Methodist Church

By: Norman W. Spellmann

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 8, 2020

The first ordained Methodist minister, and the first Protestant minister, to preach in Texas was William Stevenson, a member of the Tennessee Conference who preached at Pecan Point in what is now Red River County during an exploratory journey in the fall of 1815. When Claiborne Wright's family moved to Pecan Point in 1816, they became the earliest Methodist family known in Texas. The first Texas appointment of the Methodist Episcopal Church (made by the Missouri Conference in 1818) was of Stevenson to the Mount Prairie (Arkansas) and "Peecon Point" Circuit. By 1822 this circuit had sixty-six members, one of whom was the first Black Methodist in Texas. McMahan's Chapel, the oldest continuing congregation in Texas, was founded as a Methodist society by James Porter Stevenson near San Augustine in 1833. The word Texas first appears in Methodist appointments in 1834, when the recently constituted Mississippi Conference assigned Henry Stephenson to the Texas Mission, composed of the East Texas area around San Augustine. This initial missionary activity was contrary to Spanish and Mexican regulations, which permitted only the Catholic religion in the colony. When Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the door was opened wider to Protestantism. In 1837 the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church established a mission to the state and sent seasoned ministers to the republic. Martin Ruter was appointed to serve as superintendent of the mission, with the assistance of Robert Alexander and Littleton Fowler. Within five months Ruter reported 325 members in twenty societies, twelve local preachers, and five church buildings under construction. Strengthened by able recruits, the Texas Mission grew so rapidly that it was organized as an annual conference in 1840, with 1,878 members (1,648 White and 230 "colored") gathered in three districts, and fourteen circuits served by seventeen preachers. By the time Texas joined the Union, the state had two annual conferences reporting a total of 6,693 members (5,498 White and 1,195 Black) and fifty-nine circuit riders aided by sixty-eight local preachers.

During the republic, Methodism gained strength in Texas, despite harassment by hostile Indians, sporadic warfare with Mexico, epidemics of malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever, and hindrance by floods, muddy roads, and storms. Scores of camp meetings and quarterly meetings had given emotionally starved and socially isolated frontier folk a welcome opportunity for spiritual growth and fellowship. Filling the gap between preaching services, the weekly Sunday schools gathered lay members for study in areas where reading materials and groups were scarce. Noteworthy among the lay persons who lived their faith daily and kept the churches and Sunday schools alive between the visits of the circuit riders were the families of David Ayres, Josiah H. Bell, W. J. E. Heard, Alexander Thomson, Jr., and George W. Wright. To meet the growing need for trained leaders, Texas Methodists established three institutions of higher education: Rutersville College (founded in Rutersville in 1840), McKenzie College (Clarksville, 1841), and Wesleyan College (San Augustine, 1843).

Because of their close ties with United States Methodism, Texas Methodists shared in two denominational schisms during these early years. In 1839 some 25,000 reform-minded members in the United States became dissatisfied with the power of the episcopacy and the lack of lay representation and left the Methodist Episcopal Church. Although these separatists, who called themselves the Methodist Protestant Church, organized a Texas Conference in 1848, their particular concerns had so little appeal in Texas that by 1860 they had only 1,364 members in the state. The other schism had a much greater effect on Texas Methodists. At the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, debates over the issue of slavery became so intense that the delegates from the slaveholding states withdrew and recommended that their annual conferences form a Southern Methodist church. In 1845 Texas Methodists voted to join the new and separate denomination-the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Northern Methodists were unable to organize a church in Texas until 1853.

Although the East Texas Conference in 1846 unanimously declared that "the church has nothing to do with the relation that exists between slave and master," Texas Methodists tried to minister to the spiritual needs of the Blacks in their midst. Blacks had been included in Methodist congregations in Texas since 1822, and separate preaching services were often held for them. In 1842 and 1843 White ministers were appointed full-time to missions for Blacks. The East Texas Conference in 1846 appointed Francis Wilson "missionary to the people of color within the bounds of the Conference." By 1850 African Americans were being licensed to serve Black congregations, and soon they had their own buildings in Austin and Houston. Between 1846 and 1860 the number of Black Methodists in Texas increased from 1,195 to 8,360.

The increasing number of German immigrants presented a different kind of challenge to Texas Methodists in the 1840s. Beginning in 1846 with a German Methodist church in Galveston, this foreign-language ministry grew into a German district of eleven appointments by 1855. In the same year the German Methodists in Texas began publishing their own newspaper, Der Deutsche Christliche Apologet.

The Methodist system of sending out circuit riders, closely supervised by presiding elders under the authority of itinerant bishops, to minister to the widely scattered settlers proved to be remarkably effective in Texas. In 1844 the republic was divided into two conferences, with the Trinity River as the boundary between the Eastern and Western Texas conferences (soon changed to East Texas and Texas). A third conference, the Rio Grande Mission-bounded by Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Del Rio, Llano, and San Antonio-was formed from the Texas Conference in 1859. Between 1846 and 1860 Methodist membership in Texas increased from 6,693 to 39,021. The Methodists were the largest denomination in the state until after the Civil War. The Texas Wesleyan Banner (now the United Methodist Reporter), founded in 1849, soon had the largest circulation of any newspaper in Texas and helped to unify the widely dispersed preachers and church members.

