Saturday, February 02, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History Feb. 3

Methodist Minister, Kavanaugh, Debates Spiritualism, February 2, 1876

Most readers of this column are aware of the tsunami of religious activity that occurred in the northeast U. S.  during the middle years of the 19th century.  Some of that activity resulted in denominations that continue to be active today such as the Jehovah Witnesses (PA), Christian Science (MA), Mormons and Adventists (NY). 
Several other religious movements also arose in the same milieu that did not result in formal denominations that persisted.  Most notable of these is probably spiritualism which was a significant force in the mid-nineteenth century but today most of us know about it mainly through movies depicting séances with characters in trances communicating with deceased spirits—or at least claiming to do so. 
Although the stuff of movie plots today, in its era it was important enough to influence President Lincoln and Queen Victoria, Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as many others.   

Although attempts to communicate with the deceased are probably ancient and there are various sources, the modern version may be dated to Upstate New York in 1848—when the Fox sisters told others they heard rapping which they interpreted as signals from the after life.  

One should remember the context-in mid-19th century America, death struck suddenly and to persons of all ages.  Many families, not just Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, grieved over the death of a child.

Spiritualism never developed as did some of the other religious movements of the same time and place, (there is still a Spiritualist Church of New York City, and the town of Lily Dale, NY, is devoted to the religion.  There are certified mediums there who practice clairvoyance every day for the benefit of visitors.)

Spiritualism also came to Texas in February 1876, in the form of a practitioner of trances named Mrs. Colby who communicated with the spirit of the departed “Professor Wood”.  In Houston she challenged the pastor of Shearn MECS (today’s FUMC) to a debate.   The pastor was Benjamin Taylor Kavanaugh, brother of Bishop Hubbard H. Kavanaugh.    B. T. Kavanaugh was also a physician who joined the Texas Conference in November 1866.   His first appointment was Chappell Hill, and regular readers of this column will remember the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 that hit Chappell Hill particularly hard, leading to problems trying to reopen Soule University.  Kavanaugh lost a son and daughter.  

Members of Shearn protested Kavanaugh’s debating Mrs. Colby, and even wrote a formal statement asking him not too.  He debated her anyway, but in a theater, not the church.   There is no record of who won the debate.

After his 4 years at Shearn, he remained in Houston and practiced medicine.  Some of his former parishioners joked that he was a" better physician than a preacher.”
After a while he moved his practice to Hockley, but in 1881 he moved back to Kentucky where he lived the rest of his life. 


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