Saturday, April 30, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 1

Tri-Weekly Telegram Calls on Methodists to Take Better Care of Their Houston Cemetery, May 2, 1866

The Civil War years were not kind to Methodist church buildings in Texas and the rest of the South.  As one reads contemporary accounts, one encounters accounts of church buildings in disrepair and congregations unable to repair them.  Less often do we find reports of cemetery conditions.  On May 2, 1866, the editor of the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegram reported on a recent visit to the Episcopal and Methodist cemeteries. 
Here is the report

Our city cemeteries are in a most wretched and dilapidated condition.  We have lately paid a visit to all of them, and find every one of them badly in need of immediate attention.  The palings intended to preserve the beauty of the pemises, are nearly all down, permitting cattle to roam through them, destroying the flowers, the trees, and frequently the tombstones themselves.  This is the case, to a greater or lesser extent, with all the cemeteries, but is particularly so with the Episcopal and Methodist.  The grounds of these latter are exceedingly beautiful by nature, and it is a pity that they are not attended to with more care. If those to whose duty it belongs to give them their supervision, will only enclose them with strong durable palings, little adornment from art will be necessary to render them so beautiful as to make one when contemplating the end, almost, “in love with death.”

Saturday, April 23, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 24

Czech-Texan Joseph Dobes Gives Inspiring Speech for Unification, April 30, 1938

Joseph Dobes was born in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire, in 1876.  He immigrated to the United States in 1907 and eventually found his way to Texas and to Southwestern University in Georgetown.  When Austria went to war, Dobes went to the Bell Country Courthouse and became a U. S. citizen in September, 1914.   He also became a Methodist preacher, serving as missionary to other “Bohemian” immigrants in both the Texas Conference (Bryan) and Central Texas Conferences (Temple). 

When Czechoslovakia became an independent nation under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Dobes volunteered to return to his homeland as a missionary.  He worked in that mission, and represented his conference as a delegate to the General Conference of the MECS in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1938.  

The main business of the General Conference was the debate over the Plan of Union which would combine the MEC, MECS, and MP denominations into the Methodist Church. 
On April 25, Dobes delivered an inspirational speech in favor of Union.  Bishop Cannon was in the chair and called on Brother Dobes.   His speech is memorable.
One of his arguments was that the division of Methodism into different denominations posed a significant problem as he conducted missionary efforts in Europe.  Dobes claimed that many Europeans were sophisticated and well educated.  They often knew a great deal about John Wesley and were attracted to his teachings, but could not understand the inclusion of the word “South” in the name of his denomination. 

The entire speech in favor of Union is too long to reproduce here.  Here is an excerpt based on a visit to an orphanage

A Christian lady was running that orphanage very beautifully, and I was astonished at the spirit that has filled the hearts of all those people.  The lady took me into the garden and she told me this:  Brother Dobes, do you see this pile of sand here?  When our children fuss together, when they hate one another, we try to reconcile them.  We take them both to this place and we say to them, “now children, dig a grave here, and in this grave bury your hatred, unbrotherly spirit, and then cover up the grave.  Then go into the garden, bring some flowers, and plant flowers on this grave, and forget all that is behind you.”
. . . Brethren, bury the old spirit. Bury it deep, and don’t let it resurrect itself.  Plant flowers on the grave. And now let us unite and work in harmony, brotherly spirit, and Christ is on our side because he said so==that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

The same week that Dobes was arguing for reconciliation in Birmingham, Alabama, Nazi traitors in the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia were agitating for unification with Nazi Germany. After the General Conference adjourned,  Dobes returned to a nation in crisis and the prelude to World War II.  

The Methodist church did not fare well under either the Nazi or Communist dictatorships that formed the next tragic eras of Czechoslovakian history.  Dobes made his way back to Texas where he died at the Houston Methodist Hospital on June 6, 1960.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History  April 17

Bishop Seth Ward Dedicates New Church in Bryan, April 21, 1907

One Wednesday night in 1906, while prayer meeting was in session, the Methodist Church in Bryan burned.   Pastor I. F. Betts managed to evacuate the members, but the church building, an Akron style building only three years old, was destroyed. 

Rev. Betts, convened a meeting of the board of stewards while the fire was still smoldering and immediately authorized building a new sanctuary.  The foundation was still sound so the church officers decided to rebuild according to the same plan. 

