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Community History: Churches

Churches--the Alpha and the Omega

Churches are often the first community institutions to be created, and the last to to die....that is, except for the cemetery, of course.  In nineteenth century rural Smith County Baptists and Methodists predominated, with occasional Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and a lone Unitarian/Universalist congregation.  By the end of that century Episcopals, Catholics, and Jews had become established in Tyler, and since then a wide variety of congregations have been added.  Quite a few of these congregations have written and published their own histories, but many more have not.  Some small country churches are fading and need to be documented before they disappear entirely.

Church History--In General

For a general guide for researching church history, see James P. Wind's Places of Worship:  Exploring Their History.  Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1990.  It's in the UT Tyler Library at BR515 .W56 1990 and BR515 .W56 1997 (reprint).  Reprint will be in New Books shelves until February 1.

Church history in Smith County is listed under Religion in the online Bibliography of Smith County, Texas.  There are also specific bibliographies under Religion for Baptist, Catholic, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Jews, Lutheran, Methodist, Muslims, and Presbyterian congregations.  If a particular religion or denomination is not listed, check with both the Tyler Public Library Local History Room and the Smith County Historical Society Archives for their vertical files.  They may have collected newspaper articles and/or programs from groups that have not received adequate attention yet.

Articles on religion on the regional and state level may provide context or even mention a Smith County church.  These can appear either in denominational history journals (see below) or in general historical journals such as East Texas Historical Journal and Southwestern Historical Quarterly.  Both are indexed in America:  History and Life.

After you check for anything published previously, the next step is to contact the church itself, if it is still in existence.  The minister or the church secretary may have a library, closet, or file cabinet with old records, list of ministers, newsletters, membership rolls, anniversary programs, etc.  That will be the core of your sources, but there are other places to look for information to supplement and verify what you find.  They may also be able to direct you to elderly members or long-time families for interviews, photographs, or other memorabilia.

Deed Records--Go to the County Clerk's Office and look in the Indirect Index for the first time that you see the church's name.  Follow up with the deed in the books and you will find original location and governing board.  Continue looking in the Indirect and the Direct indices and you may find when the church moved, changed names, bought a parsonage, added property, or sold out.  With each transaction you may find another list of names from the church, pinned to a specific date. 

Maps--Look under the Communities tab in this Libguide for sources of historic maps.  Most of the twentieth century county maps include churches.  The church symbol is a small black box with a cross on top.

Tyler City Directories--If you are researching a Tyler congregation, look it up in the city directories at Tyler Public Library and the Smith County Historical Society Archives.  They date back to 1882.  Infomation varies, from address to meeting times, ministers' names, etc.  See the City Directories box under the People tab in this Libguide.

Census Reports--Countywide statistics were gathered for each denomination in the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1890, generally including number of churches, seating capacity, and value of buildings.  Check for the schedule which includes "Social statistics."

Newspapers--See the box on Newspapers under the People tab in this Genweb.  Besides appearing in local newspapers, churches and their leaders may appear in state or regional denominational newspapers, such as the Texas Baptist and the Texas Christian Advocate (Methodist).

Images--Visit the Smith County Historical Society Archives and take a look through their extensive photograph collection for pictures of area churches.  See also Robert Reed's webpage, A History of Tyler, Texas, Through Postcards, for thirteen different church postcards.

The following boxes provide additional sources for denominations that have regional archives and publications.  If you know of any more, please contact me.  I haven't left any out on purpose. 


Texas Baptists are great record keepers, fortunately.  Their associations keep track of pastors, delegates, number of members, meeting times, and number of those baptised, dismissed by letter, restored, excluded and who have died.  Look for both the Cherokee Baptist Association (active at least during the 19th century) and the Smith County Baptist Association.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas maintains the Texas Baptist Historical Collection.  As of May 20, 2014, their Dallas building was sold to the Baylor University School of Nursing, and plans were being made to move the Collection to Waco.  Chances are, the collection is currently unavailable to researchers.  Previously helpful webpages on writing church histories are also unavailable.  I guess this is a "stay tuned to future announcements" situation.

I have found original copies of the Cherokee Baptist Association minutes at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.  I haven't found a link that goes directly to their archives, and I know that all of what they own is not reflected in the online library catalog.  Therefore, if you think they may have something you need, you will probably have to email or phone them. A summary statistics from the CBA minutes for Enon, Indian Creek, New Harmony and Dean churches through 1877 appears here.

Other documents may be available at the Texas Collection, Baylor University.

The national level source is the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville. 

Texas Baptists also support state newspapers, most of which are now available on microfilm.  You may be able to get selected years in on interlibrary loan, or you may have to visit a library that owns it. 

