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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Martin Ruter, another legendary Texas hero

One of the quirks about Navasota and Grimes County history has always been that we were more famous for who died here, rather than who lived here. La Salle of course, Sarah Dodson, the “Betsy Ross of Texas,” Kenneth L. Anderson, Vice President of Texas, and Mrs. Miriam Luxton, the mother of famed Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who sent her here for “safety” during the Civil War, only to get a deadly laceration stepping down from the stagecoach. The wound got infected and she died and was buried here, near the old Camp Inn. In the early days this area was perceived as a safe haven, with fine homes, excellent medical professionals, sulfur springs nearby for restoration, a good mix of rain and sunshine, and a very nice cemetery for those in need of such.

And that’s how Navasota became the last resting place for a Methodist legend. Martin Ruter was fifty one when he felt the call of adventure. Born in 1785 the son of a blacksmith, he had fashioned a surprisingly stellar portfolio, teaching himself several languages, and even studying under a rabbi to learn Hebrew. He served the Methodist Church over the years as a circuit rider in New England, and as an educator at New Market Academy and Cincinnati College, and then helped to found Augusta College in Kentucky. Transylvania College awarded him their first Doctor of Divinity degree in 1822, in recognition of his educational legacy. He then served as president of Allegheny College for four years. At fifty, he had quite chest full of medals so to speak.

But Ruter was not through. He was read a desperate letter from a young lay minister in Texas named William Barrett Travis, who was begging the church to send missionaries. He decided to go. He and two others were commissioned to take the Gospel to Texas and he arrived here in the autumn of 1837 with a wagonload of Bibles and hymnals, over a year after Travis had written his name in the journals of patriotic self-sacrifice by leading 186 men in the most famous losing battle of all time, the fall of the Alamo for Texas freedom.

Ruter’s own contribution to Texas was similar to Travis’, short and powerful. He went right to work, ignoring danger and impossible odds. He preached in San Augustine, Nacogdoches and Washington on the Brazos, gathering support for his mission. He met with President Sam Houston in Houston, and got the assistance he needed to tame pagan Texas. He established a network of Methodist churches all over south-central Texas, including Washington on the Brazos, Egypt, and Houston. He journeyed a heroic two thousand two hundred miles, in about six months, and began to envision a seminary college, perhaps near Chappell Hill. When things looked the most promising, he decided to head back East and fetch his family, and more financial backing. But he never got to the Red River. A fever overcame him and he returned to Washington on the Brazos, where he died on May 16, 1838, just six months into his epic mission to the Republic of Texas.

I believe that he was originally buried at the old Washington cemetery, and when it became obvious that town was headed to extinction, a number of graves were relocated to the Navasota Oakland Cemetery, including his. A behemoth, beautifully engraved, marble slab rests over his remains, a token of the esteem of Texas Methodists, who eventually established a college in his name two years later. It was later combined with other small Methodist colleges to form Southwestern College in Georgetown. The Texas town of Ruterville is named after him as well. Whether it was Typhoid or Pneumonia, we will never know, but it does not matter.

Either way he is still another legendary character that never resided here but found the end of the trail here… his name almost forgotten, except for a few who will not let go of these things. You might say he and Colonel Travis were sacrifice flies in the baseball game of Life. You have to be a baseball player to appreciate the importance of just one good fly ball, that will knock in the winning run, even if the player who hit it is thrown out. A sacrifice fly. Strange that Travis and Ruter would be in the Hereafter so soon, so close together, so tragically, one the answer to another’s letter, both lives now a mist in our memory. Neither lived in Texas long enough to ever see the fruits of their labors. Compared to Travis, whose body was burned like rubbish in a pire in San Antonio with his intrepid Texians, I'm sure that Martin Ruter, not able to arrange the return of his body to his family in the East, was just as pleased to be buried here, at the Center of the Universe. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head…”

Bravely, fearlessly, selflessly, Martin Ruter was true to his Lord.

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