Sunday, August 30, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   August 30

David Ayres Adds Another Tract to his Proposed “Methodist City”, Centre Hill, September 1, 1838

The number one concern of entrepreneur in the Republic of Texas was land development.  The newspapers of the era are full of prospectuses for the sale of lots in nascent cities.  The descriptions of the proposed cities all contain standard language---If one believed the advertisements all the cities were located in healthy parts of the state, surrounded by fertile soils, with plenty of clean water, at major crossroads.  

A few of the cities such as Houston, promoted by the Allen Brothers, not only lived up to the advertisements, but actually exceeded them.  Most, however, such as Aurora on the site where Port Arthur was later founded, failed.  

We can count Centre Hill in northern Austin County as one of the failures, and it is of special interest, because its proprietor, David Ayres, intended it to become a “Methodist City,” anchored by a Methodist college.  

On Sept. 1, 1838, he bought the 320 acre land bonus James Bradford Pier had been awarded because of his participation in the Battle of San Jacinto.  Pier’s 320 acres, later surveyed by John Wesley Kenney, was part of the 11,000 acre tract upon which Ayres intended to build his Centre Hill.  

Such an undertaking was too much even for Ayres so he went north for financing, borrowing the money from his brother Silas and the firm Hedding, Day, and Ayers (I didn’t misspell Ayres---David was the only brother to use the “re” spelling.) 

The firm was in New Albany, Indiana, also the home of Calvin Ruter, Martin’s brother.  Mrs. Ruter and the children were to live in New Albany during Martin’s trip to Texas in 1837.  That is the reason David Ayres and Martin Ruter were travelling companions to Texas.
James Bradford Pier had emigrated from Ohio in time to participate in the Revolution and establish himself as a solid citizen of Texas.  He already had a land grant in the same neighborhood of both Ayres and Kenney.  

Centre Hill was located on the road from San Felipe to Washington on the west side of the Brazos River, and David Ayres made a go of it for a while.  The Republic of Texas named him Postmaster and regular (as regular as any) mail service developed.  Things turned horribly wrong.  The first blow was the establishment of the Methodist College at Rutersville—instead of Centre Hill.  It must have been especially galling because Robert Alexander, Ayres’ son-in-law, was one of the prime movers in the establishment of Rutersville.

Centre Hill hung about 10 more years, but when it lost the county seat election to Bellville, Ayres packed it in and moved to Galveston.   When it was finally dissolved, Hedding, Day, and Ayers no longer held the mortgage.  It was eventually acquired by Don Alonzo Cushman of New York City.  Cushman was also a developer, best known for building houses near the seminary then in its infancy—one of his investors was one of the professors better known for a single poem than all his seminary work---Clement Moore of Night before Christmas fame.  

James B. Pier continued to live near the Centre Hill site—about five miles to the west in Travis.  His niece, Lucy Pier Stevens, came to visit the family from Ohio at Christmas 1859 and was trapped for the duration of the war.  She kept a diary now owned by DeGoyler Library at SMU.  Mrs. Pier and one daughter also kept diaries, so historians have a great resource for understanding the Texas home front during the Civil War—three diaries from the same household. 

All that’s left is the name of a road, Center Hill Road.  It might have been a great Methodist center, but eventually was abandoned. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History  August 23

Lydia McHenry Writes Letter to Brother; Provides Details on Texas Affairs, August 25, 1836

Regular readers of this column will recognize the name Lydia McHenry as one of the great figures in Texas Methodist history from her arrival in December 1833 to her death in 1861.  The Kentuckian was a daughter of Barnabas McHenry, one of the first circuit riders to cross the Appalachians.  She was the sister-in-law of John Wesley Kenney. 

She joined the party of immigrants who moved to Texas after her family was devastated by the cholera epidemic of June, 1833.  After arriving in Texas Lydia McHenry was active in the early camp meetings, the organization of missionary societies, and other Methodist activities.  In January 1836 she and Ann Ayres opened a boarding school at Montville.  It was at this school that William B. Travis left his son Charles as he left for San Antonio and the defense of the Alamo. 

In addition to her connection to prominent Texans, she was also well connected in Kentucky and adjacent parts of Illinois where many Kentuckians had moved.  As she passed through Washington City on her way to New York City to attend the 1844 General Conference of the MEC, she stopped to visit her first cousin, then a congressman from Illinois, representing the district that would soon be represented by Abraham Lincoln. 

The congressman’s son became an influential Illinois attorney, and we can thank him for depositing Lydia McHenry’s letters in the Chicago Historical Society. 

The letter she wrote to her brother on August 25, 1836 is full of detail about affairs in Texas.  Although she could not vote, she backed Sam Houston against Stephen F. Austin in the upcoming presidential election. “Austin, imbecile, artful, and ambitious, considers himself entitled to every office in the gift of the people.”

In August, 1836, Texians still worried about the possibility of re-invasion by Mexican armies.  Much of the letter deals with preparations for defending the infant republic.  She also reported on the plot to free Santa Ana (that execrable Scourge of the human race.)  

