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The Crusty Old Baptist

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
Z.N. Morrell
Photo Courtesy of Murray Montgomery &
The Gonzales Inquirer

There wasn't supposed to be but one religion in Texas, in 1835. But a crusty old Baptist by the name of Z.N. Morrell had plans to bring the Protestant religion to the settlers anyway, even though it went against Mexican law.

When Anglo settlers were given permission to colonize Texas, one of the rules was that everyone had to worship as a Catholic. And although this rule wasn't strictly adhered to, it was still a Mexican law that forbade any religion but Catholicism.

Z.N. Morrell was a fiery Baptist minister who came to Texas in 1835 to explore the possibilities of forming churches in the settlements. It is apparent that "Wildcat", as he was known, had no problems with going against the Mexican government's rule regarding other religions. But by the time he was ready to act on his plan to begin building churches in Texas, the revolution was over and Texas was a free country. So it was that when Morrell finally brought his family to the new republic in April of 1836, he was able to start his church without fear of repercussions from the government.

According to The Handbook of Texas Online, Morrell first settled near the falls of the Brazos. But Indian raids soon forced him to move his family to Washington-on-the-Brazos. It was there that Morrell helped form one of the first Baptist churches in Texas in 1837. He was an Indian fighter, land speculator, schoolteacher, and politician, as well as a preacher.

An article in the July 27, 1972, edition of The Gonzales Inquirer commemorated the history of the Baptist movement in Gonzales. The article stated that Z.N. Morrell was an interesting combination of missionary, frontiersman, and preacher. The Inquirer article included the following about Morrell: " he will stand in the history of Gonzales as the first Baptist to preach in this area, and one of the organizers of the first church here.

Morrell's book, Flowers and Fruits in Wilderness, evidently gives an eyewitness account of the problems faced by frontier missionaries during the early days of the Republic of Texas.

Some of the quotes from the book indicate what Rev. Morrell considered to be some of the biggest obstacles facing organized religion at the time. He blamed the Indians, anti-missionaries, and "King John Barleycorn" for most of the problems.

Morrell saw to it that the citizens of Gonzales would receive the "Word" and that they would receive it on a regular basis. He preached in a schoolhouse some four miles from the settlement and at his little church in town. The Indians were a constant threat and according to Morrell they even committed a murder once while church was in session.

He said that folks attending the services that evening heard a "shrill Indian whistle" and some shots. The next morning they found the body of a scalped "non-believer" near the church. Morrell mentioned that after that incident, the meetings were more like armed gatherings with some men standing guard while the others listened to the sermon with guns across their laps.

After his time in Gonzales, Morrell was appointed by the Domestic Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to be a circuit-riding preacher. He made routine trips from Cameron to Corsicana on horseback, which was a monthly round-trip of some 300 miles. Morrell was in ill-health most of the time, yet he helped raise funds for Baylor University in 1847. Twenty years later, in 1867, he was involved in missionary work in Honduras.

Information in The Handbook of Texas Online states that Morrell's most notable contribution was his written ministry in the book, Flowers and Fruits from the Wilderness. The Boston printing firm, Gould and Lincoln published it in 1872.

On December 19, 1883, after an historic 50-year ministry, Z.N. Morrell died in Kyle, Texas. He is buried in the State Cemetery at Austin.

Lone Star Diary
January, 2001
Published with author's permission.

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