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GOD & TEXAS: Brothels in Waco

The historic town of Waco, Texas, is located on the Brazos River, mid-way between Austin and Dallas. Considering Waco today, you may think of Baylor University, the soft drink Dr Pepper, the tragic siege of the Branch Davidians, and “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines.

But back in the 1870s, Waco was an emerging frontier settlement. Founded in 1849, Waco had several colleges, many churches, and three newspapers to service a population of over 3,000. Additionally, a steady stream of cattle men passed through town due to the confluence of the Chisholm Trail and the Shawnee Trail.

Unfortunately, Waco was also known for its’ brothels. In 1879, Waco became the first town in Texas to legalize prostitution to generate tax and licensing revenue. To regulate these unsavory businesses, the politicians of Waco created a vice district known as the Reservation, where prostitution was lawful within its’ boundaries.

Residents who lived on the Reservation were not welcome outside the borders of the district. Children could not attend public schools, and churches did not welcome them, either. There were many reports of physical abuse and violence on the Reservation. But they were largely ignored by the citizens of the “Jerusalem on the Brazos,” a sarcastic term for Waco coined by the Daily News editor William Cowper Brann.

But one young man took notice. J. T. Upchurch was a “street-kid” in Waco, who made money by selling flowers and newspapers. He had seen the sleazy side of life and witnessed the abuse of the Reservation women and children. When J.T. made a personal commitment to Christ at age 20, he determined to help the prostitutes to escape and find a better life.

As J.T intensified his ministry into the Reservation, he met resistance from his own local church, which said that there was no hope of Salvation for prostitutes. However, J.T. and his wife Maggie pursued this outreach by starting the Berachah Rescue Society, and publishing the “Purity Journal.” Over the years, many women and children were led to Christ and found the freedom they sought.

One prominent madam, Della Smith, accepted the grace of Christ and left the Reservation, married a grocer, and became a respected citizen of Waco. She joined the membership of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church and died in 1966. As reported in the book “The Oldest Profession in Waco,” by James Plyant and Sherri Knight, her grandson remembers Grandmother Della reading the Bible to him at night.

The Bible records that Rahab, Mary Magdeline, and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), all found forgiveness in Christ. Jesus said that many prostitutes have believed the message of repentance, and found righteousness (Matthew 21:31-32).

Every soul is precious to Christ, including you! The Bible clearly states in Acts 10:35 (The Message), “God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as He says, the door is open.”


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