History of Shelbyville First United Methodist Church
by Juanice W. Powell
If you are a historian, these celebrations attracts historians, you are already confused about our math. 1825-1993 isn’t 150 years. I am the very one to shed light on this subject, dates don’t stay in my mind that long and I’ve never been accused of being a historian.
In 1842 records support that Shelby Church was a part of the San Augustine charge. Francis Wilson was presiding elder and the pastor was George West. This celebration was planned for 1992 but the weather and other factors were not supportive so today is the day!
Relating dates to something you can remember s sometimes helpful. I was privileged to worship in a very old English Church last summer. How old? It was built 50 years before Columbus discovered American in 1492. 1842 was 400 years later; 100 years before Pearl Harbor. John Tyler was president – the first vice-president to become president. The capitol of Texas was Washington-on-the-Brazos and the first surgery was performed using anesthesia!
The most important consideration today is not how old this church is but that this church exists because people believe in God, the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ our Lord.
In 1964, an enthusiastic young minister, Joe V. Clause, was appointed to this church. I remember especially his descriptive verbs and adjectives not found in the King James Version and his compiling “A History of the First Methodist Church, Shelbyville”. I was a student at S.F.A.; used the library there, consulted conference records and talked to the senior church members of the period. Dr. Jack and Miss Eula Windham were 2 of his important sources. They loved and supported this church in many ways. I think of them as the staunchest of Methodist I’ve known.
There are no more of the Clouse histories but you might borrow one to copy the 49 pages. It is interesting reading. Some of my information came from the history.
In reading church histories, they sound somewhat alike. People met in homes for prayers, bible reading and sermons. When these people have sufficient resource, they build a church. Early churches in Texas, however; had an additional problem – under Mexican rule, the Roman Catholic Church was the only legal religion!
According to Rev. Clouse’s research, “As early as 1818 there were probably some few services held in the general area. The first service held at Shelbyville was in 1825”. In an old letter, a resident stated that Bro. English was the first minister of the church to enter Shelby County, which he preached the first sermon and organized the first church in the County. This was probably at Shelbyville because this town is located on the James English survey, which is the only survey by this name in Shelby County. Many people, including members of our congregation believe the church was at Shelbyville because Bro. English and some of his brothers lived nearby, two of whom married the Todd sisters, Candace and Martha.
E.L. Shettles writes in his book “The Texas Colonist and Religion 1821-1836”: “Henry Stephenson organized a Methodist Church a few miles East of San Augustine in 1834. Bro. Stephenson held a meeting at Col. McMahan’s and Bro. English and others preachers were there.”
The McMahan’s Chapel was established that year, 1834, and remains, to this day, the oldest church in Texas having a continuous existence. Every year, some of our members faithfully make the pilgrimage to McMahan’s Chapel to celebrate the establishment of this church. I consider it heresy to claim to be older than McMahan’s but it could be possible.
I have another date for you. Macum Phelan writes in his book “A History of Methodism in Texas”: “In 1838, William C. Crawford and others organized a church at Shelbyville, held a series of meeting and some 200 were added to the Church.” This is the first documented proof of an organized church at Shelbyville.
All this time rough lawless characters had been drifting across the Sabine River from the neutral ground and this became the day of the Regulators-Moderators, a deplorable time of fear and dread. Finally, Sam Houston ordered that hostilities cease and came to Shelbyville with 600 troops with 59 remaining for several months. I’ve heard the story of a dance that Sam Houston prayed here.
It’s hard to separate church history from history, but Bro. English is said to have found people here “who needed preaching to.”
All histories of Methodism include the circuit riders and camp meetings. These two were causes for Methodist predominance in the Republic. The circuit rider was a dedicated man who suffered hardships and loneliness to spread the word of God. He has been praised by many writers, motivated by deep conviction to ride across rough country, swim swollen streams and risk Indian ambush.
Camp meetings were conducted chiefly by Methodist and owe their success in part to the opportunity they afforded for social contact among neighbors who lived many miles apart. Camp meeting sermons emphasized the crying need for every soul to accept the Savior to avoid the torment of Hell Fire and Brimstone!
I’d like to tell you the story of a couple whose influence is recognized 128 years later. It was a fateful day for Shelbyville Church when a young lady in New York State answered a newspaper ad seeking a lady teacher for a school in Melrose, Texas.
The young lady who answered that ad and was chosen was Mary Selden Wickham (1837-1911). She had attended Elmira Female Institute in Elmira, New Jersey. She brought with her to Texas, a missionary spirit and many beautiful books.
Both teachers lived in boarding houses in Melrose. Soon Prof. Huntington was borrowing a mule to ride to Mary Wickman’s boarding house to see her when they were not at school. They were married in 1861, about a year after she arrived.
