December 4, 2000
Religion 312, Section 3
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Methodism and Slavery
Methodism is a Protestant denomination of Christianity which, during the nineteenth century, spread rapidly in the United States. Methodism was united until the mid-1800s when debate on slavery began to permeate life in America. The issue of slavery, which divided the entire nation, also divided Methodists. The Methodist Church’s response to the morally and religiously charged debate on slavery was not unique, but rather mimicked the responses in other Protestant churches, as well as the response of the nation. When it became apparent that the opposing views of the two factions of Methodists on the issue of slavery could not be reconciled, and because the issue was of utter import in the church and the nation, the response was division and secession– in both church and state. In fact, the division within the Methodist Episcopal Church, which resulted in the splitting of the Church in 1844, strongly paralleled the division and crisis which occurred within the nation and culminated in the Civil War.
The Methodism of the Englishman John Wesley was imported to America in the mid-1700s. From its beginnings, Methodism integrated order, community, and fraternity to make for a unique Protestant sect of Christianity. Wesley’s intent was not to separate from the Church of England, but rather he wanted Methodism to simply be a movement within the Anglican Church (Richey, 1991, p. 13). Initially, Methodism was not readily embraced in America, mostly because the movement was attached to Loyalist Wesley. In fact, before the Revolutionary War, there were but 4,912 Methodists in the colonies (Marty, 1984, pp. 171-175).
In 1784, at the Christmas Conference, the Methodist Episcopal Church was first organized apart from the Church of England (Richey, 1991, p. xi). The nineteenth century saw the rise of Methodism in the United States. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury were appointed superintendents of Methodism to the United States, and Asbury in particular was responsible for the rapid growth of Methodism in America. He traveled extensively and employed the services of circuit riding ministers to spread the word about Methodism. By 1816, the number of Methodists in the United States had risen to 212,000 (Marty, 1984, pp. 171-175).
Slavery Sentiments of Early Methodism
Wesley saw slavery as evil and thought it the duty of every good Christian to fight the institution of slavery. He delineated his thoughts on the subject in his Thoughts Upon Slavery, where he states with particular fervency, “I absolutely deny all slaveholding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice” (Wesley, 1791, p. 213). Asbury shared Wesley’s convictions on slavery, and whereas Wesley held strong anti-slavery sentiments, but laid out no plan for abolishing it, Asbury made steps to establish the Methodists as anti-slavery and thought the church should follow the example of the Quakers in this matter. A policy that would suspend any minister for not emancipating his slaves in a state where such action was permitted, was soon implemented. Coke also held quite strong anti-slavery convictions and planned to impose his sentiments on the Methodist Episcopal Church and hopefully evoke abolition.
The Methodist Episcopal Church’s Discipline, of 1784, which was something akin to the constitution of the church, took a solid anti-slavery stance and a bit of a risk when it stated that any slaveholding member of the church who did not emancipate his slaves would be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion and expelled from the church. The policy was hotly contested and in 1785 was repealed. Even Coke acknowledged that the church was yet too young to “push things to extremity” (Mathews, 1965, p. 13). Methodists continued to write anti-slavery propaganda, but held off on imposing their views on fellow slaveholding Methodists because of the controversy that had erupted in 1784. It was clear from the time of the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church that the slavery question would be a troublesome one for the new denomination.
During the 1780s, the spread of anti-slavery pamphlets and preaching by Methodists continued. Some slaveholding Methodists were affected by the inundation of the anti-slavery message and responded by emancipating their slaves. Since freeing their slaves often meant deterioration in economic and social standing for the slaveholder, to emancipate their slaves, the slaveholders must have felt a strong moral obligation to do so. In Maryland between 1783 and 1799, 1,800 slaves were freed in predominantly Methodist areas. Also, in the Methodist stronghold of Amelia County, Virginia, Methodists waged a popular protest with the state legislature over slavery (Mathews, 1965, pp. 17-18).
This type of evidence shows that Methodism could have survived as a strong anti-slavery sect. To do so, though, Methodism would most likely have been reduced to holding a small, obscure place in American religion. Methodism, however, had begun as a strong and far-reaching denomination with a dominant presence within American religion. Instead of falling into obscurity as the strong anti-slavery Quakers did, the Methodists would choose a route of compromise to keep its denomination united for as long as it possibly could (Richey, 1991, pp. 54-55).
