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Slavery and the Split of Methodism

Updated on December 12, 2009

How a Slave-Holding Bishop Broke Up the Methodist Church

Throughout the 19th Century, sectional disputes over slavery threatened to tear the United States apart. The same conflicts seriously affected the stability of the various branches of Protestantism, including the Methodist church, long considered unique for its efforts to reach out to slaves and other spiritually neglected groups. A seemingly procedural debate regarding the rules of the church led, during the 1844 General Conference, to the decision of the southern Methodist conferences to split off from the main body and form their own church, resulting in a division that previewed the national split over slavery, and that actually lasted almost 25 times longer.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, abhorred slavery and was scandalized by the existence of slavery in virtually every part of English America. The new Methodist Episcopal Church, organized in 1784, officially denounced the institution and voted to expel any member who traded in slaves. This rule was weakened, however, when slaveholders were given a year's grace period to free their human property; eventually, the rule was abandoned as unenforceable. In the early 1800s, as slavery became concentrated in the Southern States and national policy increasingly came to be controlled by that section, the Methodist leadership (as well as that of other Protestant churches) likewise became more tolerant of slavery for fear of losing wealthy Southern members. Church tradition, if not its rules, discouraged higher officials such as bishops from owning slaves, and this tradition generally remained undisturbed for the first 60 years of MEC history.

Enter James Osgood Andrew. Born in Wilkes County, Georgia, in 1794, he joined the Methodist Church in 1809. He lacked much formal schooling, but was taught by his mother and preacher father. Admitted to preach on trial in 1812, Andrew was assigned to the Salt Catcher, S.C., circuit, then to Charleston, S.C. In 1816, the same year he was ordained an elder, he married Ann Amelia McFarlane, with whom he fathered nine children. Ann died in 1842, and Andrew, now a bishop in the MEC, married Leonora Greenwood two years later.

The question of Andrew's ownership of slaves is fraught with controversy. It is known that he had inherited a young black boy from his first wife on her death. His second wife, a Georgia widow, owned a family of slaves who became his after the marriage. A less certain account, which is still given credence, holds that in the 1830s Andrew inherited a 12-year-old girl named Kitty, to whom he promised freedom when she turned nineteen; when the time came, however, she allegedly opted to stay with him, and he gave her a house of her own on his plantation. These three slaves are, according to most published reports, the only human property owned by Bishop James Andrew. Census records for the state of Georgia, however, apparently indicate that he owned as many as 13 slaves.

The issue quickly came to dominate the proceedings of the Conference after it convened in New York City. On May 20, two Northern bishops, John Collins of the Baltimore Conference and James Houghtaling of the Troy (N.Y.) Conference introduced a resolution submitting it to a formal inquiry. The resolution, which did not specifically name the subject of the inquiry, was referred to the Committee on the Episcopacy, which passed the resolution with the announcement that James Andrew was the bishop in question. Andrew responded by letter, denying that he had either bought and sold slaves or profited from the institution; the family acquired through his second marriage belonged to his wife, and he had no part in them, he said. In any event, Georgia law forbade manumission of slave property, so his hands were tied.

Not impressed with these arguments, Bishops Alfred Griffith and John Davis of Baltimore proposed a measure requesting Andrew's resignation; Andrew himself had earlier offered to resign, but the Southern delegation rejected this offer. In substitution, James B. Finley of the Ohio Conference offered an amendment, known as the "Finley Substitute." This amendment would require that Andrew step down as bishop as long as he continued to keep slaves. The resolution passed on June 1, but was weakened by a further amendment, passed May 31, that made the demand "advisory" and postponed a definite decision until the 1848 General Conference. Not surprisingly, the resolution passed with almost no support from Southern bishops, but the vote was wide enough to make it definitive.

Reaction to the vote was immediate. Southern delegates submitted a formal declaration protesting the Finley resolution, which started the Methodist Church on the road to disunion. On June 8, the General Conference passed a "Plan of Separation" recommended by a special Committee of Nine that divided the national organization along sectional lines. The plan transferred church property in the South to the future body formed by the Southern conferences; it also excused any minister serving in the South who wished to remain with the new organization. Four years later, in 1848, the General Conference of the Northern church voided the Plan of Separation on the grounds that the Southern church had violated parts of it, but the damage had been done by that time.

One of the Southern delegates' last actions in New York was to call for representatives to meet in Louisville, Ky., in 1845. At this convention, held from May 1-19, 1845, the Southern conferences voted to formally secede from the General Conference and established the "Methodist Episcopal Church, South." The new church, acting under prior instructions, retained the original Methodist Discipline--no worries about language critical of slavery, which had already been watered down and made meaningless decades earlier. A general conference for the new body was scheduled for May 1846 in Petersburg, Virginia.

A few conclusions can be drawn as to the consequences of division.  First, financial support from the Northern branch was discontinued, which had negative impacts on poorer churches such as those in Texas.  Second, what had been a steady flow of ministers from the North also ended, though in fact the slavery controversy had caused an evangelical exodus from the South.  Finally, Methodist churches in the South became locked into a pro-slavery position that ultimately broke off all debate on the subject; this was in spite of the attempt by some conferences, at least, to maintain a neutral position on slavery.

More telling, however, was the South's loss of predominance among American Methodists.  In a church that has historically been obsessed with numbers, the regular conference reports of memberships gave the Southern conferences a great disadvantage compared to those of the North in the years after the split, especially as it closed off a vital pool of preaching talent.  Politically, church divisions reflected national differences, with the Northern and Eastern churches supporting Lincoln and the Southern branch siding with the rebel states.  The Civil War had a devastating effect on Southern membership, which totaled about half that of the North from 1866 through the turn of the century.

James Andrew continued serving his church, serving as one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and as Senior Bishop, until his death in 1871.  The split in American Methodism for which he bears a small share of the blame continued until reunification in 1939.  Ironically, a small legacy of the former division remains today:  The Southern Methodist Church, a faction formed by segregationist holdouts from the old Southern branch which even today claims to represent the "doctrinal heritage" of the MEC-South.

Methodist Episcopal Church Density, 1850


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Very interesting hub. I had known of the North/South split among Baptists, but was not aware of what happened with Methodists. The shame is that the geographical nature of the split shows that Christians were being decisively influenced by their particular culture, not, as should have been the case, being the ones to influence their culture with biblical values.