Texas Baptist (1855-1861) > Texas Baptist Herald (1865-1886?) + Texas Baptist (1874-1886) > Texas Baptist and Herald (1886-1898) > Texas Baptist-Herald (1886-1898) > Texas Baptist-Herald (1898-1904) > Texas Baptist Herald (1904-1908)
Western Baptist (1890s-1892) > Baptist Standard (1892) > Texas Baptist Standard (1892-1898) > Baptist Standard (1898-    )

The Dallas Genealogical Society has published Texas Baptist Newspaper Abstracts, 7 March, 1855-21 February 1884.  This is going to be a reference book wherever it is, so it will not be available for interlibrary loan.  The closest location is the East Texas Research Center in Ralph W. Steen Library, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches.

The journal that specifically covers Baptist history is, well, Texas Baptist History:  Journal of the Texas Baptist Historical Society (1981- ).  It is not indexed in America:  History and Life database.


For many years Catholic life in Smith County revolved around Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, now Cathedral.  Their website includes some of their history.  There are now many Catholic congregations that are part of the Tyler Diocese.

Additional state resources are:

Catholic Archives of Texas (Austin)

Texas Catholic Historical Society

The main state level historical journals are:
The Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture (1990-1995) > Catholic Southwest:  A Journal of History and Culture.  Both titles are indexed in America:  History and Life.

The main state level denominational newspapers are:

Southern Messenger Under the Cross (1893-1894) > Southern Messenger (1894-1957) > The Alamo Messenger:  Official Catholic Newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio (which was all of Texas at that time) (1957-1972)
The Texas Catholic (1952-    )--Diocese of Dallas

Disciples of Christ / Church of Christ

These are not the same denomination, but they come from a similar heritage and some of the sources address both.

Center for Restoration Studies, Abilene Christian University

Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee--also serves Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and a cappella Churches of Christ, which all come from the Stone-Campbell tradition.

The three national newspapers are Christian Record (1843-1884), Missionary Tidings (1883-1919), and World Call (1919-1973).

An early Texas denominational newspaper is The Christian Messenger (1875-1884) Texas, published in Bonham.


Historical Society of the Episcopal Church 

Archives of the Episcopal Church (Austin) 

The two historical journals are Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Churchh (1932-1986) published in Austin, and Anglican and Episcopal History (1987-    ).  Both indexed in America:  History and Life


The main organization for state level Jewish history is the Texas Jewish Historical Society.  Their webpage includes links to Texas Jewish References and the Texas Jewish Historical Society Archives at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.  They have published their Newsletter since 1980.

Another possible source is the Southern Jewish Historical Society which publishes Southern Jewish History.  It is indexed in America:  History and Life.

Western States Jewish History is published by the Western States Jewish History Association in California, and it has many articles on Jews in Texas.  It is also indexed in America:  History and Life.

Texas Jewish newspapers:

Jewish Herald (Houston) 1908-1914 (full image at Portal to Texas History) > Texas Jewish Herald (Houston) 1914-1938 > Jewish Voice (Houston) 1937-1938 > Jewish Herald-Voice (Houston) 1938- > Jewish Beacon (Houston) 1947-?


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Archives Region 4  Texas Lutheran University, Seguin.

Concordia Historical Institute--Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, in Kirkwood, Missouri. 

The main journal covering Lutheran history is Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, which is indexed in America:  History and Life.  Concordia also publishes Historical Footnotes, which is available online back to 1996.


United Methodist Church--General Commission on Archives and History 

Historical Society of the United Methodist Church 

Texas Methodist History, a searchable blog with "This Week in Methodist History

I have abstracted out all of the articles that I could find in  the Texas Christian Advocate that deal with Tyler and Smith County.

Texas Methodist Newspaper Abstracts, compiled by Helen Mason Lu, includes Texas Wesleyan Banner, 17 April 1854-1854; Texas Christian Advocate, 13 August 1857-11 Sept. 1881.  "These abstracts are from the obituaries, death notices, marriages, biographical sketches and selected miscellaneous items."  (4 vo.)  There is a separate index volume that covers v.1-4.

In the past the archives of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes all of East Texas, has been housed at Lon Morris College.  That school has closed, and there are plans to build a new archives facility in Chappell Hill near Brneham.  If you have any questions, email William Hardt, Texas United Methodist Historical Society, at He also writes the Texas Methodist History blog

There are also Methodist archival materials at Bridwell Library on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas.


Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Archives

Journal of Presbyterian History

Texas Presbyterian (1846-1856); (1876-1896)

Trans-Mississippi Presbyterian (1897-1899)

Presbyterian Record (1899-?)

Presbyterian Church of America  "Writing Church History:  A Guideline for Local Church Historians"

Presbyterian Heritage Center at Montreat, NC

Historical Foundation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church

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