Saturday, November 30, 2013

This Week in Texas Methodist History  December 1

Jesse Lee Honored for Fighting Bootleggers, December 1, 1906

Last week’s column related how lumber mill owners sometimes subsidized preacher salaries in East Texas mill towns.  One of the motivations for such subsidy was so that churches could play a civilizing influence on the towns because the saw mill towns could be wild and lawless places.

One of the best examples was Groveton in Trinity County.  Groveton  was both a county seat and a mill town.  That meant that the law enforcement and court apparatus were in close contact with the lawless elements that often plied their trades of bootlegging and gambling houses in mill towns. 

In 1900 the city of Groveton voted itself dry, but the criminals were persistent and continued their activities.  The Methodist preacher appointed to Groveton, Jesse Lee, fought the bootleggers, and the bootleggers fought back.  They burned both the church and the parsonage and made several assassination attempts on Rev. Lee.  The preacher was forced to carry a weapon for self defense. 

The Texas Annual Conference met in Tyler in late November-early December, 1906, under Bishop Henry Clay Morrison.  One of the features of Annual Conference of the era was that each preacher’s name was called, and his good character affirmed.  If anyone had any objections to the character of any preacher, he brought that objection before the entire conference.  The Journals report that objections were brought, including charges of “worldliness,” improper relations with women of the congregation, and attendance at forbidden venues such as circuses, movie houses, theaters, and lemonade socials. 

When the name of Jesse Lee was called, George R. Sexton, of the newly established St. Paul’s Church in Houston, asked permission to speak.  He did not want to criticize Jesse Lee’s character.  He wanted to praise him for his courageous stand against the Groveton bootleggers.  He read a commendatory letter on the conference floor and had that letter entered into the Conference Journal.

The letter was from two Houston residents who owned mills in Trinity County, James M. West and J. Lewis Thompson.  Here is the text

Dear Bro. Lee,
We desire to show our appreciation of the services rendered by you to our community, and take this occasion to say it gives us great pleasure to hand you herewith our individual checks for your own personal use. (attached to the letter were two checks for $50 each).  This is no wise to be considered as a conference or Church matter.  We admire you for being a man, God-fearing, and fearless.  May God’s richest blessings always be your part is our prayer.  Believe us to be two of your friends.

Jesse Lee served some of the most prominent pulpits of the Texas Conference and was district superintendent of four different districts in his 48 years of conference membership.  He died in 1964 and his Journal memoir, written by Guy Wilson, starts, “The Reverend Jesse Lee was one of the most colorful characters I have ever known.”  All who knew him would agree.  Some readers would know his son and grandson who also joined the Texas Conference, the Reverends Mouzon and Clifford Lee.                                    

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Texas Conference Strips $7000 From Beaumont District Salaries Thanks to Contribution from Mill Owners

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 24

Texas Conference Strips $7000 From Beaumont District Salaries Thanks to Contribution from Mill Owners  November 24, 1922

The Texas Annual Conference met in Cameron from Nov. 21-25, 1922.  The report of the Finance Committee is of particular interest because it sheds light on a practice of the day that seems strange in today’s world.  The Finance Committee allocated the Beaumont District $7,000 less for preacher salaries than the other districts because lumber companies paid that amount to preachers in company towns.

To understand how the system worked we need to go back to the 1880s and the era of the industrial exploitation of the southern pine forest.  Logging on an industrial scale had its American origins in the northern forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but by the 1890s those forests were depleted, and the nation turned its eyes southward to meet the demand for lumber and other forestry products. East Texas was crisscrossed with railroads so loggers were no longer dependent upon rivers for floating logs to a mill, lumber companies could erect mills in the forest and bring logs to them on narrow gauge railroads, often called trams.  Trams could then move the finished lumber to mainline railroads.  After the trees were cut in an area, the whole operation could easily be moved to a new location where the process would repeat itself.  

Besides erecting the mill and the rails, the company would also have to build a town for the employees.  The town would include housing—single family dwelling for management and families, and dormitories for single men;-- a company store, and often a church and school.  The store provided basic grocery and household items in exchange for the company scrip or tokens with which the workers were often paid.  The mill owner presided over the company town much like a feudal baron.  

