Although tempting to think of Texas as different from the rest of the nation, the state’s religious development doesn’t sustain a claim to uniqueness. The Catholic Church was the established religion of Texas until late in the Mexican era, but then declined after the Texas Revolution and remained at a low ebb until sufficient Catholic immigrants arrived from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. Otherwise, beginning with the arrival of sizable numbers of Anglo-Americans in the 1820s, Texas has reflected impulses typical of Protestantism in America at large, such as the desire for a Christian Sabbath; an effective educational system that operated in tandem with the churches to promote public morality; “temperance,” by which was meant prohibition; and an intense hostility toward Catholicism. But Texas was also an extension of the South, and that too has been apparent in its religious ethos, which has generally placed piety and the need for individual redemption ahead of social ethics and the need for corporate morality. Still, like the Catholic Church, Protestant churches in Texas have by no means been oblivious to social concerns. On the contrary, they’ve been civilizing influences for both the individual and society. They’ve brought neighbors together in worship, given purpose to life, contributed to a sense of community, promoted sobriety, supported education, encouraged thoughtful discussion on a wide range of societal interests, and helped establish order.
Although Protestantism has dominated the religious life of Texas since the mid-1830s, Catholicism was first to penetrate the region. Franciscans entered Texas to Christianize as well as Hispanicize the Indians. Spanish missions, established over a period of more than a century, numbered about 40 and were scattered from Nacogdoches to San Antonio to near the site of Menard. A few endured for more than 100 years, but many lasted only a year or so; seldom were more than 12 in operation at the same time, and virtually all were in disarray by 1800. An invaluable body of literature about the original tribes of Texas is an important legacy of these early outposts of Christianity.
Until almost the end of Mexican Texas, Anglo-Americans seeking permission to settle in Texas had to accept the Catholic faith. Moses Austin and Stephen F. Austin, neither of whom seems to have taken organized religion too seriously, readily complied. Although baptized at birth by a Congregational minister in Durham, Conn., the elder Austin assured Spanish authorities in December 1820 in San Antonio that he was “a Catholic.” The son, actually a Jeffersonian Deist who was never formally affiliated with any religious body, likewise satisfied Mexican officials of his Catholicism. Sam Houston was baptized by a priest in 1833. Lured primarily by economic opportunity, early American settlers obviously could wear whatever religious garb was required. As Col. John Hawkins informed Stephen Austin in 1824, “I can be as good a Christian there [in Texas] as I can here [in Missouri]. It is only a name anyhow.”
For settlers who took oaths more seriously than Hawkins, there was a solution of sorts: an affirmation of one’s Christianity usually sufficed. Stephen F. Austin apparently found it useful to assure Mexican officials that his colonists were good “Christians,” but to his credit he earnestly sought to obey Mexico’s religious laws. He repeatedly reminded prospective settlers of the law and tried to avoid trouble by keeping Protestant missionaries out of his colonies. Of special concern were the aggressively evangelistic Methodists, whom Austin called “excited,” “imprudent,” “fanatic,” “violent” and “noisy.” Apparently it was the missionary Henry Stephenson who prompted Austin’s outburst that “one Methodist preacher” would cause more harm for his colony “than a dozen horse thieves.” Austin was rightly convinced that if Protestant evangelists could be held at bay, Mexican authorities would probably ignore private worship services in the homes of Protestants. In fact, Mexican authorities never rigorously enforced the law proscribing Protestant worship. To be sure, Protestant preachers, such as the Baptist Joseph L. Bays, were sometimes arrested, but the attitude of Col. José de las Piedras, the commandant at Nacogdoches, was typical. When informed of a Methodist-Presbyterian camp meeting in 1832, Piedras retorted that unless the worshippers were stealing horses or killing people, they were to be left alone. Furthermore, the shortage of Catholic clergy had left a spiritual vacuum that Protestants were eager to fill. From 1810, when the Mexican War of Independence erupted, to 1830, the number of priests in Mexico declined by about 50 percent, and from 1821 to 1836 there was no bishop in Monterrey, the seat of the diocese that included Texas. As late as 1835 there was only two secular (i.e., diocesan) priests in Texas. Accordingly, Austin’s repeated pleas to Mexico for priests to perform baptisms, marriages and burials brought little more than sympathetic responses. In 1831 Father Michael Muldoon appeared, but his brief stay in San Felipe perhaps served more to confirm the latent hostility of Protestant Texans toward Catholicism than anything else. Muldoon charged $25 for a wedding and $2 for a baptism, and administered the sacraments on an assembly-line basis.
