Copyright 1994 Timothy Hebert
METHODISM ALONG THE BAYOU
by Timothy Hebert
First United Methodist Church of Houma
FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE EARLY 18OO'S
Beginnings of Methodism
The Methodist Church began in the same manner as did Christianity. A religious leader was calling for people to turn to Christ. The leader didn't intend to start a new religion, but the converts felt that they were too different after their conversion to remain under the same religious classification.
Jesus was a faithful Jew all of His life. He wanted the other Jews to follow Him and His teachings. He did not call them to leave the Jewish faith. John Wesley took the same path. He was an Anglican preacher who remained in that faith all his life. But when his followers were converted, they too felt that their "old" religion was wrong for them. Just as the first century followers of Christ became Christians, those who were moved by John Wesley and his theology became Methodists.
John Wesley became an Anglican minister in 1728, at the age of twenty-five. But when his heart was "strangely warmed" in 1738, he began preaching with a new conviction ... the conviction of a saved sinner. His sermons were simple messages aimed at the "common man." He would seek out the people and preach to them, instead of waiting for them to come to church. His style and message resulted in a rapid growth of followers who accepted Christ. But, it also resulted in rapid disapproval from his superiors. Nevertheless, Wesley continued to preach his message. When he died in 1788, there were over 125,000 people calling themselves Methodists in England.
In 1741, Wesley organized a system of "circuit riders." This system would later find its way to America. These itinerant preachers would be assigned an area to cover. This area was sometimes spread out over hundreds of square miles. They would travel from community to community. A community would be lucky to get the preacher to visit them once a month.
Having visited America some years earlier, Wesley realized the need to reach its people. Early missionaries were sent to America in the 1760's and Methodist societies began forming. Even though Wesley supported England in the Revolutionary War, the American Methodists (led by Francis Asbury) had tripled their membership by the time the war had ended. By 1784, there were 15,000 American Methodists.
In 1784, Wesley began ordaining ministers to go to the United States. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in Baltimore, Maryland on December 24, 1784. Its leaders were Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. They adopted the same circuit rider system that Wesley used in England. This was ideally suited for the United States. Most of the population was rural. Towns and churches might be miles away. The circuit rider arrangement enabled the church to reach out to the people. The simple message of the gospel brought to people where they were enabled the Methodist movement to grow rapidly. As the United States grew, so did the outreach of the Methodist ministers. They often arrived in new territory not long after the settlers moved in.
The Methodist Church hasn't always been one big happy family. The 19th century brought a number of splits in the Methodist membership. In 1816, a number of black Methodists formed their own church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Six years later, another coalition of black Methodists formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In the 1820's, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed because some Methodists wanted the lay people to have a bigger role in governing the church. In 1843, the issue of slavery caused some Methodists to withdraw and form the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A large split occured in 1845, when the main branch of Methodism divided into the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Although the split was basically caused by the issue of slavery, their basic doctrine and policies remained the same. The last major split occurred shortly after the Civil War, in 1870, when a large number of the black Methodists in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South formed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. They later (1954) changed it to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
If the 19th century was the time of division, then the 20th century became the time of union. Discussions of union had been around for a while, especially between the two largest groups ... the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After all, a major issue of their division, slavery, no longer existed. Finally, in 1939, the Methodist Protestant, the Methodist Episcopal, and the Methodist Episcopal, South Churches merged to form the Methodist Church.
The last union came on April 23, 1968, when the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church. The two churches had always shared the same doctrine and theology, but had been separated by language. The Evangelical United Brethren had their roots in German instead of English. But by now, both groups used English.
By 1990, there were over sixteen million members in the forty branches of the Methodist faith around the world.
Beginnings of Terrebonne Parish
The history of people in Terrebonne Parish actually goes back thousands of years. The first visitors to this land, Native Americans who roamed the continent, made their way into south Louisiana. The only evidence of their existence today is the earthen mounds and artifacts they left behind. The first "modern day" visitors to Louisiana were the early European explorers.
In 1682, LaSalle took possession of the Louisiana territory for France. Later, Bienville came to bring settlers. In 1718, his settlers began work on the town that would become New Orleans. Shortly after this, in 1721, a group of settlers from Germany located in St. Charles and St. James Parishes. This was called the German coast. More French settlers would arrive sporadically for years to come. By 1744, there were 3,000 people in south Louisiana, though the Terrebonne Parish area was still virtually noninhabited.
In 1762, France transferred the Louisiana territory to Spain. The Spanish government had a policy of giving land grants to individuals who would settle this pioneer territory. The first major group to take advantage of this was the Acadians. From 1765 to 1785, 3,000 of the Acadians who had been exiled from Canada arrived in south Louisiana ... their New Acadia. The Acadian culture would overshadow the other nationalities of the region. Even today, south Louisiana is known as Acadiana.
In the late 1770's, a number of Spanish settlers came from the Canary Islands. Also, the slave rebellions in Santo Domingo drove thousands of people to Louisiana.
The Acadian, French, and Spanish settlers first settled along Bayou Lafourche. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that they began to move along the bayous into Terrebonne Parish.
The Houmas Indians moved into Terrebonne Parish during the last quarter of the 18th century. They had originally lived in the Feliciana parishes. They moved down to the Bayou St. John area in the early 1700's. Due to conficts in the tribes, they eventually moved south and formed six settlements in Terrebonne Parish. The major concentration of Indians settled in the community of Dulac.
It is important to note that for the first one hundred years of settlers in Louisiana, the territory was controlled by either France or Spain. Both of these countries have Roman Catholicism as the state religion. The citizens had to be Catholic. Even after the United States took control, the Catholic influence remained strong. It would be over one hundred more years before Protestants would show any significant growth in south Louisiana. Roman Catholics still outnumber Protestants in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes.
In 1803, France once again took control of Louisiana and soon sold it to the United States. The first English settlers began to move into Louisiana. The year 1812, when Louisiana became a state, brought an influx of settlers ... English, Irish, Scottish, and so on ... from the American states. With these settlers came the Protestant ministers. The three major Protestant denominations at this time were Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian.
By 1850, it was clear that the United States was a Protestant nation. Of the over 34,000 churches in America, 13,280 were Methodist, 9,375 were Baptist, 4,824 were Presbyterian, 1,706 were Congregational, and 1,459 were Episcopal. There were only 1,221 Roman Catholic churches. In the middle of the largely Protestant United States stood south Louisiana. Here, the situation was reversed. It was still as strongly Catholic as the rest of the country was Protestant.
There were several small settlements in Terrebonne Parish that had sprung up along the various waterways. Houma, at this time, was still a small town. It was founded in 1834 and incorporated in 1848. When the first church was built in the 1840's, the population was 200-300. Fifty years later, the population had only grown to about 1,200. Thibodaux was much bigger in the early days. As the seafood, sugar cane, and lumber business picked up in Terrebonne Parish, Houma outgrew Thibodaux. In the 20th century, with the discovery of oil, Houma's population increased to several times that of Thibodaux. The current population of Houma and its suburbs is over 50,000.
The Roman Catholic religion still holds a lot of clout in the area. Almost 50% of families that claim a denomination are Roman Catholic. In Terrebonne Parish, only 1.8% of families are United Methodist. The figures are similar for neighboring Lafourche Parish. Of the Protestant religions, the Baptist Church has experienced the most growth in the area during the past 75 years.