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Unusual Church Customs in Historic Texas

In these recent blogs, I have researched events, people, and places of early Texas, in an effort to show how God impacted history in the Lone Star State. Most of us have some knowledge of these events, but these blogs are intended to show how faith functioned within them. Hope you enjoy!

In the early 19th Century, the influence of the Spanish missions began to wane. Many of the missions were secularized, and simply became part of the civic activities of the community. However, the hunger for spiritual liberty and true worship of God that had been suppressed for so long, began to emerge with vigor throughout Texas. It was similar to what had happened in the United States during the Great Awakening. That revival began in the pre-revolution Colonies in the 1730’s and was led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. But, as usual, things happened differently in Texas.

Protestant preachers began to move into East Texas with great caution, because they were banned by the government of Mexico. What they found was a population thirsty for the Word of God. The circuit riders came first, and they lit the spiritual fire with passion and fervor. Often, as an outgrowth of their preaching, brush arbors or camp meetings sprang up. These may have started on a Thursday and ended on Sunday evening. People from all over the area came together to worship, pray, and to circulate social and political gossip. These occasional meetings gave the people a desire for more regular functions. Slowly, church buildings were built in various communities. Services and teachings were generally led by a volunteer pastor who presented his view of doctrine and theology. Many of the preachers had no formal theological training, but their devotion and enthusiasm opened the door for the Holy Spirit to bring rapid growth.

Over the next few years, preachers, Bible study groups, and entire congregations began to move into Texas. Independent churches were established with little connection to anyone else. Some were loosely affiliated with established religious associations like Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist. In 1859, a Jewish congregation was chartered in Houston. Beth Israel remains a viable institution to this day.

As the individual groups flourished, physical buildings were constructed to house their activities. It is interesting to see the architectural design and interior requirements each congregation expected to facilitate their theology and customs. Like today, individual churches had specific requirements for their diverse behaviors and activities. To better visualize this thought, here is a glimpse of what happened in some of the pioneer churches in historic Texas:

Some churches painted their front door red. The statement they may have meant was that coming through the red doors symbolized being saved through the Blood of Christ. Lutheran churches may have pointed out that the doors of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517, were thought to have been painted red. By using the red paint, they connected with the Great Reformation. Other churches taught that the red door reminded worshippers of the Old Testament story of the Passover, or it was reminiscent of the blood of Christian martyrs. There were many reasons for the red door.

McMahan Chapel, near San Augustine, has been recognized as the birthplace of the Methodist Church in Texas. In 1831, Samuel McMahan moved to the area from Tennessee with a small Bible study group. Because he loved God, he desired to commit some of his land for building a church. The first pastor, Littleton Fowler, helped build the McMahan Chapel, and when he died, he asked to be buried under the pulpit, and so he was!

Texas has many painted churches. Since the 1850’s, Czech settlers immigrated to Texas and brought some of their Old World artistry with them. Czech Protestant and Moravian Brethren Church members painted their ceilings and other parts of their interior with amazing décor. There are about 20 incredible churches just in the Schulenburg area alone that have brilliant paintings covering the walls, ceilings, pillars, and floors. In Wesley, Texas (Southwest of Brenham), the Brethren Church is especially noteworthy.

And then there is the church that is supposed to be haunted. Outside of the city of Elkhart, south of Palestine, you will find the remnants of a pre-Civil War town known as the Pilgrim Community. The mysterious Pilgrim Church and cemetery are thought to be remnants from the first Protestant mission into Texas. There is a local legend that the ghost of Felicia Cortez is guarding a hidden treasure of gold that she buried in the area long ago. She wanders around the little red church that is totally surrounded by a cemetery with tombstones dating back to the 1830’s.

Little Hope Missionary Baptist Church was founded in an area developed in the 1850’s. Little Hope is a shadow of a town in North Texas, a few miles East of Quitman. Very little history is known of the area, but many have commented about how depressing it must have been to live in a town called Little Hope. Locals say that the name Little Hope was given to the town founders who were attempting to establish a thriving city in a depressed area. Defying the odds, Little Hope Missionary Baptist Church still functions today. Despite living near Quitman, they have refused to quit.

In the 1850’s, St. Pauls Lutheran church ministered to the people surrounding Serbin, Texas, southwest of Giddings. Like some other churches of that era, they separated the congregation by gender. The males would sit on one side, and the females on the other. Having moved to Texas from the Old World, they had been taught to provide a matroneum for women in their church structures. For some churches, the matroneum was a balcony for the women, or a small portion just off the main floor perpendicular to the pulpit. In Serbin, the matroneum was on the main floor and the men sat in the balcony.

Some churches in Seguin, Texas, had two front doors. A husband would walk his spouse to the women’s door, and then he would step over to the men’s door to enter the same building. Then the men sat on their side, as the women and children sat on the other side. Some churches used the second front door only for funerals. Others had the tradition that before the wedding, the bride entered one door, but the bride and groom left using the other door. The groom would usually carry the bride over the threshold as they left.

There was even a custom for some churches to be built facing East. If a church met that criteria, the women sat on the north side and the men sat on the south side. For this group, if a home was going to be used as a church, it had to have two front doors, and needed to meet the other specifications that aligned with their interpretation of Scripture.

Sorry this blog turned out to be so long. But I have only scratched the surface of church life in pioneer Texas. These fascinating customs and traditions remind me of the words of Jesus in Mark 7:3-9. Let us be careful to not bury our freedom in Christ under a mountain of tradition.

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