Conflict and Compromise
At the General Conference of 1796, the delegates to the conference again tried to take measures to pressure Methodists to emancipate their slaves. If laws and the particulars of the case would allow it, the conference recommended that lay officials emancipate their slaves quickly. Also, the Church forbade the selling of slaves and would not admit any slaveholder into the Church until he understood the Church’s opposition to slavery, though he was not required to emancipate his slaves. At the 1800 General Conference, the Methodists directed the local annual conferences to become more active in promoting emancipation of slaves in states where slavery was still legal by circulating petitions for such a purpose. Many of the annual conferences of southern states failed to comply with the General Conference’s recommendation and did not draw up any petitions (Agnew et al, 1965, p. 12). In South Carolina, the Methodists did produce such a petition and printed it for free distribution. The residents of Charleston promptly burned the pamphlets and attempted to drown George Doughtery, a Methodist preacher (Mathews, 1965, pp. 20-12). The Church once again failed to force its anti-slavery sentiments on its southern faction.
After this inflammatory response, Asbury conceded that he had been fighting a hopeless struggle and the crusade of the anti-slavery Methodists seemed to slow after this point. At the 1804 General Conference, the division in the Church became utterly apparent when two Disciplines were accepted– one for the northern churches and one for the southern churches. The Discipline of the southern states contained no Section on Slavery. Also at this conference, the Church rescinded its previous call to petition state governments for emancipation and suggested that ministers encourage slaves to obey their masters. This trend continued when at the General Conference of 1808, two Disciplines were printed again and the Church decided to leave the issue of how to deal with members who bought and sold slaves up to the regional annual conferences (Mathews, 1965, pp. 26-27).
The strong antislavery views of Wesley, Asbury, and Coke were, therefore, put on the back burner, so to speak, in an effort to preserve the Church as a whole. The Methodists decided that compromise was the only way the Church would be able to remain united as the largest Christian denomination in the United States, since by 1816 the Church had 172,000 white members and 42,500 black members (Mathews, 1965, p. 25). The Methodists had concluded that the abolition of slavery would not become a reality, and thus they were powerless to change the status quo. From 1820-1836, the Church failed to formally take any action on the slavery issue, though debate over the issue within the Methodist Church continued to grow (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 14-15). Since the Church lacked any conviction to back up its anti-slavery stance, the Section on Slavery in the northern Discipline, which professed the evils of slavery, appeared, at this point in the history of the Methodist Episcopal Church, to contain empty words (Mathews, 1965, pp. 28-29).
Orange Scott and the Wesleyan Methodists
Orange Scott was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church and a strong abolitionist who was determined not to let the Church disobey its conscience. In 1836, he made his abolitionist Address to the General Conference and established himself as the leader of the abolitionist movement within Methodism. In 1838 he wrote his “Appeal to the Methodist Episcopal Church,” in which he encouraged church leaders to take a more aggressive approach in eradicating slavery. When it became apparent that the Methodist Episcopal Church would continue to ignore the issue of slavery, Scott, being unable to submit to the Church’s inactivity, started a secession movement in 1842 and organized the Wesleyan Methodist Church (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 40). In his Grounds of Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church, Scott cited slavery as the primary reason for secession. He writes:
That the M. E. Church is a slaveholding church, none will deny. She allows her members and ministers unrebuked, to hold innocent human beings in a state of hopeless bondage — nay, more, she upholds and defends her communicants in this abominable business! All her disciplinary regulations which present a show of opposition to slavery are known and acknowledged to be a dead letter in the South (Scott, 1848, pp. 4-5).
Even before Scott decided to secede from the Church, other churches in the north had seceded for precisely the reasons Scott outlined in his Grounds of Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church. These other secessionists were, therefore, united under the Wesleyan Methodist Church. The initial growth of the Wesleyan Methodist Church was quick and indicative of the dissatisfaction of many northerners with the Methodist Episcopal Church’s handling of the slavery issue. Only a year after the secession, 15,000 Americans called themselves members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 44).
The Response of the Methodist Episcopal Church to the Secession
The secession movement of the Wesleyan Methodists served as a rude awakening to many in the Methodist Episcopal Church who had entertained thoughts of avoiding the slavery question in order to preserve the union of the Church. Because of this large secession, however, the Methodist Episcopal Church was forced to examine its positions on slavery. Prior to this, many in the Church had ignored their conscience in the name of keeping the Church united. This was no longer an option after 1842, as the issue could not be avoided. In fact, the Church took swift measures to awaken its sleeping anti-slavery convictions (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 46).
