The Cowboy Minister - By Christina Cole
One of the things I most enjoy about writing western historical romance is the information I accidentally find as I’m researching different topics. Recently I stumbled across a website that told the story of Ralph J. Hall, better known in his day as “The Cowboy Minister.”
“…To a great many people, ‘Go ye into all the world’ means only going to China, Japan, Africa, or to some distant place across the sea; but to the Sunday school missionary it means going into the most isolated and neglected parts of his field…It often means dim and rugged trails over the mountains or across the parched sands of the desert. It means visiting that lonely and isolated home or community, for the Sunday school missionary must ever be primarily a trailblazer, a pioneer in the work of the Kingdom…”
—Ralph J. Hall, in The Main Trail, 1973
I was intrigued at once and wanted to learn more. Now, I’m pleased to share with you the story of this remarkable man and his ministry.
Born in 1891, Ralph Hall grew up in a remote area in west Texas. One day a traveling minister knocked on the family’s door, and the boy knew then what his mission in life would be. At the age of eighteen, and with only a fifth-grade education, he left home to be a lay missionary for the Presbyterian faith. His first official assignment was with the cowboys and ranchers of Texas and New Mexico.
At that time, Hall wasn’t ordained to offer communion services, nor could he baptize, so he was accompanied by Dr. Houston Lowery, a minister from Carlsbad, New Mexico. Dr. Lowery soon found himself a bit disoriented with no pulpit, no choir, no pews. He quickly realized, however, that young Ralph Hall was a gifted speaker, one who knew the people and understood their hearts.
In 1916, after only two days of instruction and examination, Ralph Hall was ordained. Throughout his life in the ministry, he gained respect from the people he served because of his willingness to work alongside of them, helping with the roping and ranching.
He traveled extensively throughout the southwest, and under his supervision, many conference grounds, camps, church schools and chapels were constructed. Whenever he arrived in a new town, his first job was to figure out how to build rapport with the cowboys and ranchers in the area. Many of them, he said, “had a scowl rather than a welcome for the preacher when he came around,” so Hall wouldn’t let on that he was a minister until the men had accepted him as a “real cowboy”.
Folks said Hall could “rope a steer in record time” and “read trail signs like an Indian”, skills that quickly won over the men he worked with.
Later, having gained acceptance and trust, he would open up to the cowboys about his faith, usually late at night as they sat near a roaring fire. Even the most skeptical of the men would listen.
As the story of his missionary work with the cowboys made its way back East, many curious folks wanted to join him for a taste of the “cowboy experience.” Those who did accompany Hall on his journeys found out that the cowboy’s life was not an easy one. Most were unprepared for the grueling 18-hour work days, the roping, the riding, and the difficulties of tending to cattle over treacherous terrain and erratic weather.
Hall was comfortable riding long distances and preferred to sleep out under the stars. His eastern-born friends often found themselves jettisoning their over-packed bags at the side of the trail and leaving their bedrolls behind while they scurried off to find shelter on cold desert nights.
According to the Presbyterian Historical Society, Ralph Hall went on to supervise all Sunday School missionary work west of the Mississippi River, traveling hundreds of miles to remote ranches to perform baptisms and marriages. He brought church to the homes of many pioneer families who were hundreds of miles from the nearest towns. He was also instrumental in developing the idea of “camp meetings” in order to find ways to bring people together for worship. Although he relied on word of mouth to promote the first Ranchman’s Camp Meeting, hundreds of people came together at Nogal Mesa – a beautiful pine-covered mountain near Carrizozo, new Mexico – to hear the word from guest preachers, to read and study scriptures, to pray together, and to partake of meals cooked over a fire. The Ranchman’s Camp Meeting still meets annually at Nogal Mesa.
In addition to becoming the subject of several documentaries filmed between 1920 and 1950, he shared the story of his life and his mission in The Main Trail, published in 1973.
“Bible in his bedroll, a dedicated young missionary hit the trail for New Mexico's far-flung cow camps and isolated homesteads. Now, nearly sixty years later, he writes about a rich and rewarding life in which hilarious roundup anecdotes and amusing frontier experiences are counterpoint to situations of high drama and deep pathos. He says that cowboys and lonely young people, deprived as they were of Christian fellowship and any opportunity for Christian worship, were his two dominant concerns. As a circuit rider in his early years he would join a cattle outfit as an extra hand, prove his ability to ride any mean horses and win recognition as a bonafide cowboy. Then, after a few days, he would hold a meeting around the evening campfire. For the young people, he instituted youth camps - a program which has extended into Arizona, Colorado and northward almost to the Canadian border. He tells how he dramatized the importance of his missionary work to supporting churches by organizing traveling seminars - a project for taking seminary students and church members by caravan on a tour of missionary fields in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. And he tells it all with so much humor that the most casual reader will find his accounts as interesting as any tale of roughing it in the West.” --- Excerpt from publisher's notes
I’m glad I got to know Ralph Hall’s story. His devotion is inspiring. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this “cowboy missionary” and his dedication to serve others.