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Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas

Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas

A comparative history of Mexican-American Protestants that describes how they have created a truly indigenous, authentic, and empowering faith tradition in the Mexican-American community.

Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Eighteen

January 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
256 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones, 2 tables |

The question of how one can be both Hispanic and Protestant has perplexed Mexican Americans in Texas ever since Anglo-American Protestants began converting their Mexican Catholic neighbors early in the nineteenth century. Mexican-American Protestants have faced the double challenge of being a religious minority within the larger Mexican-American community and a cultural minority within their Protestant denominations. As they have negotiated and sought to reconcile these two worlds over nearly two centuries, los Protestantes have melded Anglo-American Protestantism with Mexican-American culture to create a truly indigenous, authentic, and empowering faith tradition in the Mexican-American community.

This book presents the first comparative history of Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas. Covering a broad sweep from the 1830s to the 1990s, Paul Barton examines how Mexican-American Protestant identities have formed and evolved as los Protestantes interacted with their two very different communities in the barrio and in the Protestant church. He looks at historical trends and events that affected Mexican-American Protestant identity at different periods and discusses why and how shifts in los Protestantes' sense of identity occurred. His research highlights the fact that while Protestantism has traditionally served to assimilate Mexican Americans into the dominant U.S. society, it has also been transformed into a vehicle for expressing and transmitting Hispanic culture and heritage by its Mexican-American adherents.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Tejano/a Catholic Worldview
  • Chapter 3. "Onward Christian Soldiers": Anglo-Protestant Missionaries
  • Chapter 4. "Jesus Is All the World to Me": Los Protestantes' Appropriation of Anglo-American Protestantism
  • Chapter 5. "Jesús Es Mi Rey Soberano": The Mexican-American Character of los Protestantes
  • Chapter 6. ¿"Somos Uno en el Espíritu"? The Relationship between los Protestantes and Catholicism
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion
  • Appendix A. Institutional History of the Rio Grande Annual Conference
  • Appendix B. Institutional History of the Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas
  • Appendix C. Institutional History of the Texas-Mexican Presbytery
  • Appendix D. Maximo Villarreal Book Collection
  • Appendix E. Course of Study Readings for Ordination for Spanish-Speaking Methodists
  • Appendix F. "Hispanic Creed"
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Paul Barton is Associate Professor of Hispanic Church Studies at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.


The Reverend Roberto Gómez, pastor of a Mexican-American United Methodist church in Mission, Texas, on the Texas-Mexico border, commented that the Anglo-American visitors to his church in December 1998 expected to find worshippers who looked like them. He experienced other instances like this throughout his tenure at the church. He noted that winter visitors from the north typically remarked to the pastor after the service that they never anticipated seeing such a large congregation of Mexican-American Protestants because they assumed that all Mexican Americans attended Catholic churches.

In addition to addressing these visitors' perceptions, Rev. Gómez must address his own self-perceptions. He represents many mainline Hispanic Protestants who inevitably confront a crucial question of identity: how can they be both Mexican American and Protestant? Straddling this identity divide, Mexican-American (and Hispanic and Latino/a) mainline Protestants find themselves negotiating two worlds—the world of the Anglo-American dominant society, represented in their Protestant denomination, and the world of their (generally Catholic) Mexican-American community. It is in this negotiation between their two primary frames of reference—the Anglo-American Protestant denomination and their Mexican-American Catholic community—that Hispanic Protestants work out their religious and cultural identities.

Because the very terms used to denote Protestants of Hispanic background vary, it is necessary to specify how terms are used in this work. "Mexican-American Protestants" in this study refers most specifically to Mexican and Mexican-American Protestants in the U.S. Southwest, and occasionally to the larger Hispanic Protestant community. Given the continued immigration of Mexicans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is important to recognize both Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the history of the U.S. Southwest. The terms "Hispanic Protestants" and "los Protestantes," used interchangeably in this book, embrace Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and other Hispanic Protestants living in the U.S. Southwest.

Los Protestantes have experienced a constant tension, striving to maintain their Mexican-American identity in relation to Anglo-American Protestants and their Protestant identity in relation to their Mexican-American Roman Catholic neighbors. In the process, they have experienced marginalization as a double minority. They are a religious minority within the larger Mexican-American community and a cultural minority within their Protestant denomination. They have been marginalized within their Mexican-American community because of their religious beliefs and activity and within their religious community because of their skin color and ethnicity.