Lydia McHenry’s letters provide a most valuable insight into Texas during the Revolutionary era, the Republic, and early statehood.  That she was one of the early Methodist lay women is an added bonus.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   Aug. 16

Hurricane Hits Texas Coast, Texas Methodist Are both Victims and Rescuers, August 16, 1915.

The Galveston Storm of 1900 was so destructive that it has rightfully dominated historical accounts of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.  To tell a complete story, though, one should add numerous other hurricanes to the historical account.  

We remember Katrina, just ten years ago, which sent brothers and sisters from Louisiana to many shelters in Texas Methodist churches and other relief locations.  The destruction from Hurricanes Rita and Ike along the upper coast included churches, parsonages, educational buildings, and private residences.  Those of us in the Texas Conference still remember the outpouring of prayers and financial support that helped churches and individuals rebuild after the two hurricanes.  A facility is now being built in Conroe that will serve to marshal resources for the next storm.

All but lost from the historical memory is the storm that hit Galveston exactly one hundred years ago, August 16, 1915.  The highest wind velocity was recorded at 3:00 p.m. ---92 miles per hour with a barometric reading of 28.66 inches.  

The death toll was nothing like the 1900 storm, but industrial and agricultural damage was great.  In the 15 years between 1900 and 1915 the Galveston Seawall had been completed so the city of Galveston was protected from most of the flooding.  In those same 15 years petroleum discoveries had prompted the construction of refineries along Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel had opened only the year before.    The greatest single loss of life in storm was the loss of a Corps of Engineers suction dredge with about sixty crewmen.  All but three died and the barge was completely lost.  

The agricultural damage was partially due to the timing.  The 1900 storm hit Sept. 6.  The 1915 storm his on Aug. 16.  That three week difference was critical.  In both 1900 and 1915 the main crop was cotton.  The path of the storm took it into the cotton growing lands of East and Central Texas where the cotton bolls were just opening and the harvest was just starting.  The Aug. 16 date meant that thousands of bales of cotton would be beaten into the earth and ruined.  Even three more weeks of harvest would have made a huge difference. 

Inland cities all over eastern Texas reported damage.  A roof was blown off at Southwestern University in Georgetown.  Two roofs were blown off at Texas A&M.  The AME Church at Bellville was split in two, and the MEC Church there lost its bell tower.   Damage reports streamed in from Bryan, Grapeland, Tomball, Huntsville, Hearne, Rockdale, Somerville, Caldwell, Victoria, Port Lavaca, and many other cities.  Alto Methodists had to cancel the planned revival because the weather was so bad.  One assumes that the revival preacher, S. S. McKinney was eager to get back to his flock in Jacksonville anyway. 

In a move that presages events of compassion after Rita and Ike, the Rev. J. W. Miller, the pastor of the Methodist church at Gause, organized a work party from his congregation to rebuild the church at Milano.   It was an inspiring, but not unexpected example of Methodists helping brothers and sisters in time of need.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History  Aug. 9

William Kessee Defends Honor of Town, Church Members, and Methodist Preacher against “Scurrilous Editorial”   August 10, 1854

There is a great body of historical scholarship about how sensitive Texans and other Southerners were about defending their honor.  They were also prone to settling issues of honor by bypassing the legal system, sometimes by duels and sometimes by assault.  Newspaper editors often had to carry arms since they were especially liable to retaliation for insults they had printed.

In August 1854 an incident between two Methodist preachers embroiled the whole town of Chappell Hill in a scandalous situation.  One of the leading lay men of the Chappell Hill Methodist Church felt compelled to defend the honor of his town, church, and preacher.   Here is the letter to the editor William Kessee used instead of challenging the editor to a duel.  It appeared in the Texas Ranger, August 10, 1854.

We noticed a scurrilous Editorial in the last issue of the Brenham Inquirer, derogatory to the character of the Rev. Mr. Walsh, the preacher in charge of the Methodist Station at this place, which is not only an attack on the reputation of Mr. Walsh, but also is insulting to the citizens of Chappell Hill. And especially to the members and congregation of the Methodist Church.
But notwithstanding the offered insult, when we take into consideration the source from which it emanated, we would not notice it but for the probability that some respectable paper would copy it. 

Therefore you will do us the favor to place in the columns of your respectable paper the following facts:

About two weeks ago one Joshua Shepard, a preacher in the Methodist Conference, in company with Jno. Brooks, his brother-in-law, went to the house of Maj. Wallace who lives near this place, (the house where Mr. Walsh was boarding and with the pretense of a friendly visit, decoyed him from the house, where Shepard assaulted his person in a brutal manner, giving him little or no explanation  about why he did it. Mr. Walsh, although fully competent to defend himself, received the insult in the true spirit of the Master—without resenting it. A circumstance that will elevate himself in the estimation of the great and good, wherever it is known. He is too great a man, and too good a mind, to make a brute of himself by fighting Joshua Shepard. 

