History of Highlands UMC

 

            On the east bank of the San Jacinto River just before it converges with Buffalo Bayou and empties into the Trinity Bay, there is a little town named Highlands.  This little town lies north of the and across the Bayou of the site of the Battle of San Jacinto which was not just a success for the founding of Texas Independence, but was also a success for the inclusion of Methodism in Southeast Texas.[1]  As you travel north through this town on Main Street from the historic Lynchburg Ferry, that has been in operation since 1822[2] (a good 14 years before the Battle of San Jacinto), you find a little Methodist church nestled off the corner of West Houston Street.  Just like the history of the areas surrounding it, this little church in Highlands, Texas has a story to tell. 

         

   The official organization of the church happened in 1926, but its history stretches back much further.  In an article that was posted in the Highlands Star in 1939, it reported that the Highlands Methodist Church found its roots as far back as 1844 when it was a part of the Lynchburg circuit[3] where many of the first circuit riders in Texas launched their ministries.  This circuit was just a few miles south of the township of Elena, Texas (which would one day be called Highlands).

            Though it was organized in the 1840’s the first recorded quarterly conference would not happen until 1853.[4]  The Methodist bands that were forming in Elena would continue to worship with the circuit preachers until 1879 when they transferred their attendance to the newly formed circuit in Crosby, Texas, just north of Elena.[5]  It is here that the members of the Crosby circuit would remain until the mid-1920’s. 

            The Methodist people of Elena (Highlands) desired that they have a church in their growing community.  At this time, the population of Elena was estimated to be around 300-350 people, and they were growing in numbers.[6]  For the past eighty years, this band of Methodists had been traveling outside of their community to worship with the circuit riders.  With the rise of Methodist Churches forming in surrounding areas in Southeast Texas, it was time for this band of church goers to set some roots of their own in their own community.  It was time for them to plan the building of a church. 

            They began planning to form and build the first, and only, Methodist Church in the township of Elena as early as 1919 when it was recorded that W. C. Tyrrell Jr. sold a property on West Houston Street, just off of Main Street, in trust for one dollar.[7]  The trust of the property would be released and the full conveyance of title would happen once the building was completed on the property.  As funds were raised and materials acquired, the formation of this little church was starting to become a reality.  In November of 1925, the Methodist Church appointed the pastor, Rev. Ed. D. Prather, to the church in Crosby, Texas, but the following year he decided to help the members from Elena to finish building and forming the church that will be called Highlands Methodist.[8]  He wanted to oversee the building of the first sanctuary, and to form the first committees and councils of this newly formed church.   

            He met with the future members of Highlands Methodist under an arbor that was constructed on the site where the sanctuary was to be built to discuss the formation of this church and planning the building of the first sanctuary.[9]  Rev. Prather would work with the church over the winter and the church would be officially organized in the summer of 1926[10], just a few months before the completion of the first sanctuary building which was titled on October 31st.[11]  From that first meeting in late 1925, through its official founding in the summer of 1926 to the completion and dedication of the first sanctuary, the small group of Methodists would continue to meet under that arbor weekly for church service and for committee and council meetings.[12]

            With a membership of only thirty-one members[13], the church would move from the arbor to the sanctuary for their first worship service on December 12th, 1926.[14]  At that first meeting, the congregation, mighty though small, received five pledges of fifty dollars semi-annually and ten dollars semi-annually to go to paying off the debt for the construction of the new church and the purchase of the new organ that was installed after the completion of the church.[15]

            Crosby and Highlands Methodist churches, for the next ten years would share pastors.  Rev. Prather would be reappointed shortly after the first services of the church in Highlands and S.P. Wright would become the new pastor until 1928, followed by J.E. House (1928-1929), J.L. Webb (1929-1930), and many more.  In the early days of Highlands Methodist Church, pastors were rarely be appointed for more than two or three years. Very a few pastors were appointed for four years.[16]  Rev. Larry Smith would be the longest appointed pastor appointed to Highlands Methodist Church.  His appointment to the church for lasted six years and spanned from 1997 through 2003.[17]

            When the first sanctuary was built, it was without electricity.  To accommodate this, and to reduce the use of candles and lamp oil, the building was constructed with large windows on all sides of the church in order to let in natural light and allow for a breeze to come through on those hot Texas summer days.[18]  Electricity would be added to the sanctuary early in 1929 in order to accommodate the use of the building for two years by the public school to teach two classes.[19] 

            This church was founded on the heels of World War I and during the Great Depression.  The church would never become monetarily rich, but the value they brought to the community was worth more than money could buy.  During one of the hardest times the Untied States has ever faced, this church grew in membership from thirty-one members to over 250 in 1939.[20]  Seeing the decline of the US Markets and the financial turmoil on the horizon, the Highlands Methodist church is in a position to see to the spiritual and social needs of the community.  As the Great Depression began to take hold of the US Economy, the church began forming organizations to meet the needs of the community.

