While our physical offices are closed until at least April 13 due Austin's COVID-19 "shelter-in-place" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Mary Lagleder

BETHEL PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH. Located in McMahan, Texas, in eastern Caldwell County, Bethel Primitive Baptist Church has become the regular meeting place for the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention. The congregation was formed on June 19, 1852. During its early history the church had seven different locations in the area before constructing a wooden building on the current site in 1901. A cemetery, which began in 1847, sits adjacent to the site. A new building was constructed in 1952, and the earlier structure was converted into a lunch room.

Sacred harp music, whose name comes from B. F. White’s 1844 compilation of hymns entitled The Sacred Harp, came to America in the late 1700s and helped bring religious music to rural communities that lacked the means for formal musical education. Sacred harp music is sometimes called “fasola” or “shape-note” music, because each note (fa, sol, la, and mi) is represented by a shape. Anglo settlers brought sacred harp music to Texas from the southeastern United States during the nineteenth century.

The first official singing convention in McMahan was the South Union Singing Convention, held at the Round Top School on April 28, 1900. The name of the event was later changed to the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, which has since met the first fifth weekend each spring. (The first fifth weekend is the last weekend of the first month that has five weekends.) In the early 1900s the convention gathered at various schools or churches, predominately throughout Central and South Central Texas. However, from 1947 into the twenty-first century, the convention has always met at Bethel Primitive Baptist Church. The church was honored with a Texas Historical Marker in 1986.

The convention is a two-day event in which participants gather in the morning and sing two sessions, one before and one after lunch, each with a recess in the middle. Singers, who sit in a square with every member of the convention facing the center, are separated into groups of tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and each group forms one side of the square. A leader, which may be anyone from the group, chooses a song, and the “pitcher” or “keyer” gives the singers the correct pitch. The singers sing it through once with just the notes (fa, sol, la, and mi), and then again using the actual words. In recent years, participants have used the Cooper book, which is a revised and updated version of B. F. White’s original hymnal. Over the course of two days, the participants will sing more than 100 songs, and the sessions are always opened and closed with a prayer. Though the church is Primitive Baptist, singers of any denomination are welcome, and the convention draws 200 to 250 people each year from throughout the country. Most come to sing, but some simply come to listen.


Bethel Primitive Baptist Church (http://bethelpbc.com/), accessed September 8, 2015. Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1978). Kathryn Eastburn, “The Sacred Harp Singing Tradition Thrives in Texas,” Texas Highways, March 2004. Lisa Carol Hardaway, Sacred Harp Traditions in Texas (M.A. thesis, Rice University, 1989). Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission Library, Austin. History and Record of South Union and Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention (http://historical.texasfasola.org/swtexas/swt_history.html), accessed September 8, 2015. Sacred Harp Singing, “Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings” (http://fasola.org/minutes/search/?n=55), accessed September 8, 2015.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Mary Lagleder, "BETHEL PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH," accessed March 28, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xdb06.

Uploaded on July 11, 2014. Modified on September 8, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...