Approximately one year later, on April 21, 1907, Bishop Seth Ward came to preach the dedication sermon for the new building.  

The new building was designed to accommodate 1200 worshipers and cost $30,000.  The $3500 pipe organ had been ordered but had not yet arrived for the dedication.   

Bishop Ward was no stranger to the congregation.  He had been raised in nearby Leon County and had married Miss Betty South in Bryan.   His sermon was “The Value of Christian Faith,” from the 7th verse of I Peter, “That the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried by fire, may be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.”   

The dedicatory service was followed by a revival led by Lovick P. Law of Siloam Springs, Arkansas.  The revival continued for two weeks.  Law was also known in the area.  He once lived in Cameron where he managed the opera house.  He was converted and immediately cancelled all musical and dramatic productions and converted the opera house into a YMCA.  He then became a traveling evangelist. 

First Methodist Bryan eventually outgrew the 1907 building.  The present sanctuary was built in 1951.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History   April 10

Methodists Flee Advancing Army in Runaway Scrape, April 1836

This year Texans are observing the 180th anniversary of the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Republic of Texas.  During the second week of April 1836 the Runaway Scrape was at full tide as civilians were fleeing the advancing Mexican armies. 

Two Methodists left first person accounts of their participation in the Runaway Scrape.  These reports by David Ayres, Lydia McHenry, provide valuable insights for this crucial event in Texas history.

The evacuation actually began in January around Refugio and San Patricio, but really picked up steam after the fall of the Alamo in early March.  When Sam Houston retreated from Gonzales in mid-March, the civilian population realized that they were defenseless against the Mexican armies.  As settlements between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers became deserted, the muddy roads became clogged with desperate Texians in all sorts of carts and wagons filled with whatever the refugees could stuff into them.    There were many reports of deserted farmsteads, unmilked cows, and abandoned livestock.  There were reports of fleeing Texians burying the valuables they could not carry. 

There was considerable congestion at the river crossings of the Brazos and Trinity where heavy rains had made the ferry landings too muddy for the cart wheels.   The human stream was directed east toward Louisiana or to Galveston Island where they hoped to secure boat passage to the United States.

The Methodists who left accounts of their participation were David Ayres and Lydia McHenry who traveled together.  McHenry had been living at the Ayres home at Montville (on the LaBahia Road about 10 miles from where Rutersville would be established in 1838) where she and Ann Ayres had opened a boarding school.  One of their resident students was Charles Edward Travis (b. 1829) the son of William B. Travis who had placed his son in the Ayres home on the way to the Alamo. 
Ayres was too old and deaf to serve in the regular army so he wrote that he assisted in the evacuation.  Although his home was at Montville, he had a store at Washington on the Brazos from which he supplied troops from his inventory.  His personal account was published several years later in the Texas Christian Advocate the denominational newspaper of which he was financial agent.   

Lydia McHenry, who had come to Texas in December 1833 with here sister and brother-in-law Maria and John Wesley Kenney,  wrote of returning and finding the home plundered by vandals, not by the Mexican army.  She was especially distressed that her feather bed had been destroyed.  The account is contained in a letter to her brother John McHenry of Hartford, Ky, July 17, 1836.  The original letter is part of the Hardin Papers at the Chicago Historical Society.

Another account from this turbulent time is buried in semi-obscurity in Oscar Addison’s edited version of Joseph P. Sneed’s Diary.  Sneed came to Texas from Mississippi and was appointed to the Montgomery Circuit which consisted of all the settlements between the Trinity and Brazos Rivers from Spring Creek in the south to the Falls of the Brazos (near Marlin) in the north.  In 1840 the Republic of Texas had a fort at the Falls.  On one of his trips there Sneed recorded the first person account of John Holliday, an army officer who had survived the Goliad Massacre.  Addison found the Holliday memoir in Sneed’s papers so he just included it in the Sneed Diary.  Holliday had survived by jumping in the river and remaining hidden until the Mexicans moved on. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History  April 3

Camp Meetings continued

Since the camp meeting was the most prominent religious institution on the American frontier of the 19th century, it is not surprising that we would find references to camp meetings in the earliest historical literature of Texas Methodism. 