Likewise, los Protestantes have constructed their unique religious identity as a counterpoint to the Mexican-American Catholic community, which is the group of their cultural affiliation, and their cultural identity as a counterpoint to the predominantly Anglo-American Protestant community. To a great extent, the religious and cultural identity of los Protestantes has been shaped as they have moved back and forth between these two communities, one representing the religious and cultural context of their ethnic heritage, and the other representing the ideals and values of the dominant society. Identity formation thus involves a process of distinguishing oneself, or one's group, from others, thus defining oneself through defining what one is not.

Los Protestantes represent a unique mixture of Hispanic—and in this case Mexican-American—and Anglo-American religion and culture. They have maintained their ethnic identity through their network of ethnic relationships and observance of many cultural practices. They have developed their religious identity through internalization of the religious worldview and ethos originally presented by Anglo-American Protestant missionaries.

It is the development of and shifts in this cultural and religious identity of Mexican-American mainline Protestants in Texas (and to some extent in New Mexico) that I explore in this study, covering the first outreach of Protestants into Texas in the 1830s through the 1990s. Their identities were fashioned as they interacted with the two communities that formed their frames of reference, Anglo-American Protestants of their own denominations and Mexican-American Catholics within their barrio. Cultural adaptation was occurring in both directions, so that los Protestantes (1) incorporated aspects of Mexican culture into their faith, and (2) appropriated certain aspects of Anglo-American culture and values.

Specifically, this study focuses on the intricacies of the relationship between religion and culture of Mexican-American Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, which are the first three Protestant traditions with Spanish-speaking adherents in Texas. I also address the similarities and differences in the relationships that Mexican-American Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians had with their Protestant denominations and their Mexican-American Catholic community, as well as analogous dynamics of Catholics in some cases. Each of the Spanish-speaking Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterian groups had their own semi-autonomous institution at one time. The southern Presbyterians formed the Texas-Mexican Presbytery (1908-1955). Spanish-speaking Baptists established the Convención Bautista Mexicana de Texas (Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas) in 1910, which united with the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1960. The Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas continues as a department of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and is now known as the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas. The Methodists' institution dates to 1885 with the Conferencia Fronteriza Mexicana de la Iglesia Metodista Episcopal del Sur (Mexican Border Missionary Conference). The boundaries and names changed several times in the ensuing years. The most recent boundary change, in 1939, authorized the Conferencia Anual Mexicana del Suroeste (Southwest Mexican Annual Conference) to administer and establish Spanish-speaking churches in Texas and New Mexico. The name of the institution was changed to the Conferencia Anual del Río Grande (Rio Grande Annual Conference) in 1948.

This work covers Mexican-American Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists and does not include all Protestant denominations and traditions that have been present among Hispanics in the U.S. Southwest. The Nazarenes, Disciples (the Christian Church), Mennonites, Latter Day Saints, and the Assemblies of God, among others, have historical roots among the Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. Southwest. I have focused upon the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists because they began the earliest Protestant missions among the Spanish-speaking in Texas and the rest of the U.S. Southwest. Comparisons among these denominations reveal similar dynamics; Mexican Americans in each have responded to similar religious, cultural, and institutional challenges. Instead of describing the full story of each group, I draw connections between them. And, although this study focuses on Mexican-American Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, other Hispanic Protestants, as well as Catholics, might be able to identify with this history and use it as a vehicle for illuminating some of the dynamics operating in their own churches and settings.

Protestantism has been studied as a vehicle for assimilating Hispanics into mainstream society. Yet, Protestantism as an agent of assimilation tells only part of the story of los Protestantes. Somewhere along the way, Anglo-American forms of Protestantism melded with Mexican-American cultural and social customs so that a distinctive form of Mexican-American Protestantism emerged. This melding of Anglo-American Protestantism with Mexican-American culture was necessary in order for Mexican-American Protestantism to become an indigenous, authentic, and empowering faith tradition in the Mexican-American community. As los Protestantes integrated their Anglo-American Protestant faith with their cultural heritage, they intentionally began to embrace their ethnic culture. It was the ability to resolve differences in important aspects of identity between Anglo-American Protestantism and their Mexican-American culture that enabled los Protestantes to continue as a unique group, distinct from their Mexican-American Catholic neighbors and distinct from their Anglo-American Protestant co-faithful.

