Lessons to Be Learned from the 1844 “Plan of Separation”

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

The premise of this column, like the last one, is predicated on a wisdom saying of George Santyana, professor at Harvard:, “If we do not know history, we are condemned to repeat it.” we ignore our past to our chagrin and regret. Therefore, I ask you to see in our past the dynamics of our present debate about separating over an issue that divides us.

Plan of Separation

The gathering storm that led to the infamous “Plan of Separation” in 1844 can be traced through the minutes of the General Conferences of 1832, 1836, and 1840. The “elephant in the room” issue at the 2016 General Conference can be seen moving step by step from the margins to the dominant agenda item in all the previous 21st century General Conferences.

General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South convened in Nashville Tennessee, May 1st 1858

General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South convened in Nashville Tennessee, May 1st 1858

In 1828 William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his newspaper, “The Liberator,” “I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation.” That became the modus operandus of abolitionism.

According to the excellent historical work of Russell Richey, and older research published in The History of American Methodism and edited by Emory Stevens Bucke, the General Conferences of 1832 and 1836 were in the hands of conservative bishops who allowed no voice to those who came to advocate for abolition. Orange Scott of New York galvanized the disparate consciences into a drumbeat of abolition theology. Southern Methodists did not publish any defenses of slavery. What they did was to insist slavery was a civil matter. William Capers, a South Carolinian who was secretary of the General Conference argued oratorically, “It belongs to Caesar, not to the Church.”

Six Methodist Episcopal clergy published to the New England and New Hampshire Conferences an appeal in 1835: “It is not for the cause of two million five hundred thousand slaves that we plead merely, nor yet the millions of their posterity…but we plead for the Methodist Episcopal Church of which we are unworthy, but we trust, devoted members. We are aware of no unkind feelings towards any who differ with us in opinion: ‘we wish to speak the truth in love.'” “Personal liberty…is the inalienable gift of the infinite God to every human being….” “Hence every American who retains a fellow being in bondage as a piece of property…is guilty of a crime…and it is more criminal for a professing Christian or Christian minister to do the same.” Slavery was defined as “wrong, cruel, and unjust in all its parts and principles” because it not only denies the physical freedom of its victim; it also benumbs the sensibilities of the mind, deadens the conscience, and kills the soul.” The appeal recognized the angst of those who said the economy was dependent on the slave system and it could not be abolished suddenly, but retorted: “But when should the system of slavery cease?” Answer: “It is a sin in the sight of heaven and ought to cease at once, NOW AND FOREVER.”

Wesleyan Methodists Separate From MEC

Seven years and two General Conferences later, in 1943, two of the signers of the 1834 document led 15,000 members out, and formed The Wesleyan Methodist Church. In the parting letter from Orange Scott and LaRoy Sunderland, they commented, “Twenty years and upwards of the best part of our lives has been spent in the service of this church during which we have endeared our hearts to multitudes of Christian friends….Many considerations of friendship as well as our temporal interests bind us to the church of our early choice. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, we can forego all of these. We cannot live solely for ourselves nor for the present age alone, but for all coming time; indeed, for God and Eternity. We have borne our testimony, we have prayed, we have waited, and we have hoped until there is no longer any ground for hope. We must submit to things as they are, or peaceably retire. We have chosen the latter.” They itemize their reasons:

  1. That the MEC defends not only slave holding but the institution of slavery, allowing members and ministers to go unrebuked in holding innocent human beings in hopeless bondage.
  2. “While we admit that no form of church government is laid down in Scriptures, we contend that the principles are laid down which are in direct contravention with some of our existing forms.”

They object to the election of bishops for life. They object to the right of a pastor to deny membership to anyone whom he “wants to get rid of.”

The signers of the 1842 document of withdrawal insisted, “we are not withdrawing from anything essential to our Wesleyan Methodism. We are dissolving our connection only to the Episcopacy and Slavery.” They close with a sad and amiable word: “And now brethren of the M. E. Church, we bid you farewell. Many of you we know and love. We hope you will not treat us as barbarians. There is room enough for us all. Let us have no unchristian contention.” The signers were Jotham Horton, Orange Scott, and La Roy Sunderland. 15,000 Methodists went with them to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church, ironically, in 1844.

Separation & Power

The mood of the American culture was shifting by 1844. The loss of 15,000 members to the Wesleyan Methodist Church was a wake-up call. Furthermore, the election of delegates in the northern conferences saw a drastic change; the new delegates had been elected who favored abolition. Holland McTyeire of the South wrote in his History of Methodism that the delegates to the 1844 Conference were “a new breed.” The faces of old northern friends had disappeared when the conference convened on May 1, 1844 in Green Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. It would not adjourn until June 11, forty one excruciating days later.