The scarcity of Catholic priests and the absence of Protestant churches combined to produce religious apathy in colonial Texas. Among Anglos, church membership, whether Catholic or Protestant, was negligible, and Sunday was more an occasion for fun and frolic than a time for contemplating eternal truths. An observer wrote in 1831 that Texans “seem to have forgotten that there is such a commandment as ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,’” for they spent the day “visiting, driving stock and breaking mustangs.” This secular atmosphere obviously pleased some Texans. In 1830, for instance, one early settler approvingly remarked that the region was free of “the shameless strife and animosities” that ordinarily accompanied “the cause of true religion.” He continued: “We hear no ravings, and see no rompings, or indecorous and indecent exhibitions under the cloak of a religious assemblage.”
Of course, the more appalling the reports about religious conditions in Texas, the greater the excitement of evangelical Protestants in the United States. As one scholar aptly observed, the Texas frontier offered an arena in which the godly could battle “the Devil on his own ground.” Here was a rugged country where sinners could be snatched from Satan’s grasp, a godless society redeemed, and permanent institutions established to carry the struggle against evil into the future. So in defiance of Mexican law, zealous Protestant missionaries furtively slipped into Texas. Near Pecan Point, the Methodist William Stevenson preached the first Protestant sermon in Northeast Texas in 1815. Five years later Bays crossed the Sabine River into east Texas, followed by Sumner Bacon, a Cumberland Presbyterian, in 1829. John W. Cloudq, an Episcopalian, was at Brazoria by 1831. Two groups, similar in many ways — Primitive Baptists and Disciples of Christ — brought congregations organized elsewhere into Texas. The Two-Seed in the Spirit Pilgrim Church of Predestinarian Regular Baptists, formed with seven members in Illinois by Daniel Parker in July 1833, moved to a site near La Grange, Fayette County, in January 1834. These anti-missionary Baptists were intensely Calvinistic and fiercely committed to congregational purity. Led by Mansell W. Matthews and Lynn D’Spain, the first Disciples of Christ congregation arrived at Clarksville by way of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee in January 1836. For these followers of Alexander Campbell who wished to “restore” Christianity to its supposed New Testament unity and simplicity, Texas surely posed a mighty challenge. By 1836, with Methodists far ahead of everyone else, Protestant activity was already fairly common in the areas around Nacogdoches — San Augustine, San Felipe and Houston — Galveston, and at least 33 ministers were in the field — 12 Methodists, 13 Baptists, three Cumberland Presbyterians, three regular Presbyterians, one Episcopal and one Disciple.
Although cited in the Texas Declaration of Independence, religion was not a contributing factor to the Texas Revolution. But Texas independence certainly contributed to the advancement of Protestantism. Suddenly freed of all legal restraints, Protestants rapidly sprawled across the new Republic of Texas. By the late 1840s the state had become a grid of Methodist circuits and conferences, Baptist associations and conventions, Presbyterian presbyteries, and Episcopal parishes of the Diocese of Texas. Like those “upstart towns” described by historian Daniel Boorstin, these were upstart denominations that busily forged organizational structures and aggressively promoted themselves through camp meetings, newspapers, and schools. Methodists, Baptists and Cumberland Presbyterians depended heavily upon protracted camp meetings to kindle spiritual fires. Playing upon the emotions, enthusiastic evangelists graphically contrasted the horrors of hell to the joys of heavenly paradise, and aroused penitents often were overcome by excitement. A Houston meeting in fall 1845 prompted the criticism that “no pen or tongue could give … an adequate description of these riotous scenes — a person must see and hear in order to be convinced of their mad extravagancies….[And] they call it revival.”
Such disparagement notwithstanding, camp revivals, often lasting two to four weeks, served both religious and social needs. They brought a reprieve from the loneliness and tedium of rural and small-town Texas life. This was particularly the case for women, for whom the daily routine was monotonous and exacting. To maintain regular contact with scattered congregations, Methodists and Presbyterians used itinerant preachers, or circuit riders. This method had advantages as well as disadvantages. Though it enabled a small number of trained clergymen to minister to numerous isolated communities, thereby significantly extending denominational influence, it also enabled congregations to avoid making the necessary financial arrangements to support resident pastors. By contrast, Baptists encouraged obtaining local pastors, an objective accomplished all too frequently with poorly educated men or laymen.
