Stephen F. Austin State University

Early Churches of Chambers County (December 2011)

Early Churches of Chambers County
By Kevin Ladd

Methodists at Wallisville

Tradition has Methodists worshipping at Wallisville as early as the 1840s. However, church conference minutes and other historical records document the congregation back only as far as the year 1856.

The Town of Wallisville was laid out as a townsite in 1854 by Sol and Dan Wallis. Their father, Elisha Henry Roberts Wallis, and their family had settled this property some thirty years previously. The new town became the county seat for Chambers County upon its establishment in 1858.

This position as the seat of local government helped to elevate the new town in the new county and may have even contributed to the rise of church services in the community. Wherever civilization goes, organized religion soon follows.

The earliest reference to the faith in that vicinity comes in an 1856 newspaper notice by Rev. T. W. Rogers of Liberty: "There will be a camp meeting near Turtle Bayou and Wallisville about 20 miles south of Liberty, including the third sabbath in September, commencing Thursday before. Preachers and people are invited to attend." The differentiation between ministers and ordinary folks remains somewhat comical.

This church at Wallisville was the first congregation known to be established in Chambers County. Some early services were held in the old schoolhouse, built there in 1869. The first permanent church building was constructed in 1895 through the exemplary efforts of the Ladies Aid Society.

CAPTION: The 1895 Methodist Church at Wallisville (1900) -- Courtesy of Wallisville Heritage Park

Amos Barber

The Methodist Church at Mont Belvieu or Barbers Hill, depending on one's personal preference, came along a good bit later, but residents of the Hill had their minds focused on spiritual matters long before the church was organized.

Amos and Susan Ann Barber settled on the Hill in 1849, and other settlers soon followed. Most of these were relatives. The Barbers Hill name came along soon thereafter, but religious services were held in the Barber home at first.

Varuna Hartman Lawrence, a grand-child of Susan Ann Barber, left behind an account of those days when religious matters were not always handled by ministers. She recalled two brothers "who were owners of a herd of cattle roaming the prairie around Barbers Hill Settlement. Their names were Foreman, and their brand was the Fleur-de-Lis, which the cattle men on the Foreman calves at each yearly roundup. It seems they came about once a year to see about their cattle and to pay the pittance for the branding of their calves. They always stayed at the 'Hill' as the old Barber home was called, stopping for lunch, or staying over night in that ever hospitable home. It seems that they sometimes gave a religious talk to those coming in of an evening. Later on they would sometimes to got the schoolhouse nearby, and word was sent to the neighbors to come to hear him. Only one brother would come at a time. Who they were and where they lived no one seemed to know."

Captain Dingman
Another mysterious figure played a large part in the religious development of Western Chambers County. Again Varuna Lawrence: "The first Sunday school that was established on what was called Barbers Hill, was by the efforts of a man we knew as Captain [Robert S.] Dingman. He was a sailor who came to Cedar bayou and had a barge of some size, that he called 'The Ark.'

"When he first came to our part of the country, he was very gay and full of fun, and was the life of every dancing party - dancing and singing, saying witty things to any and everyone near him. He kept everyone in the room where he was dancing in a gale of laughter with his remarks on every subject that came up.

"The Methodists at Cedar Bayou held a protracted meeting [revival] and this little dancing singing sailor man joined the Church and became an earnest worker in the cause of religion. It was not so long until he began to preach the Gospel, and people came to hear him and liked his homely way of expressing himself. He organized a Sunday School in our community, the first we had ever known. The little children were brought to the front benches and taught to sing when he led in the Gospel songs.

"Later on there were song books and Sunday School literature for the older classes and cards for the little ones. There were cards for attendance and good lessons used for the smaller children. There were classes for the grown-ups too. There was where I learned to start the songs and lead the singing in the Sunday School and Church, which I did through the years long as I was in that community.

"For a long time Captain Dingman walked the three or four miles from 'Upper Cedar Bayou' to Barbers Hill each Sunday to assist in conducting the Sunday School. Then, as our Superin-tendent Mr. Joe Kilgore, a devout Methodist member, became accustomed to the forms of conducting a Sunday School and the forms of worship, Capt. Dingman came only twice a month to preach. Once a month the regular minister Mr. Nicholson from Cedar bayou came and preached. Mr. [P.E.] Nicholson assisted in every way that he could to foster the little church's growth.

"Caprtain Dingman also started a Wednesday night song service and prayer meeting that was well attend. Even Mr. [Joseph] Kilgore, our Sunday School Superintendent, sometimes rode the five miles from his home to meet with us after a day's work. Our Superin-tendent was as very conscientious about our Sunday School and was there every Sunday for all the years he was in charge. His good Christian wife always accompanied him on the Sundays that we had service. Mrs. Susan Ann Barber, the pioneer settler of Barbers Hill and a member of the Methodist Church since her twelfth year, always took the Minister to her home have dinner and to rest as long as he wished before returning to the Parsonage at Cedar Bayou, a distance of about eight miles from Barbers Hill.

"Captain Dingman was quite at home at 'The Hill,' as Grandma Barber's home was called. Mr. [Amos] Barber would never go to church, but always was hospitable and very cordial to the Minister - in fact to any visitor that came to their home. Mr. Barber gave a gentle horse to Capt. Dingman. The Captain said, 'The Lord gave me a horse through Mr. Barber.' Thereafter he came on horseback."

The Methodist Church at Mont Belvieu or Barbers Hill was founded in 1877, and it remains a progressive and generous congregation to this day.