Z. N. MORRELL - TEXAS PIONEER PREACHER
Frontier Times Magazine, March, 1932
By Marjorie Rogers, Marlin, Texas
PREACHING THE gospel in the wilds of Texas in 1835 was a hazardous undertaking, and it took a real he-man to act as "skypilot." Ninety-six years ago (December 13) "Wildcat Morrell," the famous "canebrake" preacher from Tennessee, planted the first seeds of Baptist doctrine in Central Texas by preaching the first religious sermon to be heard in this part of the country. Z. N. Morrell heard that soul stirring appeal that was hurled from the various pulpits of the States and decided to hit the trail for Texas.
"Who Among You Will Go To Texas?" The province of Texas was considered a real mission field, and it was. The map was put before Morrell and his companions and the "Falls of the Brazos" was pointed out as a good location for a colony to be established, so they mounted their horses and rode away. Colonists were so anxious to hear a sermon in this new country where there were few settlers and no churches at all that the denomination made no difference, and all expounders of the gospel were treated with the greatest of respect. And why not? These pioneer preachers could fix a broken wagon wheel, shoot Indians, plow a field and talk politics as well as uplift morals. It was generally understood that a Texas minister had real zeal, faith and courage or he would not be in this wild part of the country where it took a fighter to live.
Morrell was born in South Carolina, January 17, 1803. Early in his youth he moved to Tennessee where he was converted and entered the ministry. He was thirty-two when he came with a party of men to the "Falls of the Brazos." He was a prominent factor in the religious history of Texas.
Sterling C. Robertson had just obtained a land grant from the Mexican government in 1834, and was introducing families from the States to make locations in the Municipality of Viesca, which at this time comprised one-sixth of the area of the State. This part of the province was known as the extreme western part of Texas. Because the soil around the Falls of the Brazos was rich, and the river could be easily forded at this point, Robertson built the capitol of his colony here, naming the town Sarahville de Viesca. By the time that Morrell and his party arrived, the Indians had depredated upon the colonists and they had moved to other parts of the country where there were more settlements. This section later became the first county of the State and its name was changed to the Old Milani Land District. There were no roads and the Morrell party had to follow mustang, or wild Mexican horse trails, buffalo to the water. There was but one family at the Falls, but there were about forty Tennessee land hunters camped on Little River. Here the first sermon that he ever preached in Texas was delivered. He then returned to Mississippi to bring his family to their new home in what is now known as Falls county.
The weed prairie around the Falls had become famous, and its reputation for production without much hard labor was an inducement to the settlers to "hold on" as long as possible. Because they did not want to abandon this fertile soil, a company of rangers was formed in 1836, part of which were stationed at the Forks of Little River or Griffin's Fort and part comprised Fort Milam which took the place of Sarahville de Viesca on the West bluffs of the banks of the Brazos. The Texas Government was too poor to supply these men with food and they were forced to live on game that they shot with ammunition that was purchased, most of the time, with their own money. Their clothing was of deerskins, tanned and fashioned by their own hands, and the only articles of luxuries that they possessed were coffee, and salt, and a buffalo skin. They owned their own horses, slept on the bare earth and wore rude moccasins. By the time that Morrell made the journey back to the Falls with his family there were eight families in the colony and about forty soldiers at the fort. He and his family were the only Baptists at the fort. There were a few families at Parker 's Fort, and a few at Fort Griffin all of which comprised Morrell's first congregations. He was thirty-two when he moved to Texas. His lungs were infected but although exposed to every known hardship he lived to be eighty-one years of age, preaching the gospel, establishing churches throughout the wild country. He was one "skypilot" who blazed the trail for civilization in the Redman's land.
Morrell in his "Flowers and Fruits of the Wilderness" says: Our opportunities for preaching were very limited. Our crop was cultivated in 1837 under a guard of soldiers. In a short time I ventured down to Nashville, forty-five miles down the river, and all the people in the settlement that could, turned out to preaching in a little log cabin, with dirt floor. Just about the time we closed the services on Sunday, the Indians dashed upon us and killed two men, in sight of the congregation. Preacher and people carried carnal weapons with them to the house of God in those days, and did not for a moment suppose they were violating the Scriptures. We instantly changed the services into war with the Indians. Every man was immediately mounted and off with gun in hand on Sunday evening, in full pursuit of the Indians. They were not overtaken, but escaped up Little River.
"Now please remember my situation on the return from this pursuit. The relatives of the dead are in tears, and at their request I must stay and perform the funeral services. The Indians had gone towards my home and loved ones, apparently intending to bear a little to the left; but we never could tell where an Indian would turn up next. Duties to the bereaved being performed, and the dead buried out of their sight, I resolved to go home, if God would spare my life, under cover of the night. Forty-five miles to ride alone in the night, with a knowledge of the fact before me that the Indians were above and between me and my home, and that I was liable to be attacked at.any moment. This state of things presented a strong temptation. On my way in the night, and at the crossing of Little River, the tempter came, and his speech was: "Where is your faith now?" God gave me an inward token that I should be concealed from the Indian's watchful eye, and that he would recognize my offerings in years to come. The wilderness would yet blossom as the rose. In safety about daylight I reached my home and loved ones, and found all well."