            The first to form was the Ladies Aid Society in 1927.  This group would follow with the Young People’s group in 1932, the Wesley Brotherhood (which was to become the Methodist Men’s Group) in 1938, and the first Boy Scouts Troop headed by scoutmaster R.L. Davis.[21]  By 1933, the church had grown to the point, even though the financial climate of the world was hurting, the church could now afford a full-time pastor, and that year received its first full-time appointed pastor, Rev. J.A. Moore.[22]  Rev. Moore would live in a house donated by one of the members west and north of the church on Main Street until the church could afford to build a permanent parsonage.[23] 

            Over the next two years, partitions were added to the sanctuary to divide the space into classrooms to be used both by the church for Sunday School and for community meetings.[24]  The church would continue to grow through the depression and would even go to increase the pastor’s salary to $1,300 in 1936.  In 1940 the church would charter yet another outreach organization called the Women’s Society of Christian Service.  Forty-four members joined on the day it chartered.[25]  With the this continued growth in the church, it was forced to grow to meet the needs of the community.

            In 1938, the church added five classrooms to the current structure and also, as a means of beautifying the church, erected a steeple atop the entrance to the sanctuary.[26]  Two short years later, the women of the church founded the most prestigious book club in Highlands, Texas.  This book club, The Highlands Book Club, is limited to only twenty-four members and has been organized for more than eighty years.  Founded near the end of the Great Depression, these women have been meeting once a month for all these years reading and reviewing popular, classical, and interesting works of literary art.  Their first meeting was on March 9th, 1940.[27]  It is said by some of the members, that being included in this group is a special privilege. 

By the mid-1940s, the membership had grown well into 300 with an average worship attendance of 130 persons.[28]  Another building was erected on the current property to meet this continuous growth in membership.  In addition to the five classrooms that were built in previous years, a building was erected on the property that was dedicated to the Sunday School classes.  It was appropriately named, the Sunday School Building.  This building would remain a fixture on the property until its removal in May of 1992.  With all this building and adding onto structures, tt was becoming clear that the church needed more space to grow.  In May of 1946, just following the close of World War II, a resolution was made to purchase the land next to the church for future expansion projects.  In 1948, they acquired the property next door (west of the church) for the purchase of one dollar from a Fannie Maud Burwell[29] which would become the site of a brand-new sanctuary to be built in the next few years. 

            The same year that the new property was purchased, an outside organization was formed at the church.  This organization, needed a space in which they could operate, and asked Highlands Methodist Church if they were willing to provide them place that they create their organization.  B.P. “Bonnie” Harper reflects on the founding of the Highlands Rotary Club in an article in the Highlands Newspaper.  He sites that at its founding, the Rotary Club met at the church every Tuesday and the members of Highlands Methodist Church would prepare them lunch for their meeting.  He is quoted saying, “Those Methodist Church folks cook up some ‘eatin’s’ that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of a food lover.”[30]  For the past seventy-two years, the Rotary club has met at Highlands Methodist Church with the members of the church providing a home cooked lunch for each meeting.   Like the Highlands Book Club, the Rotary Club has stood the test of time and continues to operate today.

            By 1950 the church had once again outgrown its space.  Additionally, with air-conditioning becoming a familiar commodity, it was apparent that another change needed to be made.  This change would be massive.  The church elected a New Building Council of fifteen members to erect a new sanctuary building.  They retained an architect and began fundraising the project.  By December, the District Superintendent, Dr. Stanley Carter, authorized the church to enter into whatever agreements in order to acquire a new sanctuary for worship.[31]  In February of 1951, the New Building Council solicited to the total membership of the church to pledge one hour of each weeks salary to fund the cost of building the much needed sanctuary addition.  The pledges came in totaling $173 per week to pay for the new sanctuary.[32]  Amidst this time of growth, the first Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) at Highlands Methodist was formed that same year.[33]

            Through 1951 and 1952 the New Building Council continued to negotiate contracts, raise funds (with the help of other organizations within the church) and secure a loan to build the sanctuary that sits today on the west side of the property.[34]  In October of 1953, almost three full years after the organization of the New Building Council, the church secured a contract and loan to build the sanctuary, and broke ground on the project on November 22nd, 1953.[35]  The new sanctuary was completed just in time to celebrate the Lenten season of 1954.[36] 

            The church would continue to grow through the seventies and eighties and continued to be a central part of the town once called Elena.  In 1986, the Highlands United Methodist Church celebrated the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the first Methodist preachers to set up camp in Southeast Texas following the news of the successful outcome of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836.[37]  The celebration marked 150 years of methodism in Southeast Texas, and 142 years since the roots of the church could be traced back to the circuit riders of Lynchburg.  Overseeing the celebration was pastor Bill Vance, who was in full costume as the circuit rider William Stevenson.[38]  To commemorate the occasion, the church built a small arbor on the west side of the sanctuary in remembrance of the first arbor that was constructed on the property prior to the first sanctuary being erected.  The hymns, O for a Thousand Tongues, A Community of Faith, and Blessed Assurance were sung and the Lord’s Supper administered, all on the lawn of the church grounds. 