Along with camp meetings and traveling parsons, newspapers afforded another means of keeping in touch with the faithful. The religious press added a new dimension to denominational “outreach” in the 1840s and 1850s. One who readily grasped the principle was George Washington Baines, editor of the Texas Baptist from 1855 to 1861. Baines asserted that an “ably edited … neatly printed and widely circulated” religious paper allowed one to speak “week after week … to twice as many thousands as … to hundreds in any other way.”
With publication of the Texas Presbyterian in November 1846, the Cumberland Presbyterians were first into this field. They were followed in 1847 by the Methodists and their Texas Christian Advocate and Brenham General Advertiser. The Old School Presbyterians issued The Panoplist and Presbyterian of Texas in 1855, the year that Baines printed the first copy of the Baptist paper. Not until 1884 did the Disciples of Christ launch the Firm Foundation, which was followed six years later by the Episcopalians’ Diocese of Texas and the Catholics’ Texas Catholic. These early religious papers were for the most part privately owned, risky ventures. Many of them failed, others merged and relocated to more promising locales, and all served partisan denominational and evangelistic interests. The tie between religious journalism and evangelism in the 1840s and 1850s is exemplified by Methodist efforts among German Catholic immigrants. Fueled, it seems, as much by patriotic fervor as religious zeal, Methodists embarked upon a concerted effort to Americanize and Christianize these “priest-ridden” newcomers. They established missions at Galveston, the port of entry, Houston and, eventually, New Braunfels, and in July 1855 began printing Der Deutsche Christliche Apologete, Southern Methodism’s only German-language paper. Concerns about Christian fidelity and national loyalty clearly coalesced in the Apologete. “The only way to make these Germans good American citizens,” announced one promoter of the paper, “is to furnish them with sound protestant reading.”
Although Texas Protestants, especially Methodists, Baptists and Cumberland Presbyterians, were interested primarily in personal evangelism, they also devoted some attention to such social matters as education, slavery and temperance. That Texas was in dire need of temperance was immediately obvious to Martin Ruter, the superintendent of the Methodist Texas Mission, upon his arrival in 1837. Texans had already acquired a reputation for unruliness, and Ruter believed alcohol was partly to blame. Calling attention to the problem of public drunkenness in 1838, he declared “profaneness, gaming, and intemperance” to be the “prevailing vices against which” Texans had “to contend.” Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers subsequently took the initiative in the war against John Barleycorn. In February 1839 William Y. Allen, an Old School Presbyterian, joined others in founding the Texas Temperance Society at Houston. A featured speaker on this occasion was Sam Houston, whose drinking was well known. Sam Corley, a Cumberland Presbyterian in Northeast Texas, soon joined Allen. The Sons of Temperance, a national organization, entered the state in 1848 and within a year claimed 3,000 members; almost every small town and many rural communities had a local chapter by 1851. Although the state legislature passed a few bills dealing with alcohol in the 1850s, the temperance crusade was just beginning. Nothing less than total prohibition would be acceptable to many clerics.
All the Texas churches valued learning, and so they began establishing schools at an early date. The Catholic Church had conducted schools at missions from the beginning of Texas mission history. Much later, in 1829, Protestant Sunday schools appeared in Austin’s colony. Thomas J. Pilgrim, a Baptist layman from New York, initiated the movement at San Felipe. Although Pilgrim’s bold affront to Mexican law brought swift action, he later resumed his efforts. Allen joined the cause, and by 1838 Sunday schools were operating in Houston, San Augustine, Nacogdoches and Washington-on-theBrazos.
The first Catholic schools after the demise of the mission schools began in the early 1840s. Except for the Disciples, all the Protestant bodies operated Sunday schools by 1860. While primarily religious in purpose, these schools generally contributed to the broader intellectual development of communities. Flourishing Sunday schools generated an interest in libraries and academic institutions in general. The American Sunday School Union, for instance, maintained libraries with more than 1,000 volumes in Brownsville and Austin. As for the academic needs of elementary, secondary and college students, the churches founded a multitude of academies, institutes, colleges and universities. Between 1836 and 1845 the republic chartered 19 educational institutions, and between 1845 and 1861 the state authorized 117 more. Credit for the vast majority of these facilities goes to Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians. Most of these institutions, which were of varied scholastic respectability, sooner or later failed; many were moved, some were consolidated, and all bore the imprint of their respective denominations. Seeking “to drive away the dark clouds of ignorance and superstition and gild the path of Baptists to a brighter and purer and higher state of excellence,” as one report read, Baptists alone founded 14 schools between 1845 and 1860 and added another 25 between 1861 and 1900.
