This Week in Texas Methodist History March 8
John Wesley Kenney Preaches His First Sermon in Texas at the Gates House March 1834
On a Sunday in March 1834 John Wesley Kenney travelled about five miles from his home at Washington on the Brazos to the Gates house upstream from the crossing. He was going to deliver his first sermon since his arrival in Texas the previous December.
Kenney was still a young man, having been born in western Pennsylvania in 1799. His family migrated down the Ohio to near Cincinnati. He met Martin Ruter, head of the Methodist Book Concern in Cincinnati, joined the Ohio Conference and became a charter member of the Kentucky Conference when it was created from the Ohio Conference. He married a preacher’s daughter, Maria McHenry, but then located and moved to Rock Island, Illinois. He lost his home in the turmoil of the Black Hawk War and lost most of his in-laws in the cholera epidemic that troops transmitted through the Ohio Valley as they went to fight in the war.
In October 1833, Kenney led a large party from Kentucky to Texas. He arrived at Washington on the Brazos where the town proprietor Andrew Robinson gave him a building lot. He built a house, and then spent the rest of the winter by going down the Brazos to the Gulf of Mexico and boiling sea water for salt.
My March he had returned from the coast and turned his attention to preaching. Kenney was a newcomer, but his hosts, the Gates family were old timers by comparison. They were members of Austin’s Old 300 who arrived at the Brazos on December 31, 1822. That date is preserved in the name of a local water feature, New Year’s Creek.
The Gates, Robinson, Kuykendall, and Gilleland families were not just some of the Old 300, they were among the first of that group. They were migrants mainly from Kentucky and Tennessee who were interrelated by marriage who had moved into what is today southwestern Arkansas. They were poised for further immigration just as soon as Stephen F. Austin could supply grants in his colony.
Was Kenney breaking the law by preaching at the Gates home? One of the most persistent misunderstandings I encounter is the idea that the Mexican government imposed Roman Catholicism on Austin’s colonists. As I study the documents, I see that Mexican officials were tolerant of Protestant practices. It might have been illegal to organize religious societies, but Mexican officials ignored travelling preachers such as Kenney, Henry Stephenson, William Medford, and others.
How about the requirement that individual colonists offer proof of adherence to Roman Catholicism? As one examines the certifications of good character in the General Land Office files, one sees the dominant pattern.
Most certificates of good character were issued at Nacogdoches and contain a reference to adherence to “our catholic faith.” The certificate is also signed by a civil officer rather than a priest, and the phrase is not “Roman Catholic.”
The phrase “our catholic faith” was so inoffensive to Protestants that some ordained Methodist preachers including Kenney and Medford were willing to sign it. Benjamin Babbitt swore to the same “catholic” certification while he under appointment in the Missouri Conference. The evidence of a heavy Roman Catholic oppression enforced by Mexican officials is just not there.
Kenney was not in danger because he was preaching in March 1834. Only 6 months later he had left Washington on the Brazos, moved a few miles to the south across Caney Creek where he organized the famous September 1834 Camp Meeting---which also faced no opposition from Mexican authorities.
What about the Gates family? There are still Methodist descendants of the Old 300 Gates in Texas. The Mexican land grant is now subdivided into to recreational ranchettes. The family cemetery may be accessed at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gsr&GScid=2256776