James Huckins was an early Texas minister. He was born in New Hampshire in 1807. When he was only six years old, both his parents died of an undisclosed illness, leaving James and and a younger sister as orphans. James was taken in by a family but the relationship did not last too long. While still a youth, Huckins felt a calling to be a Christian minister of the Gospel. He surrendered to the ministry, after which he was “thrown out of” his foster home before being taken in by other Christian friends. He received his education on the east coast, studying at a Baptist preparatory school, Brown University and Andover Theological Seminary.
After his graduation in 1832, Huckins married the former Rhoda Carver Barton and the couple began to raise their family. James was ordained as a Baptist minister and served in several churches in Massachusetts and Maine. Around 1838, he accepted a position to serve as agent for the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
In the 1830s, a group of people including Judge James R. Jenkins, Reverend Anderson Buffington and H. R. Cartwell of Washington County, Texas were directed to contact various Baptist mission boards to solicit a request for them to send missionaries to Texas. Accounts of that period point out that Texas was still a republic and that the requests were sent to organizations in the “United States.” One of the first missionaries was James Huckins who was sent to the Galveston area in 1840. Huckins set out first by himself and sailed on a steamer called the Neptune from New Orleans to Galveston. His family was to join him later. One account says that he considered not getting off the boat and returning to his home, but fortunately, he disembarked.
There he helped to organize the First Baptist Church of Galveston in January, 1840. He remained in the area for a number of years and is noted for having also helped to organize the Union Baptist Association and First Baptist Church of Houston in 1841. Huckins is also credited with helping to organize the Texas Baptist Home Mission Society and the Texas Baptist Educational Society. At some point, his relationship with the Northern Baptists was severed over the issue of slavery.
Huckins wrote a letter to his mentor and friend Dr. Jesse Mercer in February, 1840. In his letter, he told of the early days of Galveston. He described the island as being thirty miles long and two to four miles wide. Huckins said that the city had six hundred residences at that time, all but one of which were constructed within the last three years. The population at that time was about three thousand. Ships of various kinds lined the wharves and business was flourishing, even by then. Galveston already had a Presbyterian Church and Huckins sought out fellow Baptists living there for the purpose of organizing a congregation of Baptists. Huckins went on to describe the first immersion baptism in his letter to Mercer.(1)
The church in Galveston began with nine members, including Mr. and Mrs. Gail Borden, Jr. Mrs. Borden was the former Penelope Mercer, a niece of Dr. Jesse Mercer. Thomas H. Borden, a brother of Gail Borden, was also one of the early church members. The group met wherever locations could be secured, including school houses, court rooms and Lyceum Hall. Built by the First Evangelical Lutheran Church and completed in 1845, Lyceum Hall still stands today at 2401 Winnie Street in Galveston. The historic structure has survived the various hurricanes and tropical storms that have struck the area, including the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. It is currently used as a reception/meeting/wedding venue.
First Baptist Church of Galveston is also said to have given rise to a traditionally Black congregation known as the Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church. It has a long and well documented history. Its date of origin is also considered to be 1840 and its early membership is believed to have been comprised of slaves, former slaves and their families. Its original church building was completely destroyed by the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. It is one of the oldest Black congregations in Texas and is still in existence today. It has been a benefit to the community and its membership for over 180 years.
Huckins is also named as assisting R. E. B. Baylor and William Tryon, once a fellow missionary, to obtain the charter for Baylor University. Huckins served as a trustee of the newly formed university for about five years and is considered a co-founder of the school. Huckins also served as agent for the school, soliciting operating funds for its use. Huckins was aware of the need to honor donor restrictions, if any, and for the university to exercise fiduciary responsibility over the funds that were donated.(2)
Of Huckins and his service to Baylor, this tribute has been written: “Dr. Huckins was a fine scholar, an eloquent preacher, a happy extemporaneous speaker and a man of tireless energy. He possessed much personal magnetism, dauntless courage, and was very resolute in purpose. All these qualities fitted him for the position of general financial agent of the school, above almost any man, whose services could have been secured.”(2)
In 1845, Huckins left Galveston on a trip that took him about one year to solicit funds for a Baptist church building. He left in July of that year and returned in July 1846. He was able to raise $2,633. The congregation used these funds to build a building at 22nd and I which was completed in September of 1847.(1)
In the mid 1850s, Galveston suffered though a yellow fever epidemic and Huckins is noted for having ministered to the sick and dying in the area on behalf of Texas Baptists and the Howard Association, a benevolent organization.
Huckins and his family left Texas in 1859 to accept a pastorate at the Wentworth Street Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He served there until his death. With the outset of the Civil War, he began to minister to the Confederate sick and wounded from the conflict. In 1863, he became a chaplain in the Confederate Army. Huckins is said to have written about various battles in the war, including the Confederate assault and capture of Fort Sumter and the battle for Fort McGuire. He also is said to have provided information and news of their dead and wounded to the families of those he came in contact with. Huckins tirelessly served the sick and wounded and as the war progressed, their numbers increased. He began to lose his eyesight and his overall own personal health began to fail. Huckins died on August 8, 1863 after a number of all night efforts. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina. His wife Rhoda died ten years later and is buried in Galveston’s Trinity Episcopal Cemetery along with two of their daughters, Caroline and Sarah.
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated, much of the source material for this article was generously provided by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary of Fort Worth, Texas. We express our deep gratitude to Southwestern Seminary for sharing this information with us.
(1) “A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: A Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists,” Joseph E. Early, Jr., 1984.
(2) “The Life and Writings of Rufus C. Burleson: Containing a Biography of Dr. Burleson by Harry Haynes; Funeral Occasion, with Sermons, Etc; Selected “chapel Talks;” Dr. Burleson as a Preacher, with Selected Sermons,” Rufus Columbus Burleson, Harry Haynes, Georgia Jenkins Burleson, 1901.
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