Part 3: The First Texas Christadelphians

Continued from Part 2…

It was into this vast and beautiful land that the first Texas Christadelphians came in 1850. But at that time they weren’t even known as Christadelphians, because John Thomas hadn’t coined that special name yet.

It is their story that I now remember.

John Oatman was born in Kentucky in 1787, and moved first to Indiana, where he married. Later he and his family moved to Illinois, finally settling in the community of Dundee. It was in Illinois that he would meet and have discussions with Dr. John Thomas about the truth of the gospel as expounded in his book Elpis Israel, “the Hope of Israel”. Soon he committed himself to the gospel of Christ, and was baptized.

The Oatman family moved to Texas in 1850, stopping first in Bastrop County, in the more settled land just east of the Hill Country. John and his sons were very soon preaching the gospel to all who would listen, often holding debates with ministers who challenged their teachings. In those days, entertainment of any sort was in short supply in small Texas towns, and such Bible discussions were assured of large turnouts. Over the years many families in central Texas learned the Truth in that way.

While some members of the Oatman family stayed in Bastrop County, most of them moved on to Llano County, 100 miles further west, in the center of the Hill Country. Their preaching extended to much of the surrounding areas. They reported their progress to John Thomas and their letters appeared in his monthly magazine, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come.

Notable among the sons of John Oatman was Clement Oatman, a very effective debater and teacher.

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1864: Troops stand next to the United States flag during the Civil war.

The Civil War (1861-1865) and the resulting unrest on the frontier impeded preaching. People in the Texas Hill Country were divided in their allegiance -– leading to some violence between political factions –- and the Indians took advantage of the situation by staging a number of raids. It was a dangerous time, and gospel proclamation was not very effective; in fact, a number of converts fell away. But after the war’s end the brothers’ efforts resumed, and there was much fruit.

Citizens of Llano, Texas, honor the memory of John Oatman and the Oatman family as early settlers of the county, but their biography of “Elder” John fails to mention anything about his teachings. It simply states that “John Oatman, Sr., was an active minister of the gospel for 40 years, always refusing remuneration for his services.” John Oatman was already of advanced years when he arrived in Texas, and he fell asleep in 1875. During his last years, he was able to witness the beginnings of the Christadelphian community in Texas.

Then there were the Johnsons. Alan Eyre, in his book The Protestors, has this paragraph:

The brothers Oatman, rugged individualists both, rode the range on the Texas frontier years before the cowboys and Indians had finished scuffling, “traveled the length and breadth of the state”, held debates and camp meetings, and are reported to have baptized “a hundred men and women with their own hands”, including forebears [ancestors] and relatives of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
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Soon these Oatman pioneers and preachers were ably assisted by some of their converts. Among the earliest converts were members of the Banta family, and several of this first generation of Bantas worked alongside the Oatmans in their proclamation work. Both these names (and especially the Banta name) survive today among Texas Christadelphians. In fact, with some of the earliest families of Oatmans and Bantas producing many children, and with the inclination of Christadelphians to marry other Christadelphians, it is possible that practically every Texas Christadelphian with long roots in the Truth is actually related by blood to these faithful men and women.

At least one of these Oatman brothers was a doctor. In the 1870s, the rugged Hill Country of southwest Texas was so under-populated that it was served rather haphazardly by traveling doctors. What one did if he or she needed a doctor quickly probably doesn’t bear thinking about. Of course, those medical procedures considered “simple”, like childbirth, were often handled by local midwives.

This is the birthplace of Lyndon Johnson, on the ranch near the Texas White House and the Johnson Family Cemetery. It is part of the parks services also.
This is the birthplace of Lyndon Johnson, on the ranch near the Texas White House and the Johnson Family Cemetery. It is part of the parks services also.

My grandmother, Jessie Johnson Hatcher, was present at the birth of the future President, Lyndon Johnson, in 1908. She said that her nephew was actually delivered by a neighbor who was a midwife, since the nearest doctor couldn’t get across the Pedernales River, in flood stage after heavy Hill Country rains. She said further that, when the doctor finally arrived only to be told that he was too late and the baby had already been delivered by Mrs. Lindig, the doctor just laughed and said, “Why, she’s just as fine a doctor as I am!” Which may actually have been true.

To be continued.

This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.

Part 2: The First Hill Country Settlers

Continued from Part 1…

But most of all, to the men who moved there first, the Hill Country was beautiful because of the grass. Land was something these men and their families had to live off, and that was why the grass of the Hill Country filled their dreams.