In January 1840 the Methodists opened the first Protestant college in Texas, Rutersville College near La Grange, Fayette County. The college, appropriately named in honor of Martin Ruter, was the state’s leading educational center until about 1850. Meanwhile, in 1845 the Baptists established Baylor University at Independence, and by the late 1850s it was granting more degrees than all other Texas colleges combined. In 1886 Baylor was moved to Waco and merged with Waco University, which Central Texas Baptists had founded on a coeducational basis in 1861. The Disciples of Christ didn’t establish a college before the Civil War; they founded Add-Ran College, later Texas Christian University, in September 1873. Before 1861 the Catholic Church had founded at least two institutions that became universities; after the Civil War, Catholic academies, parochial schools and institutions of higher learning multiplied rapidly. Religiously inspired centers of higher education did considerably more than indoctrinate future clergymen. They cultivated civic-mindedness by encouraging students to become involved in the political process; nurtured, within limits, a spirit of critical inquiry; promoted academic opportunities for women, often as coeds; and increased literacy. By 1860, among the state’s whites, illiteracy was under 4 percent for men and just over 5 percent for women.
On the overriding concern of the 1850s, slavery, Texas Protestants, as well as Catholics, were heirs of the Old South. With few exceptions, they defended servitude, saw African Americans as innately inferior, believed evangelization rather than emancipation fulfilled their spiritual obligations to the slaves, justified secession and supplied chaplains for the Confederacy. A Cumberland Presbyterian probably spoke for most Texans in 1860. “God in the creation of the Negro,” he proclaimed, “I think, designed him for a secondary sphere in society that is a sphere of labor and servitude.” With regard to race, the churches in Texas reflected rather than shaped public opinion. Exceptions caused intolerance. Those German Catholics who adopted a resolution opposing slavery in 1854, for instance, only confirmed the suspicion of Anglo-Texans that the German Catholics were neither Christian nor loyal to the state. Likewise, when Aaron Grigsby, pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Jefferson, voiced abolitionist sentiments on the eve of secession, harassment forced him to flee. And in September 1860, when Anthony Bewley, a Northern Methodist missionary, was lynched near Dallas for allegedly encouraging slave insurrections in North Texas, unrepentant Southern Methodists hinted that he had gotten what he deserved. Splits over slavery had occurred within all the major religious bodies by 1861 except for the Disciples and Catholics. But this was no sign of opposition to slavery by these bodies among Southerners. Rather, it reflected, on one hand, Alexander Campbell’s success at preventing slavery from becoming a test of church membership, something Presbyterians had attempted but eventually failed to achieve. On the other hand, it would have been difficult for so loosely structured a group as the Disciples to separate.
By 1861, with 30,661 members and 410 church buildings, Methodists still remained far ahead of all other religious bodies in the state. With 500 congregations and 280 buildings, Baptists were a distant second. Next came the Cumberland Presbyterians with 6,200 members and 155 places of worship. The other groups were all considerably smaller. The Disciples, who grew dramatically in the 1850s, now had 39 churches, followed by Catholics (33) and Episcopalians (19). Although their growth was impressive, the churches were barely holding their own in comparison to the increase in the general population. Of the 604,215 Texas residents in 1860, no more than about 12 percent were affiliated with any organized religion. By 1906, however, significant changes had occurred. Baptists now represented some 33 percent of the church-going public, and the Methodists had declined to 27 percent. Only slightly behind Methodists were the Catholics, whose extraordinary progress in the latter nineteenth century was due not only to an influx of Germans, Czechs, Poles, French and Mexicans, but also to vigorous efforts by the church. The Disciples, composing about 7 percent of the state’s church members, slipped ahead of the Presbyterians, whose adherents totaled approximately 5 percent. Lutherans, Episcopalians and several smaller communions completed the picture.