The earliest preaching points in Texas were private residences, but toward the end of the Mexican period of Texas history (1834, 1835) we begin to find references to camp meetings at McMahan’s and on Caney Creek.  The meetings were conducted in pleasant rural settings by preachers visiting from the Untied States or by local preachers who had once been conference members but had located so they could immigrate to Texas.  The leadership of the camp meetings was not limited to MEC pastors.  In the case of the Caney Creek meetings we can document the presence of Methodist Protestant, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers.

The observation of the centenary of the founding of Methodism followed soon after Texas independence, and one of the ways that Texas Methodists celebrated the centenary was by the establishment of a camp ground named Centenary Campground, near Independence in Washington County.   It was followed soon afterwards by Waugh Camp Ground in Burleson County, named for Bishop Beverly Waugh who had organized the Texas Conference.   By the 1850s there were Methodist camp grounds scattered from the Red River to the Guadalupe.  Many of them had semi-permanent structures sometimes called “booths” sometimes “tents.”   

In the era before many church buildings had been erected, the camp grounds provided an important focus for church and secular activity.  For example, Robinson’s Camp Ground in southwestern Walker County was the site of the 4th session of the Texas Annual Conference in 1843.  Several of the camp grounds near the Civil War prisoner of war Camp Groce near Hempstead, served as temporary encampments for Union pow’s. 

During the 1840s and 1850s the camp meetings in Texas were no longer dependent upon whatever preachers of whatever denomination showed up.  Texas had recruited enough transfers and licensed enough locals to be able to provide a fully staffed camp meeting.  John Wesley Devilbiss wrote of a camp meeting at Spanish Springs (near Egypt) in June 1843 that included Preachers Richardson, Kenney, Haynie, Thrall, Hamilton, Williams, and himself. 

In the late 19th century the camp ground tradition was extended and modified.  Texas was becoming more urbanized, but many Methodists were still nostalgic for the religious institutions of their youth.  Like the Disciples at the Transfiguration, they wanted to build booths to help capture the intensity of their experience. As Texas and the United States were becoming more urbanized, Christians waxed nostalgic about the rural settings in which many of them had first known Christ.  In addition to camp grounds, popular hymns such as Church in the Wildwood (1857) and Bringing in the Sheaves (1874) reinforced the  rural theme.

The 1880s through about 1910 can be described as the great heyday of camp meetings.  We have numerous examples of camp meetings in which attendance was counted in the thousands.  

There are many reasons for the expansion of the camp meeting movement.  One is certainly the nostalgia for a rural past that was slipping away. Another was that rail transportation made it possible for traveling evangelists to make a full time career of preaching at camp meetings and revivals.  No longer would the congregants be limited to the local preaching talent.  They could now hear “super star” preachers of the era who were as famous as rock stars of today.  

Another contributory factor was the split between the MECS conservatives and the Holiness Movement.  The MECS General Conference of 1894 passed a rule that a traveling evangelist had to obtain permission from the station preacher to hold a meeting in the town’s church.  

Many Holiness preachers naturally disdained such a rule and refused to comply.  The camp meeting became an attractive alternative for such Holiness preachers.  

Some of the camp grounds of the era, especially those of a Holiness persuasion, acquired an air of permanency.  The “tents” became more elaborate.  Water and electrical systems were installed, and families created traditions of using the meetings as family reunion opportunities.  

A whole genre of camp meeting literature arose.  The most common theme was that of the scoffer who came to mock and was converted.  Another theme was the scoffer who met a tragic end on his way home. 

The camp grounds of the latter era were usually run by a membership association.  The association, rather than the church, ran the whole show.  They hired the evangelist, provided security, arranged the program, contracted with third party vendors for concessions, etc.  The Chappell Hill-Bellville Camp Ground even had a hotel and shuttle service from nearby railroad stops.  

The associations drew up codes of conduct and appointed security patrols to enforce them.  The crowds of attendees attracted all sorts of people, including bootleggers.  One of the most common prohibitions was that against lemonade, presumably because it could be spiked with alcohol.  

Just as the protracted meeting was “tamed” so also was the camp meeting.  Instead of fire and brimstone preaching all day and night, the camp meetings began to offer a softer side of religion---Bible study, men’s and women’s special meetings, watermelon parties, and so on. 
The camp meeting tradition faded but did not die completely.  There are still camp meeting sites and associations in Texas.   (to be continued)