In many of the company towns the preacher was considered a company employee much like the mill hands.  Former mill superintendent W. A. Smith of the Sabine Tram company in Deweyville told an interviewer, that his company’s policy was to hire preachers like any other employee, and make sure that they confined their preaching to acceptable topics.  If the preacher had picked up any Social Gospel tendencies about labor unions, he had to keep quiet about them. 

My grandfather, W. W. Hardt, was appointed to a typical sawmill circuit at the 1919 Texas Annual Conference.  Keltys was the head of the circuit which included churches at Jack Creek, Clawson, Wildhurst, Wells, Chancey, and Durant.  All seven of the churches on the circuit were saw mill towns.  Five of them were in northern Angelina County and two in southern Cherokee County.  Seven mill towns and seven churches in such a small area of northern Angelina and southern Cherokee County!  That sounds like quite a concentration, but it was the norm in the Piney Woods.  

My grandfather’s letters from Keltys reveal that in addition to providing worship services, marrying and burying, he also distributed Christmas presents to the mill families.  Such holiday celebrations were fairly standard in mill towns.  Each child usually got sack of candy or piece of fruit, and families often received a turkey.  Company documents reveal that the Kirby Lumber Company bought 2600 turkeys for Christmas in 1922.  

The “bonanza era” of Texas forestry came to an end in the 1930s.  The oil boom created demand for timbers for derricks and plank roads, but the tram railways were replaced by logging trucks and many mill hands found employment in the oil fields.  Some of the company towns closed abruptly.  Others died a lingering death, but some East Texas mill towns like Diboll, Buna, Warren, Wiergate and others have survived into the present.   There are many United Methodist Churches in East Texas that can trace their origins to their establishment in a company town with the preacher’s salary paid by the mill owner.

Here are some of the Beaumont District charges in the timber belt.   Batson and Saratoga, Browndell and Remlig, Buna, Burkeville Circuit, Deweyville, Doucette, Hull, Jasper Circuit, Kirby & Bonner, Newton and Call, Pineland and Brookeland. Warren, Wiergate  Similar lists could be compiled for the Texarkana, Timpson, and Marshall Districts.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Controversy Over Publishing House Embroils Texas Methodists, November, 1858

This Week in Texas Methodist History   November 17

Controversy Over Publishing House Embroils Texas Methodists, November, 1858

One of the persistent tensions in Methodism has been between “average layman in the pew” and preachers with grand ideas about the facilities the church should build and  maintain.  Whenever a preacher pushes for a new church building, parsonage, or other church facility, there will also be a faction of laity that protests the projected expense of the facility.  There is ample anecdotal evidence of members leaving churches because they thought their church was building an extravagant new building. Naturally there will always be a difference of opinion about what constitutes extravagance.   Part of our family lore comes from my grandfather’s pastorate in Hallsville.  When trustees considered installing a bathtub in the parsonage, one sister protested, “I’ve bathed all my life in a #3 washtub.  My preacher can too.”

In 1858 a major controversy arose over the proposal to construct a building to house the publishing interests of Texas Methodism in Galveston.  The controversy began when Texas Christian Advocate directors proposed building their own building on the Strand. 

The Strand!  Perhaps you know the Strand as a interesting tourist destination, but in 1858 The Strand was the most prestigious address in Texas.  Galveston was the most important banking, commercial, and distribution center west of New Orleans, and the Strand was the heart of its business district.  Only one year earlier in 1857, the Strand had been raised and paved with packed, crushed shell, making the street one of the very few in the entire state that did not become impassable in wet weather.  In dry weather, there was a regular water cart that sprinkled the street so businesses would not be troubled with dust. In 1858 there was a push to make sure that all the businesses fronting the Strand would have iron fronts—like picture frames around the brick and frame structures.  Galveston was experiencing a building boom in the late 1850’s, and real estate prices were rising rapidly.

As Galveston prospered, the managers of the Texas Christian Advocate proposed building a Publishing House on the Strand to serve the needs of the Advocate and also the German language Apologete, edited by Peter Moelling.  The Publishing House would not replace an existing building.  The Advocate and the Apologete were then being published under a contract with a Galveston newspaper.  

