Religion in Early Texas

Organized religion shaped Texans and Texas throughout history. Updated 2 years ago
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Sculpture at Seminole Canyon State Park

Sculpture at Seminole Canyon State Park

Sculpture at Seminole Canyon State Park. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

Although Texas at the turn of the millennium has about 13 million church members and adherents, organized religion developed slowly in the state.

Native Religious Practices

The Indian tribes that inhabited the territory of Texas prior to the coming of Europeans in the 16th century engaged in a variety of religious practices. Most embraced, however vaguely, the concept of a supreme being.

They were not monotheistic, however, believing instead in a variety of supernatural powers, organized in a hierarchy. For agricultural Indians, various ceremonies accompanied planting and harvesting of crops, and nomadic Indians sought the help of spirits before hunting expeditions for game.

Spanish Missions Bring Christianity to Texas

Roman Catholic missionaries brought Christianity to Texas. They came to New Spain in the company of Spanish conquistatores, whose primary goal was to claim lands for the Spanish crown.

The most zealous and competent of the missionaries migrated to New Spain's northern frontiers. All the missionaries who established missions in the area that became Texas were Franciscans. They were charged with the pacification, as well as the conversion, of the natives. As conceived, the missionaries would enter a new area, congregate receptive Indians around a church and instruct them in the faith and a trade.

Missions usually comprised a complex of buildings. In addition to the chapel, they generally included housing for Indians, priests, and soldiers; workshops and classrooms; shops for carpenters, blacksmiths and tailors; kilns; a granary; a cemetery; and a garden and an orchard. Most missions were surrounded by fortified walls to protect against hostile Indians of other tribes; fields and pastures lay outside the walls.

Farming and cattle raising were the most important of the initial trades, for they fed the community. Several missions might be located in a general area, and nearby would be established a presidio, or fort, for protection.

The Spanish authorities believed that the Indians would be converted, trained, and ready to become productive Spanish citizens within a decade. The missions then would be secularized into churches to be supported by the new converts, and the missionaries would move forward on the frontier to their next challenge.

The first missionary attempts occurred around 1630 led by Fray Juan de Salas. These brief excursions were said to have been in response to a request by Jumano Indians in West Texas for religious instruction. The Jumanos demonstrated rudimentary knowledge of Christianity that they attributed to "the Woman in Blue," said to be a Spanish Franciscan nun, María de Jesús de Agreda. She is said to have appeared to Indians in present-day Texas and New Mexico through bilocation, although never physically leaving Spain.

A generation later, missions were established in 1682, as a result of a revolt by Pueblo Indians against the Spanish in the upper Rio Grande valley. San Antonio de la Isleta (Ysleta), later called Corpus Christi de la Isleta, was established in today's El Paso for the Tigua Indians. The second mission, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción del Socorro (Socorro), was established within days of the first, for Piro, Tano and Jemez Indians. Both missions sheltered tribes that had accompanied the settlers in flight from the revolt in the Santa Fe area up river.

In 1683-84, missions were founded around Presidio, and an attempt near present-day San Angelo resulted in the establishment of San Clemente Mission, which lasted only months.

Then the attempt by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle to establish a colony in 1685 on Garcitas Creek near present-day Victoria prompted the Spanish authorities to locate missions in East Texas. (See related article, "La Belle and Fort St. Louis.")

The first East Texas mission, San Francisco de los Tejas, was established in 1690 on San Pedro Creek near present-day Weches. A second mission, Santísimo Nombre de María, was soon founded nearby. The natives were not receptive to the friars' efforts, and by early 1694, both missions were abandoned.

In 1718, the mission San Antonio de Valero, now commonly known as the Alamo, was moved to its present site from Guerrero, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. It was followed by the founding of four other missions in the San Antonio area: San José y San Miguel de Aguayo (San José), Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Concepción), San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada (Espada). (The latter four now comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.)

