Tidbits of Shelby County History
William Brittain, Pioneer Baptist Minister
Today “Tidbit of Shelby County History” will cover the life of William Brittain who many consider the first Baptist to ever preach in Texas. The information on Elder Brittain is taken from several newspaper articles and a program presented to the Shelby County Historical Society by John Reagan Harris in 1980.
(From the Baptist Standard, Feb. 1, 1958) it has been said that Elder William Brittain who was born in Edinburg, Scotland in 1774 was the first Baptist preacher in Texas. Whether this is true or not, Shelby County records and stories old timers have heard their elders tell agree on one basic fact…. he was a man dedicated to Christianity and the freedom of its expression.
History of North Carolina Baptists tells us much of the life of Elder Brittain with records like the following: "In August 1809, the Flat Rock Church in Surry County, North Carolina received by experience a young man of much promise. At the next meeting in September, it was unanimously agreed that Brother William Brittain should be 'tolerated' to go on in the exercise of his gifts as a preacher at any time and any place where it may please God to call him."
For many years he seemed content to preach in his native state while operating his large farm with the help of his sons. This additional work for minister was the custom at that time from sure necessity. In 1817,by age 33, Brother Brittain was receiving for his services, an annual stipend of twelve dollars, a great coat, and food for himself and horse. Brittain was 50, and his wife Rosanna Wright Brittain who he married in 1802 in Surry County, North Carolina, had just given birth to the couple’s ninth child when the family left North Carolina in 1824.
They moved first to Madison County AL. In Sept 1827 they moved on to Pulaski County AR. They spent ten years in AR., appearing there on the 1830 census, and moved to Texas about 1837 with numerous slaves who tended a herd of cattle and the many horses and mules pulling wagons loaded with provisions needed for the couple, six sons, three daughters, three sons-in-law, tow daughters-in-law, several grandchildren, and numerous slaves. Two of the sons-in-laws were Raborn Haley and Elihu Tandy Wilburn. The name of one daughter-in-law was Betsy Haley Brittain. Her parents many have been with the group.What a caravan this must have been!
Some Baptist work was done in Texas prior to the Revolution, but all religions except the Catholic were forbidden by the Mexican law, and many of those who tried preaching other faiths were arrested and forced to flee back across the Sabine River. Since Brittain arrived after the Revolution, he apparently preached quietly in his own home. He was nine clergy involved in Baptist work during the era of the Republic.
When the weary Brittain travelers arrived at the new log town of Hamilton, they made a raft on which to cross instead of going down the river to the regular ferry.Other researchers have found that Elder William and entourage crossed the Sabine on the John Latham Ferry. Other families--the Andersons, Bradleys, Truitts, Buckleys, Louts, Rainses, Goodwins, Paynes, Middletons, Englishes, Halls, McWilliamses, Crawfords, Barbees, Wilburns, Sanderses, Daggets, Boleses, Tamplins, Todd, Cannon, and Haleys were settling the different areas of Shelby County during this time frame.
Either way, Elder William and Family arrived in Shelby County on 18 Jan 1837.All the Brittain children who were old enough preempted on public land along the river as did thefather, William. He built his first home where Hamilton cemetery is now located. (Due to another Texas town having the same name, both the town and cemetery later became "East" Hamilton.)
Though not organized, the Baptists were said to be having prayer services in their homes at Hamilton located about twenty miles away on the Sabine River. Elder Brittain used one room of his home as a classroom where he taught school and as a church where he preached his first sermons in Texas. After 1846, the little church was organized as "East Hamilton Missionary Baptist Church."
This courageous man is mentioned in all books on Baptist history in Texas. He was moderator of the East Texas Baptist Convention held in 1843 when he was seventy-three years of age. He freed his slaves at his death, leaving each a small tract of land, and some of their descendants still live in that area.
Elder William Brittain, who may have officiated at the poisoned wedding supper, entered the names of several members of his own family on the death pages of his family Bible. There are five Brittain graves in the East Hamilton Cemetery with names but no death dates. They areThomas, R. J., Mary, Martha, and Bobbie. The Brittain family Bible has been lost, and we may never know if these children died at the supper.
This courageous man is mentioned in all books on Baptist history in Texas. He was moderator of the East Texas Baptist Convention held in 1843 when he was seventy-three years of age. He freed his slaves at his death in 1850, leaving each a small tract of land, and some of their descendants still live in that area. Elder Brittain wish to be buried directly under the pulpit of the church he had helped to establish during the Republic of Texas.