When Stephen Fuller Austin was finally granted full permission to form a colony in Texas he decided that he would need an unofficial capital so that he could regulate all of the affairs of the colony. In 1824 after looking at multiple locations to create a town he eventually settled on a place along the western bank of the Brazos River where the Atascosito Road crossed. That road had been created about a century earlier by the Spanish as a military route from the eastern part of Texas to San Antonio. The location Austin chose sat upon a high bluff that was easily defendable and the area had multiple sources of fresh water other than the river itself. Also, it was possible for keelboats to travel the eighty miles from the mouth of the river to transport goods and supplies. The governor of the region at the time created the name for the town – “San Felipe” for his patron saint and “de Austin” in honor of Austin himself. It is interesting to note that although the proper pronunciation for the town should be “San Fay-lee-pay” most locals today pronounce it more like “San Phillip” and the “de Austin” portion is rarely used. Apparently even Austin himself preferred this pronunciation because in a letter to his sister he spelled the name of the town as “San Phillip...” The town soon began to sprawl out westward from the river and also out from either side of the road. By 1828 there were approximately two-hundred people living in the town which included three general stores, two taverns, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and about forty to fifty log cabins. Austin himself had built a cabin along a nearby creek although he was often away from San Felipe on business.
Protestant worship occurred in the town and usually consisted of open-air meetings with itinerant ministers. Methodists were evidently part of this mission work because a man named Henry Stevenson, an early Methodist pioneer from the eastern portions of Texas, had “visited Austin’s colony as early as 1824, and preached… near San Felipe. Mr. Stevenson also paid the settlement a visit in 1828 and another in 1830.” Within a few years of that “there is clear evidence that there was a nucleus of a strong Methodist group in the area of San Felipe…by about 1833-34. Some accounts refer to the groups as a church.” It seems it was impossible to keep the Methodists away from the ripe mission field with people eager to hear their message. Interestingly, Austin was particularly concerned with “the aggressively evangelistic Methodists, whom Austin called ‘excited,’ ‘imprudent,’ ‘fanatic,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘noisy.’” For him to have such strong feelings for the Methodists shows that they were truly quite fired up to spread salvation by faith in Jesus Christ to all who would listen. After one of Stevenson’s visits to the area Austin apparently made an outburst that “’one Methodist preacher’ would cause more harm for his colony ‘than a dozen horse thieves.’”
In San Felipe there was a leader, William B. Travis, who had strong ties to Methodism. Travis, who would eventually be the commander of the regular army forces at the Alamo, lived in San Felipe for a time and worked as a lawyer. While living there he attended Methodist meetings and in August of 1835 he wrote to the New York Christian Advocate and Journal, which was a Methodist publication, and he requested for more full-time Methodist missionaries to be sent to Texas. He wrote: “I request that the Methodist Church, with its excellent itinerant system, has hitherto sent the pioneers of the Gospel into almost every destitute portion of the globe, should have neglected so long this interesting country. I wish you would do me and the good cause the favor to publish such remarks as will call the attention of the reverend Bishops the different Conferences, and the Board of Missions, to the subject of spreading the Gospel in Texas. About five educated and talented young preachers would find employment in Texas, and no doubt would produce much good in this land. Texas is composed of the shrewdest, and most intelligent population of any new country on earth; therefore, a preacher to do good must be respectable and talented. In sending your heralds to the four corners of the earth, Remember Texas.” His letter met receptive ears and several Methodist missionaries were later sent to Texas. Travis himself however would never know the result of his writings since he would be killed along with the rest of the Alamo defenders the following year.
Before Texas declared its independence from Mexico the town of San Felipe was the site of many important events that shaped the future of the state. “In August 1832, Austin organized the convention to petition Mexico to repeal an anti-immigration law and to request statehood for Texas under the Mexican Constitution.” This convention was held in San Felipe along with another one in April of 1833 where the colonists were working with the same requests for the Mexican government. The Consultation of November 3, 1835 was also held in San Felipe and at that point the town was turned into the capital of the provisional government until the Convention of 1836 moved to Washington-on-the-Brazos. With that convention Texas declared its independence and set up its own constitution. At the same time the Battle of the Alamo was taking place which culminated on March 6, 1836 when the Texans, along with Travis, fell. In the ensuing chaos Gen. Sam Houston attempted to flee eastward and evacuate as many of the settlers as possible who were in the path of the Mexican army. Eventually he made his way to San Felipe where he evacuated the town during what is known as the “Runaway Scrape.” Once everyone was safe on March 30th some of Houston’s soldiers stayed behind to burn the town to the ground so there would be nothing left for the Mexican army to salvage. Houston proceeded eastward towards some low wetlands where he eventually faced the Mexican army at what became known as the Battle of San Jacinto. The Texas army won a decisive victory and the Mexican army surrendered.
