Saturday, March 30, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History March 31

New London Methodist Preacher Tells of School Explosion, April 1, 1937

The New London School Explosion of March 18, 1937, ranks among the saddest tragedies in Texas history.    At 3:05 p. m on that day an instructor switched on a sander in one of the school’s shops.  The spark from that switch ignited natural gas that had filled the basement of the building.  The result was an explosion so great that is hurled a two ton slab of concrete 200 feet, collapsed the walls, and killed at least 298 students, parents, and teachers.  Many more suffered injuries.  

New London was one of the towns in the East Texas Oil Field which had boomed as a result of the wildcat discovery of the prodigious “ocean of oil”.  Workers from all over streamed to East Texas to find jobs at a time when the Depression was in full swing.   This was the era of unregulated and poorly regulated oil production.  Derricks in Kilgore and New London were erected on any open space available, including church parking lots.  

Residents of New London participated in the prosperity and showed it by building a new, modern school building.   The new building would be heated with natural gas, and why not?  Gas was often a troublesome by product that would be flared off anyway.  The school trustees could save $300 per month by using residue gas.  Tragically there was a bad connection that leaked the gas into the basement.  The odorant mercaptan was not required at the time.  

About two weeks later, the Rev. R. L. Jackson of the New London MECS wrote to the Texas Christian Advocate about the events. 

The ushers, the secretary of the Sunday School, the secretary of the Church Conference, the janitor, the majority of my high school class, and most of my intermediates, a teacher in my primary class and several of the teachers who belonged to our church, transcended in the blast that took its toll of 455 victims in our school one block from the parsonage.  Probably no schools could have giver up this number where there was a higher percentage of Christians.  Most of them active in their churches.  A large percentage of those killed were buried at former homes. 

Words cannot describe such a tragedy.  Rulers of war-ravaged nations paused to send condolences. May this mass of torn and bleeding humanity bring about a greater assurance of peace.    

From every section came ministers who rendered a service that comforted.  Looking back now as the funerals were held in relays, I can see how much they meant.  I cannot call them by name for there were too many.  Our phone was soon tied up and the broadcasting and I was rushed from home to home of my people and not chance to answer messages or to call on help. 
These heroic Christian parents have assured me they will be at services Easter Sunday.  They have urged me to go on with the revival meeting that has been delayed from Palm Sunday to Easter.  

A few weeks and we shall be larger than ever for no one blames God and the ranks will be more than filled.  Texas Christian Advocate April 1, 1937

On a personal note---My grandfather was serving Arp when this tragedy occurred.  Arp is 8 miles from New London, and my grandmother had relatives who had come to New London for employment.   One of those cousins, a fifth grader named William “Billy” Childress” was one of the victims.  My father was in Tyler, the county seat of Smith County, at 3:05 for the “County Meet.”  The University Interscholastic League had not yet been created to organize such competitions so students from all over the county competed without regard to student population of the schools. 
Memories of the explosion were still fresh when I was a child.  When we drove by the cenotaph erected in honor of the victims in 1939, my father would tell me the stories of that horrible day.   

Sunday, March 24, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History  March 24

“Most Noble and Triumphant Bible Meeting Yet Held in the Republic,” March 24, 1839

The Rev. Schuyler Hoes, a Methodist preacher from New York spent toured the coastal plains of Texas organizing chapters of the American Bible Society.  On Sunday, March 24, 1839, Hoes was in Matagorda and later reported the “Most Noble and Triumphant Bible Meeting yet held in the Republic.”  Although Hoes was a Methodist, he found strong support among other denominations, including Episcopalians, Baptists,  and Presbyterians.   He reported organizing a “large and intelligent chapter.”  He also reported pledges of between $300 and $400 (in greatly debased Texas currency).    

On Monday the 25th Hoes travelled to Marion where he met Thomas Pilgrim (1804-1877) a Baptist who is remembered as the founder of the first Sunday School in Texas.  Pilgrim was holding $120 Littleton Fowler had entrusted to him from collections in other parts of the Republic. 
From there Hoes went to Velasco where he was less successful.  He was unable to form a society or collect any funds.  A local source blamed the extreme poverty of the community.   

The work fo the ABS shows interdenominational cooperation.  Hoes and Fowler were Methodist; Pilgrim was Baptist and the son-in-law of the Caleb Ives, founder of the first Episcopal Church in Texas.  The Presbyterian missionary, W. Y. Allen also contributed. 

Hoes returned to New York and took an appointment in the New York Conference.  When Littleton Fowler was in New York for the 1844 General Conference, he reported having a meal with Hoes.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History  March 17

Women Assume More Leadership Roles, March 17, 1919

The General Conference of the MECS in 1918 took account of the feminist movement of the early 20th century by removing restrictions that previous conferences had placed on women.   Churches responded to the removal of the discriminatory language in the Discipline by elected women as delegates to Annual Conference.  

General Conference was held in May, and the following November the Journal still listed Laymen in the official roll call of Conference.   The reason there were no women is that the disciplinary changes voted on at General Conference had to ratified by the annual conferences meeting in the first regular session following the General Conference.  Accordingly On Wednesday, November 27, 1918, Bishop Ainsworth presented the following resolution to the Texas Annual Conference meeting in Timpson.    Shall lay members be eligible to all conferences, boards, and lay offices of the church without regard to sex?”  The question carried 141 to 3.   