In Boston, the Church authorities strengthened the Church’s antislavery position in order to prevent further disenfranchisement of abolitionists within the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Massachusetts Conference declared slaveholding to be a sin and resolved that the only solution to the polarity within the church on the issue was reformation or division. Similarly, at the New Hampshire convention, separation from the South was advocated (Mathews, 1965, pp. 234-235). Church clergy in Vermont declared that, as Christians, Methodists could have no association with any man who would hold a fellow man in bondage. No longer feeling the need to appease their southern counterparts, other northern conferences followed suit by adopting harsher anti-slavery measures. Thomas E. Bond, of theChristian Advocate and Journal, who before had not allowed any anti-slavery propaganda to be published in the journal, now opened its pages to a discussion of the issue. This, of course, received a negative response from the Georgia and Alabama Conferences (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 45).
All of this activity further polarized the northern and southern factions of Methodism. The northerners were no longer afraid to attack the institution of slavery; the southerners sensed their way of life being attacked. Both factions prepared themselves for a showdown. Compromise, which had marked the Methodist Episcopal Church’s response to slavery up to this point, was no longer an option. Heading into the General Conference of 1844, both sides were poised to prevail on issues concerning slavery. In the year preceding that General Conference, Methodists had theorized about what should take place at the conference and speculated about its outcome (Mathews, 1965, pp. 240-242).
The General Conference of 1844
The issue of slavery was debated within the Methodist Episcopal Church’s General Conference of 1844 not directly, but within the framework of two specific cases of slaveholding clergymen– Reverend Francis A. Harding and Bishop James O. Andrew. The first was the case of Harding, a slaveholding minister whose church was within the jurisdiction of the Baltimore Conference. The Baltimore Conference had insisted that he and four other slaveholding ministers free their slaves or their ordinations would be suspended. Harding was the only one who refused and brought his appeal to the General Conference. William A. Smith, a Virginian minister, who had threatened secession from the Church in 1836, was now vehement in his objections to what he saw as northern attacks on slaveholding Christians such as Harding. Thus Smith argued on Harding’s behalf. He contended, first, that the slaves belonged to Harding’s wife and, furthermore, that if the slaves were emancipated, they were not legally allowed to remain in Maryland, and they would thus face unnecessary hardship if freed. He therefore alleged that the Baltimore Conference was not being consistent with the Discipline, which required the manumission of slaves only where they could enjoy freedom (Agnew et al, 1964, p. 52). He then continued, essentially apologizing for slavery and stating that ministers were not to “meddle in politics” (Mathews, 1965, pp. 251-252).
John Collins of the Baltimore Conference was the one who took it upon himself to respond to Smith’s assertions. First of all, he noted that even if the slaves technically were Harding’s wife’s property, Harding was still their master, and he was, therefore, responsible for their servitude. He also maintained that the role of the Methodist minister was not to do as he pleases, but to submit to the will of the Church as expressed through its various rules. Furthermore, he contended that if the General Conference allowed Harding to continue preaching, the delegates would be encouraging localism, which the bishops deplored. When the delegates of the General Conference voted 117 to 56 in rejection of Harding’s appeal, it marked the first time the southern faction had lost an important vote in the Church (Mathews, 1965, pp. 252-254).
Immediately, southerners knew their power was slipping, and the entire delegation sensed that reconciliation was becoming less and less likely. In fact, in an effort to keep the church together, a committee of three Southerners, two conservatives, and one abolitionist was formed to investigate the plausibility of reconciliation. The committee considered changes to the Discipline’s Section on Slavery and attempted to resolve the issue of the slaveholding Bishop James O. Andrew. After only four days, however, the committee reported back that its attempts at reconciliation had failed (Mathews, 1965, pp. 255-256).
The next topic of deliberation was that of Bishop Andrew’s possession of slaves, which came to symbolize the entire slavery controversy within Methodism. During the General Conference, the northern and southern delegations had meetings of their own to discuss their various courses of actions. At one of these such meetings, Bishop Andrew offered the suggestion to his fellow southerners that he simply resign. They would not hear of such a plan. The southerners had decided that their anti-abolitionist crusade would be argued within the context of Bishop Andrew’s case (Agnew et al, 1964, pp. 55-56).
The dissension among the delegates on the Bishop Andrew case became alarmingly apparent as debate on the issue continued. The southerners reacted vehemently to the resolution pushed by northerners that Bishop Andrew be forced to resign. In an attempt to appease the southerners, James B. Finley wrote a different resolution in which he lessened the severity of the Bishop’s punishment. Instead of calling for the Bishop’s resignation, the resolution stated that he would be required to stop performing the duties of his office as long as he was so personally entangled with slavery. Smith retaliated by claiming that if the resolution were passed, the southern faction of the Church would be aligned with an abolitionist institution. This resolution, therefore, failed to appease the southerners, but it was nonetheless passed by a vote of 110 to 69 (Mathews, 1965, p. 260-264).
