by Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter

“Whereas… the objects and purposes of the Christian ministry cannot be successfully accomplished… under the jurisdiction of this General Conference as now constituted…. And, whereas… the event of separation… [is] not improbable, we esteem it the duty of this General Conference to meet the emergency with Christian kindness and the strictest equity…”  (The Journal of the General Conference, 1844)

Just fifty years after the death of John Wesley, America Methodism found itself at an unworkable impasse. The issue of slavery was burning hotly in the church as it was in the larger culture. During the 1836 General Conference in Cincinnati, an abolitionist rally was held in the city and attended by some General Conference delegates. The Methodist Episcopal Church was sharply criticized during the meeting and the delegates in attendance were censured, but the debate was just getting started. After a relatively quiet General Conference in 1840 where issues of slavery were placed on the back burner, the stage was set for the longest General Conference in church history in 1844: May 1 through June 11. The wedge issue was a slaveholding bishop.

Although there was no official prohibition against it, no slaveholding candidate was ever elected to Methodism’s highest office. Soon after his election to the episcopacy, however, Bishop James Osgood Andrew inherited a young mulatto girl named Kitty from a lady in Augusta, Georgia. The will instructed Andrew to raise her until the age of nineteen and then secure passage for her to Liberia, Africa. If she was unwilling to go to Liberia (which she was) he was to liberate her as much as the law would allow. Emancipation was illegal in his state and Bishop Andrew provided a cottage in which the young woman could live and did not require service from her. She eventually married and raised a family. Another slave, a young boy, was inherited by Andrew’s late wife and became his property upon her death. He promised to send him to another state when he was old enough to care for himself. The bishop, however, remarried a widow who owned over a dozen slaves. He transferred official ownership to a trustee, but their labors continued in the service of his new wife. The revelation that one of their bishops held slaves sent the 1844 General Conference into moral alarm. After much debate, the conference voted that Andrew should not exercise his office as long as the situation of slaveholding persisted. The conference also upheld the suspension of Rev. Francis Harding for holding slaves inherited by his wife.

Bishop James Osgood Andrew
Bishop James Osgood Andrew
Southern delegates realized that the decisions of General Conference would impede their ministry in the South where sensitivities to northern dictates were extremely high. Northern delegates realized that having a slaveholding bishop would impede their ministry in the North. Two factions, regardless of how much they held in common, had become a mutual impediment to each other:

It was almost the unanimous opinion of the delegates from the non-slaveholding conferences that Bishop Andrew could not continue to exercise his episcopal functions under existing circumstances, without producing results extensively disastrous to the church in the north; and from this opinion the brethren of the south did not dissent.

Allowance was made at the 1844 General Conference for a future split. The decision to place mission and ministry at higher value than unity did not come without some rules.

First, majority votes in stations, circuits, and conferences were to be respected. Individual congregations and pastoral charges would need to decide, by vote, to which ecclesial body they would affiliate. Because of the geographical nature of the division, only those congregations around the edges were encouraged to decide their own fate. Those on the interior were expected to follow the direction of their respective conference. Where conferences fractured, those in the majority tended to become the custodian of the official documents. Instructions were given to both future bodies not to attempt to exercise pastoral oversight in areas where the majority chose to go the other direction.

Second, pastors of all types, licensed and ordained, were allowed to affiliate with whatever body they chose, without blame or penalty. Records of pastoral service were to be shared freely between newly constituted conferences.

Third, plans were made for the division of shared property. The publishing house was to continue to direct their profits toward the support of retired pastors. The value of the property was to be divided based on the percentage of pastors that affiliated with each body as recorded in the minutes of their first gathering. Outstanding debts were to be collected according to the geographic region in which they were incurred. Three commissioners were named to represent the northern church in division of property and the future southern church was asked to name three commissioners to round out a board of commissioners with equal representation. Property such as churches, parsonages, schools, colleges, cemeteries and conference funds within the bounds of the southern church were to be released by the northern church. The constitutional restrictive rules that needed to be changed to facilitate the division of property were recommended to the annual conferences by a vote of 146-10. Bishops were instructed to secure the ratification by the annual conferences at an accelerated pace.

