Thursday, September 26, 2019

Why was the Pilgrim Church constituted in Illinois?

Q. Why did Daniel Parker start the Pilgrim Church in Lamotte, Illinois, and then emigrate to Texas?

A. In the past I have accepted the traditional explanation, that it was a legal matter, and referred to that as recently as the 13th of this month. I think Dan Wimberly’s explanation in Frontier Religion: Elder Daniel Parker - His Religious and Political Life moves the discussion and explanation in the right direction.

“Although organized in Illinois, the Pilgrim Church became the first formally organized Baptist Church in Texas. Family legend reports that Parker organized the church in Illinois because the Mexican government had denied him permission to form a Baptist Church in Texas. To circumvent this prohibition, his family believed that Parker sought permission from Stephen F. Austin to import a Baptist congregation. Accordingly, Austin granted approval to Daniel.

“There may be a germ of truth in the tradition, but its total veracity is dubious. A more plausible reason for forming the church in Illinois related to Baptist ecclesial practice. In 1832 Parker realized that Baptist churches did not exist in Texas, and very few Baptist ministers lived there. Parker firmly believed that members of the organizational presbyteries had to be doctrinally sound. If not, then the credentials of the congregation and the baptisms of those immersed under its authority stood in doubt. With this in mind, Parker likely reasoned that it would be difficult to assemble an organizational presbytery of like faith and order in Texas. Furthermore, there are no documents which indicate that Parker directly sought or received permission from Austin.”[i]

For the family tradition, Wimberly cites an article written by Ben J. Parker in 1935, “Early Times in Texas and History of the Parker Family.” This tradition is widespread, and obviously earlier than 1935. The Handbook of Texas Online puts it this way: “[Parker] realized that a Baptist church could not be organized in Texas without breaking Mexican law.”[ii] J. M. Carroll references the idea when he writes, “During Daniel Parker’s visit to Texas in 1832, he construed the Mexican Colonization laws as forbidding the organizing of any other than a Catholic Church in Texas, but not as prohibiting the immigration of one into the state, so he returned to Illinois, selected his followers, organized them into a church, and then proceeded by wagons, holding services as they journeyed to Texas.”[iii] A footnote in “The Records of an Early Texas Baptist Church. I. 1833-1847” claims, “In 1832 Mr. Parker visited Texas. According to his construction of the Mexican law, it forbade the organization of a Protestant church in Texas, but not the immigration of such a church already organized. He, therefore, organized the ‘Pilgrim’ church in Illinois, and then the membership moved to Texas, retaining their organization.”[iv]

Perhaps Parker was trying to skirt the colonization law of Mexico. However, it is questionable whether starting a Baptist church in Texas would have been any more illegal than just having one in Texas, where Roman Catholicism was the official religion. Wimberly’s suggestion has a great deal of merit. Whatever else one might think of Daniel Parker, he was a stickler for church authority. This is obvious in the early minutes of Pilgrim Church during Daniel’s lifetime. He likely would have found few if any Baptist preachers in Texas that he considered his faith and order, and would not have been able to organize a church suitably without them. In contrast, in Illinois a presbytery consisting of eight men from four different churches organized the Pilgrim Church.[v]

[i] Frontier Religion: Elder Daniel Parker, Dan B. Wimberly, 2015, p. 130)
[ii] Handbook’s source apparently is Robert A. Baker’s The Blossoming Desert: A Concise History of Texas Baptists.
[iv] The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Volume XI, No. 2, October 1907, pages 87-88; I have not found an earlier reference. Z. N. Morrell does not mention it in Flowers and Fruits From the Wilderness, or if he did, I missed it.
[v] The preamble to the constitution of Pilgrim Church includes “that god has his church or kingdom now set up in the world Who being all taught of the Lord speak the same thing—and also believing that every attempt to unite in union the advocates of any, or all the various contradictory spirits or principles, are but stratigems of the enemey and markes of hypocrisy.” This indicates Parker would not have welcomed any presbytery of varying faith and order. Also, the record include “ the request and in the Presence of the regular Baptist Church at Lamalt Crawford County State of Illinois...Constitute the foregoing named brethren and sisters, in a church Capacaty...” All this indicates a very orderly progression in organizing the Pilgrim Church.

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