Texas Methodists generally supported the Confederate cause, even forming a company of soldiers called the Methodist Bulls. Methodists also shared the devastation and hardship caused by the war. Church membership fell almost 50 percent, property deteriorated, and programs collapsed from loss of funds and personnel. Among the educational institutions, only Soule University of Chappell Hill (chartered in 1856) survived, and it was deeply in debt. Supported by the financially strong northern Methodist Episcopal Church-and briefly by federal troops-northern missionaries gained a foothold in the state. Many Black and German Methodists, who had never favored slavery or secession, shifted to the sister denomination. A Methodist Episcopal district organized in 1865 quickly developed into an annual conference in two years and into three conferences in 1874-the Southern German, the Texas, and the West Texas. By 1876, however, Black and White members of the Methodist Episcopal Church had formed separate conferences. Wiley College was established at Marshall for Black Methodists in 1873, and Blinn College at Brenham by the Southern German Conference in 1883.

Following the Civil War, as Methodists fled the Old South and new growth began in Northwest Texas, regional Methodism began to recover. In 1866 the West Texas Conference (formerly the Rio Grande Mission) was greatly enlarged geographically, and two new conferences, the North Texas and the Northwest Texas, were organized. By 1870, despite the loss of Black members to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Southern Methodist membership in Texas had almost returned to prewar numbers. Recovery turned into advance in the 1880s as new churches were established in such northwestern towns as Abilene, Sweetwater, Midland, Vernon, and Wichita Falls. The Southern Methodists renewed their efforts in higher education by establishing Southwestern University at Georgetown (1873).

The first extensive Methodist work among the Spanish-speaking people of Texas began in the West Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1874 with the formation of a Spanish-speaking district. In 1885 the Mexican Border Mission Conference was organized with 1,370 members and thirty-one ministers. Spanish-language churches east of the Pecos were reorganized in 1914 as the Texas Mexican Mission, which had 1,876 members served by sixteen ministers. By 1930 the mission had matured into an annual conference of 3,837 members and twenty-seven ministers; in 1939 it changed its name to Rio Grande Conference, a group to which a few churches in New Mexico belonged.

Women's auxiliary societies began in Texas Methodism in the 1880s, with primary interest in improving parsonages for ministers' families and organizing mission work among ethnic groups. During the 1890s women's concerns were extended to overseas missions, especially in Central and South America and the Far East. Women's projects within the state included Wesley houses in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio; dormitories for women at the state universities in Austin and Denton; Holding Institute, a school for Mexican children in Laredo; and the Virginia K. Johnson Home for girls in Dallas. Men had been elected as delegates to annual and general conferences since 1866, and women were first elected as delegates to annual conferences in 1919 and to general conferences in 1922.

As the traditional dependence upon revivalism waned with the end of the century, Texas Methodists emphasized Christian nurture in Sunday schools. During the period 1900 to 1930, enrollment in Methodist Sunday schools increased from 85,000 to 285,000. Summer camps became popular training centers, Epworth leagues for young people doubled in membership, and Wesley foundations were established on campuses of state universities and colleges. In 1935 there were ten Methodist institutions of higher education in Texas, among them Southwestern University, Southern Methodist University, Samuel Huston College (see HUSTON-TILLOTSON COLLEGE), Texas Wesleyan College, and McMurry College. Methodists pioneered in establishing junior colleges, such as Lon Morris at Jacksonville. Twentieth-century Methodists also increased their support for social programs. Each annual conference adopted the Methodist Social Creed and organized a board of temperance and social service. Although the temperance movement dominated the first three decades, other concerns received increasing support: the Texas Mission Home and Training School (San Antonio) for unwed mothers; the Methodist Home (Waco) for orphans; and the Lydia Patterson Institute (El Paso), a secondary school for Spanish-speaking young people. The Methodist Hospital of Houston, the first Texas hospital to be owned and operated by the Methodist Church, opened in 1919; other hospitals were established in Dallas (1928), Fort Worth (1930), Lubbock (1954), and San Antonio (1960). Another significant development for Texas Methodism was the gift in the late 1940s and early 1950s of more than $5 million for buildings and endowment for the school of theology at SMU by the Joe J. Perkins family of Wichita Falls. The school, which had been housed in a three-story building since 1924, was moved to a complex of eight buildings on a twenty-acre campus.

In 1939 three major branches of American Methodism accepted a plan of union that formed the Methodist Church. This reunited body had a membership in Texas of 475,021: 3,419 members from the Methodist Protestant Church; 13,341 from the Methodist Episcopal Church; 451,897 from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and 6,364 from the combined Spanish-speaking conferences. A second union occurred in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which had few members in Texas, and the Methodist Church formed the United Methodist Church. The uniting conference, which met in Dallas, called for the elimination of the segregated central jurisdiction of the Methodist Church. By 1970 all Black members had been integrated into the five geographical annual conferences in Texas. In 1987 the United Methodist Church claimed 927,563 members in Texas. In 1992 the church had six annual conferences in Texas with a total membership of 764,188.

Emory S. Bucke et al., eds., History of American Methodism (3 vols., New York: Abingdon, 1964). Kennard B. Copeland, History of the Methodist Protestant Church in Texas (Commerce, Texas: Commerce Journal, 1938?). Olin W. Nail, ed., History of Texas Methodism, 1900–1960 (Austin, 1961). Walter N. Vernon et al., The Methodist Excitement in Texas (Dallas: Texas United Methodist Historical Society, 1984).

  • Religion
  • Methodist
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Norman W. Spellmann, “Methodist Church,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

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December 8, 2020