After the midnight adjournment of the longest General Conference in Methodist history, the Southern delegates met the following morning to discuss next steps. They decided to hold an organizational convention on May 1, 1845 in Louisville, Kentucky. Following this, the first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) was convened on May 1, 1846 in Petersburg, Virginia. At this conference, Rev. Dr. Lovick Pierce was unanimously selected to bring fraternal greeting to the 1848 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

This was pretty much the final gesture of peace between the two denominations for some time. Rev. Pierce was offered a seat at the General Conference he visited, but all offers of fraternal relations were rejected. Tensions over the division of property and the acrimonious realities in border communities chilled any warm feelings that were left. The 1848 General Conference of the northern church proclaimed the previously passed plan for separation null and void because the constitutional changes necessary to relax the restrictive rules were not ratified by the annual conferences. The provisions for the sharing of property were called to a halt and the M.E. Church (South) took their case to the civil courts. In an appeal to the Supreme Court, they argued that they were as much a part of the former church as their northern brothers and entitled to a share of the property. They did not view their actions as secession as much as a forced separation. They were still the Methodist Episcopal Church, they argued, just not under the jurisdiction of the same General Conference . The Supreme Court of the United States agreed.

Likewise, calls in the plan of separation to respect the geographic boundaries of the two churches were not honored on either side. The North placed conferences, over the coming decades, in places like Florida and Alabama and there were many areas with congregations from both denominations. (The Illinois church in which I grew up was started by the MECS.) Following the Civil War there were efforts to expel southern pastors from their pulpits and force the southern church to return to the northern denomination. It took several decades for the rancor of the war to pass and for Methodists to begin talking about the reunification that was finally accomplished in 1939.

The interesting fact is that the decades following the schism, even given the devastation of the Civil War, were times of unprecedented growth for both churches. The 1844 General Conference reported 1,184,064 members. By 1906, the ME Church had 2,986,154 members and the ME Church (South) boasted 1,638,480 members, for a total of 4,624,634 souls. This quadrupling coincided with a veritable Golden Age of foreign missions in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The establishment of church-based hospitals, colleges, and social institutions during this time has never been matched. Methodists wielded enough social power to help force through measures like temperance, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws. When, in 1881, a report reached the ears of C.C. McCabe that a “Free Thinkers Society” convened in Watkins, New York had featured a speaker claiming that churches across the land were dying out, he took the opportunity to send them a telegraph as head of the Board of Church Extension for the M.E. Church: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name! We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year, and propose to make it two a day!”

It can be easily argued that the schism of 1844 was bad for the country. To have a major American denomination split over slavery must have made it easier for the nation to divide and fall into the bloodiest war in our history. It can also be argued that there was sub-Christian behavior on both sides. Infighting among Christians is never pretty and, I am sure, the Methodist social witness was compromised. Slavery was the cruelest form of injustice and any tolerance for it is unthinkable. There is no evidence, likewise, that division is a necessary ingredient to growth. Mission, however, defined as the advancement of the Gospel into new territory, prospered following the schism in both the North and the South.

The longest General Conference in Methodist history acknowledged, amidst great division, that mission and ministry must be placed at a higher value than institutional unity. It was ugly and troubling in many ways, but we might compare this to more recent expressions of church unity that have resulted in merged bodies that have experienced only accelerated decline. Whatever else denominational splits are, we can see from 1844 that they are not always detrimental to the advancement of the Gospel.

[1] From “Report of the Committee Appointed to Prepare a Statement of Facts Connected with the Proceedings in the Case of Bishop Andrew”, Minutes of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1844).

[1] Elliott, Charles, The Great Succession from the Methodist Episcopal Church (1855), Swormsted & Poe: Cincinnati.