly valuable as an historic document.  It tells us that the tract is on Piney Creek “down from the camp ground.”  We know from other deed records that William Medford bought 300 adjacent acres “where he now lives”  from Bell the previous October.  Medford had been admitted O.T. in the Missouri Conference and rode circuits in Indiana, Illinois, and Arkansas (all part of the Missouri Conference at one time) before locating and moving to Texas.  He was also a participant in the 1834 Caney Creek Camp Meeting. 

The trustees named in the deed are also of considerable interest.  Local preachers John Wesley Kenney and Henry Matthews both appear as trustees.  Kenney lived about five miles to the north and Matthews divided his time between San Felipe and Houston.  Several of the trustees (Josiah Crosby, Madison Davis, Edward Cabler) names also appear as trustees on the deed to the Methodist church at Washington, executed by Martin Ruter in Feb. 1838.   Another Piney Creek Trustee, Robert Chappell was a also a trustee of Rutersville College

William Medford and Abel Stevens witnessed the signatures on the deed. Although Medford was a local preacher, by this date  he was also an assistant county clerk of Austin County and, in that position was very helpful to other Methodists trying to prove valid land claims.

The tract on Piney was the not the last of Bell’s land donations.  In 1846 the state legislature responded to local petitions seeking the removal of the county seat of Austin County from San Felipe to a more convenient central location.  San Felipe, which had been Stephen F. Austin’s colonial headquarters, had been burned during the revolution and never really recovered.  New settlers preferred the sandy forested uplands and rolling Fayette Prairie of northern Austin County to the poorly drained, unhealthy coastal plains surrounding San Felipe. 

Thomas Bell offered a 108 acre tract for the new county seat.  His main rival was David Ayres who offered property at Centre Hill.  The Methodist property on Piney Creek was about half way between the two tracts. 

On December 23, 1846 the voters chose Bell’s offer over Centre Hill.  A surveyor surveyed the Bell tract into lots, and in 1848, Bellville was founded.  David Ayres moved to Galveston and remained a stalwart of Texas Methodism for the rest of his long life.

Methodists  realized they needed a location in town rather than on Piney Creek.  They sold the Bell donation tract and built a church in town.  Bellville UMC traces its origin to that church.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 15

Littleton Fowler Appointed Chaplain of Grand Lodge of Texas  April 16, 1838

After they won their independence from Mexico, Texians turned their attention to creating the institutions of a free and independent people.  Naturally they placed a high priority on governmental and religious institutions.  They also created fraternal organizations, most importantly Freemasonry.   On April 16, 1838, members of the three lodges in Texas (Houston, San Augustine, and Nacogdoches) met in the Senate Chambers in Houston as the Grand Lodge of Texas.  Littleton Fowler, Methodist missionary and Chaplain of the Senate, was appointed Chaplain of the Grand Ledge. 

Leadership in government, church, and lodge often interlocked.  All of the Republic of Texas Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Secretaries of State were Masons.   While Fowler was Chaplain of the Grand Lodge, he was also Chaplain of the Senate of the Republic.  His Methodist preacher colleague, Henry Matthews, is also listed as a Mason, as were politicians such as T. J. Rusk with whom Fowler enjoyed a friendship.  When Methodists began erecting church buildings, they often employed Masonic rituals in the laying of the cornerstones as occurred in San Augustine on Jan. 7, 1838.

Masons and Methodists shared facilities.  Methodist pastor Schuyler Hoes organized the Texas Chapter of the American Bible Society at the Houston Lodge in November, 1838.  San Felipe UMC is an existing example of even closer sharing of facilities.  The church occupied the first floor and the Lodge occupied the second. 

One of the main activities of Masons in the era was providing assistance to widows and orphans of brother Masons.  Only eight years after being named Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Texas, Littleton Fowler died.  Here is an excerpt from the letter the Masons of Marshall Lodge #22 sent to his widow

Be assured, dear madam, that the Masonic Fraternity are ready not only to offer words of consolation but more substantial aid if necessary.  

The Lodge in Hemphill carries on the tradition.  It is named Littleton Fowler Lodge #305

Saturday, April 07, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 8

Littleton Fowler Reports on Journey to General Conference  April 15, 1844

As delegates are preparing to travel to General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Florida, it is time to remember the long and arduous journeys delegates in prior years made.

Texas sent only two delegates to the 1844 General Conference which was held in New York City.  John Clark, the only southern delegate to side the northern conferences, did not return to Texas.  Littleton Fowler, one of the original missionaries, did return, but died less than two years later.  As Fowler made his way from East Texas to New York City, he wrote letters to his wife, Missouri Fowler.  That correspondence is now at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, SMU. 

The letters reveal that Fowler combined church business, family business, and shopping as he made his way north.  The route took him to Natchitoches, Louisiana,  then to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  Monday, April 15, 1844, found him in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He had arrived the previous Saturday and about 2:00 p.m. took the stage for Hamilton,  about 26 miles to the north.  There he met  his mother-in-law, “Mother Symmes.”    On Sunday he preached in Hamilton and after services dined with the parents of William O’Connor, one of the Oho preachers he had recruited for Texas.  O’Connor died the previous October in Harrison County, and  Fowler was thus paying a bereavement call on the parents of his dead colleague. 

On Monday Fowler bought six barrels of flour, two for him and four for Daniel and Jane Poe.  Getting flour from Cincinnati to East Texas in 1844 was no easy task.   Purchasers such as Fowler depended upon consignment merchants.  In this case, two intermediaries had to be employed, one in New Orleans and one in Natchitoches.   Presumably Fowler would pick the flour up at Natchitoches on his return trip.  Daniel and Jane Poe would die before their shipment of flour could make it to San Augustine. 

Littleton Fowler informed Missouri that he would continue his trip to either Wheeling or Pittsburgh by water and then strike overland to Washington, D.C., on his way to New York City.  By this point in his journey Fowler was in familiar territory with old friends.  He had served in the Kentucky Conference before coming to Texas and delegates from Ohio and Kentucky were travelling the same route.  He thus looked forward to travelling with amiable companions.   

When they got to General Conference, they may have wished for more amiability.  The conference was consumed with the question of slavery.  The result was the eventual creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a division that would last until 1939.