Because of the nomadic lifestyle of most Texas Indians, missionaries had to offer them food and protection from enemies — Apaches and Comanches moving southward — in exchange for agreeing to enter the missions. Progress was slow, and often tribes would take advantage of the missionaries' generosity and stay only long enough to get food or clothing.

Prominent among the Franciscan missionaries were Frays Antonio Margil, Francisco Hidalgo and Damián Massanet.

Of the missions within the boundaries of present-day Texas, the last established was Nuestra Señora del Refugio in 1793. It was moved to the site of present-day Refugio in 1795.

Spain attempted to secularize the missions — to convert them into regular churches supported by their congregations — beginning in the late 18th century. These efforts were generally unsuccessful.

Through the later Spanish colonial period and the early Mexican era, the missions and churches were in a state of decline. Morale and discipline among the priests were low.

Was the mission system a failure or a success? Certainly many of the missions were not successful. But six former missions established in the state during the colonial period are still active churches. These former missions include the ones near El Paso — Ysleta and Socorro — and the four missions that comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Since Roman Catholicism was the state religion for Spain and its colonies, Spain stipulated Catholicism as the state religion when Texas was opened to Anglo-American immigration in 1820. All newcomers were required to embrace it, and other religions were prohibited. Religious-civil rites, such as marriage, were not recognized by the government unless performed by priests.

From the beginning, Spanish authorities were hard-pressed to enforce the ban. There were simply too few priests available to service the tide of Anglo settlers that came to the province and few priests spoke English. Also, administrations in Spain were in disarray following the Napoleonic upheavals in Europe. What developed was not religious persecution, but an apathy toward religion altogether. Stephen F. Austin in 1823 and 1824 petitioned Mexican authorities without success to send English-speaking priests the Texas colonies.

When the Mexican war for independence from Spain began in 1810, immigration of Spanish priests stopped. Seminaries in Mexico closed during the turbulence, some of which was aimed at the church. Priests for Texas simply were not available.

A major problem arose over marriage. Many couples wanted to wed, but could not for a lack of priests. To alleviate the problem, Austin was given authority to register marriage contracts. Under these, couples could marry in a civil ceremony and promise, under contract, to have the union blessed when Catholic clergy were available.

A handful of priests still tended the faithful, including Father Refugio de la Garza at San Fernando Church in San Antonio. At Nacogdoches, Liberty and San Augustine, Father Antonio Díaz de León had persevered until his death in 1834. Father Michael Muldoon served the Austin colony in 1831 and 1832.

Despite these problems, Austin continued to enforce the prohibition against other religions, expressing particular concern about the "Methodist excitement" that reached San Felipe. Austin feared that efforts to liberalize the religious ban could be crippled if outsiders antagonized Mexican authorities.

The state of religion during this period, therefore, was not healthy. Gen. Manuel Mier y Terán, after touring Texas in 1828 and 1829, observed that freedom of religion would be preferable to no religion at all, which seemed to be the case at the time. Church members who had immigrated to Texas complained of a lack of respect for the Sabbath, when Texans paid more attention to recreation than to church-related activities.

Protestants Make Inroads

The Awakening or Revival movement in American religion was a century old as Texas moved toward independence. Religious freedom had given people a broader choice of beliefs or non-belief. In the 1730s in America and England came a new response to the challenge of attracting new members.

It was one thing to inspire Christians, but quite another to convert non-believers for the first time. American Protestants had a large field of potential converts to work with, including those who had not previously practiced religion, the young and those from other religions. A new emphasis on the emotions evolved in preaching, and mass meetings inspired crowd response and vibrant singing.

The First Awakening began in the 1730s and died down during the period of the American Revolution and early years of nationhood. At the turn of the 19th century, the Second Awakening was kindled, as a new generation saw in revivals and camp meetings fresh approaches to attract new Christians. Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists were the most active denominations.

Prior to Texas' independence, only isolated individual preachers came from the United States to the Mexican province. With the advent of the Second Great Awakening early in the 19th century, evangelical churches and preachers were in the forefront of the westward movement. Their goal was to see that the gospel was carried with the Anglo-American advance across the continent. Texas was in the path of the movement.