The resurgence of Catholicism in the latter nineteenth century is particularly noteworthy. The shortage of priests and the enormous influx of Americans after Texas independence had promoted Protestant ascendancy. Already poised at the northern and eastern borders, evangelistic Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Disciples swiftly entered and claimed the terrain as their own, while the Hispanics who’d constituted the Catholic Church in Texas fled or became second-class residents, associated as they were with the Mexican enemy. But Catholics never abandoned the field, although the republic posed a problem for the Vatican. To recognize Texas independence would be to offend Catholic Mexico, while not to recognize it would risk the loss of all influence in the new nation. The Vatican never officially acknowledged the republic, but its continuing interest in the region was apparent. It redirected its oversight through Louisiana instead of Mexico. Father John Timon, a Vincentian from New Orleans, surveyed Texas in 1838. Soon thereafter Jean Marie Odin, also a Vincentian, was given leadership; in the 1840s he assembled a cadre of able priests who labored productively among the growing numbers of Germans and Irish. In 1847 Odin became the bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Galveston, which encompassed all of Texas. By 1861 when he left that post to become the archbishop of New Orleans, the Catholic Church was on the rebound in Texas. The church had 40 priests, one college and a number of resident religious orders. The Ursuline Sisters of Galveston, for instance, earned praise for their care of wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
If Texans of Mexican descent have overwhelmingly been Catholics, the state’s African Americans have just as overwhelming been Baptists. In 1860 blacks constituted slightly more than 30 percent of the Texas population, and in 1900 about 20 percent. For white Christians, this African-American concentration simultaneously represented an evangelistic opportunity and a source of alarm. Although black preachers and separate black congregations could be found in antebellum Texas, slaves had generally attended either white churches, where they usually sat in the balcony or rear, or separate services presided over by whites. These arrangements had satisfied the moral obligation of white Christians to share the Gospel with slaves, while dramatizing the blacks’ inferiority. Emancipation brought a problem. Should the former slaves be encouraged to stay in white churches? If so, should they be invited to come down from the balconies, engage in church discussions and share authority with their former owners?
In fact, white churches of Texas were generally no more willing than those elsewhere in the South to embrace blacks as equals. That would have been far more revolutionary than emancipation. Even so, white congregations were sharply divided during the early Reconstruction years over the retention of blacks, and the ensuing debate disclosed unspiritual motives. The white Protestants feared that if unlettered blacks were removed from white congregations, they would not only slip into scriptural error but also fall prey to the flattery of Northern politicians and Catholic priests. In 1868 a Houston Baptist put the case bluntly: to exclude freedmen from white churches would leave them vulnerable “to the combined evil of ignorance, superstition, fanaticism and a political propagandism more dangerous and destructive to the best interests of both whites and blacks than Jesuitism itself.” Supposed Christian duty as well as self-interest, then, compelled white congregations to “retain the Negroes … and control their action” to a certain extent. Just as the antebellum churches had often effected social control by admonishing slaves to be faithful to their masters, they wanted control after emancipation.
Eager to test their new freedom, however, African Americans quickly rendered the debate moot. They withdrew en masse from white-controlled bodies and forged independent institutions. Illustrative was the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, Houston’s first black congregation. The first Methodist church in Houston had been organized in 1841 with 68 members, almost half of whom were either slaves or free blacks. By the early 1850s the blacks had begun to worship in a separate structure, albeit under a white pastor. From this situation emerged Trinity Church in 1867. Probably because of Baptist democratic polity and congregational autonomy, the overwhelming majority of blacks became Baptists after the Civil War. By 1890 black Baptists numbered 111,138 statewide, while Methodists totaled only 42,214. In 1916 Baptists constituted almost 72 percent of all black church members. This concentration continued. Of the 351,305 African-American church members in 1926, 234,056 were Baptists and 87,926 were Methodists. There were only a few black Catholics, Presbyterians and so on.
Though it is generally agreed that religion was vital to African Americans, there is much less agreement among scholars about the precise function of the church in their culture. Was the church basically a vessel for enduring aspects of African culture, with the black minister little more than a modern shaman? Was it an example of folk religion, preserving superstitions and practices that had little basis in historic Christianity? Or was it, by virtue of its service to an oppressed people, a truer reflection of Christian ideals than the prosperous, secularized white churches? Was it an aggressive agency in the quest for freedom? Were Negro spirituals subtle protest songs and ministers freedom fighters?