Permeating this study is a concern for the changing relationship between los Protestantes and the two groups that have influenced their identity, namely Anglo-American Protestants and Mexican-American Catholics. In tracing the shifts in the relationships between los Protestantes and these two groups, as well as the shifts in their communal identity, I consider the following question: how is the identity of a group of people from one culture changed when they adopt the religion of another culture? Put another way, how do their worldview and ethos change as they enter into the Anglo-American Protestant orbit? And, given that this examination traces the development of Mexican-American Protestant identity for over a century, what are the historical events and trends that affected their identity in different periods? What shifts have occurred in their identity and how have these shifts occurred? How have los Protestantes maintained their Mexican-American and Protestant identities in relationship to the two communities to which they have continued to relate—their Mexican-American community and their Anglo-American denomination? The identity of los Protestantes flows from their relationship with each of these groups. Finally, what have been the similarities and differences among Mexican-American Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in their assimilation into the dominant society and the maintenance of their cultural identity?

Assimilation and Cultural Preservation

Examining Protestantism as a vehicle for assimilation into mainstream American society tells only one side of the story of Hispanic Protestantism. While some degree of assimilation resulted from Protestant influence, los Protestantes continued to practice their Mexican-American culture within their religious communities. Indeed, congregational life enabled the maintenance of their Mexican-American culture. This is the case with the Rio Grande Annual Conference, whose ministry in northern Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico dates back over one hundred years. Some Mexican-American Presbyterian and Baptist congregations have also celebrated their centennial anniversary. The continued existence of separate bilingual, and increasingly bicultural, congregations demonstrates that processes other than assimilation were occurring among los Protestantes. These congregations provided safe environments where los Protestantes could engage in cultural self-preservation.

Assimilation theory fails to explain why Mexican-American churches in the U.S. Southwest contain third- and fourth-generation Protestants who have chosen to maintain their membership within a Mexican-American congregation. The development of an emerging indigenous Mexican-American Protestant group calls into question the idea that Mexican Americans simply assimilated into mainstream American society through their participation in the Protestant church. While los Protestantes have assimilated to a certain extent during the last few decades, they have at the same time preserved their ethnicity through their participation in their ethnic churches. Because of the bilingual and bicultural nature of the Mexican-American Protestant churches in Texas, these congregations have facilitated the assimilation of Mexican immigrants into American society while at the same time enabling assimilated Mexican Americans to gain an awareness of their cultural heritage.

Mexican Americans were certainly not the only subaltern group struggling for autonomy in the U.S. Southwest. Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans were also present in this region through the same period. All of these groups had in common the experiences of marginalization, discrimination, and dependency upon the Anglo-American majority, though each group's experiences differed in its particular historical conditions and developments. Due to such particularity, each of these groups deserves separate examination. Moreover, future studies would do well to carefully analyze the interaction among these groups. Here, it must be sufficient to note that the Mexican Americans' history of struggle for autonomy had parallels, and even some contact, with each of these other groups, as well as with other Hispanic groups.

The Tapestry of Mexican-American Protestant Identity

Some literature examining Protestant missionary activity in the U.S. Southwest has taken a unilateral approach. Viewing Protestantism simply as a force acting upon Mexican Americans places the focus of study upon those wielding power, namely the Anglo Americans who wrested control of the U.S. Southwest from Mexican Americans and Native Americans. Those who pursue this perspective tend to recount the ways in which Anglo-American Protestants viewed Mexicans as inferior and themselves as representatives of a superior culture sent to uplift a decadent group of people. To focus on denominational mission agencies and their Anglo-American missionaries is to treat Mexican Americans who converted to Protestantism as objects of evangelization rather than as persons with the ability to make choices. Attempting to strike a balance between the Anglo- and Mexican-American sides of the equation, I examine the religion and culture of both groups to understand the interplay of these two traditions in the lives of los Protestantes.

