On a late-December day in 1874, a young, handsome Episcopal clergyman arrived by train at the small town of Luling, Texas. He had been traveling for 20 days from Atlanta and had reached end-of-the-track of the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad. His name was Robert W. B. Elliott, and he was the newly-consecrated bishop of the newly-created Missionary District of Western Texas.
Elliott conducted Evening Prayer and preached his first sermon in his new district from the back of the Pullman coach that day. From there he went on to conduct services at the Episcopal church in Seguin on December 23, then made it to San Antonio two days later to assist in the Christmas service at St. Mark’s Church.
The district Elliott was sent to serve had been carved that year out of the still-young Diocese of Texas, itself having been organized only 30 years earlier. The Missionary District of Western Texas was a raw, rough, frontier land in 1874, and throughout his episcopate, Bishop Elliott’s task was that of a missionary.
Elliott’s sparsely-populated territory consisted mostly of widely-scattered farms and cattle ranches. The railroad had not yet pushed into the entire territory, and travel was by stage and horse-and-buggy, often over cattle trails and swollen streams. Geographically, the district covered 11,000 square miles and included the present Diocese of West Texas plus the area north of the present San Angelo, all of the trans-Pecos region, and far West Texas through the Big Bend country to El Paso. To get from San Antonio to Brownsville, Elliott had to travel 900 miles by rail to Louisiana, take a ship to the mouth of the Rio Grande, then travel by steamboat up river. At the other end of the district, travel to El Paso took weeks.
In his new missionary district, Elliott had inherited, from the mother diocese, ten parishes, five mission stations, and 427 communicants. These were served by seven priests and two deacons. As he traveled, Elliott baptized grown children, performed marriages, and administered Eucharist to ranchers who had not seen a priest in years. Everywhere he went, Elliott later reported, he found people eager to hear the Good News. He gave his life for his commitment, dying at the young age of 47 from illness.
It was not, perhaps, unlike the missionary work that Paul and the other apostles undertook in establishing Christianity in the first years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Within a decade of the Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, around 30 AD, the small band of believers took Christianity to major cities around the Mediterranean Sea and into Greece and Italy. Paul himself established congregations at Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and Thessalonica by visiting them personally, then encouraging them through his letters. By the end of the century, more than 40 churches had been formed.
The apostles persevered in the face of opposition from both Jews and Romans. They were stoned, beaten, imprisoned, and executed for their faith. Paul traveled some 10,000 miles throughout western Asia and parts of Europe to teach and preach the Good News. In the end he was imprisoned in Rome.
How did it happen? How did a handful of Jesus’ followers take the fledgling church to “Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth” as Jesus had commanded them (Acts 1:8). That is the story told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Our diocesan study of Acts begins in September and continues until Advent. It will be posted on this website (www.christianformation-dwtx.org) and will include audio teachings from Bishop David Reed, reflections from several authors, and links to other Bible studies. It is designed to be a companion to whatever structured Bible study you choose to use as an individual, small group, or congregation. A list of recommended Bible studies and commentaries is on this site here.
We invite participation from across the diocese, both in engaging these resources and contributing to them. As you undertake your own investigation into Acts, we encourage you to share with us Bible studies and commentaries you find to be helpful as well as your thoughts and reflections.
Adult Christian Formation coordinator Marjorie George will be happy to hear from you. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.