The numbers of the settlers who reached as far as the Hill Country were very few. In 1837, after becoming independent from Mexico, the Republic of Texas had a total population of 40,000. But when Texas was opened up to settlement from the United States, the population grew rapidly to about 600,000 by the time of the Civil War, in 1860.

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A cattle drive through the Texas Hill Country

Nearly all of these new settlers,  however, stopped in the rich blackland farm country of East Texas, near Louisiana and Arkansas. Only a very thin trickle of immigrants made their way out to the edge of the Hill Country, to places like Austin. At this time, this was the true American frontier. And of those few who came so far, to the very edge of civilization, only a very, very few — just thousands at most — found the courage to climb the hills and enter what seemed to be a new paradise to the west.

But the Hill Country, beautiful as it might appear, was really a trap, and the trap was baited with that beautiful grass. The grass had been a long time growing; the soil in which it grew was rich, but it was also very thin, a fragile layer spread over the limestone rocks. It was vulnerablePlow to wind and rain, and especially vulnerable because it lay on hillsides, not level ground. The very hills that made the Hill Country so picturesque also made it a country it which it was difficult for the soil to hold. The grass of the Hill Country was beautiful and rich because it had had centuries to grow and build up, centuries in which nothing had disturbed it. It was rich only because it was virgin soil, never touched by a plow. But once the plows came, it could not be restored to its previous condition.

The Hill Country, beautiful though it might be, was also a trap baited with water. It is now known and recognized that the climate of the Texas Hill Country is, in official meteorological jargon, semi-arid. The annual rainfall in the whole region fluctuates dramatically. One year the rainfall might be 40 or 50 inches, and the next only 10 inches.

In the 1850s and ’60s more settlers arrived for the first time in the Hill Country, after it had had years of above-average rains, and the land had the appearance of a Garden of Eden, at least, a Texas-style Garden of Eden. But then the rains stopped, for one year and then another. The new settlers knew it should rain again, for they had seen it. But the creeks dried up, and the grass withered, and the crops of cotton and corn shriveled in the fields, and still there was no rain.

More than a hundred years later, the climate of the Hill Country still repeated such cycles. One of my earliest memories was at the age of three or four, living in San Saba in the heart of the Hill Country — the years (the early 1950s) of the great seven-year drought — one Texas author who lived through it called it “The Time It Never Rained”. I remember my parents sitting at the dinner table, night after night, asking themselves, “When will it rain again?” And I remember my mother warning me, “George, be careful playing on the back lot!” The gaping cracks in the dry, barren ground were so deep and wide that a little boy chasing a ball could literally fall in one, and twist an ankle, or worse.

A Group Comanche Warriors

The promise of a new and fruitful region, with land for the taking, lured some of the most desperate, and idealistic, settlers from the United States. On and on they pressed, to the edge of civilization and beyond, into the heart of the Hill Country, the home of the Comanches and Apaches — nomadic Indians fearful for their own way of life, utterly ruthless warriors, and masters of various torture techniques. The border of civilization ebbed and flowed during these years, and at times many settlers were caught on the wrong side of the Indian frontier. The years 1858 and 1859 came to be known as the “killing years”; several hundred settlers (no one knows for sure just how many) died in Indian massacres, often suffering horribly before finally being killed.

The legendary longhorn

A couple of generations later, those who survived the Hill Country knew how to make a living there: by running wide-ranging herds of cattle (the tough and hardy Longhorns, at first) on vast tracts of land, by herding sheep and goats on the steep hills, and by growing peaches and grapes (but not cotton or grain) in the fields. But fortunes were lost, and lives destroyed, while the next generations learned the lessons from those who came first!

Note: Parts of this section as well as the previous section rely on the first volume of the richly detailed history, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro. Mr. Caro, in turn, relied on personal narratives from many members of the Johnson family, including my grandmother Jessie Hatcher, for details of the family history and Hill Country life in the early days of Texas settlement.

To be continued.

This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.

Part 1 – The Texas Hill Country

Who doesn’t remember the old Western movies? They were filled with cattle drives, wagon trains, cowboys and Indians, horse thieves and cattle rustlers, vigilante justice, brave sheriffs with six-guns strapped at their sides — and strong, hard-working, kind women in long dresses and bonnets.

A family gathers for a photo near Gatesville, Texas. — late 1800s

If you remember those movies, then you can remember the landscape too, right?