The interplay of Mexican- and Anglo-American religion and culture can be understood by employing the metaphor of a tapestry. To make a durable tapestry, threads must be tightly interlaced. Viewed as a cultural and religious tapestry, los Protestantes have historical patterns resulting from their Spanish, indigenous, and mestizo roots and from the insertion of Anglo-American Protestantism into this heritage. These historical patterns have been woven together to constitute the Mexican-American Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian communities in Texas and New Mexico. Some of the threads appear in sharp relief, such as the influences of Protestant missionaries and this group's contradistinction from the Catholic Church. Other threads are subtler, not as easy to perceive. The influence of anticlericalism and La Reforma in nineteenth-century Mexico and the Mexican Revolution are two cases in point.

In the case of Mexican-American Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, their history is one of a continuous weaving of cultural and religious threads into their communities that form historical patterns. Individuals participating in each of these communities, such as Anglo-American missionaries, wove enduring strands of Protestantism into this cultural and religious fabric. Other strands have been inserted by larger trends, such as mass immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, when many Mexicans arrived in Texas to escape the ravages of the Mexican Revolution and another wave of immigration from Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s. Finally, los Protestantes have been contributing to the weaving of their own history and identity. They have left enduring legacies in the transmission of the tradition they adopted and in their eventual challenge of certain legacies. I attempt to make sense of the historical, cultural, and religious patterns that continue in this tapestry.

The metaphor of the tapestry is also helpful for understanding the stresses that los Protestantes have endured as they struggled to maintain their multifaceted identity. Some of these stresses have caused some parts of the fabric to unravel. This has occurred as congregations and members became disaffected from their organizations. In short, los Protestantes find themselves struggling to keep their tapestry woven together in the face of assimilation trends, other religious options (e.g., Catholic and Pentecostal traditions), and institutional challenges.

Seen from a larger perspective, Mexican-American Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists are themselves a strand in the tapestry of the U.S. Southwest. In fact, this study might reveal significant patterns in interethnic relations between Mexican and Anglo Americans that are present in other Hispanic groups, both Protestant and Catholic. By illuminating the role that religion plays in the interethnic relations of Mexican and Anglo Americans, I hope to contribute to a greater understanding of the interplay of these two groups in the U.S. Southwest.

Methodology and Sources

My approach to this study is that of an insider. As a fourth-generation Mexican-American United Methodist, I acknowledge a strong personal affinity for my cultural and religious traditions. Raised within the Rio Grande Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and currently an active participant in the conference, I am intimately familiar with the subject matter, as well as with many of the persons treated in this study. My status as "insider" influences the questions raised for this inquiry. It also underlies an intuitive dimension to this study; descriptions and evaluations of the experiences of los Protestantes are filtered through my lifelong relationship with this group. I am personally aware of the issues that los Protestantes must struggle with as they construct their identity in a pluralistic society. Thus, there is a sense in which this historical inquiry is also an attempt to make sense of the factors that have contributed to my own identity.

While doing previous research on Hispanic Christianity in the U.S. Southwest, I realized that several works have been published about Hispanic Christianity in New Mexico, both Catholic and Protestant, but few persons had considered Mexican-American Protestants in Texas. Those works that do have taken a denominational approach. Brackenridge and García-Treto's Iglesia Presbiteriana remains a standard and compelling work, but it only deals with Presbyterians. Likewise, Daisy Machado's Of Borders and Margins addresses the history of the Disciples. My approach to the study of Hispanic Protestants in Texas follows the examples of two previous comparative works on Hispanic Protestants in the Southwest: Clifton Holland's The Religious Dimension in Hispanic Los Angeles: A Protestant Case Study and Randi Walker's Protestantism in the Sangre de Cristos, 1850-1920, both of which compare and contrast the development of Latino/a Protestant traditions in a specific region.

Summary of Chapters

To fully understand the worlds that los Protestantes negotiated—the Mexican-American Catholic community and the Anglo-American Protestant denomination—it is necessary to explore their characteristics. Chapter 2 examines the worldview and ethos of nineteenth-century Tejano/a Catholicism. The first generations of Hispanic Protestants emerged from nineteenth-century Mexican and Mexican-American Catholicism. It is necessary to understand the religion and culture from which the first Hispanic Protestants emerged so that we can appreciate the changes that occurred when they entered the Protestant tradition and the ways in which they distinguished themselves from their Catholic neighbors. The worldview and ethos of Tejano/a Catholics, manifested in popular Catholicism, enabled them to endure wars, raids, political conflicts, and social and economic changes throughout the nineteenth century.

