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Prayer in Historic Texas

Prayer in public school has been a hot-button issue in Texas for a long time. There have been passionate arguments on both sides of the matter that have forced Supreme Court judgments. Some have questioned why so many Texas cities open their council meetings with prayer. Even though there is so much controversy, multiple state legislative meetings also begin with prayer. Why is Texas known as such a strong supporter of public prayer? It’s in our Statehood DNA!

When you study the roots of historic Texas, you will find that our state was founded upon prayer. The earliest explorers walked through Texas with a minister in their troop charged to conduct prayer and worship services. Their earliest reports reveal the spiritual side of exploring Texas. Here are some examples.

In November of 1528, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked near Galveston with about eighty team members. But after a winter of starvation and disease, only 15 survived. The Karankawa Indians had been friendly, and had provided the victims with food and shelter. However, the Karankawa were also hit by disease, and suffered many deaths. For some reason, the Karankawa looked to the Spaniards for healing. When the Spaniards hesitated to help them, the Indians began to withhold food. So, Cabeza de Vaca began to act as a doctor and healer among them. Since he had no medicine or medical training, he began to pray for them with Christian prayers, and many of them began to recover. Prayer works!

The first Thanksgiving in Texas was said to have happened on April 30, 1598. On that date, Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate claims that his group of explorers located the Rio Grande River just when they were about to give up hope and die. They had gotten lost in the desert and many had perished. But those who could, kept pushing themselves until finally they found water. The Franciscan missionaries that accompanied them led them in prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God for their survival. After the celebration, they moved forward and settled in what is now known as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their prayers are remembered each year in a great celebration at the Chamizal National Memorial near El Paso.

When the expedition of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed in Matagorda Bay in January 1685, five veteran priests traveled with him. They established Fort St. Louis which would later be moved inland, and would become the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad. Founder Father Zenobius Membré was already known as an experienced missionary in the New World, and became one of the first Christian martyrs in Texas. In 1862, he was also known as the first priest to celebrate Mass in the area now known as Mississippi, just before coming to Texas.

In 1689, Spanish explorer Alonzo de León came to Texas and brought with him Father Damian Massanet (Maneanet), a Franciscan friar. Father Massanet was the leading voice in the establishment of missions in South Texas, and especially in the San Antonio area. In his letters of 1690, Father Massanet recounted his ministry in early Texas and the importance of prayer in the establishment of missions.

These early ministers set the example for Believers to understand the importance of prayer and worship. Since there were only a few churches, some Believers in early Texas made altars in their home. As you visit pioneer houses built before the Civil War, many of them had designated areas for prayer. The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, provides detailed studies of the historic custom of building home altars. While some were built as shrines to lost loved ones or as a remembrance of some climatic event in their personal lives, most were used as daily prayer locations. Some families had a small table for the altar, while others dedicated an entire room for prayer. In Texas, prayer is important.

With this as a base, you can easily see why prayer was woven into the Texas public school system. Many churches served as the physical location where children were sent for education during the week. The use of the Bible and other books like the McGuffey Reader, provided a foundation for teaching math, reading, economics, language, prayer, and morality. William McGuffey was a professor at the University of Virginia, and the president of Ohio University. When he authored his historic book, he had a vision for our children and their future. In the foreword of McGuffey's Reader, 1836, he wrote: "The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions." In McGuffey's Eclectic Sixth Reader, 1907, the author included this quote from statesman Lyman Beecher: "While most nations trace their origin to barbarians, the foundations of our nation were laid by civilized men, by Christians...” Some of the stories in a McGuffey Reader include: "The Greedy Girl"; "The Kind Little Girl"; "The Honest Boy and the Thief"; "The Lord's Prayer"; "The Effects of Rashness"; "On Speaking the Truth"; "Consequences of Bad Spelling"; "Happy Consequences of American Independence"; and "Decisive Integrity." When Texas children were taught these values, it impacted their conduct and world view.

Since the first legislative session of the Texas Congress (1846–47), prayer has been given at the beginning of official meetings. The schedule for persons offering the prayer is determined by the presiding officer. Various faiths have offered the prayers, and sometimes, singers have even sung “The Lord’s Prayer” as the invocation. Our legislators recognize the historic and spiritual benefits of this long-standing Texas custom. Indeed, Rule 6, Section 1 on page 97 of the Texas House Rules, 84th Legislature 2015, discusses the typical agenda of a session and reads, “(3) Prayer by chaplain, unless the invocation has been given previously on the particular calendar day.”

In 1846, the United States and Mexico went to war. There were a series of horrible battles where many soldiers on both sides lost their lives. During one of the battles, a Mexican woman, Selavia Arista, risked her own life to save the lives of wounded Texans who fought for the United States. Irishman David Cule, a Texan soldier who had been wounded in the war, wrote this prayer in the form of a poem to remember the valiant efforts of the Maid of Monterrey (in part):

Although she loved her country, And prayed that it might live Yet for the wounded foreigner, A tear she had to give And when the dying soldier, In her bright gleam did pray They blessed the senorita, The Maid of Monterrey.

In Galveston, on June 19, 1865, the news was announced by Major General Gordon Granger that President Abraham Lincoln had issued an Executive Order that freed all slaves. Known as the Emancipation Proclamation, it changed the course of history in the United States. One of Major Grangers’ first acts was to read the following statement to the people of Texas: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

Life changed for everyone. Some slaves immediately left their former masters and headed North. Many stayed in the area, while others remained as paid labor with their former masters. A day of celebration was held to enjoy their new found freedom and to plan for the future. The celebration of June 19th later became known as Juneteenth. It is still commemorated today by the descendants of those who had obtained their freedom. When Juneteenth was first established, it had three main goals: To reassure each other, to thank God with prayer and worship, and to gather together the remaining family. Juneteenth is still highly revered in Texas, with many descendants of former slaves making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston. Prayer meetings remain a treasured part of the festivities.

Prayer is in the backbone of all Texans. From our earliest until now, we know the power of prayer. May we embrace the Scriptures and often bow before the God who provided all of our freedoms. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

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