1839 was a year for the ages.[i] On the world stage that year, the Treaty of London constituted Belgium as an independent kingdom. Guatemala established itself as a republic. The first opium war erupted in China. Closer to home, the Cherokee Nation formed, and courageous Africans captives seized the slave ship Amistad.
In the realm of science and technology, the first glass plate photograph was taken. Charles Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Science. William Otis (cousin of Elisha Otis, inventor of the elevator) patented the first steam shovel, making earth excavation infinitely easier.
In Cooperstown, New York, American leisure was forever changed in 1839, when the first-ever pitcher climbed the first-ever mound to throw the first-ever pitch in the first-ever baseball game.
In 1839, though, all of this would have seemed a world away from Houston, Texas, both in geographical distance and in time. Houston was just two years old, having been incorporated on June 5, 1837. After Sam Houston bested Santa Anna, entrepreneurial and marketing geniuses Augustus and John Kirby Allen purchased sixty-six hundred acres of soupy, bayou-bordering land and named it after the hero of San Jacinto, who had just been elected President of the Republic of Texas. The Allens launched an impressive, if somewhat misleading, real estate marketing campaign, and in twenty-four months, what started as a bit of a boondoggle had emerged as a going burgh, a city on the make with two thousand residents. To give you a sense of Houston’s geographic size at that time, the city began at the bayou north of us, and ended at Texas Avenue. Where the Magnolia Hotel stands today was pasture. There are reports of an early, poor member of Christ Church who lived way out from town where land was cheaper. The location of his land is exactly where City Hall now stands.
In its earliest days, Houston attracted sophisticated people such as William Fairfax Gray, a blue-blooded Virginian who moved here with his family. But an influx of sophisticated people does not render a city cosmopolitan overnight. In 1838, Gray himself wrote a letter lamenting the brutality and heathen immorality of his new home. “Dissolute and vicious habits are too general here,” he said. “Those who do not fall into [them]…mourn over the privileges and social blessings they have left [behind] and eagerly look for the time when they shall be received here.”[ii]
Why did Houston have such a difficult time in those early days adopting godly, civilized ways of being? William Fairfax Gray felt sure of the answer. He said, “We have had several Presbyterian preachers here—several Methodist—occasionally Baptists—and one Roman Catholic…but not once have I heard an Episcopalian preach, or the Episcopal service read since I left New Orleans in February 1837!”[iii]
The time had come, it seems, for the Episcopal Church to arrive in young Houston.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”
Leaving home with nothing but the assurance of God’s good grace for a land of promise that will become a great nation. That is Abraham’s story. It is the story that shifts Holy Scripture from being primarily about grand and cosmic things (the creation of the stars and heavens, the great flood, etc.) to focusing on the lives of individual people, their struggles, and their hopes. Abraham hears the call to move to a new, unknown, and often dangerous place. He does so in faith not that God will preserve him as an individual but that God will use him as an instrument, as the planted seed for something grand and glorious.
It is no secret that Texas loves the myth of itself, and there can be danger in drinking one’s own Kool-Aid. But then again, we don’t celebrate our 175th birthday more than once, and in the case of Texas, much of the myth is true. After all, the first man to answer the call to uproot and move from the United States to Texas was a fellow named Moses!
Moses Austin died before he could make the move from Missouri, but his son Stephen came with those we know as “the Old Three Hundred” families. They settled East Texas, they scraped by, they endured threats of all kinds, they won their land in pitched battle, and they made a home that we, these generations later, are blessed to enjoy.
By 1838 Texas was a sovereign nation. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States began to feature Texas in its magazine as a potential mission field alongside West Africa, Constantinople, and China.[iv] From Houston, William Fairfax Gray wrote to the Board of Missions begging for resources and for a missionary priest. And by March 16, 1839, he would wait no longer. Gray and twenty-seven other prominent men of Houston signed the charter establishing an Episcopal Church—at the time, the Episcopal Church—in Houston. Though not yet in name, Christ Church was born.
Initial reports were good. The National Intelligencer newspaper reported in 1839 on the “progress of morals” in Houston, and glowingly cited the recent organization of an Episcopal congregation. Clearly, we were a good influence on all those rowdy Baptists and Presbyterians!
But Abraham’s sojourn into Canaan was not without cost. He suffered famine, family discord, loss of loved ones, and other threats. And it was little different for our forebears here. In the summer of 1839, yellow fever hit Houston. More than ten percent of the population died: 240 out of 2,000 citizens. By November, only four of Christ Church’s original vestrymen could be convened due to death and absence, and it looked as though the church might die before it even had a church building in which to worship. Two years after that, the temporary missionary priest assigned to Houston reported to the Board of Missions that Christ Church had only fifteen communicants. By the world’s accounting, the future was precarious. It was not secure. The initial promise could easily go unfulfilled.
But like Abraham, the future of Christ Church did not depend upon the ways of the world. It depended upon the sure promise of God, and upon those, like William Fairfax Gray and legions after him, who would give the sum and substance of their lives in service to God’s promise.
As in the Abraham story, there were glimpses beyond the veil, God’s moments of grace and humor that offered assurance to the struggling parish. The best known, of course, is the story of the longhorn steer. Here is how Marguerite Johnston tells it:
“Some men were clearing ground, surveying and laying out plans on the lot at the corner of Texas Avenue and Fannin Street one day, when a cattleman on horseback rode along Texas Avenue, herding before him his cattle. He paused and watched. ‘What are you doing?’ he finally asked.
The men explained that they were getting ready to build a church. The cattleman took his lariat from his saddle, roped a steer, pulled it in, and handed the rope to one of the churchmen. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Let me give you this as the first contribution toward your church.’”[v]
That steer, as many of you know, now proudly adorns the seal of the Diocese of Texas.
Over the course of generations, there were other threats: the Civil War; the 1893 partial collapse of the second church building that led to the construction of the church in which we now worship; the 1928 decision to remain downtown when other congregations fled to the suburbs, after which a beloved rector departed with acrimony and took many families with him to become the first rector of Palmer Church; the great 1938 Waddell’s Furniture Store fire that consumed our chancel and spared the rest of the church due only to the intrepid attention of a Roman Catholic fireman, who stayed awake all night dousing the rood screed with water to create a firebreak.
Through it all, though, the promise of God has been sure. We have been blessed. Perhaps, unlike Abraham’s descendents, we are not so numerous as the stars in the sky, but those twenty-eight men who signed that charter one hundred seventy-five years ago today indeed have become thousands upon thousands. We are here today—thriving, growing, pointed toward the future—because they were here yesterday. We are present here because they prayed, and struggled, and believed in a God who makes and keeps promises to God’s faithful people.
And now we are the vanguard. There stands no one between us and the responsibility to carry on the promise. In the Abraham story, Abraham is not blessed for his own sake or even for the sake of his family gathered around him. He is blessed for the sake of those who are not his family and for the sake of those generations yet to come. He is blessed, God says, so that he may be a blessing. For another one hundred seventy-five years and beyond, we are called to be a blessing to the physically and spiritually hungry in this fair city. We are called, from this corner of Texas and Fannin, unwaveringly with our voices and our hands, to share the grace of God in this land between bayous, in a future filled with hope.
[ii] A Happy Worldly Abode, 25.
[iv] Ibid., 24.
[v] Ibid., 57.