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The Triumph of Protestantism in Texas

Updated on December 31, 2009

Missions of Texas and Northern Mexico

Missions of Texas and Northern Mexico, retrieved from
Missions of Texas and Northern Mexico, retrieved from

Protestantism Comes to Texas

The history of the Christianization of Texas took place in the context of the Spanish conquest of the Southwest, which started in 1492, Following the Muslim expulsion from Spain in that year, Pope Alexander VI granted the newly united kingdom exclusive dominion over the entire world--a preposterously broad grant that was narrowed in 1494 by the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal, under which Spain gained theoretical control over most of the Western Hemisphere. This control was strengthened through a series of papal bulls instituting patronato real, or royal patronage; Spanish kings were now the direct representatives of the Roman Catholic church over their territory, which included ecclesiastical control over these colonies and their residents.

Spain's actual authority over the New World was real only in theory, however, until 1521, when Mexico was conquered. The area of present-day Texas quickly became a focal point, with an expedition under Panfilo de Narvaez and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca first landing at Matagorda Bay in 1529. Later Spanish expeditions into Texas included Coronado's wanderings into the Panhandle in search of the Seven Cities of Gold; trips by the military to the Nueces River in search of pearls in the 1650s; and a brief crossing of the Rio Grande by Fray Manuel de la Cruz in 1674 while on a mission building trip to Coahuila Province. This last incursion led to the establishment of Texas as the Coahuila District in 1676, and the building of four missions.

Spain's goal of religious domination and Indian conversion was continuously sidetracked, however, by worries over foreign competition, especially from France. News of La Salle's accidental landing on Matagorda Bay caused the government to send a series of expeditions which discovered only the wreckage of the French fleet and the remains of a colony. Efforts to found two missions in the 1690s to head off the French were abandoned due to temporarily improved diplomatic relations in Europe and lack of material support. This lasted only until 1714, when, aroused by French moves to establish trading relations with Texas Indians, the Spanish government authorized more outposts and missions. In 1716, Captain Jose Domingo Ramon started six missions, including the one that would become the town of Nacogdoches between Banita and La Nana Creeks; these missions all fell by 1720 because of bad weather and continued lack of material support, but within a few years the Spanish had succeeded in re-establishing all the missions.

The height of the Spanish mission period in Texas was from 1731 to 1745. In that time, instead of establishing new outposts, the government concentrated on strengthening the old ones. The missions located between San Antonio and the Rio Grande were the most successful in winning converts among the Indians, even if the success was extremely limited; the reason for this was the priests' practice of concentrating them in pueblo communities where they could be controlled as Spanish subjects. This system did not work as well in the missions of East Texas, intended mainly for defense against the French, because the predominantly Caddo tribes already enjoyed good relations with the French and had a strong power base and adequate food supplies. Three of the eastern missions were transferred to San Antonio by 1730, and the effort in the region was in such a precarious state that Spain seriously considered giving up all efforts there by the 1760s.

In 1763, however, the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years' War gave England the vast Louisiana territory and presented Spain with a new, more aggressive competitor on its frontier. Spain launched a complete overhaul of its Texas policy, with King Charles III ordering an inspection of the East Texas missions culminating in the "New Regulation" of 1772 ordering all Spanish citizens in East Texas to relocate to San Antonio. Most families did move, except a small group from the Los Adaes region near the Texas-Louisiana border which moved instead to the Trinity River with Spanish permission, then eventually wandered back east to found a new community in Nacogdoches. Led initially by Antonio Gil Y'Barbo, this community grew to become the province's second largest by the turn of the 19th Century. Nacogdoches soon became the focal point Spanish concern over clandestine trade relations with the French, who reclaimed Louisiana in 1800, and with the Anglo-American population further east. Purchase by the United States of Louisiana in 1803 again removed the French threat, but tensions with the Americans increased as the U.S. traded withTexas Indians, often in violation of Spanish policy. Spain attempted to close the Texas-Louisiana border to trade and improve communications with the eastern Indians, only to be thwarted by the more successful merchant diplomacy initiated by the Americans which quickly gained the natives' friendship.

By this time, the religious character of Spanish settlement of Texas had been totally subsumed by the political, a situation that increased in scope in the last two decades of Spanish rule and facilitated the entry of Protestant groups. Various political developments--the Philip Nolan filibustering expeditions of the 1790s, a serious boundary dispute between Spain and the United States involving James Wilkinson, and the Gutierrez-Magee expedition of 1813--led to the forced evacuation of the Nacogdoches District (comprising the entire eastern third of the present state of Texas). From about 1813 until Mexican independence in 1821, there were no Spanish citizens officially living in Texas.

The vacuum thus created was filled by both Anglo- and Native American groups. Protestant missionaries also began to make serious inroads into this region following the mass Catholic exodus. The first Protestant preacher was a Methodist, William Stevenson of Tennessee, who crossed over in 1817 and established the first Protestant congregation south of the Red River, at Jonesboro. Joseph L. Bays of North Carolina was the first Baptist preacher to enter, in 1820; the Presbyterians followed a few years later.

The beginning of Mexican rule brought the same legal restrictions on religions other than Catholicism, but that fact did not keep numerous Protestants from pouring into the province, Most people came in for the land grants offered under Mexico's colonization program, and converted to Catholicism as a matter of course. Religion was hardly ever a real priority for these setters, however, and few actually attended services in any church.

Those settlers who practiced Protestant religions did so at great risk. Despite the professions of tolerance made by the empresario Stephen F. Austin, he nevertheless threatened to arrest any Protestant preacher who defied the law; William Stevenson, returning to Texas in this period, conducted services accompanied by armed guards. Even with these restriction, however, American settlers soon greatly outnumbered Mexicans in Texas, leading the authorities to enact the immigration restrictions that resulted in the movement for independence in the 1830s. In 1832, four years before the final successful push for independence, Mexican troops were effectively expelled from the East Texas region after the Battle of Nacogdoches. With no means of enforcement, Mexico's religious laws became a dead letter north of the Rio Grande, effectively spelling the victory of Protestant missionary efforts, which began tentatively after 1832 and picked up steam once Texas became a Republic.


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