While the Methodist circuit riding preachers followed the Westward expansion of the frontier in the new Republic of Texas something else was occurring a few miles South of the original seat of government (Washington-on-the-Brazos) in Chappell Hill. Not one, but two Methodist colleges were established there in an effort to address the higher educational needs of the republic, and a short time later, the new state.
Washington County, and especially Chappell Hill, continued to figure prominently in the unfolding events of Methodism as six Texas Annual Conferences had been held there by 1882. By that time a third Methodist-affiliated college had been established in nearby Brenham for training German-speaking Methodist ministers as that was then the dominant ethnic group in the county.
While Chappell Hill may have served as the epicenter of conventional and educational Methodist activity near the birthplace of Texas, new churches began springing up all over rural Washington County as result of the circuit riders activity. As churches became established and clergy became available pastors were appointed to serve these “stations.”
During this process, however, something happened to the culture of these churches over the years. No longer reliant on strong lay leadership to hold the church together until a circuit riding preacher would return and share a strong message tinged with evangelistic fervor, they submitted to the authority of the appointed pastor. Having relinquished the welfare of the church to clergy, the laity was no longer empowered to determine the life of the church.
Almost all of these rural churches were on a circuit with the appointed pastor dividing his time among a number of churches and unable to effectively invest significantly into the life of any one specifically. The revolving door of the appointment system led to lack of continuity in clergy leadership which was compounded by the leadership vacuum in the ranks of the laity. With no one to take “ownership” of the churches they began to fail and close.
Even the once great bastion of Methodism, Chappell Hill, watched their colleges close and the church served as a part time appointment on a circuit with two others and membership drop to just a handful. Today, out of the dozen or so churches that once existed in Washington County only a third remain. Two are now full-time appointments while the other two are served part-time on a three-point circuit and continue to struggle with an uncertain future.
Do you see the CLMs helping to revive the evangelistic fervor of the circuit riders in our churches today?