METHODISM ALONG THE BAYOU
by Timothy Hebert
First United Methodist Church of Houma
Copyright 1994 Timothy Hebert
METHODISM MOVES INTO TERREBONNE PARISH
Almost 100% of the population of early south Louisiana was Roman Catholic. But many weren't devout in their faith. Since Catholicism was the only religion in town, one had to be Catholic if you wanted a minister for births, deaths, and marriages. Just a few years before, in 1795, the Spanish governor Estevan Miro declared that "no preacher of any religion but the Catholic" may come into the province. The Catholic priests even warned early Protestant ministers not to preach here. Even Wesley himself noted in 1758, while visiting Ireland, that the Catholics would like to "cut the throats of all Protestants." The Protestants were viewed as pagans by the Catholics.
Since the early Methodists preachers were usually uneducated men who breezed through town with only the clothes on their backs, the people found it hard to place their trust in them. After all, the Catholic priests were educated men who would stay for several years at a time and would build impressive church buildings. Methodist preachers could not stay on the same circuit for more that two years; and congregations were lucky if the preacher could make it to their area once a month. It would be years before any significant numbers of Methodist churches would be built. The native Catholics were hesitant about turning their faith over to a religion that didn't even have a church in the area. This feeling would continue to hamper the Protestant movement in the area throughout the 19th century.
Methodism first entered Louisiana through Tobias Gibson, who had been appointed to the Natchez circuit in 1799. He probably ventured into what is now northeast Louisiana, but no significant preaching was done there. In 1802, this Natchez circuit was included in the Western Conference.
The Methodist Church did not waste much time after Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803. The first recorded Methodist preaching in Louisiana was by Lorenzo Dow in 1804. But nothing came of it. Later in 1804, Learner Blackman was appointed to the Natchez Circuit. Dow reported to Blackman of the need to send someone to Louisiana. So, Blackman was the first regular circuit rider to venture into Louisiana.
In 1805, Blackman asked for a preacher to be sent to New Orleans. Elisha W. Bowman was sent by the bishop to cover the Opelousas Circuit (which covered all of southern Louisiana). Blackman suggested that he start in New Orleans. The Western Conference paid his way ($100). So, Bowman left in 1805, went down through Natchez, and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He arrived on December 1, 1805. The Governor promised he could use the State House to preach in, but it was locked on Sunday. So he preached on the street, to the constant jeering of the townfolk. When this happened again the next Sunday, Bowman decided to move on. On December 17, he said "I shook off the dirt from my feet against this ungodly city of Orleans."
His rejection could be due to the fact that an apostate Methodist preacher who was recently in the city gave Methodists a bad name. Also, fifty-five Protestants had recently met in New Orleans to decide what kind of minister to invite. Since forty-seven of them voted to invite an Episcopalian, Rev. Bowman's arrival may have even been rejected by the Protestants in the town.
Leaving New Orleans, he rode fifty miles up the Mississippi River. Then he followed Bayou Lafourche southward for fifty miles. Crossing swampy terrain for fifteen miles, he came upon a settlement of Spanish people on the shores of a large lake. He secured two canoes, built a platform on them for his horse, and hired two Spaniards to row him to the mouth of the Bayou Teche. He rode eighty miles up the Teche and finally reached Opelousas. The church he founded there was known as the "mother church" for Methodism in Louisiana. That first year, he accepted seventeen members into the church.
It was not easy going for the Louisiana circuit riders. When Blackman later visited Bowman, he commented that the area was the worst in the continent for the itinerant preacher. The circuit riders would continue to find the land and the people hard to handle.
In 1809, Benjamin Edge was appointed to the Opelousas circuit. This circuit was at that time in the Mississippi District of the Western Conference. This was the only circuit in southern Louisiana. The preacher attempted to preach in New Orleans, but nothing came of it. North Louisiana had a number of circuits that developed more over the years. They were not under the Catholic influence that south Louisiana was under. Rev. Edge was followed in 1810 by John Henninger. By 1810, there were forty-three Methodists in the New Orleans territory.
The circuit was renamed the Attakapas circuit when William Winans was appointed in 1811. Though the circuit was supposed to cover south Louisiana, Rev. Winans probably never ventured further west than New Orleans during this appointment. His income from this position was thirty dollars. Rev. Winans found only three Methodists in New Orleans, which had a population of five thousand at that time. One of these Methodists, a German named Jacob Knobb, gave him a place to stay. Rev. Winans rented a downstairs front room where he taught school and held church services. This was located on Bienville between Chartres and Royal. His efforts at this time yielded few results. He found that the people of Louisiana "were more concerned with amusements and parties." By the year's end, he had fewer than twelve members. In 1812, south Louisiana was divided into two circuits. John S. Ford took over the Attakapas. New Orleans got its own preacher, Miles Harper.