Although historians still wrangle over these questions, they usually acknowledge that the black church, which afforded religious, educational, social, recreational and political opportunities denied blacks in the nation at large, has certainly been an alternative society of sorts. Black congregations in Houston illustrate the point. Seeking to meet the political, recreational and educational needs of the city’s black population, Antioch Baptist Church, founded in 1866, helped organize the Harris County Republican Club in 1869, and three years later joined hands with Trinity Methodist to buy property for Emancipation Park. In 1885 Jack (John Henry) Yates, pastor at Antioch, worked with white missionaries to establish Houston College. Among individual blacks who attained prominence in the religious community was the former slave Richard Henry Boyd, a cowboy and mill hand turned preacher. As much as possible, he wanted African Americans to control their own religious and educational endeavors. To that end, in 1897 he organized the National Baptist Publishing Board, which printed materials exclusively for blacks. As for fiery evangelists, Texas blacks had their own Billy Sundays in the likes of J. Gordon McPherson and J. L. “Sin Killer” Griffin.
The separation of blacks from white churches was paralleled in the late nineteenth century by an emerging concern over “modernist” influences. Thoroughly conservative in theology, most Texas churches were undisturbed by the winds of intellectual change. Nevertheless, a modest freethought movement had taken root in the state’s Protestant churches by the early 1880s, and a popular Methodist minister was at its center. After being accused of heretical notions about the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity, James D. Shaw, pastor of the Fifth Street Methodist Church in Waco, was stripped of his credentials in November 1882. He promptly founded the Religious and Benevolent Association, dubbed the “Hell and Damnation Society” by one critic, and in early 1883 launched the Independent Pulpit, whose columns carried “the views of … independent thinkers on the moral, intellectual and social questions of the day.” A prominent Baptist preacher from nearby Alvarado, Henry C. Renfro, was drawn to the movement, and he, too, was defrocked in February 1884.
By the 1920s, as perceived tension between science and religion reached something of a climax, a rigid, intolerant variety of fundamentalism had arisen. Gripped by a beleaguered-fortress mentality, religionists of this persuasion lashed out at imagined enemies. In this climate, only an overriding concern for denominational harmony saved Lee W. Heaton, an Episcopal minister in Fort Worth, from a heresy trial in 1923. The Presbyterian pastor H. G. Kenny was not so fortunate. Among Methodists and Baptists, the conflict focused on college campuses, and J. Frank Norris, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and a fundamentalist of national stature, proved his ecumenism by hurling charges at professors in both denominations. Except for McMurry in Abilene, all the Methodist colleges came under attack in the 1920s. At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Norris joined others in faulting scholar John A. Rice for his book, The Old Testament in the Life of Today. And at Baylor University, Professor Grove Samuel Dow, head of the sociology department, was assailed for his Introduction to the Principles of Sociology. Norris was his principal tormentor. That Texas churches and schools weathered the fundamentalist siege, and that Norris eventually was expelled from almost every Baptist body in the state, attests to the moderate nature of the state’s religious leadership. Most church leaders and members, especially Baptists and Methodists, were profoundly conservative in theological and social views, but they weren’t fundamentalists after the fashion of Norris.
Disputes over “modernism” aside, Norris and moderate Protestants easily agreed on temperance, a movement that had steadily gained momentum in the latter nineteenth century. By 1901 a prominent Texas Baptist even applauded the hatchet-wielding antics of Mrs. Carry Nation of Kansas, rationalizing “that the only way to annihilate the saloon is to meet lawlessness with lawlessness.” The failure of the Anglo-Protestant majority to achieve statewide prohibition until 1919, however, and then only after World War I and the national momentum for a constitutional amendment, forces a reconsideration of the alleged homogeneity of Texas religion. Baptist and Methodist pervasiveness notwithstanding, religious homogeneity was increasingly more apparent than real by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to Catholicism, whose Mexican, German, French, Irish and Italian adherents represented cultural traditions in conflict with Anglo-Protestants on alcoholic consumption, Protestantism itself betrayed deep internal cleavages. Among Baptists, for instance, there were communicants of differing socioeconomic status and varying opinions on the degree of congregational autonomy and the proper means of achieving prohibition. Primitive and Landmark Baptists often took exception to legislated, statewide prohibition because they considered local option more consistent with Baptist tradition. A cursory examination of Texas Baptist life in the late nineteenth century, moreover, would also suggest that controversy was a hallmark of the faith. Within Methodism, the Holiness movement revealed tensions between the church’s leaders and a segment of the laity. As for the state’s Anglo-Protestant political leaders, some favored prohibition, some opposed it. So despite an overwhelming numerical superiority and a seeming homogeneity, Texas Protestants were divided, as the tardy arrival of prohibition suggests.
