Saturday, July 30, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History   July 31

Willis Hosts District Conference, Great Hospitality but Poor Attendance July, 1875

In the late 19th century Presiding Elders convened regular district conferences to transact business and provide a venue for several days of prayer, song, preaching, and praise for the hard working circuit riders whose life could be lonely.  The district conferences provided a morale boost and engagement with other Methodists.

P. E. James Wesson appointed a conference of the Huntsville District for July 28, 1875 in Willis.  The Methodists of Willis eagerly anticipated the event.  After all, it would provide the opportunity for several days of worship and a chance to renew old friendships with the visiting preachers and lay delegates. 
It was customary in the era for parishioners to provide food and beds for the visitors.  Newspaper accounts reveal that the Willisites went all out in their preparations

. . .The country people volunteered their assistance, and on the 21st and 22nd, wagons, loaded with vegetables, corn, melons, fruit, etc, rolled into town and disbursed contents where most needed.  

The small town expected a large crowd

Dame Rumor with her thousand tongues had declared that between 50 and 60 ministers and lay delegates. . .would resign themselves to the tender mercies—i.e. hospitality—of the Willisites.  

That attendance estimate proved wildly optimistic

. . .only twelve minister on whom to expend their largess of their hearts and bounties of their tables appeared.  

Wesson conducted the Conference even with the few ministers.  When it was concluded it followed a common practice of the era and segued into a protracted meeting that lasted for days. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History July 24

Visitor to Rutersville Commencement Ceremonies Praises Methodist School  July 28,  1841
The end of a school term in 19th century Texas often consisted of a three or four day exhibition of the skills and knowledge of the students.   Students performed musical numbers, recited poetry, demonstrated their oratorical skills, and sometimes required the students to stand before an audience and answer questions from the audience.  

Someone who signed his name as “Visitor” wrote an account of his attendance at the Rutersville Commencement in July 1841.  The letter was published in the Telegram and Texas Register, July 28, 1841.  Here are some excerpts

Rutersville College is an institution of which every Texian has cause to feel proud.  It is emphatically a Texian Literary Institution, and is designed, so far as it can, to extend its benefits to citizens of all parts of the Republic. It seeks to accomplish no sectarian or political purpose. And although the principles and doctrines of the Bible, as they are received and taught by all orthodox Protestant christians , are made the basis of the moral instructions imparted at this institution, the peculiarities or tenets of no one church are attempted to be inculcated upon the minds of the students.  . . .As an evidence that it is not the design of the trustees to render the institution subservient to sectarian purposes. . .they have elected to the office of tutor a very worthy young gentleman who is not a professor of religion. . .

The “Visitor” continues in the same vein, praising the non-sectarian nature of Rutersville College.

What is left unsaid is the fact that the Congress of the Republic of Texas refused to charter sectarian schools.  When Rutersville trustees first submitted their charter to the Congress, it was rejected.  Only after the sectarian clauses were removed, did Rutersville receive its charter.  The move also made it possible for the Congress to approve a land grant in support of the school. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History   July 17

A.    M. E. Bryan District Conference Embroiled in Exodus Controversy, July 1879
One of the most interesting aspects of the post-Civil War era is the “Exodus” of African Americans from the former states of the Confederacy to the agricultural lands being opened to settlement by the newly constructed railroads.  Many African Americans chose to leave Texas and the rest of the southern states and start new lives in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.  The Plains lands offered a chance for ownership rather than tenancy and crops other than cotton.   Cotton culture had been based upon slavery, and at least a few former enslaved persons wanted nothing to do with King Cotton.   

Naturally the railroads promoted the Exodus since they stood to benefit from land sales and the prospect of shipping the agricultural products produced on the new farms.

In July 1879 the Bryan District AME Conference witnessed a debate on whether preachers should encourage the Exodus.  

One of the preachers offered a resolution saying that preachers should be discouraged from promoting the Exodus.  He argued in favor of the motion.  His main arguments were that Northern men, including the railroad tycoon Jay Gould who was promoting the scheme, could not be trusted to have the best interest of African Americans.  The second speaker defended the record of Northern men in helping the freedmen.  The third speaker carried the day.  He claimed that the advancement of the freemen depended less upon geography and more on their efforts at self improvement wherever they lived.  That argument carried the day and the motion passed. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History   July 10

Church Dedication at Coleman,  July 1891

The process today is called “new church starts” or “church planting,” but the process is not new and it has been called different names throughout Texas Methodist history.   At one time it was called “church extension,” and was directed mainly from Nashville rather than by the annual conferences of the MECS.  As one would expect, the planting of new churches has occurred in fits and starts as different parts of Texas during different eras.  Today new church starts occur mainly in the suburbs of the major cities---a process that his been going on in the Houston area since about 1900.   Houston’s growth as a city can be plotted by where Methodists have started new churches from the 1900’s when it boomed with the oil industry (St. Paul’s, Grace, ) to today when the metropolis has spilled into Fort Bend, Brazoria,  and Montgomery Counties.  