The Civil War had begun and this couple moved to Shelbyville, where they taught a large school. Professional teachers were exempt from military service and the school continued. Prof. Huntington was Presbyterian but joined the Methodist- Episcopal Church South. He was Sunday `School Superintendent and steward for 17 years. He and Mrs. Huntington organized the Sunday school in 1865 and Mrs. Hunt taught the first class for adults. That Mary S. Huntington class continued to meet every Sunday and its teachers have followed Mrs. Huntington’s example. Among those outstanding teachers who have taught the gospel and sought the truth of God are as follows: Mrs. Mary Huntington, Dr. Will Windham, Floyd Swanzy, J. Lee Crawford, Mrs. Eula M. Windham, Mrs. W.D. Fields, Burke Morrison, Wayland Matthews, H.J. Johnson, Buren Helphinstill, and Ed Roper. Later, another inspiring teacher of the 1990s was Mrs. Sharon Hagler (now deceased) who was a blessing and inspiration every Sunday.
Professor Huntington died in 1884 of pneumonia following a deer hunt. He left a wife and two sons, one of whom became the county surveyor. Charley’s daughter furnished this information material.
Mrs. Huntington continued teaching and working in the church. She organized the Juvenile Society and the Women’s Missionary Society, serving as its president. Mary Huntington died September 1911 at the age of 76. There is a newspaper account of her memorial service, held in the church on October 28, 1911, planned by the Missionary Societies of Shelbyville and Center. Her picture was placed here and her blackboard upon which was written by Mrs. Huntington “This school believes in prayer; let us pray for our missions.” There was scripture, prayer, singing and an opportunity for everyone to share their memories.
Another fateful day in the history of this church was September 28, 1859. John Helpinstill was born in Nacogdoches County near Linn Flat in a log house
“She was a friend to all, but especially to the friendless. She was a giver who forgot the gift and always gave a good deed the credit of a good motive and an which his father built soon after he arrived from his native Prussia.
He was married to Eleanor Phillips in 1880. He was a member of the Methodist- Episcopal Church South when he decided to preach. His parents gave him a buggy and team which was considered his part of the estate. He was licensed to preach in 1882.
The Rev. and Mrs. Helpinstill had a large family. One of the daughters, Carrie, married to Walter Beck, remembers arriving at the Alto, Texas appointment. “People were amazed at the number of children (9) that kept getting off the train.”
Rev. Helpinstill and his family lived in Shelbyville and served this church from 1884-1888, returning to serve from 1896-1900. He was sent as a peacemaker the second time – the circuit was divided by bitter strife. A north Methodist Church was organized causing there to be two churches in every appointment.
John W. Goodwin wrote in the Christian Advocate:
“John Helpinstill was the love and esteem of the good people of Shelbyville as no man had since J.T. Smith. He discharged his duties with such wisdom and tact that he not only maintained the prestige of our church but won the respect of and admiration of the opposition.”
Following the death of his wife, Eleanor Phillips, Rev. Helpinstill married Nannie Payne; this union was blessed with 5 more children.
It is written of John Helpinstill that he was ever ready to serve his church. He was a loyal friend, a safe counselor and a willing worker. The last notes made in Bible Study just before his death began “The Christian Life is a life of sacrifice”. He died peacefully at Cushing, Texas April 21, 1920.
Our original church was destroyed by a storm and was rebuilt by the men of the church led by the Rev. John Helpinstill. They used the material that could be salvaged and erected the new building on the same location. The men went into the Sabine River bottom, cut cypress blocks about 18 inches long, and hauled them back in a mule drawn wagon. From these blocks shingles were handmade, using drawing knives. It is said that as the men worked at the drawing knives the shavings piled up so high that the men could hardly be seen.
The roof and steeple were braced with enough lumber to build a house. The knob which topped the 120 foot high steeple was carved from the end of a large timber that extended down into the steeple 8-10 feet. In the summer of 1973 lightning caused damage to the steeple which was quickly repaired. Lightning struck again in 1985, causing damage to the steeple and electrical circuits. (Disproving the theory that lightning never strikes in the same place). This time, a steeple was capped with copper, and the wooden knob was replaced by a copper ball topped cone, because today’s technology could not duplicate what John Helpinstill’s ingenuity and his 2 little horses had accomplished in 1897.
J.M. Pigg was the architect and builder. He also designed and hand crafted the pulpit. The matching pulpit was hand crafted by John E. Doggett, commissioned by friends of the Cordray family as a memorial to Paul Cordray.
Church members have worked hard to keep changes in harmony with the initial design. These are the original stained glass windows – with a few exceptions. One minister’s son kicked a football through one that had to be patched. We do not know the source of the original windows.
When electricity came in 1938 (another blessing), lights were installed and eventually air conditioning. Currently, we are studying the benefits of replacing some of the damaged stained glass and the benefit of installing an overly to protect the glass.
In 2014, the stained glass replaced the original glass transom near the front entrance to the church. Several panes of stained glass in the windows had cracked and needed replacement. Local artisan, Beth Crafts, was commissioned to oversee the replacement and installation of newer matching stained glass windows. As a precaution, we purchased several pieces of the same glass for storage to replace windows as the need replacing. (This information was added by Merle Howard as an update to Mrs. Powell’s history).