In 1630, Texas was a prime target for Spanish Catholic missionaries. For the next 100 years, the Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans built forts and farms, while teaching the Native Americans about Christ. It took a deep spiritual commitment to the Lord for these dedicated ministers to leave their known civilization and come to the unknown New World. We will always honor them for bringing Christianity to Texas.
By 1800, their impact began to wane, and “being Catholic” became more of a title than a personal experience. Mexico had made the Catholic Church the state church, and required everyone to convert or leave. Many of the settlers from the United Stated made a public conversion solely to obtain land. Like Texas Colonel John Hawkins said about being a Christian, “It is only a name anyhow.”
Due to Mexico’s war for independence, and the lack of a Bishop in Monterrey, few priests were being sent to Texas. When Stephen F. Austin said he needed help with weddings and baptisms, Mexico sent Father Michael Muldoon, an Irish priest who had been in ministry in Veracruz since 1821. It is said that he charged $25 for weddings and $2 for Baptisms.
With the lack of Catholic priests, the door opened for Protestant preachers to step forward. In 1730, the Great Awakening had stirred the American Revolution, and God was taking a similar route in Texas. By 1832, sporadic Gospel camp meetings were being reported among the Anglo settlers. These outdoor services became gathering points for prayer, worship, and clandestine discussions regarding more freedom of religion.
In 1832, Cumberland Presbyterian evangelist Sumner Bacon began to preach Christ to both Anglos and Hispanics. With a major commitment to Hispanics, Bacon distributed Bibles that were translated into Spanish, and shared the Gospel message with Hispanics in every echelon of society. After him, William C. Blair received a denominational appointment to evangelize the Mexicans in Texas, and helped to found Aranama College, a men’s institution in Goliad. The Spanish-speaking school taught Latin, Greek, geography, surveying, bookkeeping, writing, reading, elementary and higher mathematics, English grammar and orthography.
Other early preachers who focused on ministry to Hispanics included John McCullough, Hiram W. Read, and Melinda Rankin. By 1858, Rankin had established a Christian school in Brownsville for Mexican girls who were homeless, orphaned, or abused. Both the Government of Mexico and the new leadership of the Texas Revolution, constantly undermined the work of Christian evangelists. Believers were harassed, arrested, and shamed by the authorities. Sometimes their houses were burned or their possessions were stolen. But in all of this, there were bold individuals who defied the controlling government and accepted Christ as Savior, even publically declaring their Faith.
José María Jesús Carbajal is known as the first Texas native Hispanic to publically renounce Catholicism. Born in San Antonio in 1809, José came under the direct mentorship of Stephen F. Austin. Austin felt that José could become a future leader in Texas and invested in his education. When José was sent to Virginia to learn to become a saddle maker, he came under the spiritual guidance of Rev. Alexander Campbell who led him to Christ. He then enrolled in Bethany College in West Virginia, to study for the ministry. In 1830, José returned to Texas as a committed Believer, and brought with him a large quantity of Bibles that had been translated into Spanish.
In order to support his ministry, José became an official surveyor for Martín De León. One of his main projects was to survey and create the schematic drawings for the town of Victoria. José married De León's daughter, María del Refugio De León Garza, and during the Civil War, sent their two children to Bethany College. The Carbajal family was known throughout Texas for being strong Christians, and pointed many to Christ.
Finding records of early Hispanic Christians is very difficult. The culture of the day forced them to be very careful about open testimonies. We do know that many of the Mexican Protestant converts, became active in helping slaves escape from the bondage they endured under the Anglo settlers. This act alone, increased tensions and thwarted their witness. The early days of Texas were stressful and problematic. While we can celebrate the struggle for Texas freedom, we sorrow over the appalling treatment some innocent people received.
The early days of Texas history had many similarities to the experiences of the budding Christian church under Roman rule. Though the emerging church suffered greatly, the blessing and provision of the Lord was significant. The Apostle Paul taught in Romans 13 how Christians should survive under a suppressive government. Could it happen again in modern times? In fact, God revealed the end result of corrupt government in Revelation 13. Using the same imagery from Daniel, we clearly see civil government going horribly wrong in the Last Days by persecuting Christians and becoming a terrifying “beast.”
However, let this Scripture comfort and strengthen you. “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.” Psalm 5:11 ESV