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May 12, 2020 | Kathy H. Culmer, DMin

St. John The Baptist, Tyler, Texas 1892

“Tyler is a field which offers a splendid opportunity for doing a good work among colored people, provided the work is supported.” 
-- James I.N. Thompson, Deacon in charge of St. John the Baptist Mission, 1892

Author, intellect and activist, W. E. B. DuBois, said “Although the Episcopal Church was the first American Church to receive Negro members, the growth of that membership has been small. This was the one  great church that did not split on the slavery question, and the result is that its Negro membership before and since the war [Civil War] has been a delicate subject, and the church has probably done less for black people than any other aggregation of Christians.” Several of DuBois’ family members had belonged to the Episcopal Church, but DuBois himself did not share their fondness for the denomination.

In particular, DuBois criticized the church’s use of Sunday Schools in the training of African Americans. The use of Sunday Schools as a means of ministry to African Americans was not new and dated back to use on plantations for the religious training of slaves. In his book, The Negro Church, DuBois points to the use of Sunday Schools both before and after the Civil War more as a means for repressing a people thought inferior than for making saints and empowering souls. They did little or nothing, he contends to expand the participation of Black people in the Church, especially when given a choice. In his chapter devoted to Episcopalians in The Negro Church, he includes an extract from “The Church Advocate,” formerly called “The Afro-American Churchman,” a publication founded by George Freeman Bragg, former slave and twelfth African American ordained in the Episcopal Church. According to the extract, a committee at the Convention of 1856 proposed the following: “We commend the establishment of Sunday Schools in our bounds, by the masters and mistresses in our church for colored children, where the instruction would be exclusively oral and governed by the standards of our church.” And while African Americans, post-Civil War, no longer had masters and mistresses, he makes no further distinction between its use of effectiveness than when they did.  Further, it says, “The method of special services for colored people, ‘Colored Sunday School,’ not only failed in ante-bellum days , but it also failed in later days since the war [Civil War]. It is very far from us to contend that these efforts were in vain and without substantial good. Much good was the outcome of such efforts. They helped to mold and build solid characters. But they helped scarcely one iota in church extension or in making churchmen of colored people. The people got the instruction and the material help and went off to be Baptists or Methodists.”

St. John’s in Tyler, Texas, however, was an outgrowth of this very ministry of the Church criticized by Dr. DuBois, the Church Sunday School. Named after the biblical prophet, John the Baptist, who was referred to as “a lone voice in the wilderness,” St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Tyler became the second African-American congregation in the Diocese of Texas. St. John’s began as a Sunday School for Blacks in Marshall, Texas, under the leadership of James I. N. Thompson. Mr. Thompson had been conducting Sunday School classes, but efforts to locate a suitable building for a Black mission there were unsuccessful. When a group of people in Tyler showed interest, he moved the Sunday School to Tyler in 1891 where it became a parochial mission of Christ Church, Tyler.  After a building was purchased, the school and a church began to operate out of it. St. John the Baptist was admitted at annual Diocesan Council as a mission of the Diocese of Texas in 1892. The parochial school began with 59 students.

On March 12, 1892, Bishop Kinsolving preached and confirmed twenty-four black people in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist.  From this visit, the Bishop would later remark that Black people were “responsive when the effort is made to train them in the church’s ways.” 

By August of 1892, St. John’s had eight families, and by the end of that year, 24 persons were baptized. The Rev. Thompson served as Deacon-in-Charge of St. John’s until he was transferred to Alabama in 1897. During the five years he was at St. John’s, more than 45 persons were baptized and 33 were confirmed.

While always showing promise and offering the prospect of offering great educational opportunity, St. John’s faced the same challenges as many other Black Episcopal Churches, not only in Texas, but throughout the South and the whole Church: low membership, inadequate finances and the ongoing struggle to get and retain Black clergy.

Having confirmed 24 persons in St. John’ s in May of 1902, Bishop George Kinsolving realized the potential good St. John’s could do for the community, but expressed his misgivings in a later journal entry. “The Church,” he said, “has an opportunity of doing a good work among the colored people at this point, but I am not sure whether the Church cares to save and uplift these people or not. During my visit I was compelled to surrender the fire insurance policy on the property, and that, too, by a New England company, which informed me that they would insure no property used by negroes, whether owned by the Church or not. God pity New England and Texas, if we fail in our duty in this direction.”

While it continued to face challenges, the congregation persevered in their efforts to have an impact on the community under the leadership of Deacon Robert Gordon, who wrote the following in his 1901 report to Council in 1901: “It is still uphill work here. There are, notwithstanding, some encouraging features of the work. More of the young people are being reached and brought under educational and religious influence. The public services are better attended on Sundays, and on the whole there is an increased interest in the cause, for which we are devoutly thankful. And while it was able to meet the challenges it faced while being led by a number of capable lay leaders, it did not receive its first ordained priest until the arrival of the Rev. J. Beaufort Boyce in 1920. The Rev. Boyce, a graduate of Bishop Payne Divinity School, had transferred from Kentucky where he was ordained deacon in 1920 by the Bishop of Kentucky and ordained priest by Bishop Quin here in the Diocese of Texas in 1921 at St. John’s.

In his 1925 Council address, Bishop Quin praised the progress of St. John’s work and the leadership of the Rev. Boyce: “We really have at St. John’s, Tyler, the foundation for an excellent work. The school numbers 53, and has domestic science and agricultural courses. The Rev. John B. Boyce has remained faithful in this field and deserves honorable mention for refusing the temptation of alluring calls elsewhere.” The Rev. Boyce served St. John’s until 1926.

From 1930 to 1934, the Rev. Millard F. Newman served as vicar. Then, in 1935, John Dublin Epps was ordained deacon at St. Luke’s, Houston and placed in charge of St. John’s. In 1938, Epps was ordained a priest at St. John’s and maintains the distinction of being its longest serving clergy. Bishop Quin is credited with having known the needs of the varying sectors of the Diocese and of the people. It was this sensitivity, along with his insight that led him to realize “the makings of a rector for the Negro mission at Tyler” in the college-trained insurance man, John D. Epps, that he had come to know while he was serving as sexton at Houston’s Christ Church.

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