Houston's Spiritual Journey
The spiritual journey of Sam Houston was perhaps as incredible as his military and political accomplishments.
His family was prosperous, with roots in the Presbyterian religion and the American revolution. They owned a frontier farm and part interest in a Maryville, Tennessee store. But young Sam Houston preferred literature and living with the Cherokees to farm work and shopkeeping.
"His lapses increased, and he got the name of a wayward boy," wrote biographer Marquis James. Frontier life was hard and liquor plentiful. "No cock-fight, wedding, log-rolling, dance or funeral was complete without whiskey," wrote James.
Houston would later write that his youth "was wild and impetuous, but ...spotted by no crime."
He seemed comfortable with the Cherokee theology and its supernatural that lived in the earth, air, trees and streams. But when he was elected governor of Tennessee, married, and separated from his young wife, he called out to organized religion and it did not answer. He asked to be baptized, twice, and was refused.
"Twenty-five years later, a spiritually broken man, grappling with a deep interior question of conscience, knelt with a woman to pray," wrote James. "Not until then can one understand the desolation sown by two Tennessee ministers whose view of their responsibilities had bereft Sam Houston of his faith."
A Nashville acquaintance named Anne Hanna once observed that "two classes of people pursued Sam Houston all his life--artists and women." Liz Carpenter, Texas history buff, Houston admirer and former aide to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, has concluded that Houston was "a womanizer and an alcoholic."
After that failed first marriage and organized religion's failure with him, Houston lived with the Cherokees, took another wife, and drank heavily. He was given the name Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee, or "Big Drunk." Long after he had given up the habit, after much struggle, it was a name his political enemies never let him forget. He moved to Texas, leaving his Cherokee wife, became a Catholic to fulfill the Mexican requirement for land ownership, and later became a hero.
Even before he met Margaret Lea he tried to abstain from drinking. But during the trip to Alabama on which he met Margaret, after he had offered an abstinence resolution at a temperance meeting in Houston, one detractor reported on his behavior.
Memucan Hunt wrote to Mirabeau Lamar that Houston had "burned off his coat tail, while in a state of intoxication, immediately after making Temperance speeches."
After his Presbyterian experience, Houston's journey through organized religion included a profession in the Catholic faith in order to obtain a land grant as required by Mexico, repudiation of Catholicism in line with the "Know-Nothing Party" dogma, and finally baptism as a Baptist.
His marriage to Margaret was the key to that conversion, but it was a union some thought unwise. So said Col. Barnard B. Bee, in a letter to Dr. Ashbel Smith.
"I see with great pain the marriage of Genl Houston to Miss Lea!" Bee wrote. "In all my acquaintance with life I have never met with an Individual more totally disqualified for domestic happiness--he will not live with her 6 months." Bee was wrong, of course. They were married 23 years.
Sam was 47, Margaret was 21. She bore him eight children. He first stopped drinking, writing in 1841 that "we have no liquor, and I do not taste one drop of it, nor will I do it." Then gradually, while serving as U. S. Senator from Texas for 13 years, he began attending church services at the E Street Baptist Church in Washington.
He whittled during the sermons, but apparently paid attention. "Although he had not joined the church," wrote biographer Sue Flanagan, "his study of religion was reflected often by Biblical quotes in his extemporaneous as well as written speeches."
Houston wrote a friend in 1851 that "for years past, I have been a whole souled teetoteller, and so intend to be as long as I live." The triumphant moment for Margaret, however, came on November 19, 1854, at Rocky Creek near Independence, Texas, where the family had moved from Huntsville. Houston was baptized.
"The announcement of General Houston's immersion," a church periodical reported, "has excited the wonder and surprise of many who have supposed that he was 'past praying for...'"
Houston even joined in the joke.
"Well, General," Marquis James reports a friend as saying to Houston, "I hear your sins were washed away."
"I hope so," Houston is said to have replied. "But if they were all washed away, the Lord help the fish down below."
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