First Protestant Church Organized

Protestantism made its first inroads into Texas between 1815 and 1817. In extreme Northeast Texas, which was considered to be part of Arkansas at the time, circuit-riding Methodist preachers made trips into the region. In 1815, Methodist William Stevenson began preaching in private residences. Soon thereafter a small Methodist church, the first Protestant church in Texas, was organized at Jonesborough in present-day Red River County.

Baptists and Presbyterians Arrive

In 1820, Joseph Bays, a Baptist preacher, camped on the American side of the Sabine River with other colonists who answered Moses Austin's call for settlers. Bays ventured into Spanish territory to preach at a private residence until ordered to stop by authorities. Three years later, Bays was arrested at San Felipe for preaching, but he escaped while being transported to San Antonio for trial.

Sumner Bacon, an unofficial Cumberland Presbyterian missionary, arrived in Texas in 1825. Bacon preached where he could find worshipers, fought alongside Sam Houston in the revolution, and, in 1833, became an official agent of the American Bible Society. The Cumberland branch of the Presbyterian church was organized in 1810, developing out of a schism during the evangelical revival that opened the century. A Cumberland church was organized in Red River County as early as 1833.

Daniel Parker, another Baptist preacher, brought the first of the denomination's churches to Texas. After a visit to the Mexican province, Parker returned to Caldwell, Ill. Reasoning that the ban on churches applied only to organizing churches among Texas residents and not to organized churches that moved into the territory, he organized the Pilgrim Church of Predestination Baptists with seven members. On July 26, 1833, the small congregation, which grew by 11 on the trip, began its journey to Texas.

The congregation held its first conference in Austin Colony in January 1834. Historians have traced at least nine churches in East Texas that grew from efforts of his Pilgrim church in Anderson County.

First Baptist Church Organized

The Providence Church in Bastrop County in 1834 was the first Baptist church organized in Texas, and Moses Gage, who served the church, was the first man licensed to preach in the territory.

Not all Mexican authorities, apparently, were zealous in their enforcement of the prohibition against Protestant meetings. A meeting conducted in Sabine County in 1832 by Needham J. Alford, a Methodist, and Sumner Bacon was reported to Col. José Piedras, commander of the garrison at Nacogdoches. "Are they stealing anything?" the officer asked. "Are they killing anybody? Are they doing anything bad?" Since the answer to all the questions was "No," Col. Piedras simply let the worshipers alone. The first sparks of the Texas Revolution flared in 1832.

After disputes with colonists, the Mexican military left the state, showing more interest in participating in Santa Anna's revolt in Mexico than in policing Texas.

Camp Meetings Become Popular

After the Mexican troops departed, Protestant groups began holding regular camp meetings. This unique institution was initiated by James McGready on the Gasper River in Kentucky in 1800 or 1801. It quickly spread westward with revivalist preachers and remained a colorful part of frontier life into the 20th century.

As developed in Texas, camp meetings usually began on Thursdays and ended on Sundays, although some lasted up to two weeks. Families for miles around attended. Several worship services were held daily, leading up to the big evening service. Often preachers from several denominations were on hand. Camp meetings filled many needs. First, they drew together the otherwise scattered population that was so difficult to preachers to reach. And the sessions also congregated people for socializing, as well as preaching. The religious message was basic and directed toward the future: Repent now, quit your sinning and avoid hellfire.

Camp meetings are still held in some areas of the state. The Bloys Camp Meeting, held near Fort Davis in far West Texas, has been an annual occurrence since 1890.

First Sunday Schools Organized

In 1829, Baptist T.J. Pilgrim organized the first Sunday school in Texas at San Felipe. About the same time, another was established at Matagorda by Baptists from New York.