During the closing years of the 19th century new church starts were occurring in the Rolling Plains and High Plains as rail transportation enabled the farming frontier to move westward.  Increased population meant that many circuits could become stations.  The erection of a new church building to accommodate the increased membership was common.  Many churches in the Central Texas and Northwest Texas Conferences date their origin to this period of settlement in the wake of railroad expansion. 

Coleman is one such example.  The town was designated as the county seat of Coleman County, and after a court house was erected, that building was used for church gatherings. 

In 1888 the Northwest Texas Conference appointed Charles V. Oswalt (1857-1933) to Coleman.  Oswalt, a native of Mississippi, attend university in his home state, moved to Texas and almost immediately lost his wife, Eliza—buried in Killeen.   He continued to serve churches and when appointed to Coleman, was determined to build a church.  Although he faced discouragement, he plunged into the task—to the point of doing some of the carpentry work on the building himself.  
In July 1891 Oswalt was the pastor of the church in  Comanche, but was invited back to Coleman to give the dedicatory sermon the new building was ready for occupance.  News reports tell us that the building had a seating capacity of 600, a 70 foot spire, and stained glass windows.  The cost was about $5000.   Methodists in Coleman had a new church!

Oswalt remarried and stayed in the Northwest Texas Conference.  He became a leader in the faction arguing for a division of the conference.  When that happened in 1910, Oswalt became part of the Central Texas Conference.  He spent his last days in Fort Worth and is buried in Shannnon Rose Hill Memorial Park there. 

Saturday, July 02, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History  July 3

Summer Diversion—Methodist Toponyms in Texas

Rather than a specific event this week in Texas history, I thought readers might be interested in thinking about the imprint of Methodism on Texas place names.  

Since so many of the immigrants coming to Texas in the 19th century were Methodists and first settlers often have naming rights on settlements they create, one would expect plenty of Texas Methodist toponyms.

Of course Methodists cannot claim a fraction of names when compared to the Roman Catholic names in Texas, but there are still a significant number.
How could one possibly begin to count Methodist place names? Poring over county maps would be the project of a lifetime, and to tell the truth, not a very use of one’s time.

There is an easier way.  The USGS publishes all kinds of maps of the Untied States and its territories.  Among the most popular are the 7.5 minute series---the famous quadrangles published at the 1:24000 scale.

The site  provides access to the whole collection of maps.   They are available for downloading or purchase of the physical map.

The site also has a place name search feature. 
Just type in a term, and the site supplies a list of every time that term is used as a place name.  Here are some results.

“Wesley” produces 13 hits.  All of them followed by either “church” or “chapel.”  They occur in Austin, Fort Bend, Freestone, Galveston, Hopkisn, Houston (2), McLennan, Tarrant, Van Zandt, Walker (2), and Waller Counties.  The Austin County example is not really Methodist.  It is the Anglicized version of the Czech “Veseli (joyous).”

In addition there are 6 Wesley Cemeteries.(Erath, Houston, Hunt, Robertson, Van Zandt, and Williamson Counties) and of course “Mount Wesley” in Kerr County.
“Asbury” results in 4 results (Hood, McLennan, Rusk, Shelby, and Smith Counties)
There is “Cokesbury” in Grimes County and “Methodist School,” in Brazos.
The overwhelming names associated with 19th century religion, though, are  “Campground” and “Chapel”.   There are 421 place names that use “Chapel,” and 31 “Campgrounds” in Texas.

If one places Methodist names on an outline map of Texas, some interesting patterns emerge.  The author plotted counties having greater than 5 examples of “”chapel.”  The results were striking.  There was no county south or west of Gonzales County with as many as 5 sites named “chapel.”   The four northeastern counties with the Red River as their northern boundary (Bowie, Red River, Lamar, and Fannin) all have more than 5 “chapels.”  The next tier of counties to the south does not, but a large contiguous block of counties stretching from Marion to Robertson all have more than 5 “chapels.”

Most of western Texas is completely bare of such religious names.  That pattern is probably due to the fact that many towns in western Texas were founded by rail road companies.  Railroad executives often named towns after investors in the railroad and employees.  Some western Texas towns reflect the physical environment.  Gone were the names such as Elysian Fields, Arcadia, Pleasant Retreat, and other names reflecting verdant East Texas.  In West Texas we get Shallowater, Notress, and Plainview.   There are very few “chapels” in West Texas, but there are a several “campgrounds”  (Dallam, Brewster, Culberson)  

Texas settlers didn’t just use religious names for their children.  They also put those names on the landscape.