Saturday, January 25, 2014

This Week in Texas Methodist History   January 26

Free Methodist Revivalism Reported in Denison, January 26, 1880

Christmas Day, 1872 was a momentous day in Texas transportation history.   It was on that day that the first regular train service entered Texas from the north.  The Missouri-Kansas-Texas, also called the Katy and the MKT, made the cities of Denison and Sherman boom towns as they were the connection between Texas and the industrial Mid-West and East.  The trains carried manufactured goods, agricultural produce, and immigrants, and also religious ideas.  North Texas became the entry point for preachers, revivalists, and evangelists from the North who had been almost completely excluded during the sectional tensions leading to the Civil War.  

Naturally the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Association, two Wesleyan denominations excluded from Texas during the Civil War, sent missionaries to Texas and the mission field it represented.   So did the Free Methodist Church, another Northern Methodist denomination that saw opportunities in Texas. 
On January 26, 1880, the Denison Daily News ran the following story

Sugar Bottom (an area of Denison near the tracks) is in a fever of religious excitement. About a fortnight ago an individual arrived in the city from Illinois claiming to be a preacher in what is known as “The Free Methodist Church.”  We confess that we have never heard of such a religious sect.  Services are being held nightly at private residences, and converts are reported by the score.  The religious enthusiasm is so great that the people have rented a house for the new religious teachers.  He works on the feelings of his hearers to such an extent that they are beside themselves with religious excitement.  A literal hell with fire and brimstone and a heaven with golden streets, harps, and other angelic paraphernalia are taught. 

The Free Methodist Church was a relatively new denomination in 1880, having been formed in Western New York as a reform group in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1860.  The use of the word “Free” refers to its anti-slavery doctrine, its opposition to pew rent, and a desire for freedom in worship.  

The first time Texas appears in Free Methodist Journals is in 1878 when the Rev. G. R. Harvey was appointed to the “Texas District.”  The first church was in Lawrence, Kaufman County, and others followed in Ennis, Dallas, Terrell, and other North Texas cities.  In the 1880’s and 1890’s Free Methodist churches continued to spread including ones in Corsicana, Salado, Milford, Longview, Belton, and Salado. 

 The Free Methodist Church continues to provide a powerful witness of  social and personal holiness and faithfulness to the Bible.  There are about 800,000 members world wide. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

This Week in Texas Methodist History   January 19

Evangelist Luther Bridgers, Author of He Keeps Me Singing, Begins Tent Meeting in Brownwood, January 22, 1924

It may seem strange to have a revival tent meeting in January in Texas, but the famed evangelist Luther B. Bridgers did just that in Brownwood in January, 1924.  Bridgers was one of the greatest revivalists of his generation who is mainly remembered as the author of the popular hymn, He Keeps Me Singing.

Bridgers was born in North Carolina in 1884,  He was converted and felt the call to the ministry.  To prepare himself for such ministry, he entered Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky.  He was soon serving student pastorates and discovered his great talent for preaching.  He also met and married a Kentucky belle, Sarah Vetch.  The couple was blessed with three sons, and Bridgers left the parish ministry for full time revival work.  In 1910 he  preached a two-week revival near his wife’s Kentucky home.  It seemed like a good chance for Sarah and the boys to visit her parents, so they stayed with them while Luther Bridgers conducted the revival. 

On the last night of the revival, he retired to his lodgings, but was awakened by a telephone call informing him that his wife and three sons had all been killed in a house fire at his in-laws. 

He later wrote that upon hearing the crushing news, he dropped to his knees in prayer, “Lord, I have often preached to other people, and told them it would comfort them in every hour of sorrow.  Grant that same gospel may comfort me.” 

The tragedy inspired Bridgers to write the hymn, He Keeps Me Singing.  Think about his crushing loss the next time you sing the song’s verse,

Though sometimes He leads through waters deep
Trials fall across the way,
Though sometimes the path seems rough and steep,
See his footprints all the way. 

Bridgers continued his evangelistic work in the United States, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Russia.  Unlike some revivalists, he was careful to coordinate his efforts with the local Methodist pastors and used the revivals to try to build up the local churches. The Brownwood Bulletin reported on the first night’s sermon.  Here is an excerpt

People sponge on God’s free grace.  They live like the devil all the week but try to look like angels on Sunday.  They cannot fool their fellow men, let alone God.  God has a wonderful redemption for everyone who seeks it, but you cannot deceive God, and you cannot deceive your fellow man.

 He eventually remarried.  Luther Bridgers died in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1948.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

This Week in Texas Methodist History   January 12

Depression Forces Radical Actions by Annual Conference,  January 18, 1934

It was not only families and businesses that suffered during the Great Depression.  Churches also felt the effects of economic decline.  Construction projects diminished.  Foreign missionaries came home because missionary support dried up.  Church institutions including colleges, hospitals, and orphanages suffered, and some of them closed.  Preacher salaries were often cut and staff had to be laid off.  The irony is that the demand for the caring ministries that churches provide including food and clothing relief was at its all time high, the churches were unable to provide it. 

All of the annual conferences in Texas felt the pinch and none more so than the Texas Conference of the Evangelical Association.  The EA was a Wesleyan denomination that later merged with the United Brethren to become the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  The EUB merged with the Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church. 