In 1834, Austin was successful in obtaining a measure of religious tolerance. A state law provided that no person should be molested on account of his religious or political opinion, if he did not disturb public order. While Anglo-American colonists continued to complain about a lack of religious freedom, the Mexican state government liberalized the law as far as the national constitution allowed — and perhaps further. Once the turmoil of the Texas Revolution receded, the major denominations took a serious interest in missionary work in the new republic.

Methodist Circuit Riders Minister to Texas Settlements

Efforts had been made to attract missionaries prior to the rebellion. In the most celebrated case, Col. William B. Travis, who soon would die in the Alamo, wrote a New York newspaper in August 1835 lamenting the lack of a Methodist organization in Texas. He wrote, "I regret that the Methodist church, which, with its excellent itinerant system, has hitherto sent pioneers of the Gospel into almost every destitute portion of the globe, should have neglected so long this interesting country." He asked for five ministers for Texas.

Although the Mississippi Conference appointed Henry Stephenson as a missionary to Texas in 1834, the first official Methodist missionaries came in 1837 when Martin Ruter, Littleton Fowler and Robert Alexander were named by the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. Ruter, the superintendent of the mission activity, lived but six months after coming to Texas. However, his influence on Texas education lasted long after.

Ruter divided Texas into three circuits. Circuit riders fanned out through the Republic led by Ruter, who covered more than 2,200 miles on horseback in his short service in Texas. These ministers visited neighborhoods, determined whether the people wanted a worship service and, if so, provided one. When sufficient interest was aroused, a church was organized. By 1839, there were 20 Methodist churches with 350 members in Texas. Two years later, the aggressive Methodists had enlarged that number to 1,878 members. The first separate Methodist conference for Texas was authorized in 1840 and organized by Bishop Beverly Waugh.

Circuit riders carried the message of virtually every denomination across the sparsely inhabited territory. Bad weather, a lack of roads, sickness and, not least, hostile Indians were constant challenges. Their courage and dedication were similar to that of the Roman Catholic missionaries who first faced the fierce Indian tribes of the territory of Texas. Both groups contributed martyrs to the evangelical effort.

Disciples of Christ, or Christian, churches were established at Clarksville and Antioch in 1836, and others may have existed. The denomination did not have organizations at that time, and each church was freestanding.

Baptist Missionaries Arrive

James Huckins was the first official Baptist missionary, being appointed by the Home Missionary Society in 1840. After arrival, he asked for 15 missionaries to cover the large, sparsely settled region.

The mission board of the General Presbyterian Assembly appointed Rev. W.C. Blair missionary to Texas in 1839 and located him in Victoria. A decade later, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. showed 10 ministers, 15 churches and 329 members in the state.

First Episcopal Services Held

The first Episcopal services were held at Matagorda on Christmas Day 1838, and the first parish was organized a month later. Episcopal churches also were established in Houston and Galveston in 1838 and 1839. The Episcopal Diocese of Teas was formed in December 1849 with parishes in Galveston, Houston, Matagorda, Brazoria, San Augustine and Nacogdoches participating. Congregations also existed in San Antonio and Austin.

Catholic Church Rebuilds

The Roman Catholic Church, which was in dire straits after years of neglect, began rebuilding in 1838. Texas was placed under the authority of the Bishop Antoine Blanc of New Orleans. Rev. John Timon and Rev. Juan Francisco Llebaría, both priests of the Vincentian order whose American headquarters was in Missouri, were sent to the new republic to determine the state of the church. They got no farther than Houston, where they gathered information from around the Republic. Poor roads, bad weather and Indians kept the priests from touring the rest of the new republic. In 1842, Father Jean Marie Odin, a Vincentian from France, was named Vicar Apostolic of Texas to continue the work of rebuilding that Father Timon started. By 1846, 10 churches or chapels were completed. The Diocese of Galveston was erected in 1847 to include the new state of Texas, and Odin was named its first bishop.

German Lutherans Begin Their Work

The first German immigrants arriving in the 1830s settled in present day Austin County. These were Evangelical Protestants and among their early pastors was Rev. Ernst Bergmann.