The acrimonious fever and invective language of the long debate was carefully printed in the secular press of that day. There were intermissions calling for fasting and prayer and references to Wesley’s “catholic spirit,” but the language on the floor flung unprecedented insults at fellow delegates, respective movements, and to the bishops.

The underlying cause of the debate was slavery, but the juridical debate divided the house into two rigid camps–“the Conference Party” and the “Constitution Party.” We must remember that until 1939, there was no Judicial Council. There were two seats of power–the General Conference and the Episcopacy. The legal question was whether the General Conference could defrock Bishop James Andrew without a trial. Why is a bishop who is elected and consecrated any different from an Elder who is elected?

The “Conference Party” insisted that the General Conference was the supreme locus of power in the Methodist Episcopal Church. As Leonidas Hamline put it, the General Conference is “a court of appeals beyond which no parties can travel for the cure of errors.” Nathan Bangs warned, “inasmuch as the General Conference had created him (any bishop), they have the power to depose or suspend him for just cause.”
Bishop James Andrew, from Georgia, had inherited a slave through a will, insuring the previous owner that the boy would never be sold or mistreated. (Georgia state law prohibited manumission). The “Conference Party” wanted to vote Andrew out of the episcopacy without a trial. Andrew wanted to resign to ameliorate emotions, but the southern delegates wanted to use his lack of trial as their primary defense. Speaking for the “Constitution Party,” Bishop Soule acknowledged the General Conference’s right to try a bishop in a tribunal, but this conference must not place a bishop at the mercy of a mere majority vote without a trial.

So the days wore on. Was the authority of the ME Church unilateral (General Conference) or co-orinate (GC and Council of Bishops)? When the final substitute motion carried, the General Conference was, in effect, declared supreme.


This set in motion one of the great ironies of the era. The senior bishop was Joshua Soule from Maine–as far from slavery as one could get. However, he bolted, insisting that he did not leave the Methodist Episcopal Church because of its position on slavery, but its position that “so crippled the co-ordinate branch of the church as to destroy the general superintendency altogether.” Soule served, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, until his death. Along with Bishop McKendree he is buried on what was the South’s only 19th century seminary–Vanderbilt.

So it was that slavery, an issue of national conscience, was translated into a constitutional issue that opened the door to division. Polity became what Dr. Norman Spellman called “the handle which both sides grasped for their debate.” The sometimes “heralded” Plan of Separation turned sour. The sad consequence was attorney fees and a protracted acrimonious debate, mostly about pensions, property rights, and the publishing house. By 1848, the Northern Methodists sued for reconsideration of the rather generous “Plan.” Finally, in 1852, the Supreme Count of the United States declared it legal. In that sense, “the South won,” but a political observation it must be remembered. The Chief Justice who wrote the ruling favoring the South was Robert T. Hayne, from South Carolina! The sad consequence, we must remember, was that Methodism was a house divided until 1939. “Oh Lord of hosts be with us yet; lest we forget, lest we forget!”

Our Current Situation

general_conference_2016_logo-550x388For those who do not like history what is the point? The point is that the proverb is true: “circumstances (often cultural) alter (ecclesiastical) cases.” The 1844 Plan of Separation was geographical. Except for a few congregations in border states, entire annual conferences left the parent church. The so called “Hamilton-Slaughter” plan that would let every local church decide whether to separate or not would create total havoc with the itinerating appointment of clergy and would split every congregation. Any plan of separation will create enormous legal costs, complicated pension issues, and the literal end of an important dimension of Wesley’s progeny we have held so dear– the catholic spirit.

Jorge Santyana had another wisdom saying: “When you marry one generation, you will be widowed in the next.” Marrying a fading social order will create a young “widow.”

What will we do? It depends on whom we elect as delegates to go to Portland in 2016!

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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Thomas Coates
I’m disappointed– Dr. Haynes does not interpret the Hamilton Slaughter plan correctly, at the least. It does NOT permit churches to separate from the UMC. Further, right now, there are conservative churches where liberal pastors should not be appointed, and liberal churches were appointing conservative pastors would cause much of the congregation to leave. Bishops and district superintendents already must be careful regarding appointments across political lines (and other lines– I recall Bishop Johnson stating that there are churches in her episcopal area that she couldn’t preach at, and who wouldn’t accept a woman pastor) the appointing of LGBTQ clergy… Read more »

Hmm. I do know of a time when the cabinet considered matching pulpit fillers to pew sitters. Only “patronizers” to whatever cause the bishop/ds was touting at appointment time were considered for a “cushy” or a down-grade appointment. Way back in the old days, bishops would still be erasing names and moving folks on the way to the “appointment meeting.” That was a show of real class………………….


