West Texas Church Founder and HSU President 1898-1901
O.C. Pope was a man of great faith, vision, and character who blazed a trail across the Texas frontier, establishing Baptist churches from Fort Worth to El Paso and even into Mexico before being elected third president of Simmons College in 1898. He spent the last four years of his life serving the financially struggling college that has today become Hardin-Simmons University.
Owen Clinton Pope was born February 15, 1842, in Washington County, Georgia. He entered Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, at the age of 16, graduating in 1860 with a bachelor of divinity degree. Shortly after graduation, at barely 18 years of age, he married Mollie Sinquefield of Jefferson County, Georgia, and was also called to pastor the Baptist church of Linville, Georgia. He was ordained to the ministry in 1861.
During his service in the Confederate Army, he preached nightly to the troops. Pope suffered ill health throughout the balance of his life due to his time of service in the Civil War. Returning to Georgia after the end the war, he found few churches could support a full-time minister, so he taught public school and became principal of Jefferson High School at Stellaville, Georgia. During this period he also preached at small rural churches.
He was called to his first full-time church at Morristown, Tennessee, in the summer of 1874 and had hardly settled when he considered establishing a religious newspaper. He founded the Baptist Reflector, and was soon elected secretary for the General Association of Baptists of East Tennessee. After two years, he resigned from the Morristown church, sold the paper, and moved to Nashville, where he served for a time as pastor of Central Baptist Church. In 1878, he moved to Houston to become managing editor of the Texas Baptist Herald. In his first editorial he wrote, “Under the new management, we expect to work for every Baptist interest in Texas irrespective of party or geographical lines. I am not identified with one section more than another and wherever I find a body of Baptists in the state endeavoring to build up an enterprise for the honor of God and the good of the cause, they shall have my hearty cooperation.”
Pope was practical, imaginative, tenacious, interested in people as well as projects, and compassionate. In a time when it was not fashionable to do so, he was an advocate of minorities. He urged white ministers to visit their “black brethren” and be anxious to help them. He wrote about the spiritual and social needs of the Indians, and was a supporter of women, being the only male in attendance at a meeting of women in Austin in 1880 where the first Woman’s Missionary Union was formed. His wife, Mary, was elected corresponding secretary for WMU.
He began to travel in roles as preacher, editor, and teacher. Money was difficult to raise for the new Baptist churches springing up all over Texas, but Pope was not timid about discussing ways of raising money.
Pope was instrumental in defeating a proposal in 1879 that would have placed larger Texas Baptist schools under the state university system. He reminded the Baptist constituency that they had always been opposed to any amalgamation of church and state.
Although Pope could be argumentative, he was also popular. In June 1880, he was awarded the honorary doctor of divinity degree by Baylor University despite his response to this award that “doctor of divinity” referred to one who taught revealed truth, and since every preacher supposedly did just that, every preacher should receive the degree.
Continuing his interest in missions, in 1881 he traveled to New York to seek financial assistance for missions from the American Baptist Home Missions Society. He returned with a positive answer and a gift of $3,000 and was immediately elected superintendent of missions for Texas.
In December 1881 during a trip to West Texas, he stopped in the newly formed town of Abilene and helped organize the First Baptist Church with just 17 members. In 1882, Pope made a 1,000 mile rail trip to El Paso to encourage the founding of the First Baptist Church of El Paso.
In his 1882 report to the Texas Baptist State Convention, Pope stated that “20 missionaries had been appointed, 13 churches organized, 151 persons baptized and 249 members received by letter.” Years later, Pope’s policy of establishing a line of missions and missionaries along the western frontier from the Gulf of Mexico to the western boundaries of Texas was credited as being the reason for the successful establishment of Baptist work in Texas. Pope traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, just before the Texas Baptist State Convention in 1883. He was successful in encouraging the erection the first Baptist church there that was completed in 1885. Pope covered 24,000 miles by horseback, buggy, and by rail. He raised thousands of dollars, speaking at least five times a week between 1881 and 1885.
As editor of the Texas Baptist Herald, he wrote much about the power of unification of all Baptists in Texas. He encountered considerable opposition to the idea since individual Baptist congregations prided themselves on autonomy. Finally in 1886 the Convention’s schools, mission efforts, and publications were united.
Moving to New York, Pope served as general solicitor for the Church Edifice Fund for the American Baptist Home Mission Society in New York City from 1885 until 1891. He was successful in raising thousands of dollars to build churches in the West. Pope was contacted during this time by George W. Smith, who was seeking building funds for the newly established Abilene Baptist College. Pope was instrumental in securing funds from Dr. James B. Simmons that led to the successful opening of the school, which was later named in honor of Dr. Simmons.
In 1898, at age 55, Pope accepted the position as president of Simmons College. Pope was confident in his public relations and fund-raising skills but asked one of the faculty members, Dan R. Couch, to take charge of the operation of the school. Couch later stated that he was given much work and little authority.
Men of integrity and strength of character often evoke personality clashes, and Pope was not popular with everyone at Simmons College. Six of the seven Simmons teachers presented to the Board of Trustees a letter demanding his resignation on September 17, 1899. They further threatened that if their request was not favorably received, they would resign as a group five days later. Their grievance appeared to have been the fact that a teacher and new vice president had suggested that an extended loan be secured for the construction of a new boys’ dormitory. Pope was correct in refusing such a proposal since it directly contradicted terms of the school’s charter, which stated that no debts of any kind were to be encumbered. Allegations were also lodged that he frequently kissed the girls, although it was verified and confirmed that it was done “openly and in a fatherly fashion.” The trustees responded by declaring “unbounded confidence in the purity and integrity of Dr. Pope.” The accusing teachers were dismissed immediately, and Pope was able to find a full staff of new teachers from elsewhere in Texas. Classes were able to begin on Monday morning, only two days later.
Another instance proving his strength of character occurred when Colonel G.E. Burnett, president of the Acme Pressed Brick Company in Millsap, Texas, had donated the funds for a first-class bell to be placed in the bell tower. Dr. Pope ordered the bell through George Paxton, a local hardware merchant. When Pope and his assistant went to pick up the bell, Pope requested the invoice from Paxton so he could assure Colonel Burnett that no one had profiteered by the exchange. For an unknown reason, Paxton resented the request, and an argument heated to a point that Paxton said if it were not for Pope’s gray hairs, he would slap the president’s face. Pope, being a man of action, responded, “Don’t stand behind my gray hairs, but slap.” They didn’t fight and settled the matter to the point that they became loyal friends. George L. Paxton then served on the college board for over 30 years.
Mrs. Pope thought her husband to be the wisest, most clever, and creative man in the world. He had done much for the school in keeping it open and solvent. Dr. Pope was also responsible for publicizing its whereabouts and widening its reputation for this important first decade. The Popes had no children, so they chose to leave most of their estate to the Simmons College which they cared about deeply. When Mrs. Pope died almost 30 years after her beloved husband, she bequeathed to Simmons University more than $50,000.
Dr. O.C. Pope was truly a significant visionary founder of Texas Baptists, a missionary who brought Baptist churches to the Texas frontier, and a tenacious administrator and fund-raiser who overcame insurmountable challenges that threatened the survival of our school. He was a man of God called by God to do God’s work on the Texas frontier.
Dr. O.C. Pope died on November 18, 1901. He and Mrs. Pope are buried on the Hardin-Simmons University campus next to the graves of Dr. and Mrs. James B. Simmons in evidence of the high esteem in which he was held.
It is the high honor of Hardin-Simmons University to recognize one of her own and to formally induct Owen Clinton Pope into the HSU Hall of Leaders.