However, many of the German immigrants were Lutherans. In 1850, the Lutheran Synod of South Carolina sent Pastor G.F. Guebner to Texas to analyze missionary needs. The same year, Pastor Casper Braun organized a congregation in Houston, which he served for 30 years. In Nov. 1851, the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas was formed, and from that time, the church moved forward in the state.

Jewish Institutions Spread Across the State

Jews were among the early immigrants to Texas. But they came in increasing numbers from Europe, along with many non-Jewish Europeans, in the mid-1840s — pulled by reports of the opportunities on the Texas frontier and pushed by political turmoil and religious persecution. As their numbers increased, Jewish institutions — benevolent associations, cemeteries, synagogues and community centers — were established. The first Jewish cemeteries were established in the early 1850s in Galveston and Houston.

The first chartered Jewish congregation in the state was Congregation Beth Israel in Houston in 1859.

Lack of Certification of Preachers a Problem

Although most Protestant preachers in early Texas were sincere, some came whose lives "did not tally with their professions." Initially, none of the Protestant denominations had official organizations to provide credentials, and the Ecclesiastical Committee for Vigilance for Texas, formed by Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers in Houston to certify newly arrived preachers, was only partly effective. Baptist Huckins lamented the preacher on the Gulf Coast whose sermons were attended by ruffians and scoundrels who cheered and stamped their feet. After the preaching, the minister and his boisterous congregation adjourned to the groghouse to imbibe strong spirits.

Such performances, and others by charlatans who preyed on the desire for religion, brought all ministers into disrespect. And they gave early Texans an excuse to treat ministers as slightly comical figures. Texas politicians went even further when writing the Constitution of the Republic in 1836, prohibiting preachers from serving in Congress or holding executive office in the Republic. Rationale was that the preachers needed to spend their time saving souls. The prohibition was not unusual in American politics, with the first such noted in the constitution of New York State in 1777, which eliminated ministers from consideration for military, as well as civil, offices. Louisiana and other states also banned preachers from some offices. In Texas, the prohibition was carried over into the state constitutions of 1845 and 1866 after Texas joined the Union.

Despite the politicians' opinions of preachers, the Senate chamber in the Capitol in Houston was the scene of almost weekly interdenominational preaching, with Protestants and Catholics sharing the lectern.

Schisms Within Denominations

As if the frontier life was not challenging enough, interdenominational disagreements often flared. Each Protestant denomination had to some degree factions of "old religion" and new, of traditionalists and revivalists. Presbyterians split long before coming to the new republic. Texas Baptists seem to have had the most difficulty early.

Antimissionaries — also called "primitives" and "hardshell" — organized first with the arrival of Daniel Parker's Pilgrim Church. This group opposed creation of missions, because, it was argued, they were man-made institutions, not authorized in the Bible. Antimissionaries were strongest in East Texas, where they had a major voice in early Baptist associations. At one point, antimissionaries wanted to make their belief an article of faith. Missionary Baptists eventually prevailed, but the disagreement hindered early evangelical efforts.

Judaism was reshaping its institutions as Jews experienced the new freedom of the United States. Early congregations in Texas, though small, still had fierce debates over the maintenance of the orthodox ritual or adoption of reforms. Released from the peer and community pressures of the European ghettos, Jewish immigrants practiced their religion with a new independence.

Religious Census of 1850

As a benchmark of the impact of organized religion in Texas, the U.S. Census of 1850 reported 328 churches in the state with an aggregate capacity of 60,000 persons. By denomination, the church numbers broke down like this: 173 were Methodist; 70, Baptist; 47, Presbyterian; 13, Roman Catholic; five, Episcopal; five, Christian; and 15 of smaller groups. Church property was valued at $206,930.