Triple “opps!!” Should read: Hmm. “I do NOT know…………………………”


So the lesson learned is that instead of ratcheting up the tension until a faction breaks away a split should be pre-negotiated by all concerned parties. Then there will be no disputes over pensions and property rights. We can minimize attorney fees and get on with business. We can do the split correctly this time.
Good lesson.


Perhaps a “no-fault divorce” would be most appropriate. Legalzoom could be used to minimize expenses. Clergy fears about their pay/pensions might be allayed if they knew the legal fees would be kept to a minimum. http://www.legalzoom.com/

Chris Walters
Important article, thanks for sharing. However, one nit to pick and one correction. Dr. Haynes refers to a “Chief Justice” of the SCOTUS as “Robert T. Hayne.” There has never been a justice on the SCOTUS by that name. At the time the Chief Justice was Roger B. Taney of Dred Scott infamy. BTW, the case Dr. Haynes alludes to may be Smith v. Swormstedt – 57 U.S. 288 (1853). That opinion was written by Justice Samuel Nelson, which was a property case over the “Book Concern,” in the words of Justice Nelson, “part of a fund which had its… Read more »
Donald F Guest
Thus far there are no serious calls for schism. Schism will mean the death of the denomination in legal feeds, disillusion, and the closing of many seminaries which are already on the verge of doing so. Neither are trials the answer. In the face of shrinking resources, trials are plaicing a tremendous strain on already cash-strapped annual conference. People are not “holding their money.” More and more local churches are being “supplied, merged and closed” because without jobs people don’t have disposable incomes. Unemployment insurance and ss only covers bare expenses. Like it or not, our church has never been… Read more »
Gary Bebop

Removing the word “sin” from our Discipline wouldn’t erase the sin problem from our hearts. Get a clue!

Bob Simison

A Simple Way
The anti-homosexual statement in the 1972 Book of discipline was a grave error. Twice I have suggested to GeneralConference to remove all references regarding homosexuality (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Trans-sexual) would remove the issue and contention would fade. I believe it is still the best way for General Conference to go. It would enable pastors and congregations to fulfill ministry in Christ’s Name as they understand it without “breaking Covenant” or other disturbing possibilities. Best, it would save a lot of legal costs.

Wes Andrews

With respect William, I think it is way too late. The Bishops have no will to honor the Discipline, the Scripture or their responsibility to the church that blesses them.

John H
The Hamilton – Slaughter plan is already in place so far as the facts on the ground are concerned in the Nothern and Western Jurisdiction and, I suspect amny other episcopacies. Given that there is little interest in following the Book of Discipline, it is hard to see how anything that General Conference does can be other than window dressing. My modest proposal would be to recognize that and cancel General Conference saving millions of dollars that can be used for disciple making. The connection is shattered no matter how the “scrap of paper” that is the Book of Discipline… Read more »
The words offered in Dr. Haynes’ column–and even in the comments– create a maze that is growing tighter and tighter and tighter. Legalese is a trap the country and church fall into. If one moves a comma or a period the meaning is changed. It is much like “what the meaning of “is” is.” The holy book of disciple, the Hamilton and Slaughter solution, Dr. Haynes urging folks to reflect on the past are ALL part of the abyss into which the umc has fallen. It would appear that a good thing for 2016 is to have a whole NEW… Read more »
don haynes

you are right. T here probably will be a lot of “first conference reps.” That is what happened in 1844 and history was re-hinged.


We are constantly reminded how bad a church split would be in the UMC and are never given the reasons WHY a church split would be a bad thing. Please do not quote the Apostles writings on unity when you disregard, minimize and ignore the Apostles writing when it comes to issues that cause the division in the first place. I would like to know what the real cost would be if the UMC were to split aside from the predicted legal fees.

Gary Bebop

“d” is right on this one! The babbling about unity would make sense if it were gushing up out of a well of repentance. But there is NO repentance. The strange thing is that across the church, as it were, the “celebration” of the overthrow of historic biblical moral teachings has already broken out in many annual conferences, observed in yet new declarations of impious abandonment of Disciplinary policies.

Wes Andrews

Gary, you nailed it. I’ve seen what you have described…. sad to say.

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