The proposal to build a Publishing House on the most expensive real estate caused a reaction.  In a letter signed “A Country Methodist” the objections to such an enterprise were especially cogent.
1.       The publication of two weekly newspapers, the Advocate and the Apologete did not justify the expense of a whole publishing enterprise.  In order to justify the business, the Publishing House would have to solicit secular customers—thereby competing with private business.
2.       The Publishing House was prohibited by General Conference action from publishing religious tracts and other denominational materials so it would not compete with the Publishing House in Nashville.  It would, however serve as a depository for publications from the Nashville Publishing House.
3.       Even if the church needed a Publishing House, it shouldn’t be built on the Strand.  They could build on a less expensive lot. 

The Country Methodist says, “But why should the members of our church, yet now and sorely afflicted with drouths, grasshoppers, and savages and all, be doomed to buy you an establishment worth twenty thousand dollars when twenty five hundred or three thousand dollars or any convenient rented building would do as well. . .And again, how is the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father on earth be benefitted by a cheaper printing of auction bills, catalogues, anniversary orations, or secular books?”
Those were strong arguments. (you may read the whole letter at, but the Advocate got its fancy Publishing House on the Strand.  

Just as Country Methodist predicted, the Publishing House did have to depend upon secular printing jobs.  The 1860 Texas Conference Journal displays a full page ad for the Publishing House, and just as “Country Methodist” predicted, the advertisement is a solicitation to the general public.  It also contains several advertisements from businesses on the Strand.

The Publishing House, in addition to his printing the Advocate and Journals, acted as a denominational headquarters and convenient meeting place for decades.  For example, it hosted the commissioners charged with creating a central university (Southwestern).  Eventually Dallas surpassed Galveston as the commercial capital of Texas.  The Advocate moved there.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Twelve People Meet to Organize New Church in Southeast Houston, Nov. 10, 1941

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 10     
Twelve People Meet to Organize New Church in Southeast Houston, Nov. 10, 1941

One of the most important reasons why Methodism has prospered has been its ability to create new churches rapidly in areas of population growth.  One aspect of that ability was the denomination’s reliance on cooperation between lay and clergy.  In the 19th century the model was the circuit rider who travelled between groups of Methodists. Lay members kept the organization going strong between the infrequent visits of the circuit riders, the quarterly visits of the presiding elders, and the very infrequent visits of the bishops.  That model contrasted with other denominations.  Lutherans, Anglicans, and (some) Presbyterians demanded educated clergy who could teach the catechism and preside over formal liturgies—something the laity could not do and was difficult for itinerate clergy. Many Baptists on the Texas frontier were part-time preachers and full time farmers who served faithfully, but did not have the full weight of a large supportive denomination behind them.  As a matter of fact when Texas was being settled, there was a significant Baptist faction that refused to sanction any missionary efforts to the frontier. (The name “Missionary Baptist” in some church names is a relic from the time when there were Anti-Missionary Baptists.)

As Texas urbanized and circuits turned into stations, the role of the laity in holding the church together between clergy visits was diminished.  Station churches had a full time preacher, and the church tended to rely on his professional skills rather than on the volunteer laity for church administration, visiting the sick, fund raising, membership cultivation, and so on.   

The idea of a core group of laity founding  a new church never really disappeared in Methodism and became especially important in a kind of a 20th century frontier—the rapidly expanding suburbs that popped up around every major Texas city in the 20th century.  

St. Andrews Methodist Church in southeastern Houston is a good example of the process that planted dozens of churches in 20th century Texas.  On November 10, 1941, less than one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wilbur and Josie Maxwell hosted ten of their neighbors to set in motion the establishment of a new Methodist church.  After prayer, they got down to business.  They agreed to print circulars and distribute them in the Pecan Park, Gloverdale, and Mason Park subdivisions. Those circulars invited residents to join them at Southmayd School the following Sunday, November 16, 1941, for worship. 
Fifty people showed up on the first Sunday. The District Superintendent appointed Rufus Bivins as pastor.  They decided to purchase property and become a church.  As the United States was going to war, the folks in southeast Houston were moving rapidly.  The first quarterly conference was on March 17, 1942.  The conference authorized the purchase of property at 2420 Garland and also a parsonage.  The church, now named St. Andrews, continued meeting at Southmayd School until it moved into a frame building on September 5, 1943.  