 The next year the  1919 Texas Conference Journal lists the following women as lay delegates:  Mrs. H. G. King, Mrs. L. Gooch, Mrs. Hattie Gardner, Mrs. C. L. Turner,  Miss E. L. Hill,  and Mrs. Cone Johnson. 

Equally significant was the election of women to local church offices.  On March 17, 1919, the Houston Post found the election of women to the position of local church steward so important that it ran a major story, complete with pictures, of the first three women in Houston to be elected to the office of steward.   The three women were members of Trinity MECS (later Northside).  They were Mrs. J. M. Washam,  Mrs. W. C. Dill, and Mrs. E. H. Haver.    The Post also reported that the church in Texas City had already elected women to the position of steward, and therefore claimed the honor of being first in the area.  

The election of three women to the position of steward is particularly intriguing.  Stewards were responsible for the facilities and finances of the local church.  The position is now knows as “Trustee.”  As the name implies, the Stewards bear significant legal responsibilities.    Was the position of steward an extension of the traditional role of women as managers of the household?  Or was it a progressive move?   You decide.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History March 10

African American Methodists in Austin Affiliate with MEC, March 1866

The end of the Civil and emancipation in Texas is celebrated on Juneteenth every year.    The response of Methodists to this freedom is one of the most interesting stories in the history of Texas Methodism.  

Before the Civil War many of the districts in Texas were at least ¼ African American served by MECS preachers.   Several patterns existed to serve these parishioners.  Sometimes, as at Marshall, African Americans sat in a balcony during the morning worship service.  Sometimes whites worshiped on Sunday morning and African Americans worshiped in the same building in the afternoon.  Almost every district had at least one appointment designated “African Mission” or “Colored Mission.”  
One of the aspects of freedom was the freedom to organize one’s religious life.  The MECS continued to appoint preachers to the African Missions and as in the case of Houston, appointed an African American (Elias Dibble) to serve that congregation. 
The MEC, which had been excluded from Texas prior to the war, sent missionaries to served the newly emancipated population.  The AME and AMEZ also sent representatives to organize churches in Texas. 

The rivalry between the denominations often resulted in disputes and ill will between the various denominations.   The MEC had some advantages.  It had taken a firm stand against slavery, and it had missionary funds, and literature in greater abundance than any other denomination.  On the other hand, it still did not offer full equality of the races.  For example, when the Texas Conference of the MEC was formed, 5 of the 6 Presiding Elders were European American rather than African American.  

The AME and AMEZ could point to African American leadership, but those denominations (especially the AMEZ) simply did not have the resources to send missionaries to Texas.  

The MECS finally spun off its African American churches in the CME, which created yet another division in the ranks of African American Texas Methodists. 
In March `1866 the African American church in Austin voted to switch to the MEC.  Similar decisions were made across the state so that by the 1870s African American Texans had several choices of Methodist churches from which to choose.  Of course some churches also voted to become Baptist---the congregational polity of the Baptist church meant that congregations would not be embroiled in denominational turmoil.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History  March 3

Methodists Challenged by Gates to Raise Money for College in Port Arthur, March 6, 1910

Although gambling was and continues to be condemned by Methodist teaching, in he early years of the 20th century Methodists teamed up with John “Bet-a-Million” Gates (1855-1911) in the founding of Port Arthur College.   Gates was one of the most prominent risk taking entrepreneurs of his era.  He came to Texas as a barbed wire salesman in 1876.  He devised one of the most brilliant marketing stunts in advertising history.  Gates hired Military Plaza, erected a barbed wire corral.  He filled it with longhorns and showed that the wire could contain even those powerful creatures.  The stunt resulted in more orders than the factory could produce. 
He fell out with his employer and started his own barbed wire manufacturing.  His Southern Wire Company was a huge success even though he neglected to respect the patents in effect for the product.  

Although the originator of what later became the Kansas City Southern RR was Arthur Stillwell, Gates also invested in the company and eventually took it over from Stillwell.  The original financing had been from Dutch banks who proposed to send Dutch farmers who knew about dike canal engineering to grow rice on the coastal plains—hence the name of the city of Nederland.  When Spindletop blew in, the area became known for its petroleum industry and farmers deserted the farms to go work in the oil fields. 

Gates saw Port Arthur as a grand city, and it did develop into one of the most important petroleum refining centers of the world.   One factor in civic development would be a college.  Gates teamed with the Methodist Episcopal Church, not the Methodist Episcopal Church South to build the college.  Overlooking the well known Gates reputation for gambling on horses, the stock market, and cards, the Methodists partnered with him and Port Arthur College came into being.
Methodist education in Texas had been strictly “classical” since the beginning.  In other words Methodist colleges stuck to what we would call a liberal arts curriculum teaching the sciences, languages, mathematics, humanities, and fine arts.  Port Arthur College would be different.  In response to the needs of a modernizing society, it would teach business classes---stenography, radio, bookkeeping, telegraphy, and associated subjects.   The best analog today is probably coding schools or schools that teach video game design.  

Gates put his stamp on Port Arthur, and the college did well, but Gates did not live to see it.  He died in August 1911.  His funeral was held at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  The ministers who officiated were the Revs. Wallace McMullen of Madison Avenue Episcopal Church in New York and J. W. LaGrone of Port Athur. 

Footnote:   The MECS church in Port Arthur—one of the largest in the state during the 1920s and served by future bishop W. C. Martin was named “Temple.”  Why not “First”, because the MEC church was First Methodist.  Port Arthur College eventually became part of Lamar University.   The MEC established another college on the coastal plains being settled by immigrants from the North. It was located in Alvin.