Subsequently, Mr. Shepard informed the community and the church that Mr. Walsh was at his mother’s about six weeks ago, and took his sister by the hand, and kissed her, which Mr. Walsh denies on oath. And I cannot believe that a man of his information would swear falsely for the world. 

They say it occurred between the hours of 11:00 and 12:00 Noonday, in a small house, three doors open, and whole family in and round the house the whole time. Why, sir, no libertine in the state, with evil intentions, would have made advances toward a woman under such circumstances.

A committee of respectable and intelligent clergymen were called together by the presiding Elder to investigate the conduct of Mr. Walsh, and after all the proof could be brought to bear against him, decided that he was imprudent, which was the result of his artless and unsophisticated manner among his friends—

Mr. Walsh is still the minister in charge of this station, and we hope will continue so for years to come.  I cannot imagine why the publisher of the Brenham Inquirer published the pieces alluded to, unless he wished to call forth a reply, and thereby make it known that he is Brother-in-law to the fighting preacher.  

Rev. Shepard was only 25 at the time, but was already a seasoned preacher, having been admitted in 1849.  Mr. Walsh was a recent arrival.  He joined the Texas the following December by transfer from the Memphis Conference. 

William Keesee is well known to Texas Methodist historians.  When Littleton Fowler needed to convene a meeting of the preachers in January, 1839, he told them to report to Kessee's farm.  It was the largest such "business meeting" of Methodist preachers in Texas until the organization of the annual conference in 1840.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History August 2

Houston’s Tri-Weekly Telegram Sneers at Possibility of MEC and MECS Unification, Aug. 7, 1865

If you think you’ve lived through tumultuous times, you might want to consider what was happening 150 years ago this week.  The war resulting in the greatest loss of life and property in the nation’s history was finally over.  Slavery was abolished.  The president who led the nation was assassinated, and some of the conspirators in the plot that killed him had already been tried and hanged.  Congressional factions were at odds with each other over Reconstruction policy.  The former Confederate states were in the process of writing new state constitutions and re-forming governments.  In every road, village, and city in the nation one could see wounded veterans, many of whom were now amputees or sightless.  Southern roads were also crowded with former enslaved persons desperately searching for family members who had been snatched from them in heart-wrenching sales.  It was truly a time of turmoil like no other in our nation’s history.

In times of turmoil, we humans need secure institutions to provide stability and unity—of all the religious institutions in the United States in August, 1865, none was more important that the Methodist church. Unfortunately both the northern and southern branches were still trying to make sense of the new realities.   They had separated only twenty years earlier.  Methodist leaders in both the North and South remembered the bonds of friendship they had once known.  The Disciplines of the northern and southern branches had not diverged in matters of faith and practice in the intervening years.  The cause of the separation—slavery—did not exist.  Why should the two branches remain separate?  Why indeed?

Immediately after the end of the Civil War the MEC bishops met at Erie, Pa., to discuss just such a reunion.  The bishops passed several resolutions.  One was expressing loyalty to President Johnson so long as he kept the peace with other nations, did not try to roll back abolition, and administered justice fairly.  They also dealt with the most difficult question of all---What would be the status of the freedman in the Methodist Church?  Before the war Methodist churches in the South counted thousands of enslaved persons on their membership rolls.  Some were even licensed as exhorters and local preachers.   If the northern and southern branches reunited, what would be their status? 

Naturally there were different answers to such momentous questions.  The MECS bishops met at Columbus, Ga., in July, in part to formulate a response to the MEC bishops.  Meanwhile the various annual conferences responded to local situations in a variety of ways.  

The owner/editor of Houston's Tri-Weekly Telegram, Edward H. Cushing (1829-1879) although Vermont born and Dartmouth-educated, became an enthusiastic supporter of the southern cause.  In the August 7, 1865 edition of his paper he lambasted the possibility of reunion of the northern and southern branches of Methodism.  He cited the insults of some Northern Methodists who had talked about the South as a new mission field.  The confiscation of some MECS churches by federal troops and the capture of the Publishing House in Nashville added fuel to the flames of hatred.    The unreconstructed Cushing naturally blamed the MEC.  He said the MECS would be willing to enter into reunification talks, but the arrogant attitude of the North kept them from such discussions.  

The real question though, was the freedmen.  In August 1865 neither the North nor the South had an answer.  Over the next decade each side formulated different responses.  The MECS “spun off” its African American churches into a new denomination called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church South (CME).  Initially the MEC created racially integrated annual conferences in the South, but at the 1872 General Conference passed legislation allowing those annual conferences to split along racial lines.  They did so, and the result was African American MEC annual conferences and European American annual conferences existing side by side in the southern states.  Their only contact was at General Conference.  

Readers of this column will know that reunification eventually did occur in 1939.  Long after the Civil War and Reconstruction animosity, the South eventually got the price it demanded for reunification.  

 Reunification was achieved at the cost of humiliating the African American members of the MEC by placing them in the so-called Central Jurisdiction—thereby making sure no African-American bishop would ever preside over a European-American annual conference in the South. "Real" unification did not occur until 1968.