In 1813, the Louisiana District was formed. It was under the Tennessee Conference. The only preacher appointed in south Louisiana was John S. Ford (Attakapas circuit). Of the ninety-nine (eighty-nine whites and ten black) Louisiana Methodists at this time, sixty-five of them were on the Attakapas circuit. Richmond Nolley was appointed to the circuit the following year. He lived the typically hard life of the circuit rider. He once was saved by a Negro woman (armed with a hoe) from a group of ruffians who tried to pull him out of the pulpit. Black families would turn out to be some of the most faithful members of the early Methodist Church. Eventually, Nolley died in the field while travelling through the Attakapas. He was only thirty years old.
It is uncertain whether the Terrebonne Parish area was considered as part of the Attakapas circuit or part of the New Orleans circuit. The Attakapas circuit received a preacher each year. New Orleans, however, received preachers sporadically over the next decade. Sometimes, a "missionary" was sent to the area from another conference. Pastors appointed to the New Orleans circuit were referred to as missionaries.
For example, Rev. Lewis Hobbs was sent to New Orleans by the South Carolina Conference shortly after the Louisiana District was formed. He would preach to the prisoners in jail on Sunday mornings and then hold three services in a rented house. It was said that his sermons were short, only thirty to forty minutes long. Although he had a weak body, he was an eloquent speaker who spoke from the heart. His job was not an easy one. The Catholic church consistently tried to stop his preaching. He lasted about a year before returning to the East.
Some of the other preachers appointed to New Orleans were Mark Moore (1819), John Manifee (1820), Daniel Hall (1824), and Benjamin Drake (1825-26). Needless to say, they only preached to the English-speaking population of Louisiana. The French had yet to hear the Methodist message.
In 1819, the Missionary and Bible Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in New York. Its major goal was to reach the home mission field. One of the major factors in organizing the society was the need for missionary work among the French population. Francis Asbury, writing to Joseph Benson in 1816, notes that "... upon this continent we are crowded with French people ... we want French Methodist preachers." In May, 1819, the New York District appointed the Society's first missionary. Dr. William Phoebus was appointed as missionary to the French in Louisiana. Unfortunately, they could not raise the necessary funds to send him and his family to New Orleans.
A few months later, the New York Conference appointed Ebenezer Brown as missionary to Louisiana. After raising money for a horse and travelling expenses, he was sent to "preach to the French inhabitants of Louisiana," as the 1820 Conference Minutes noted. Though he made it to New Orleans, Rev. Brown failed to gain access to the French population. He spent his time assisting John Manifee in preaching to an English congregation until his return to New York in 1821. The firstattempt at reaching the French population of Louisiana had resulted in failure. It would be years before the French home mission field in Louisiana would receive another French-speaking missionary.
It was under the tenure of Rev. Drake that the numbers of Methodists began to show any real increase. The circuit was now referred to as the New Orleans Mission. Rev. Drake himself stated that "New Orleans presents a more unyielding resistance to the evangelical gospel ... than any other city in the South." Though he would have his work cut out for him, Rev. Drake firmly planted Methodism in New Orleans.
While these ministers were appointed to New Orleans, they probably ventured into the parishes west of Orleans. In 1823, for example, Rev. Drake and a Mr. Devinne visited New Iberia. It had been visited by an earlier preacher, because Rev. Drake stated that the hall used previously for preaching was not available. Not finding a room to use, the men prepared to leave. But they noticed an attractive ship on the Bayou Teche. Upon investigating the ship, they found that the crew was Methodist. The captain invited the preachers to hold services on the ship. This was not to be, since someone stepped up and offered the home of his son-in-law (a Mr. French) as a meeting place. The next spring, Rev. Drake returned and held a revival. Nine or ten people were converted. Several members of the French family and a man named Marinie Prince were among the converts. Their descendants would later form the nucleus of the French Mission many years later.
Rev. Drake was succeeded in 1827 by Peyton S. Greaves and in 1828 by William M. Curtiss. The New Orleans mission was moved from the Mississippi District to the Washington District. There were 618 white and 316 black Methodists in Louisiana by the end of 1828. It is possible that a Methodist preacher might have brought the first Methodist meeting into the Terrebonne-Lafourche area at this time.
The early church meetings led by the circuit riders usually consisted of camp meetings and revivals. After churches were established and pastors assigned to them, these meetings were usually led by visiting preachers. These services were held in churches (if one existed), private homes, rented rooms, and outdoors ... depending upon the size of the group. Sometimes churches of other Protestant denominations were used.
Camp meetings would last for seven to ten days. They were gatherings of the people from a limited area at a central place where they could camp and attend the services. Services were held morning, afternoon, and night.
Revivals were held where a church already existed. Services were held in the morning and at night. The style of the message varied with the preacher. Some used persuasion. Some shed tears. Some used the old fire and brimstone approach.