Pastures with grazing cattle, rugged hills, dry creek beds, mesquite, sagebrush, a land of big skies, a land of splendid isolation. A place where most people lived miles and miles from the nearest town, where men and women learned independence and self-reliance, where life was tough — they called it a “hardscrabble” life. But it was also a place where life was also what people had the desire, and faith, and courage, to make it, with few social conventions and traditions to get in their way.

If, in your mind’s eye, you begin to see such a place and time, then you are seeing the Texas Hill Country, just west of Austin and San Antonio, in the 1860s, and ’70s and ’80s.

Buffalo hunters at their camp in Texas, about 1877
Buffalo hunters at their camp in Texas: 1877

It is the place and the time where the story of Texas Christadelphians begins.

Texas was a land of dreams; a land of wide horizons and wider opportunities. To men and women who passed through the deep forests of Alabama or Tennessee, and then trudged across hundreds of miles of green but monotonous Texas plains, the first sight of the Hill Country of Texas was invigorating, inviting, and even just a little beautiful, in a rugged, Texas sort of way.

The first sight of those hills still recalls the same feelings, even now, and even when encountered on a highway, in a comfortable car. You get this very view as you leave our home in Austin, and reach the

Journey to the West by Wagon Trains
Journey to the West by Wagon Trains

western outskirts of the city, only a few miles away. There the hills start to rise, not steeply but gradually, with long vistas broken up by little valleys. It starts to feel totally isolated, even from the 21st century. The valleys are dotted with little family cemeteries, the stones telling their stories of hardship and suffering, of babies lost to unknown diseases.

As you drive on, following the trails that the settlers of 150 years ago followed, you realize that each line of hills is followed by another, and another, and there seems no end to the hills. They climb slowly but steadily higher, and there is always another ridge.

The Texas Hill Country, also known as the Edwards Plateau, stretches out southwest and northwest from the big cities of Austin and San Antonio, until it reaches at last to the Rio Grande and Mexico, or the high plains bordering on the deserts of New Mexico, where towns have names like Plainview or Levelland. The Hill Country covers a vastness of southwest Texas greater in size than several northern or eastern states; it is about the same size as all of England.

To the first settlers, the air of the hills was drier and clearer than the air on the plains below; it felt clean and cool on the skin. The sky, in that clear air, free of practically all the pollution we take for granted these days, was a blue so brilliant that one of the early settlers called it a sapphire sky.

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“HILL COUNTRY PASTURE” – plein air and studio landscape painting by Texas modern impressionist Jimmy Longacre

Beneath the trees, the Hill Country was carpeted with wildflowers in the spring, bluebonnets, buttercups and Indian paintbrush (gold and scarlet). In the fall, rather unexpectedly, the maples in the valleys turned fiery red.

Springs gushed out of the hillsides, and streams ran through the hills. Sometimes they formed dark, cold pools. After crossing hundreds of miles, the settlers from a relatively crowded and closed-in east found a landscape entirely new, and open and fresh.

The streams were full of fish, and the fields were full of deer and rabbits and huge flocks of wild turkeys. One of the first white men to come to the Hill Country wrote simply, “It is a paradise!”

To be continued.

This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.

New Series: Memories of the Hill Country

A few weeks ago, I wrote about US President Johnson’s relationship with the Christadelphians and how that impacted Israel’s Six Day war.

The post received much attention, but I was especially intrigued after writing the post to receive an email from a relative of the subject; brother George Booker, the grandson of Sister Jessie Hatcher who is the “Aunt Jessie” of the story. Readers might already be familiar with two of brother George’s books which were published via the Tidings; “On the Way” (2014) and “A Bible Journal” (2015).

Since making contact, brother George has accepted an invite to publish a series on this blog which will cover the beginnings of the first Christadelphian American settlers in Texas and their growth right through to the time of President Johnson and beyond.

Its a story that begins with the preaching of the truth in the mid 1800’s amongst a settler community on the very frontier of civilisation. The wild landscape of Texas – as beautiful as it was – didn’t come without trial and hardship for those seeking to build a home and make a living. The challenges of the American civil war and the scuffles between the Cowboys and Indians came to bear on the community, but never stopped the work of the truth. Back then, our brothers and sisters had much to contend with. Their means were small, but their efforts to preach, were tremendous.

So please, join us, as we follow the journey of the Texas Christadelphians through to recent times, and also reflect on the family who later surrounded and impressed US President Johnson with a love of Israel.

I’m sure Bro. George would appreciate any comments or questions, so if anything comes to mind, don’t hesitate to post it in the comments section.

All posts in the series will be located via this link:

The first post in the series will be published soon.

In Christ,

Bro. Michael