As the Texans were celebrating their victory at San Jacinto the town of San Felipe de Austin lay in ruins with a future much more in doubt than the rest of Texas. Although only some of the former residents returned they were still able to begin rebuilding and soon life was breathed back into the former capital of the colony along the Brazos River. In 1837, just one year after the Runaway Scrape, the town was incorporated and became the county seat for the newly formed Austin County. The town council donated some land in the area known as “Constitution Square” that was to be used as the site for a multi-purpose building – a town hall, school, and church all in one. By the next year a one-story wood frame structure was complete to serve this purpose. That building still exists today as the first-floor of the San Felipe United Methodist Church. It was built out of cypress which happens to be an extremely long-lasting wood that tends to resist deterioration unlike other types of wood. This proved to be an excellent choice since the structure still exists today – over 170 years later.
There is evidence that the Methodists were the ones to use the building as a church from the very beginning. Although the structure was built by the town, a secular entity and is still today owned by San Felipe, the Methodists were holding regular Sunday worship there from the outset and were part of the Houston Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Texas. In 1838, the year it was constructed, a Frenchman by the name of Frederic LeClerc was touring the new Republic in order to write a book titled Texas and its Revolution about the young country. He dedicated one chapter to San Felipe and mentioned that he attended a worship service in “a large hall being used for church services, two sets of benches, one for women, and for men. An old carpenter from Massachusetts delivered very austere sermons which were well received.” All of this shows that not only was the town of San Felipe once again alive with activity but also that the Methodists were also quite active and involved with the little town along the Brazos.
By 1847 San Felipe had constructed a new town hall so the first building was no longer needed to serve that function. That means that at that point is was strictly a church and a school. Also, the town added a second floor to the church that year which still exists today. It seems the Methodists were still actively using the building on Sundays and serving the community but unfortunately there are no records for the church from that period in existence today. We do know however that a new Masonic lodge formed in San Felipe in 1859 and the next year they were meeting in the upstairs portion of the church building. Today, if you walk around up there you will see a ceiling painted blue with a field of five-pointed stars and on the eastern wall (above the downstairs front door) there is an “eye of God” painted with rays of light shining outwards. This lodge ceased its activities in the 1910’s so these paintings have been up there at least that long. Town records become a little more reliable by the 1880’s and during that decade a new school building was constructed so at that point the first floor of the original structure was solely being used as a church. Even more importantly in 1883 a steeple was constructed which shows that it was truly a church building rather than anything else. A bell was donated that apparently had come from a plantation across the Brazos River that was no longer in existence after the Civil War.
One interesting thing about their worship during this time period was that they usually met at nighttime and they would worship underneath a brush arbor that was built just outside the front door of the church. They had oil lamps hanging from the branches to give them light which must have been quite a harrowing experience on a windy evening. They continued worshiping this way up to the 1920’s. Also, during this period someone had donated some oil lamps for the sanctuary itself and these were hung along the north and south walls of the church to give them light when they would worship indoors, probably mostly during the cooler months of the year, and they continued to be used until 1940 when the church finally got electricity. The lamps are still hanging today and are lit every Christmas Eve to show the connection the church has with its history.
There are no records of who the first 21 ministers for the church were but they do have the name of the 22nd minister who began serving in 1913. His name was G.W. Riley and after him they have recorded in a scrapbook all the names of the pastors who served there right up to today with number 52. The church building was designated as a Texas Historical Landmark in 1964 and the congregation proudly hangs a plaque outside displaying the building’s historical significance. Methodism can trace back its history along the Brazos River in San Felipe de Austin for more than 185 years and it is still burning like those fiery preachers that came through so many years ago.
Berthelsen, Linda, Dalrymple, Christopher, and Berthelsen, Kathryn, “San Felipe Secrets Unveiled – Beauty, Strength and Wisdom in Colonial Texas,” Sugar Land: Wild Garlic Press, 2008.
“Camp meetings mark Methodist Beginnings”, Sealy News, September 1985.
“The Handbook of Texas Online,” 2010, Texas State Historical Association. Accessed July 29, 2010. http://www.tshaonline.org/index.html
“San Felipe Methodist Church historical landmark,” The Sealy News, Friday, November 29, 2002, 7A.
Scrapbook of San Felipe United Methodist Church – Book 1
Thrall, Rev. Homer S, ”History of Methodism in Texas,” Houston: E. H. Cushing, 1873.
Vernon, Walter N., Sledge, Robert W., Monk, Robert C., and Spellmann, Norman W, “The Methodist Excitement in Texas,” Dallas: The Texas United Methodist Historical Society, 1984.