St. Andrews prospered.  Reverend Myers Curtis replaced Reverend Bivins in 1948, and St. Andrews was growing in the post-World War II religious revival.  Rev. Curtis led the church in a building campaign that resulted in a new sanctuary in 1951.  Just five years later, 1956, the church added  a new educational building to its campus. That was not the end of the construction phase.  By 1967 St. Andrews had added a Scout Room, Fellowship Hall, and office suites. 

St. Andrews hosted vigorous programs for UMM, UMW, Scouts, UMYF, Christian education, and service projects. Its membership, as reported in the 1956 Journal, topped 1000 members, with a Sunday School enrollment approaching that number. From 1955 to 1960 the Journals reported more than 400 attendees every Sunday in Sunday School. 

Twenty years later membership was less than half what it had been in 1956, and on June 1, 2005, the Texas Conference officially closed St. Andrews.  What happened?  

As with many closed churches, we have to examine changing land use patterns and demographics.  Cities are dynamic with periods of birth, growth, and decline.  In the case of St. Andrews and many other Methodist churches founded in the first half of the 20th century, Houston’s dynamism meant that the cycle of birth, growth, and death was compressed into a relatively short period.

One of the contributing factors for St. Andrews was the construction of the Gulf Freeway from 1948-1951.  The freeway was the first of Houston’s controlled access highways and was later incorporated into the Interstate Highway System as I-45, even though it doesn’t cross a state line.

It is ironic that freeways which are designed to provide links between places (in this case Houston and Galveston) also divide people by creating barriers to movement perpendicular to them.  I-45 was built only about two blocks west of St. Andrews, effectively cutting off easy access between the church and parishioners to the west.  As the I-45 corridor matured, it accelerated changing land use patterns from residential to commercial and public services.  Later the I-610 Loop further isolated neighborhoods to the southeast. 

The Gulf Freeway was only the first freeway in Houston.  Within a few decades other freeways spread like a spider web along the existing rail corridors.  Housing developments followed the highways, the more affluent, who could afford the new houses, followed them, and the process of founding Methodist churches in more distant suburbs continued.  Some of them also began in the living rooms of faithful laity. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 3

Southern Conference of the MEC Holds Its Final Annual Conference, November 2-6, 1938

The strongest MEC (northern) annual conferences in Texas were the African-American Texas and West Texas Conferences which had a long, unbroken history until the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction by the 1968 General Conference. The same cannot be said for the MEC conferences in Texas that embraced the Spanish, Swedish, German, and English-speaking white Methodists.  From the organization of the Texas Conference by Bishop Matthew Simpson in Houston in January 1867, until unification with the MECS and MP churches in 1939, the MEC tried a number of conference organizations.

From Nov. 2-6 the Southern Conference met for its final annual conference in Welsh, Louisiana.   The Southern Conference had been formed fairly recently—in 1927—by the merger of the Swedish and German MEC Conferences in Texas with the Gulf Conference which had English speaking white churches in Texas and Louisiana.   At the time of merger the Gulf Conference had 26 preachers, the Swedish Conference 12, and the German conference 47.  They were distributed through Texas and Louisiana.

The details of unification had already been negotiated, and members of the annual conference knew that in less than a year the MEC, MECS, and MP churches would unify into a new denomination—The Methodist Church.  It also meant that the preachers in the Southern Conference would be scattered in small numbers among the various annual conferences in Texas and Louisiana.  Never again would they sing And Are We Yet Alive as a single body.

In spite of some lingering north-south tensions, the dispersal of the Southern Conference preachers into the annual conferences of the Methodist Church went fairly smoothly.  Most of the Louisiana churches were on the coastal plain including Welsh, Jennings, Iowa, and so on.  The formerly Swedish churches were almost all in Williamson and Travis Counties so they went to the Central Texas and Southwest Texas Conferences.  Several of the former German churches joined the Texas and Southwest Texas Conferences.  The Texas Conference was a primary recipient of churches from the booming coastal plain. Churches that entered the Texas Conference from the Southern Conference included (among others) Addicks, Rose Hill, Brenham, Fairbanks, Galveston,  Collins, Oakwood, LaPorte, Needville, Pattison, Pearland, Rosenberg, Texas City, Woodville, Hughes Springs, Marshall, and Port Arthur.