Religious Groups Establish Educational Institutions

A failure to provide education facilities was one complaint Texas revolutionaries had against the Mexican government. But after independence, the government of the Republic, lacking money, did no better. Therefore the early responsibility for education fell to private and religious groups. The church denominations were interested in training ministers, as well as providing a general education. Dr. Frederick Eby, an education historian, calculated there were 19 educational institutions chartered by the Republic of Texas, including Baylor University and a forerunner of Southwestern University of Georgetown, the state's two oldest educational institutions. Between annexation in 1845 and the Civil War, another 117 institutions were chartered, including seven universities, 30 colleges, 40 academies, 27 institutes, three high schools, two seminaries, an orphan asylum and a medical college. The leaders in the numbers of institutions organized were the Masons, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians.

Washington County was one of the religious and educational centers of early Texas by virtue of one of the capitals of the Republic's being located there. At Chappell Hill, the Methodists founded Soule University in 1856, one of the forerunners to Southwestern University. Presbyterians had a coeducational school at nearby Gay Hill, and Baylor University was chartered in 1845 and opened in 1846 at Independence. In adjacent Fayette County, Methodists obtained a charter for Rutersvile College in 1840. In the interests of keeping church and state separate, the Texas Congress refused to charter a religious school, so Rutersville, another forerunner of Southwestern University, was established as a non-sectarian institution.

Religious Newspapers Fill Need

Poor roads and equally bad mail service made communications within the infant Republic extremely difficult. The first denominational newspaper in the Republic was the Texas Christian Advocate and Brenham Advertiser, published by Methodists in 1847. Although the publication had several name changes, it is the forerunner of today's United Methodist Reporter. Texas Baptists were allotted space in 1841 in the Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, published in Louisville, Ky., and, in 1847, in the Southwestern Baptist of New Orleans. In Jan. 1855, the Texas Baptist published its first edition, and the circulation rose to 2,600 before a shortage of newsprint during the Civil War forced suspension of publication. The Catholic press in Texas started later in the 1890s with the Southern Messenger in San Antonio and the Texas Catholic in Dallas.

Further Schisms Form Over Slavery

Like others across the South, several of Texas' Protestant denominations broke with their counterparts in the North over the question of slavery: Methodists separated from the General Conference in 1844, and the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845. Episcopalians split only during the war.

Most churches ministered to black slaves, many of whom became church members, though always in an inferior status to white. They usually were required to sit in designated areas and were not allowed to participate in church deliberations. Separate black churches also were established when the membership justified. According to one source, a Methodist conference purchased a particularly effective black minister from a Masonic Lodge to give him more freedom in preaching to blacks and whites. Churches reflected the society of the times.

After the Civil War, Texans begrudgingly gave blacks their freedom, but few whites would accept the former slaves as social equals or associate with them above menial contact. To remain in white churches, blacks would have to accept unequal status, which most would not do. Therefore most blacks formed churches within existing denominations, but with separate governing bodies.

Religious Census of 1860 Shows Great Growth

During the days of the Republic, no more than one Texan in eight — and probably an even smaller segment — was affiliated with a church. Church expansion far exceeded population growth between 1850 and 1860. Population grew 184 percent in the decade, but the number of churches increased from 341 in 1850 to 1,034, according to the 1860 U.S. Census. Accommodations rather than membership apparently were counted by the census to avoid having the state seem to investigate church membership. The aggregate accommodations in Methodist churches expanded from 33,045 in 1850 to 103,799 a decade later. Baptists could accommodate 10,680 in 1850 and 77,435 ten years later. By 1860, there were 410 Methodist churches in Texas, 280 Baptist, 72 Presbyterian and 52 Cumberland Presbyterian. Other denominations also expanded, but on a smaller scale than the three major evangelistic denominations.

Despite all this activity, organized religion did not reach parts of Texas until after the Civil War. During the conflict, Sam Newcomb, living temporarily at a private civilian fort on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in Stephens County in west central Texas, wrote in his diary, "There are men and women here, with grown children, who have never heard a preaching."

Once established, however, churches carried out their traditional roles as civilizing forces, moral and ethical leaders, and as major supporters of education.

— adapted from an article written for the Texas Almanac 1988–1989.


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