One day the Indian fighting parson was notified by the commander of Fort Milani that the ammunition was almost exhausted, and since there were not more than five rounds to the man left, and that the settlers around the Falls were in imminent peril. He had to go to Washington, a distance of one hundred miles, and bring back the powder and lead at his own expense as the government had no money to furnish ammunition. It was up to the parson and the rangers to fight for their new country if they wanted it.
Morrell says: "On my way down, travelling at one time thirty miles without seeing a human being, or even the habitation of man, my mind was active, and resolution firm, to preach whenever and where opportunities were offered.
"Arrived in the little town of Washington about sunset; met a man on a crutch; inquired for the public house, and after he pointed it out, he inquired if I were not a Baptist preacher. I replied that I bore the name of one in Tennessee, and would not deny it in Texas. He invited me to preach for them that night, to which I consented. Everybody turned out. The room obtained was filled, and many stood outside. This was the first sermon ever preached in the town. There were then three or four Baptist there, and they were greatly pleased to hear the sound of a Baptist preacher's voice."
And so it was that the first Baptist church of Texas was organized at Washington in 1837. There were eight members in the organization. Morrell was chosen pastor, Cartwell was recognized as deacon, and J. R. Jenkins was made clerk. From this little church were the first seeds of mission work in Texas really scattered.
Shivering in cold, wet garments, the canebrake parson, after swimming water in the Yegua bottom, arrived at Fort Milam, after four days, with six canisters of powder. There was no danger of starvation with plenty of powder and lead for their flint and steel lock guns. Their gun-locks were usually kept under their blankets to keep the powder dry. Most of the time the men slept with their shot bags around their necks. There was to be no rest, however, for these brave frontiersmen. Their Indian troubles increased and it was not long until the six canisters of powder were to be used in a fight with the common enemy.
According to Morrell, the spies from the two forts at the Falls, and on Little River met every day on middle ground. The trail between the forts had been crossed by the Indians going southeast toward Elm Creek. About fifteen men under Lieutenant Erath, some from each fort, met at the point where the Indians crossed, and followed the trail almost to the mouth of Elm Creek. Here suddenly a number of trails came together, showing evidently that the Indians were not few but many. They had up to this point been travelling in detachments, and it was one of these small companies whose sign had been discovered between the forts. From an elevation the rangers saw the smokes from campfires in the bottom. Lieutenant Erath and his men decided to attack the enemy. They took shelter under the bank of the creek within thirty feet of the fires, and waited for the morning. Daylight streaked the east and the Indians began to rise from their beds and stand about the fires. The officer had divided his men into squads of three or four, and ordered them to shoot at different fires, and to be certain that no two men were to shoot at the same Indian. Just as the last Indians were huddling around the fires, the dogs made the discovery, and directed attention to the spot where the rangers lay concealed. The command was given to fire and a number of Indians fell at every campfire. There was a general stampede among the survivors. Every gun was now empty, and the Indians were thought to be about one-hundred and fifty strong. Discovering that the rangers were few, they soon rallied, and the fight became a desperate one. Erath ordered a retreat. He kept himself in the rear as the men were getting out. Frank Childress and one other were killed on getting out of the ravine. Thirteen rangers escaped. The Indians buried their dead in a pond of water and fled.
ENJOYING THIS STORY?
The following March the old Christian patriot was called upon to travel to Houston for supplies. Clad in his buckskin coat and coonskin cap he cracked the whip at the oxen and drove away. There were no roads then and the journey was dangerous. He and his little son crossed swollen streams, plowed through muddy bottoms toward the tent where he was destined to do more pioneering for the Baptist denomination.
"Houston, in 1837, was a city of tents; only one or two log cabins appeared. John K. Allen's framed building was raised, covered, and partly weatherboarded. A large amount of goods in tents. A large round tent, resembling the enclosure of a circus, was used for a drinking saloon. This was the last Sunday in March, and after changing the garb of the wagoner for one similar to that worn in the city, I went out in search of a place to preach. Upon inquiry I was informed that there never had been a sermon preached in the place. It was quite a novel thing then to hear preaching, and some, to enjoy the novelty, and some no doubt with the purest motives, went to work, and very soon seats were prepared in a cool shade on that beautiful spring morning.
"Monday morning ammunition was sought for in every store. Purchased two kegs of powder. No lead to be had. Family supplies and some additional articles for the soldiers were procured, and as rapidly as an ox team, heavily loaded, could carry us, we made our way home. When we reached the eastern bank of the Brazos, opposite our log cabin and the soldier's fort on the west, and announced across the river that we had powder, lead and commissary stores, hats were waved, and as loud a shout was raised as would have been during the late war on the arrival of a seventy-four gun ship in some great emergency. "
While on the second trip to Houston for supplies the Indians and Mexicans overpowered the fort at the Falls, killing Coryell and several rangers. His family was forced to go about forty-five miles down the river to Fort Nashville for protection from the Indians. Morrell's provisions and household goods were taken by the Indians.
