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The Circuit Rider
Littleton Fowler

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Beneath the pulpit of an East Texas country church, far from the saddle-sloped mountains of his beloved Kentucky, Littleton Fowler lies at rest.

He has been dead since 1846, the martyr of an exacting era, but his spirit and works still course through the bloodstream of Texas Methodism.

Fowler was a circuit rider, missionary, marksman, chaplain of the Texas Senate and a brilliant pulpiteer who rode and walked thousands of miles between the Sabine River and San Antonio to found many of Texas’ Methodist churches.

Licensed to preach in 1826, he volunteered for service in the Republic of Texas in 1836, but illness delayed his departure.

He arrived in time to help build the first church building at McMahan’s Chapel near San Augustine. Founded in 1833, and acknowledged as the birthplace of Texas Methodism, the church became Fowler’s headquarters as he carried the faith throughout Texas, including what he called “pagan Houston.”

In 1833 at San Augustine, he stood with a Republic military hero, Thomas J. Rusk, to dedicate the town’s First Methodist Church. He wrote in his diary that the church was the first Protestant church ever laid west of the Sabine, where Texans were lately under a government of religious and civil depotism.”

He said since the birth of time, no cornerstone of a Protestant church had been laid between this and the Isthmus of Panama, the Pacific Ocean, and the southern extremities of South America.

Fowler enthusiastically labeled the event as “the beginning of Protestantism west of the Sabine...and she will march on westward with blessings for our race.” The same year, however, Fowler’s evangelistic zeal dimmed when, as the chaplain for the Texas Senate, he accompanied a band of politicians on a steamboat trip from Houston to Galveston.

In his journal, he described the trip:

“I saw men in high life...if what I saw and heard were a fair representation, my God, keep me from such scenes in the future....”

On the ship’s return on Sunday afternoon, he said “about half of the men on board got wildly drunk and stripped themselves to their linen and pantaloons...their bacchanalian revels and bloodcurdling profanity made the pleasure boat a living hell. I was relapsed from the trip and brought nearly to the valley of death.”

In 1846, Fowler became seriously ill while preaching at Douglas in Nacogdoches County. He was carried to his home at McMahan’s Chapel and on January 29, he died from an acute infection.

But he retained his fervency to the very end.

As his wife leaned over to his deathbed, he asked, “Who’s there?”

“Your unhappy wife,” she said.

“Ah,” he sighed just before he died, “I thought it was an angel.”


Bob Bowman's East Texas July 11, 2010 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman

More: People | Texas Churches

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of 44 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com.)
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