The popular hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" served as a beckoning call for the Protestant missionary movement throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chapter 3 examines the main features of Protestantism transmitted to the Spanish-speaking by Protestant missionaries. It demonstrates how the tension that existed between evangelical/revivalist and rationalist/modernist/educational-oriented Protestants was transferred to los Protestantes. Despite the different cultural nuances between evangelical and modernist-oriented Protestants, there were common characteristics of Protestantism and Anglo-American culture that pervaded missionary work among the Spanish-speaking in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest: anti-Catholicism, biblicism, revivalism, educational aspiration, and Anglo-American middle-class values and morality. Protestant missionaries accentuated these features to adapt their evangelistic work to the mestizo/a and Catholic nature of the borderlands.

"Jesus Is All the World to Me" was a popular nineteenth-century hymn that epitomizes the personal piety of evangelical Protestants. Chapter 4 examines the religious and cultural identities that los Protestantes appropriated from the missionaries. The first half, focusing on the first Spanish-speaking Protestants in northern Mexico and Texas, notes the role of conversion in identity formation. I explore the extent to which conversion was able to transport converts from a Mexican and Catholic worldview and ethos to an Anglo-American and Protestant worldview and ethos. I also explore the complexity of conversion by observing varieties of conversion, reasons for conversion, and the consequences of conversion, particularly the ensuing turmoil as Protestantism entered Mexican and Mexican-American communities. The second half of the chapter focuses on the ways that los Protestantes internalized the Anglo-American worldview and ethos through their participation in Protestantism. I examine the extent to which los Protestantes assimilated into the Anglo-American society and culture. I also examine gender roles and the Anglo-American cultural worldview and ethos inherent in Anglo-American Protestantism.

The popular Spanish-language hymn "Jesús Es Mi Rey Soberano" (Jesus Is My Sovereign King) was written by the Mexican Methodist pastor and composer Vicente Mendoza in 1920. The hymn signals the movement by los Protestantes to express their faith using their own language and idiomatic expressions. Chapter 5 explores the enculturation of Protestantism into the Mexican-American context. This chapter examines the blending of Anglo-American Protestantism with Mexican-American customs and practices in their congregational life, especially worship. I examine the ways in which Anglo-American Protestantism became Mexican-American Protestantism, exploring the symbols, rituals, behavior, and worship practices of los Protestantes as a way of understanding their unique cultural expression of Protestantism. The chapter asks a question fundamental for los Protestantes, namely, what is Mexican or Mexican-American about our worship and communal life?

The hymn "Somos Uno en Espíritu" (We Are One in the Spirit) concerns the relationship between different parts of the Christian community. Chapter 6 traces the relationship between Mexican-American Catholics and Protestants from the late nineteenth century until the 1990s. It examines the evolution of the anti-Catholic attitude that los Protestantes absorbed from Anglo-American Protestantism, characterizing the pervasive anti-Catholic attitude as fundamental to the historical Mexican-American Protestant identity. This key identity feature diminished to varying degrees from the 1960s onward, although in some quarters it still flourishes. I explore how the relationship between los Protestantes and Catholics has recently changed from one based on conflict to one of emerging community. I also trace the ways in which Protestant and Catholic religiosity have merged.

Chapter 7 summarizes the main arguments of the previous chapters, presents the conclusions of this study, and suggests issues for further consideration. Building on the work of this study, I highlight certain issues related to the study of Latino/a religion, such as religious pluralism and the transnational character of U.S. Hispanic religion. I also consider why Hispanic Baptists enjoyed have continued growth while Hispanic United Methodists and Presbyterians have experienced stagnation in their membership.

As the incident with Rev. Gómez and the visitors to his church demonstrates, many remain unaware of the existence of Mexican-American Protestants. This study will help persons unaware of the existence of los Protestantes to appreciate this unique tradition and the challenges they have faced. Likewise, this work allows los Protestantes to reconsider their own Protestant and Hispanic identities as they explore the religious and social forces that have contributed to their present condition.


“Dr. Barton's book will provide an arena for significant dialogue among scholars, as well as between Catholics and Protestants, on the nature and significance of Hispanic Protestantism in the United States.... There is no question that this book is a significant contribution to the field. Indeed, there is no other book like it.”
Justo L. González, author of the highly praised volumes The Story of Christianity and History of Christian Thought