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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Sunday School vs Cockfight

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Rumor is a thing than can quickly get out of hand.

The Rev. John Wesley DeVilbiss found that out in 1846 in San Antonio.

DeVilbiss, born in Maryland in 1818 and raised in Ohio, came to Texas in December 1842. A circuit-riding Methodist preacher, he figured the new republic offered him ample opportunity for work. While the desire for salvation was not unheard of in Texas, sinfulness abounded. In fact, someone had warned him not to drink any water from the Sabine when he crossed into Texas "as it gave a person an inclination to steal."

Like other pioneer Texas preachers, DeVilbiss traveled from one community to another, dodging hostile Indians and bandits while striving to redirect the inclinations of Texans who had, at least in the figurative sense, drunk from the Sabine.

When DeVilbiss conducted a camp meeting on McCoy's Creek, a tributary of the Guadalupe near present day Cuero in South Texas, a detachment of Capt. Jack Hay's Texas Rangers stood guard. The rough and tumble rangers impressed the preacher.

Like most of the early men of the cloth who came to Texas, DeVilbiss was a writer as well as an orator. He sent letters to the Western Christian Advocate from time to time with observations on his new home country. In one of those dispatches, he wrote about the Rangers.

By this time he had settled near San Antonio, where he preached and started a Sunday school.

Though some San Antonioans were pleased at the opportunity to learn more about the Bible, Sunday school started at the same time of day as the Sunday cockfight. Large crowds gathered for these violent rooster matches, and in addition to reducing the attendance of his missionary efforts, they made a lot of noise. Beyond that, the drinking, wagering and cursing attendant to the bloody sport conflicted totally with the Christian view of the Sabbath.

As if that were not enough for a preacher to worry about, a rumor got out that DeVilbiss had written some unflattering things about the Rangers.

Some of Hay's men, having stood guard while DeVilbiss sought converts, found it annoying that the preacher would write something unfavorable about them. Of course, they hadn't read the story. They were merely depending on rumor.

Word reached the preacher that a group of six rangers planned to "duck" him on Saturday night. (Accounts of this incident don't explain exactly what "duck" meant in this particular context, but it might have had something to do with involuntary immersion in the San Antonio river.)

DeVilbiss sent a messenger to tell the offended rangers that if they would delay their planned visit with him until Sunday morning, when they were welcome at his service, he would explain the perceived insult.

Evidently willing to turn the other cheek at least on the short term, the rangers postponed the ducking, came to hear him preach, and left satisfied with his explanation of the writing in question.

It turned out that a number of the rangers had previously been regulars at the weekly cockfight, but were so impressed by DeVilbiss' sermons, they started coming to his church instead.

Attendance eventually dropped off so much the chicken fighting stopped.

After nearly four decades of spreading the Gospel in Texas, DeVilbiss retired in 1880. He had a ranch on the Medina River near Oak Island, where he died on Jan. 31, 1885. `



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 1, 2016


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