Although legal success against John Barleycorn came late, the crusade itself was significant in that it brought many church people to social awareness. By 1908, for instance, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, convinced that the tavern was “interlaced … into commerce, politics, society and the administration of law,” challenged the churches to become more active politically and alert socially. Accordingly, there were expressions of the social gospel in Texas by the early 1900s. Methodists and Baptists prove the point, but Baptists are particularly instructive, for they demonstrate the fallacy of the popular assumption that social Christianity was a by-product of northern liberal theology. Despite their intense evangelism and conservative theological views, Baptists increasingly found ample basis for applying the Good News to society. The best exemplar was Joseph Martin Dawson. This longtime (1915–46) pastor of the First Baptist Church, Waco, delivered the first formal series of sermons by a Texas Baptist on social Christianity in 1914 and went on to engage in public controversy over social problems, including racism, throughout his life.
Significantly, Texas Baptists gave institutional voice to Dawson’s concerns. In 1915 the General Convention established the Social Service Committee, and two years later this committee justified its social emphasis with the exuberant proclamation that “Jesus [Himself] was the great sociologist.” From this modest beginning emerged the Christian Life Commission in 1950. Inspired in large measure by Professor Thomas B. Maston of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was an activist body dedicated to applied Christianity. Its interests have been a reflection of modern American society. It objected to universal military training in the early 1950s, regularly defended the desegregation and school-prayer rulings of the Supreme Court in the 1950s and early 1960s, approved abortion under limited circumstances, supported sex education, urged a settlement to the Vietnam conflict, grappled with drug abuse, upheld the principle that people were “more important than profit,” encouraged businesses to face the problem of air and water pollution, censured “raw violence” and gratuitous sex on television, endorsed bilingual education, sanctioned tax-supported public schooling for the children of illegal aliens, commended programs to rehabilitate Texas prison inmates and advocated energy conservation.
Among Texas Catholics, Archbishop Robert E. Lucey of San Antonio (1941– 69) was one counterpart to this movement. Though thoroughly traditional on matters of church authority, Lucey consistently placed the church on the side of the poor. He championed labor’s right to unionize, and within his archdiocese wouldn’t permit the use of nonunion laborers for church construction. In support of desegregation, he integrated parochial schools in San Antonio months before the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). And in the 1960s, farm workers in the Rio Grande valley absorbed his attention. Catholics institutionalized social action in numerous organizations. In 1969, for instance, the Archdiocese of San Antonio founded the Commission on Church and Society, an agency dedicated to racial justice, equality of economic opportunity, job development, and better housing and health services.
In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there’s been both change and continuity in the state’s religious heritage. Most apparent has been the erosion of the secular milieu appreciated by so many Texans of the 1830s or so. Organized religion has grown steadily stronger, and the major denominations today sustain an impressive array of schools, hospitals and eleemosynary institutions. The Dallas-Fort Worth area alone hosts several seminaries — Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth (the world’s largest seminary) and Dallas Theological Seminary, which continues to promote the dispensational premillennial views of Cyrus I. Scofield. The University of Dallas trains Catholic seminarians, partly under the aegis of the Cistercian Fathers.
As for individual Texans, they’re decidedly more religious than their ancestors. Indeed, Texans today belong to organized religious bodies in greater percentages than Americans at large. And quite unlike many of those early settlers, contemporary residents actually take religion seriously, as evidenced by polls. Although only about 40 percent of the population attends church weekly, with Baptists and Catholics being the most frequent, 70 percent reportedly consider religion very important. One can only wonder what Col. John Hawkins would make of such religiosity. Most of the state’s worshipers are still Protestants, but the configuration has changed considerably in the past century. The Methodist Church, which dominated the landscape from the 1830s through the late nineteenth century, slipped to third behind Catholics and Baptists.
Denominationally, the twentieth century belonged to the Baptist Church until 1990, when it was overcome by Catholics. Numerous other bodies, though considerably smaller, function in the state: the Church of Christ, the Lutheran Church, the Pentecostal churches, the Presbyterian Church, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Mormons, Jews, and some Muslims, Hindus and adherents of Buddhism. In this new millennium, Catholics and Baptists are sharing the terrain with seekers of many persuasions.
John W. Storey retired from Lamar University in 2011 after a distinguished career as a scholar of American religious history. He wrote this piece for the Handbook of Texas, and it is reprinted here with permission of the Texas State Historical Association.