After this vote, the splitting of the Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern factions was practically inevitable. Henry Bidleman Bascom, in protest to the General Conference’s decision in the Bishop Andrew’s case, described the compromise the Church had made in 1816. In his eyes, there was a two-fold agreement within the Church in which both the northern and southern factions had conceded something. The northerners, he thought, had agreed to allow slaveholders to be members of the Church where emancipation was illegal or impractical. Southerners had conceded that they would allow northern interference in certain matters. His claim was, therefore, that by suspending Bishop Andrew, the northerners had broken the compact. The northerners responded by pointing out the fact that the Discipline had always been anti-slavery and that the southerners had tried unsuccessfully to compromise the sanctity of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Mathews, 1965, pp. 266-267).
In spite of all of this, several valiant efforts were made to preserve the unity of the Church in the last days of the General Conference, but to no avail. It soon became clear that the formal division of the Methodist Episcopal Church was imminent. The task of delineating the terms of separation of the Church fell upon the southerners. By the end of the conference, the southern delegates had come up with a “Plan of Separation” that sealed the splitting of the Methodist Episcopal Church into North and South (Agnew et al, 1964, pp. 59-62).
The Nation’s Response to the Church’s Division
The actions of the delegates of the General Conference of 1844 were of interest to the entire nation. At the conclusion of the conference, the whole country took part in debating and analyzing the events of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s ominous General Conference (Agnew, 1964, pp. 144-145). Some, including politician Henry Clay, realized the implications of the Church’s separation and what it could possibly mean for the nation. A writer for the Charleston Mercury said about the division that, “if the clergy whose business is peace and good will cannot tolerate each other of the same sect, what will become of the politicians whose vocation is strife and dissention?” (Mathews, 1965, p. 282)
Within the increasingly divided nation the separation of the Methodist Episcopal Church further promoted regional hostility. The nation saw that the Church’s countless attempts at compromise had failed and that the Church was not able to remain united. The question everybody asked was whether or not the country would be able to remain united. Several saw correctly that the prognosis for the nation was not good (Mathews, 1965, p. 282).
The Methodist’s Division within the Broader Historical Context
In fact, when the reasons for the Church’s separation and nation’s division are analyzed, strong parallels in the two conflicts arise. An inability to compromise was at the root of the conflict. Abolitionists within the Church could not let themselves be associated with a religious institution that allowed its clergy to own slaves; they could not let slavery be tolerated. Likewise, so deeply ingrained was the institution of slavery in the lives of southerners that they could not allow themselves to be associated with a Church committed to abolition. The division in the Church boils down to the fact that the strength of the convictions on both sides were so intense that reconciliation was impossible. Furthermore, each faction thought that their viewpoint was aligned with God’s as Biblical defenses arose on both sides (Mathews, 1965, p. 282). The country divided for a similar reason, as it was becoming increasingly polarized on the slavery issue. Northerners could not tolerate not only being a part of a Church that tolerated slavery, but also could not allow their own country to permit such an institution. Also, the southerners, who had previously refused to associate with a Church that promoted abolition, also refused to associate with a nation that was looking toward the eradication of slavery.
It is no surprise that the same debate culminated in the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church fifteen years before its culmination of the debate within the nation with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The moral aspect of the slavery debate made it one which the Church could not ignore (Mathews, 1965, p. 282). The nation soon followed the pattern of division that had occurred within the Methodist Episcopal Church. Indeed, further parallels between the two conflicts can be seen by examining the southerners’ responses to a shift in power.
Just as the southern Methodists had witnessed a shift in the balance of power that was not in their favor and several votes that threatened their positions in the Church, the southern states of the Union, in 1860, saw, in the election of President Abraham Lincoln, an imminent threat to slavery. And, whereas the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church members had devised a Plan of Separation in which they would be an autonomous body apart from the North, the southern states soon devised a plan of secession and the creation of the Confederacy by which they were no longer under the rule of the United States government.
Initially, the Methodist Episcopal Church wanted, above all else, to remain united. In order to do this, the Methodists compromised and tried to avoid any stances on slavery which would alienate its southern faction. The first indication that this method had failed was the secession of the members of what was to become the Wesleyan Methodist Church who had, indeed, been alienated from the Church because of its attempts at compromise. At this point, the Methodist Episcopal Church fervently debated the slavery issue, and it became apparent that the two factions of the Church could no longer remain united. The Church split. Likewise, fifteen years after the split in the Church, the southern states of the union seceded from the United States when it became apparent that their viewpoints could not be reconciled with those of the north. The result was a divided nation.
“When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea” is used by permission of Benjamin Robert Tubb from his website at Public Domain Music.