Evangelical Association missionaries organized churches in the 1880’s, and in 1887 there were enough to organize an annual conference.  The first annual conference reported churches in San Antonio, Galveston, Temple, Sherman-Denison, and Wichita-Archer Counties.  Later missionary efforts resulted in churches in Houston and the El Campo area.

Even with a corps of dedicated preachers and faithful laity, the EA failed to grow.  At its 47th annual conference, January 18-21, 1934, the conference still reported fewer than 1000 members.  The huge question hanging over the conference was the staggering debt—it amounted to $25,640.   The District Superintendent, F. J. Winter called for drastic measures.  

Superintendent Winter led by example.  He called for each of the preachers for give an additional 6% of his already meager salary above his tithe to the debt retirement project.  He also suggested that the Annual Conference could save $200 by not printing the Conference Journal.  Instead of sending the Journal to a printing company, Winter volunteered to produce the Journal on his San Antonio church’s mimeograph machine.  The Conference accepted Winter’s offer even though the task would consume many, many hours. 
The Annual Conference also voted to sell lots in Wichita Falls, San Antonio, and Temple.  Those sales brought in very modest sums because of the depressed real estate prices of the era.  The largest property sale was in  Galveston where the conference voted to sell the church building to the Greek Orthodox Church for $6500.  One of the Wichita Falls churches was dismantled and the materials sold for $210.  

One year later, January 17-20, 1935, the Annual Conference rejoiced to learn that the drastic measures taken in 1934 had reduced the debt by $5000.  The debt was now $20,710.  Lenten boxes had brought in $425 and the voluntary apportionments were continued.  The conference also voted to sell one of the San Antonio churches and more lots in Wichita Falls.  It also voted not to continue a fledgling church at Bonus, ten miles from Lissie and served by the Lissie pastor.  

The 49th session of the Annual Conference, January 14-17, 1936, reported such success in reducing the debt that the assessment on pastors was reduced to 3.5% of their cash salary.  Since 1937 was to be the Jubilee Year or 50th anniversary of the Texas Conference, a Jubilee fundraising campaign was authorized with a goal of $5000.  

In spite of the continuing debt concern, the 1937 annual conference authorized even more expenditures—an expansion at Wichita Falls First, a parsonage at El Campo, and a new church at Post Oak Zion (near La Vernia).  

Journals of the 51st and following annual conferences report continuing progress on retiring the debt.  A real milestone was reached in 1944.  The Conference convened at El Campo on January 20.  The presiding bishop announced that the Conference finances had improved to the point that the Journal could be printed.  For ten years, the Journal had been mimeographed.   

The conference finances were finally in order after more than a decade of sacrificial giving and sale of assets.  In one sad irony, F. J. Winter, the District Superintendent who led by example, was not there to enjoy this progress.  He died on January 10, only 10 days before annual conference convened. 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

This Week in Texas Methodist History  January 5

Annual Conference Meets in Houston for First Time  January 7, 1846

Houston has been the site of the Texas Annual Conference many, many more times than any other city.  For many Texas Methodists Houston and Annual Conference go together.  

The first session of Annual Conference to meet in Houston was also one of the most consequential and occurred during exciting times. Exactly one week before, on December 29, the U. S. Congress accepted the proposed state constitution and admitted Texas to the Union.  The Republic of Texas was no more.  The Lone Star Republic became the Lone Star State.   

As Texas was joining the Union, Texas Methodists were leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church and joining the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  

The presiding bishop for this, the sixth Annual Conference, was Joshua Soule who was making his only episcopal visit to Texas during his long and distinguished career.  Soule was the most revered bishop of his generation, especially among Southern Methodists.  

In addition to the usual conference business of ordination, committee reports, and worship, the conference members also had to vote on a resolution in which they expressed their intention to cast their lot with the MECS.  The enabling resolution is far too long to reproduce here, but here are few key articles:

3rd. . .we repudiate the idea of secession in any schismatic or offensive sense of the phrase, as we neither give up or surrender any thing we have received as constituting any part of Methodism
. . .
4th. . .we are satisfied with our Book of Discipline as it is, and than we will not tolerate any changes whatsoever. . .

6th. . .it is our desire to cultivate and maintain paternal relations with our brethren of the North. And we do most sincerely deprecate the continuance of paper warfare, either by editors or correspondents, in our official church papers. . .

8th . . .we properly appreciate the conservative course pursued by  the Bench of Bishops

The Annual Conference voted favorably for the resolution and elected Robert Alexander and Chauncey Richardson as delegates to the MECS General Conference to be held at Petersburg, Virginia, in May.  Bishop Soule read the appointments, adjourned the Conference and departed for Marshall, the site of the Eastern Texas (later East Texas) Annual Conference.  

Mrs. Soule had accompanied the Bishop, and they decided to go to Marshall by boat.  They left Houston for Galveston, then sailed to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River and Red River to Marshall.   When they arrived, they learned that Littleton Fowler had died the week before.  

Monumental changes were occurring.  Annexation to the United States was followed by war with Mexico and an increase in the federal presence in Texas.  The creation of the MECS meant ecclesiastical changes in episcopal leadership, publishing, and source of preacher transfers. (Before 1846 there was a steady stream of preachers transferring from the Ohio Valley to Texas. After 1846, that stream slowed.).  Littleton Fowler’s death meant the end of an era.  –But a new era in Texas Methodism was beginning.