            In 1992, the Sunday school building was removed from the property, and a fellowship hall and office and classroom building was constructed late in 1993 under the supervision of Rev. Don Lewis.  These final additions to the main campus, with the inclusion of the parsonage that was built in 1983 to replace the degrading property on Main Street, remain today what is the campus of the United Methodist Church in Highlands, Texas. 

Rev. Larry Smith was the appointed in 1997 and during his time as pastor, would also encourage and assist in forming the first praise band for the church since its founding.  Rev. Smith would be the pastor to spend the longest time appointed as the pastor of Highlands UMC. 

The world has changed dramatically over the years, and with it so has the church.  Amidst the scuffle and political posturing in the Annual and General Conferences, this little church in Highland, Texas maintains its goal in the community.  Though the membership has declined over the past few decades, their mission remains the same.  They are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in this community.  They are driven to love all people in all situations.  They continue to be committed to lifting up the youth and minister to people that are hurting in the community.  Every other week they deliver hot prepared meals to those in need (even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), they contribute annually to the local food bank, they lift up the first responders, and sponsored the founding of the Marcellus-Williams Resource Center[39] which helps struggling members of the community to find aid and help with addiction. 

The membership is not what it once was, as many churches are seeing these days, but this church moves onward focused on its mission to love God and to love neighbor.

[1] Highlands UMC Texas Sesquicentennial Celebration

[2] Lynch’s Ferry.  

[3] History of Highlands Methodist Church Reaches Back to Nearly Century of Past.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Texas State Historical Association, Highlands, TX.

[7] Deed of Trust for the State of Texas #1176469

[8] History of Highlands Methodist Church Reaches Back to Nearly Century of Past.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 3.

[11] Deed of Trust for the State of Texas #1176469

[12] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 3.

[13] See the list of the membership at the first service Addendum #8.

[14] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Highlands United Methodist Church Directory (2018), pp. 3.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See picture addendum #14.

[19] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 4.

[20] History of Highlands Methodist Church Reaches Back to Nearly Century of Past.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 4.

[23] Ibid. – see addendum #15 for a picture of the original parsonage as it stands in July of 2020.

[24] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 4.

[25] Ibid. Pp. 5.

[26] Information comes from a short one-page history found in historical scrapbook of Highlands UMC’s archives. Addendum #7.

[27] Highlands Book Club Celebrates 80 Years.

[28] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 5.

[29] Title Deed #1173470

[30] Highlands Rotary Club ‘Rich’ Through Service.

[31] Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. pp. 6.

[32] Ibid. Pp. 6.

[33] Ibid. Pp. 7.

[34] Ibid. Pp. 7.

[35] Ibid. Pp. 8.

[36] Information comes from a short one-page history found in historical scrapbook of Highlands UMC’s archives. Addendum #7.

[37] Highlands UMC Texas Sesquicentennial Celebration.

[38] Ibid.

[39] https://www.facebook.com/talentyieldcoalition.org/

 

Bibliography

Hazlewood, C. (n.d.). Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved from HIGHLANDS, TX: https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hfh04#:~:text=HIGHLANDS%2C%20TEXAS.&text=The%20community%20of%20roughly%20nine,office%20opened%20there%20in%201929.

Highlands United Methodist Church. (1986, May 4). Sesquincentennial Celebration Bulletin. Highlands, TX.

Kleiner, D. J. (n.d.). Lynch’s Ferry. Retrieved from Texas State Historical Association: https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rtl01

Kyle, J. (n.d.). Highlands Rotary Club ‘Rich’ Through Service. The Highlands Star.

Life Touch. (2018). Highlands United Methodist Directory . Winnipeg, MB, Canada: Life Touch www.lifetouch.com.

Pineda, M. (2020, March 23). Highlands Book Club Celebrates 80 Years. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from The Baytown Sun: http://baytownsun.com/news/article_21c85464-6bb0-11ea-bc9f-0f9d4878557a.html

The Highlands Star. (1939). History of Highlands Methodist Church Reaches Back To Nearly Century of Past. Highlands, Texas.

Title of Deed 1173470. (1949).

Title of Deed 1176469. (1925, October 31st). Highlands, TX.

Unknown. (1976). Highlands United Methodist Church: 50 Glorious Years. Highlands, TX.

Unknown. (n.d.). Highlands Methodist Church.