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.

Guest
1 year 1 month ago

Interim Pastor, First PCUSA, DeBary, FL
The homosexual agenda will never leave us alone. If the General Conference finally succumbs and lets “the world around us squeeze us into its mold.” (Phillips. Romans 12:2) you may be sure that the United Methodist Church will split. Many of us will never agree to preserve a “unity” which clearly abrogates our fealty to the plain teaching of the Bible. And by the way we would already be there if it were not, thank God, for the steadfast loyalty of our brothers in Africa!

Guest
William
1 year 2 months ago

In addition, it seems incumbent upon leaders of the denomination to deal forthright with the issue itself. There must be a Scriptural look at the issue by UMC leaders with their positions clearly articulated with relation to their interpretation of Scripture regarding sexual immorality in its entirety as understood from the Bible. This question must be clearly, coherently, and directly answered:

According to your interpretation of the Bible, what human sexual relations are permitted
and what human sexual relations are unacceptable and/or considered as sexual immorality?

(NOTE: Scripture. must be specifically identified and referenced in your response)

Dr Haynes, will you be the first to respond to the above question?

Guest
Nancy R. Smith
1 year 2 months ago

I, too, “cannot envision myself spiritually at home in either truncated church.” I find myself most comfortable, most able to grow, and most effective when I am in an environment where I am between left of center and far left. However, institutional unity must never be held as more important than justice, even if that forces me outside of my comfort zone! (I am a retired deacon member of the New England Conference, living in Michigan.)

Guest
james
1 year 2 months ago

Ms. Nancy R. Smith: I find myself numb from all of the “stuff” that has been offered the last many weeks. “Left of Center” and “far left” seem, to me, to be the cause of many of the problems and much of the debate. Why? Because those are the folks who scream the loudest and demand that all who hold a different view to be silent. The umc offers a home to NOBODY!!! The leadership vacillates or says nothing in regard to the “goings on” in the denomination. “Wes” is the individual (as I recall) who suggests those of a conservative ilk to look into the Wesleyan Church. In my opinion, that is a capital suggestion………………..

Guest
William
1 year 2 months ago

Yes, if the local option is adopted for the homosexuality issue, then it should, to be fair and just, be expanded to all issues of local and/or conference concern, including local property and local investments into the pension fund, etc., thus allowing a local congregation or an entire conference to exercise the ultimate local option of taking all, departing the UMC, and joining the Wesleyan Church. If John Wesley returned, he would not recognize the UMC anyway as he passed it by on his way to the Wesleyan Church.

Guest
William
1 year 2 months ago

The horrific systematic sin is the denomination’s reluctance to deal with sexual sin in this age of horrific sexual immorality. Of course there have been other times of sexual immorality. Paul found himself right in the middle of it at Corinth, perhaps the sin city of the Roman Empire. The church at Corinth was made up of FORMER sinners, including sexual sinners, and Paul pointed that out to them in one of his letters. However, he spoke joyfully to them because they had been washed and sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ. Not here or in any of the first churches started by Paul and his helpers was there ever any mention of anything like a local option when it came to sin. Note: after 40 some years, the liberals have yet to prove through Scripture that sexual relations outside that of a man and woman in marriage is acceptable because it is not there in Scripture — and Paul and others from the start of the Christian church knew and preached that truth.

Guest
1 year 2 months ago

When the polity is followed, a vote for unity is cast. When an Elder chooses to violate the polity or a bishop refuses to uphold the polity, these are votes for schism.

Guest
Jeff
1 year 2 months ago

I support the Hamilton proposal but it is temporary assuming it even has a chance at passing. I doubt it does. For me, the bottom line is, we cannot remain in a denomination where Africa and a minority of the US dictate anti gay rules to a majority of the US. That is unacceptable. The fight for equality will continue until the US becomes a central conference and we achieve lgbt equality, or, enough conservatives in the US and Africa split off and we achieve lgbt equality in the US.

Guest
MethodistPie
1 year 2 months ago

Jeff personifies the fundamental problem with Adam Hamilton’s well-thought out proposal and other calls for unity. Whatever option we choose, the connection will continue to be roiled by the single-agenda activists. My heart is with Dr. Haynes. I have a hard time seeing myself in either camp of truncated church. But the Jeffs of the connection aren’t going to rest until they’ve imposed their will. It is indeed a dilemma.

Guest
bill krill
1 year 2 months ago

Perhaps the issue is not ‘division’ but ‘diversion’. What a wonderful issue the current one is to divert attention away form the fact that the UMC is failing in numbers and has a heavily aging clergy that seems out of touch with membership.

 
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