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.                                    


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