HERNÁNDEZ, ALEJO (1842–1875). Alejo Hernández, the first Protestant Tejano minister, was born in Aguas Calientes, Mexico, on July 17, 1842. He was born into a wealthy family, but his parents’ names are not known. Hernández was born into troubled times in Mexico, only a few years after the loss of Texas and shortly before the outbreak of the Mexican War. Though Hernandez was only a child when that conflict ended, its legacy greatly affected his life. Following in the tradition of the time, Alejo Hernández’s parents chose him from among his siblings for a life as a Catholic priest, and at age twenty, he was attending the local Catholic seminary.
The young Hernández soon found his faith and politics at odds. The Mexican liberals of the time found much to despise in the Roman Catholic Church, which supported the conservative cause and the French, and much to praise in the rising star of Benito Juárez, who had seized the office of president in 1857. Alejo Hernandez was a liberal and soon abandoned the clergy to enlist in the Mexican army to fight against the Emperor Maximilian. During this time, he was captured by the French but was able to rejoin his command. This event probably occurred prior to 1867, as the Emperor Maximilian was captured in May of that year and executed in June. Sometime afterward, the Mexican army retreated to the Texas border near Mier, where Hernández stumbled upon a book that he expected to fuel his anti-Catholic feelings and strengthen his leanings to atheism—Noches con los Romanistas (Nights with the Romanists). The book, left there by an American soldier during the Mexican War, instead instilled in him a curiosity to know more about the Bible. To this end, he traveled to the United States in 1870 and entered Texas at Rio Grande City before traveling on to Brownsville. While there, he found himself in the middle of a sudden downpour and ran into a small Protestant chapel where a service was being conducted in English. Though the young Mexican could not yet speak the language, he later recalled, “I felt that God’s spirit was there…I felt my heart strangely warmed….Never did I hear an organ play so sweetly, never did human voices sound so lovely to me, never did people look so beautiful as on that occasion. I went away weeping for joy.”
After a brief stay in Brownsville, Hernández returned to Mexico for a few months to spread his new faith but found people hostile to the message he brought. He soon returned to Texas and in the summer of 1870 began his informal tutelage under a local Methodist pastor, J. W. Brown in Corpus Christi. Hernández joined the Methodist Church and, accompanied by the Methodist minister, Reverend John W. DeVilbiss, began preaching in Mexican communities along the Medina River. The experience inspired him to become a minister in his own right, and by 1871 he was licensed to preach. His name appears on a list of appointed ministers to the Corpus Christi district of the Methodist West Texas Conference of 1871–72. Hernandez attended this conference and was admitted to deacon’s orders by presiding Bishop Enoch Marvin, who desired to see work done in the Mexican community.
Hernández provided the Methodists with a singular opportunity. The years before the Civil War had seen efforts by the Methodist Church to promote ministries among the mostly Catholic Mexicans and bring them into the Methodist fold. William Headen, an Irish immigrant who later befriended Alejo Hernández, taught Sunday school in Spanish in Corpus Christi in the 1850s. He and others scattered across Texas had ministered to pockets of Mexicanos. Their ministry produced mixed results. The advent of the Civil War took many of the ministers needed for such efforts to succeed. All of these ministers, despite their Spanish-speaking skills, lacked one thing—Mexican ancestry. Alejo Hernández would be preaching to his own people.
Presiding Bishop Marvin at the West Texas Conference of 1871 appointed Hernández to deacon’s orders and sent him to Laredo to work among the Mexican community. Hernández dutifully went and worked there but interrupted his ministry to return to Mexico and marry a young lady whose name remains unknown. They later had two children. For a while, the young couple found themselves unable to return because of widespread unrest in Mexico following the reelection of Benito Juárez. Attending the annual conference again in 1872, Hernández found himself assigned to Corpus Christi. For weeks, he preached in that city and in Rockport with tremendous success. His brief ministry there ended when he was sent to Mexico City in 1873 by Bishop John C. Keener. A new Methodist church had been opened there, and he was to be the pastor. For approximately eighteen months Hernández worked there, but he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Feeling that his remaining time was short, Hernández decided to return to Corpus Christi. The young minister and his family traveled by stagecoach and wagon before finally reaching their destination. The strenuous overland travel is presumed to have taxed his already fragile health, and there, where his spiritual life had begun, his physical life came to an end on September 27, 1875. He was buried in Old Bayview Cemetery in Corpus Christi.
Paul Barton, Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). Enrique Krauze, Mexico: Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810–1996, translated by Hank Heifetz (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). John G. McEllheney, “Alejo Hernandez (1842–1875): A Mexican Soldier Who Became A Methodist Missionary 1942–1875,” General Commission on Archives and History, The United Methodist Church (http://www.gcah.org/history/biographies/alejo-hernandez), accessed May 11, 2016. Alfredo Náñez, History of the Rio Grande Conference of the United Methodist Church (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1980). Jasper Ridley, Maximilian & Juárez (Phoenix Pres, 2001). Homer S. Thrall, History of Methodism in Texas (Houston: Cushing, 1872; rpt., n.p.: Walsworth, 1976). Walter N. Vernon et al., The Methodist Excitement in Texas: A History (Dallas: Texas United Methodist Historical Society, 1984).
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