This Week in Texas Methodist History March 20
Kenney and Matthews Refute Rumors about Abel Stevens, March 25, 1839
Several of the Methodist preachers who came to the Republic of Texas were from northern states and at least some of them were, from time to time, accused of not embracing slavery closely enough. A previous post relates how Littleton Fowler had to admonish Wilbur O’Connor about public criticism of slavery.
A very interesting episode regarding Abel Stevens and slavery occurred on March 25, 1839. As you will recall Stevens, a well-educated New Englander, arrived in Texas in December 1838 and was quickly assigned the best circuit in “Western Texas,” the churches in Austin and Washington Counties. He immediately made a mark for himself through his effective ministry, especially in the donation of land on which churches and parsonages would be constructed.
The brilliant start to the ministry stalled, however, when rumors began circulating that Stevens harbored abolitionist thoughts.
On March 25, 1839 John Wesley Kenney and Henry Matthews decided to pay a call on William Punchard of San Felipe whom they had identified as the source of the rumors. The two preachers conducted a heated “interview” with Punchard who was forced to admit that he had no evidence to back up the rumor he had been passing. With the pro-slavery bona fides of Stevens reestablished, the two Methodist preachers went to court where probate court was in session. Both Kenney and Matthews, in addition to being local pastors, also held county positions. Kenney was County Surveyor and Matthews was Coroner.
When Kenney entered the courtroom, he was recognized and appointed executor of the Texas portion of Martin Ruter’s estate. That estate included a claim of 320 acres of Texas public land. How convenient! In his position as County Surveyor, he could expedite the process. He split the 320 acres into two smaller portions and surveyed them adjacent to his own league in northern Austin County. Kenney, then in his position as Executor, perfected the titles to the two tracts for the benefit of the heirs of Martin Ruter, including the widow, Ruth and several children.
What about rumor-monger Punchard? He continued to live in Austin County as plantation owner. In 1854 he was appointed Postmaster of Sempronious, about 6 miles from Kenney’s residence at Travis. He died at Riesel in McLennan County in 1878, where one of his sons had moved. Punchard was born in Francistown, New Hampshire, in 1813. Is it possible that he was spreading rumors about his fellow New Englander to reinforce his own image?
Stevens, of course, was back in New York by June. He went on to become the most well-known Methodist historian of his era.