Wesleyan Wisdom: The seeds and harvests of previous Methodist divisions (part 1)

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

Twice in recent columns I have asked us to see the horrific systemic sin in schism among the people called Methodists. Actually, there are four such instances, all regrettable and avoidable as we see them retrospectively.

The O’Kellyite Christian Separation–1792

In 1792, James O’Kelly, presiding elder of southern Virginia made the following motion:

“Resolved, that after the bishop appoints the preachers at conference…if anyone thinks himself injured by the appointment, he may have liberty to appeal to the conference and state his objections, and if the conference approves his objections, the bishop shall appoint him to another circuit.”

That resolution set off a debate that rocked the Church! Bishop Asbury was personally offended and vacated the chair. Bishop Coke then presided and the debated lasted three days and nights. The motion lost. Some historians say that the resulting formation of the “Republican Methodist Church”(later “The Christian Church”) took a fifth of the membership of The Methodist Episcopal church. The new church allowed lay votes at conferences and vowed to “get rid of the Ecclesiastical Monarchy of the older church.” One record notes, “families were rent asunder, brother was opposed to brother, parents and children were moved against each other, warm friends became open enemies, and the claims of Christian love were forgotten in the disputes about church government.” Jesse Lee, our first historian, wrote, “It was enough to make the saints of God weep, between the porch and the altar, and that both day and night, to see how the Lord’s people were carried away captives by that division.” Asbury’s journal had these words, “The mischief has begun.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church Formation–(1816 in Philadelphia)
The African Methodist Episcopal, Zion Formation–(1820 in New York)

We recall with great embarrassment that the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born from the rudeness of an usher when a “man of color” arrived late and sat down on the bottom step leading to the balcony when he discovered a brother was praying. The poor man was ordered out of the church because “the place” for African Americans was in the balcony!. A “properly seated” man named Richard Allen, led a walk-out with the ominous parting words, “We will go and bother you no more.” Today the AME Church has over 2.5 million members, mostly in U. S. and Africa.

The AMEZ meetings began in 1796 under the umbrella of old St. John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. This came at the request of freedmen and freed women of African descent, but, according to historian Frederick Maser, “the cause was a feeling of general dissatisfaction with the way they were treated.” They were seldom allowed to preach and prohibited from joining the annual conference. Only after intermittent efforts to be associated with the white Methodist Episcopal Church did the “Zionites” form their own conference in 1824. Their membership is in excess of 1.4 million.

The Methodist Protestant Church (1828)

By the General Conference of 1820, the divisive issue was twofold–the election of presiding elders by their peers and the election of laity to General Conference. A motion passed but was reconsidered and tabled. In 1824 it was defeated. The memorial presented at the 1828 General Conference was “…that the number of lay delegates and local preachers should be equal to the whole number of the traveling preachers in the General Conference.” It failed.

Bishop James Straughn, one of only two former Methodist Protestants ever elected to the episcopacy, wrote in his book, Inside Methodist Union, “If the General Conference had acceded to the petition, asking only for lay representation and the right of trial, there would never have been a Methodist Protestant Church.” But the motion did not pass. In 1830 The Methodist Protestant Church was officially organized. They had no bishops and full lay equality with clergy. Their initial membership was about 28,000. It existed until 1939.

The Wesleyan Methodists–1843

Though the moral conviction of abolitionism was rising in the northern conferences, the presiding bishops of the 1840 General Conference refused to allow the voice of abolition to be heard on the conference floor. As Richard Coleman puts it in The History of American Methodism, Vol II, “Anti-slavery movements were not new in the 1830’s but in that decade, as the result of a number of forces, they assumed a new aggressiveness that morphed into the abolition movement.

There were those who defended slavery because of the kindness of some masters. The abolitionist response was “The worst feature of slavery is slavery itself.” The most “vigorous and resourceful advocate of abolition” was Orange Scott of Vermont. Not a scholar, he “fathered” the abolitionist movement at the populist level.” He claimed slavery to be a miscarriage of the “inalienable rights of free men.”

La Roy Sutherland from New Hampshire formed the “Methodist Antislavery Society” in 1836. He was denied an appointment. No abolitionist voice was allowed at General Conference in 1836. Threats of secession were heard in committee, but not on the floor. The 1840 General Conference opened with 1100 signatures on an abolitionist petition. Peter Cartwright, an abolitionist himself, claimed in his autobiography that he and a few others prevented the splitting of the church in 1840.

The interim between 1840 and 1844 were strange and stirring. Storm clouds were lowering. . When denied space in official conference papers, the abolitionists formed four new periodicals: Zion’s Watchman in New York with LaRoy Sutherland as editor; New England Christian Advocate in Massachusetts; and True Wesleyan, edited by Orange Scott. In this paper, he and La Roy Sunderland explained their reasons for surrendering their Methodist credentials.

Orange Scott launched the gargantuan task of uniting the several abolitionist groups from Maine to the Western frontier and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Utica, New York in , May, 1843. Immediately Scott published The Grounds for Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church. They took no property and declared no law suits, but took 15,000 Methodists with them to form the new denomination. He died a year later but the Wesleyan Methodists live still! That church today has over a half million members world-wide, 150,000+ in the United States with a Sunday attendance of over 225,000!

The current movements from “right and left” to divide The UMC are rooted in our differing principles of philosophy/theology of human sexuality. I hope this review of our past will make a case for the reality that, in each instance, if I Corinthians 13 had been our biblical text for the conference, unity might have been preserved. Paul first stated two foundational “positives”–patience and kindness. He follows these with seven “nots.” Love, Paul says, “does not envy,” does not boast,” “is not proud,” “is not rude,” “is not self-seeking, ” “is not easily angered,” and “delights not in evil.” With these behavioral, attitudinal conditions, he says, “Love never fails.”

My dilemma is that I cannot envision myself spiritually at home in either truncated church. We claim a grace theology, embrace an incredible amount of diversity, and have long tolerated a “liberty of conscience” as we mutually embraced Wesley’s “catholic spirit,” mostly when the issues were rooted more in culture than in Christ. Can we now not tolerate diversity in some of the issues that look like a perfect storm? If unanimity on doctrine and social justice is a requirement for the Church, how many more divisions would we see? As Isaiah put it long ago, “‘Come let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….'”(Isaiah 1:18)

Wesley in his sermonic essay, “Christian Perfection” wrote of Christians with conflicting conscience: “Both ‘may believe past or present actions which were or are evil to be good; and such as were good to be evil. They may also judge not according to truth the character of others; and by supposing good {men} to be better and wicked men to be worse than either is.” He continues, “the best of {men} are liable to mistake and do mistake day by day.” He concludes, “Even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in holy writ, but their difference of opinion is no proof that they are not children of God.”

Part II of this historical overview will begin with the division of the church in 1844, a quick second glance at the holiness divisions of t he 1890’s, and, mostly, an analysis of John Wesley’s sermon, “On Christian Perfection.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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