"God be praised; my wife and children lived. My goods were stored in Houston, except two wagon loads that were carried to Washington as soon as possible. My family was brought to Washington, and we were soon in business. The best crop I ever made was all lost, our household furniture and farming tools all captured, and about a thousand dollars lost in the failure of the banks."
The performance of a wedding ceremony was a rare occurrence during the early days of Texas. Before the independence of Texas marriage was illegal unless performed by a Catholic priest. To be married by a priest, who charged twenty-five dollars, was rather expensive for the colonists especially when there was more land than money. Most couples desiring to be married signed a bond in the presence of witnesses, and became husband and wife. The congress of Texas passed laws relating to the proper form of marriage and license could be issued by authority of the republic. In the fall of 1837 Parson Morrell was called upon to perform his first marriage ceremony in Texas.
"I was called on frequently afterwards to officiate in such cases, and in a few instances, a group of little children were witnesses for their parents. In one instance, immediately after preaching, I performed a ceremony in the presence of the congregation, the parties each holding a child in their arms."
The Indians sacked and burned the town of Linnville in 1840, and carried off several prisoners. The Indians had come down on the settlements in large numbers killing and stealing. This depredating band passed in sight of the canebrake preacher who was returning from a preaching tour. He informed Col. Ed Burleson of the Indian trouble. Burleson asked Morrell to act as a scout and inform the people of the various settlements around Austin, and urge them to come forward and fight. Colonel Burleson, Jack Hays, Ben and Henry McCulloch, Morrell, Judge R. E. Baylor, for whom Baylor University was named, T. W. Cox, the three famous pioneer preachers, and many others met the Indians in a bloody battle at Plum Creek. The Indians were routed but as they commenced the retreat they attempted to kill their prisoners.
"Just as the retreat commenced, I heard the scream of a female voice, in a bunch of bushes close by. Approaching the spot, I discovered a lady endeavoring to pull an arrow out that was lodged firmly in her breast. This proved to be Mrs. Watts, whose husband was killed at Linnville. Dr. Brown, of Gonzales, was at once summoned to the spot. Nearby, we soon discovered a white woman and negro woman, both dead. These were all shot with arrows, when the howl was raised and the retreat commenced. While the doctor was approaching, I succeeded in loosing her hands from the arrow. The dress and flesh on each side of the arrow were cut, and an effort was made to extract it. The poor sufferer seized the doctor's hand, and screamed so violently that he desisted. A second effort was made with success. My blanket was spread upon the ground, and as she rested on this, with my saddle for a pillow, she was soon composed, and rejoicing at her escape. Death would have been preferable to crossing the mountains with the savages. She had ridden a pack mule all the way from the coast, and when they stopped she was required to read the stolen books for their amusement.
"When we went into the fight there were present about two hundred men; but by night we supposed there were near five hundred. Here we were three Baptist preachers—R. E. B. Baylor, T. W. Cox and the writer, all in the fight, with doctors, lawyers, merchants and farmers."
Morrell was commissioned by the Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1846 as missionary for that part of the country between the Trinity and Brazos, lying above the old San Antonio road. He traveled on horseback all over the country, swimming icy creeks and fighting Indians, helping the settlers do the work for his board while he organized churches.
W. S. Allen of Calvert who knew the famous old frontier preacher says:
"Morrell had a negro by the name of Si Harlan with him when he organized the church at Little River in 1849. After preaching he announced that he and Si were going to build a church there, and if anybody wanted to help to be on hand the following Monday. My father had a slave who was a fine carpenter and he was sent to help cut the logs and make the puncheon floor. This is one of the oldest churches in all of the country. I later went to school in this old building which was used as a church on Sunday and school during the weekdays.
"There was another church built there in 1871 which is a reproduction of the old log house. There were two doors at the entrance one for the women and one for the men. They never entered together. Ladies sat on one side of the house, and the men on the other. There were several benches up near the pulpit reserved for women and their babies. The deacons sat on several of the benches near the pulpit which was located between the two doors at the entrance. The young men waited for their sweethearts at the door when they came out and escorted them to their horses or their buggies. Everybody turned out for church then."
At this same Little River church organized by Morrell was held the first Baptist camp meeting in the country. The brethren camped at the Block House Springs, seven miles from the church edifice in primitive style. The year 1853 was dry and water was scarce and the people were forced to move to the spring. They had a great revival and lots of fun visiting with old friends.
Morrell requested, when dying, at the home of R. J. Sledge at Kyle, Texas, that he be buried in a plain coffin and that a small marble slab with his name, time of birth and death, and the inscription "A Sinner Saved by Grace." And thus it was that the most active and widely known of all the pioneer Baptist preachers ended his useful career.