John Wesley Kenney (Kinney), pioneer Methodist preacher, son of Irish immigrants, was born on July 17, 1799, in Redstone County, Pennsylvania, two years after his parents arrived in the United States. His mother had been converted to Methodism by John Wesley. When he was sixteen he moved with his parents to Ohio, where his father engaged in farming. He experienced a call to the ministry when he was nineteen. Under the influence of Martin Ruter, he began a lifelong study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In August 1819 he was admitted on trial by the Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and was appointed to circuits in the Kentucky District: John's Creek (1819–20) and Fleming (1820–21). In 1821 he was ordained deacon by Bishop Robert R. Roberts, admitted into full connection in the Ohio Conference, and transferred to the newly organized Kentucky Conference, where he was appointed to the Licking circuit. He served the Franklin circuit in 1822–23, was ordained an elder by Bishop Enoch George in 1823, and was appointed to the Fountain Head circuit (1823–24). In 1824 he transferred back to the Ohio Conference, where he served appointments at Nicholas (1824–25), Marietta (1825–26), and Letart Falls (1826–27). In September 1827 he moved to Illinois and settled near Rock Island on the Mississippi River. During the Black Hawk War he served as captain of a militia company. In 1833 Kenney moved his family to Texas; he landed on December 17 on the west bank of the Brazos River, where he built the first cabin in what became the town of Washington. The next year he took up a headright league in Austin's colony twenty-five miles southwest of Washington and ten miles south of the site of present-day Brenham. About this time he was appointed a surveyor for the colony.
Kenney preached his first sermon in Texas at the home of Samuel Gates on Jackson Creek in March 1834 and gradually extended his ministry up the Brazos to Gay Hill and down the river to San Felipe, Columbia, and Brazoria. To the west he preached in Colorado, Fayette, and Bastrop counties, all the way to Gonzales, on the Guadalupe River. In the fall of 1834, on Caney Creek in northern Austin County, he held one of the first camp meetings in Texas west of the Trinity River. In early September 1835, after receiving assurances from Col. William B. Travis and James B. Miller that Mexican officials would not intervene, Kenney organized another camp meeting at the same site, attended by Rev. Henry Stephenson, the first Methodist minister officially assigned to the Texas mission. During this meeting, an informal quarterly conference was organized with Alexander Thomson as chairman and David Ayres as secretary. This group requested the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to send missionaries to Texas. In the meantime Kenney was asked to take pastoral charge of Methodism west of the Trinity River. His ministerial labors were soon interrupted by the Texas Revolution. Kenney served in the Texas army from September 11, 1835, until April 21, 1836. He missed the battle of San Jacinto because he took a two-week furlough to assist his family during the Runaway Scrape.
When the Methodist Church sent Robert Alexander, Littleton Fowler, and Martin Ruter as missionaries to Texas in 1837, they used Kenney's home as a base for their first activities in that part of the republic. With the establishment of regular circuits under the care of the missionaries, Kenney limited his preaching to places he could reach on weekends and to one or two camp meetings a year. He was readmitted to the Methodist itinerary in December 1843 and appointed to the Washington circuit, but he had to move again in January 1845 due to his wife's illness. Although Kenney opposed the Civil War, he favored the gradual emancipation and colonization of slaves.
In 1824 he married Maria E. McHenry, daughter of Rev. Barnabas McHenry, a pioneer of Kentucky Methodism. When the Kenneys came to Texas they had two sons and a daughter. After his brother, Thomas Kenney, was murdered at Kenney's Fort near Round Rock in 1838, Kenney adopted and reared Thomas's three children. Kenney's oldest son, Martin McHenry Kenney, served as captain in the Twenty-first Texas Cavalry during the Civil War and practiced law and civil engineering. John Wesley Kenney died on January 9, 1865, at his home in Austin County. The town of Kenney in Austin County is named in his honor.