The Life of Littleton Fowler, Part III
As the Methodist Church enjoyed great growth in the Republic of Texas in these early years--in spite of the social and economic problems that plagued Texas, not to mention continuing problems with Mexico and the local Indian population--it also made positive steps in the advancement of education. In 1838, the Mississippi Conference had assigned Littleton Fowler to investigate the possibilities of setting up a church-sponsored school, and in April 1839 he became part of a committee charged with raising subscriptions. Meanwhile, to honor the work of the late Dr. Martin Ruter, land had been purchased for the establishment of the town posthumously named for him, at which a college, also named Rutersville, was informally opened. The Texas Congress formally voted to charter the college, and it officially opened on February 1, 1841. However, instead of being managed by the church, as originally envisioned, the school was to be run by an independent board of trustees, a fact that would later lead to serious problems.
Fowler's health, meanwhile, took a downward turn in 1841, forcing him into temporary retirement as minister. He resorted to farming to support his family, but this change produced no benefits to his health, and in fact he was rumored as far as Kentucky to have died. He kept in contact with his fellow minister, however, and had recovered enough by the time of the December 1841 conference to accept appointment as financial agent for Rutersville College. His year-long tenure here, however, was a failure, as the college was beset by the same financial calamities that plagued the Republic as a whole; Rutersviille College had to resort to such extreme actions as selling lands just to perform regular maintenance. Fowler also encountered difficulties in getting subscribers to fulfill their commitments, with the result that he became personally liable for the loss.
Fortunately, Fowler was in much better health by 1842, and so was able to resume an active preaching schedule. In December of that year, the Texas Conference held its third annual meeting. The conference's most important work, at least for Fowler personally, was the creation of a new district, the Lake Soda District, comrising Nacogdoches and the new town of Henderson, among other places. Fowler was nameed presiding elder of this district.
Meanwhile, Fowler continued his interest in Methodist-centered education by helping to establish Wesleyan College in San Augustine. The effort had actually begun in 1842 with the formation of a Committee of Direction, and the lobbying campaign began the following year under the leadership of a colleague of Fowler's, the Rev. Daniel Poe. On August 26, 1843, the school's cornerstone was laid, and a board appointed that included Fowler, Poe, and future Texas Governor James P. Henderson. President Sam Houston signed the charter on January 16, 1844. Fowler also contributed to the college's foundation by inviting his brother Andrew Jackson Fowler to join the faculty; "Jack" was named professor of Mathematics and ancient languages.
Wesleyan College was brought into the Texas Conference at the next Conference meeting on December 13, 1843. Fowler was again named prsiding elder of the Lake Soda District. He was also named, along with the Rev. John Clark, as a delegate to the General Methodist Conference to be held in New York City starting in May 1844. This was to be Texas' first General Conference since gaining an independent position in the church.As it turned out, it was to be Texas' last official association with the Northern conferences for almost 100 years.
Current research on Fowler's life has turned up no information concerning his personal views on slavery. That he himself owned no slaves is beyond question--the cost would have been prohibitive on a circuit preacher's salary; his wife, Missouri, might have held some slave property inherited from her first husband, but again, there is no evidence of that. The most anyone can say with certainty was that Fowler chose to remain circumspect on the politics of slavery in deference to his duty as a man of God; he chastised one of his circuit preachers, Rev. William O'Connor of the Harrison Circuit, at one time for making harsh private remarks against slavery because of their possible divisiveness. It is also known that Fowler supported a slave ministry in the Harrison Circuit in 1843, because his protege John C. Woolam was appointed that year to interview slave owners of the circuit on this prospect. Fowler had also brought over into Texas several ministers from the Northern states, including Clark, who were known opponents of slavery.
Fowler came to New York already anticipating trouble over what became the central issue of the General Conference, the ownership of slaves by Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia. According to his own letters to his wife, he viewed the prospect of a division of the church over this issue with dread. His emotions, however, did not prevent him from voting with the Southern conferences on every motion connected with Andrew, up to and including the "Plan of Separation" of June 8 that divided the Methodist church sectionally. (John Clark voted with the Northern conferences, and fled Texas to settle permanently in New York immediately after.)
The General Conference also voted to divide Texas into two conferences, Eastern and Western Texas, with the Trinity River as the dividing line; the Sulphur Fork area through which Fowler and John Denton had passed in 1837 was moved from the Arkansas Conference to Eastern Texas. On January 8, 1845, the two conferences met together for the last time (at Fowler's request), with each conference keeping its own minutes. At this last meeting of united Texas Methodists, the Lake Soda District was partially broken up, most of it becoming the Sabine District, to which Fowler was appointed presiding elder. Fowler was also named one of three delegates to serve at the convention of Southern conferences on May 1-19, that established the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
These activities were Littleton Fowler's final ones as a leader in Texas Methodism. Eight years of arduous labor had taken their toll on his already fragile health. His final decline began in early January 1846, and proceeded rapidly, culminating in his death on January 29, at the age of 42, less than four months before the first General Conference of the MEC-South. By prior arrangement, his funeral sermon was preached by another fellow Texas minister, the Rev. Samuel A. Williams; resolutions of tribute were passed at the first meeting of the East Texas Conference, held on February 4, just six days after Fowler's death. Fowler was buried underneath the pulpit of his home church, McMahon's Chapel, where it has lain ever since, through three reconstructions of the church in the past 164 years. A marble slab, forming part of the wall directly behind the pulpit, bears the words. "Sacred to the Memory of Littleton Fowler, Methodist missionary to the Republic of Texas. Kentucky was his beloved State; Texas his adopted country; Heaven is his eternal home."
Littleton Fowler has a mixed legacy. On the minus side, there is his apparently ambivalent position on slavery which led him to side with those who engineered the division of the Methodist church; while it is unlikely that he would have been able to stop the split, the fact is that he did nothing to try either, and in fact voted for it for reasons that can only be left to speculation today. On the plus side, he contributed to the founding of two schools--Rutersville College and Wesleyan College-- which along with two other small schools, McKenzie College in Clarksville and Soule University in Chappell Hill, formed the nucleus of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. And then there is McMahan's Chapel, which stands today as the most important monument to Littleton Fowler's work, the oldest continuously operating Protestant church west of the Mississippi River.