A typical sermon would be evangelistic. Those in attendance were urged to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. It might also throw in a bit of doctrine; many sermons were aimed at the Catholics and Baptists. Most sermons, however, were aimed at winning converts, not at nurturing the committed. Since a typical circuit had eight to twelve stops, the preacher could not stay in any one place for too long. It was left to the lay people in the congregation to keep up the church while the preacher was gone. Because of this, communion was often neglected. The lay people couldn't serve communion; and when the preacher was in town, he concentrated on soul-winning.
The typical service might have consisted of a song, the sermon, and a closing song ... altogether lasting about an hour. John Wesley himself told his circuit riders to preach this way. There are not too many preachers who could hold an audience's attention for hours at a time, as Wesley could. Of course, revivals and camp meetings consisted of numerous services of this type. Singing was popular; though they usually only sang the hymns that they knew by heart.
It was not uncommon for people to shout out in a service. In fact, an article in the New Orleans Christian Advocate said that "out loud AMEN's were encouraged."
The typical Methodist preacher of this time was young and uneducated. This contrasted with the older, educated priest of the Catholic church. The Methodist circuit rider often came from another state. So they were speaking to a strange people in a strange land. Since they were speaking to a largely uneducated population, their common-sense message was appealing. They were doing as John Wesley had done ... speaking to the people in everyday language. Of course, since many of the people spoke only French, it would be many years before they were exposed to Methodism.
Despite their faults, the Methodist circuit rider had one basic characteristic ... they had a desire to spread the gospel. It is obvious that they didn't do it for the money. The annual pay was usually less than fifty dollars. The Methodist preacher was usually one of the poorest men in town, financially at least. They would often have to supplement their pay with other jobs. A parsonage was unheard of in the early days. The preacher would stay in someone's home.
Their dress was considered standard in its day. The older preachers still wore short pants and stockings, knee buckles, and a round-breasted coat with tails. The "newer" preachers were now wearing a frock coat.
It was in 1828 that the Lafourche Mission first appears in the Methodist records. You will note that here, and elsewhere, the term Lafourche often refers to the area south of Donaldsonville, including Terrebonne Parish. Since waterways were more important than roads back then, Bayou Lafourche was the principle passageway into Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. Also, Terrebonne was a "young" parish, having been formed in 1822 from part of Lafourche Parish. So Lafourche is used to describe the area, rather than a specific parish. When you read "Lafourche," keep in mind that Terrebonne Parish may be included.
The Lafourche Mission is listed as "to be supplied" in 1828 and 1829. This meant that they would appoint a preacher to the circuit when they could find someone to fill the position. In Rev. John G. Jones' A Complete History of Methodism, the author mentions that the Bayou Lafourche area was "rapidly being settled by an English-speaking population. A new circuit was projected in that region, but for the want of a preacher was on the unsupplied list this year (1929)."
They recognized the need for a preacher in the area, but either there were not enough preachers to fill all of the appointments or no available preacher wanted to venture into the strongly Catholic land of the "Cajuns." It might have been a little of both. Presiding elder O.L. Nash said in an 1834 article to the New York Christian Advocate that most missions in Louisiana were unsupplied. After two years on the "to be supplied" list, the Lafourche Mission was dropped from the appointment list in 1830. It is not even mentioned in 1831.
In 1832, the New Orleans District was formed. Barnabas Pipkin was the presiding elder. The Lafourche Mission finally appears with an appointed preacher ... Benjamin T. Coxe. The membership of the area was 20 whites and 20 blacks. The first Protestant sacraments were administered in the area that year by the presiding elder, Rev. William Winans, at the courthouse in Thibodaux. These first communicants were Julia A. Perkins, Mrs. Fickland, and Mrs. Gov. Johnson.
In Rev. R.J. Harp's church journal, it is mentioned that there had been no Protestant preaching in the area (Lafourche Circuit) prior to 1832. Rev. Coxe was probably the first Methodist minister to preach in Terrebonne Parish. He probably preached at Bayou Cane, since that is where the courthouse was located. Houma didn't even exist yet. When a church wasn't available, services were often held at courthouses or courtyards. The courthouse had been built in 1822 in Bayou Cane. The site is presently occupied by a gas station near the Southland Mall. Rev. Coxe served for one year and was replaced in 1833 by Daniel Sears.
Rev. Sears was then replaced by E.N. Talley, who served the Lafourche Mission from 1834 to 1835. The small town of Houma was founded in 1834. A new courthouse was built on the site of our present courthouse. Services were probably held there, as well as at some northern parts of the parish. Talley was moved to Wilkinson in 1836, and the Lafourche Mission was left to be supplied in 1837. In 1838, it was again dropped from the list of appointments.