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.
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:
- 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.
- “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
For 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!