Noah’s flood might have required 40 days to drown the world, but the Methodist General Conference of 1844 nearly matched it, with the tide of slavery washing over the denomination and leaving it shattered after 41 days of acrimonious debate.
For decades, the question of slavery festered within the body of the nation’s largest denomination; by 1844, only one American organization was larger than the Methodist Episcopal Church: the federal government itself.
And like the government, Methodists were paralyzed by their divisions over the ownership of human beings. Initially one of the strongest anti-slavery voices in American Christianity – inheriting the convictions of its founder, John Wesley – Methodism in the South, like all of southern Christianity, had become increasingly tolerant, even supportive, of the institution as it became increasingly vital to the regional economy.
Northern bishops, however, became increasingly convinced of slavery’s evil, following in the tradition of evangelist Francis Asbury, who relied more on natural law than the Bible when he argued that “every perfection [God] possesses must be opposed to a practice contrary to every moral idea which can influence the human mind.” Likewise, slavery was “totally opposite to the whole spirit of the gospel.”
Methodist slaveholders took a different approach: using the plain text of the Bible – especially the Old Testament, which provided justification not only for slavery but also for the enslavement of Africans, descendants of the cursed son of Noah, according to a literal reading of Genesis.
Further, proslavery Methodists – again, like southern Christians as a whole – pointed to the several places in the New Testament where Paul sets out conditions of a master-servant relationship. It would be unscriptural, these slaveholders argued, to go beyond the plain, literal text of scripture.
As one southern Methodist bishop put it, there existed “no warrant from apostolic precept or example” to upend this relationship, and to do so would “go beyond the [biblical] charter and transcend the bounds of our commission.”
When Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited a slave through his wife – and with no way to easily free him under state law – abolition-minded northern Methodists were outraged. Andrew proposed resigning, but fellow southerners insisted he stay and fight. After 41 bitter days, the General Conference of 1844 requested his resignation – and within a year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born.
Reunification would not occur for nearly a century.
History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but often it rhymes. History rhymed pretty clearly last week.
It didn’t take six weeks this time, but the United Methodist Church may again be on the verge of a division.
Once again, an intractable disagreement lasting years over how to treat a marginalized group has led to debate alternately sanctimonious and angry, prayerful and tearful. Once again, delegates seeking to maintain the status quo have relied on a literal, plain-text reading of the Bible against those pointing to the broader sweep of the gospel message as justification for change.
This time, however, the status quo had the votes – and it may be the change agents who leave the church.
Ever since Protestantism began, its primary tension has been between the imperative to unify in love and the urge to be doctrinally correct. This is really a universal human tension, but it has been especially strong in movements claiming to focus only or primarily on the Bible for their doctrine. Generally, once a group claims to be following the Bible, it begins dividing shortly thereafter – and the more heavily it leans on the Bible, the sooner and more entrenched the divisions become. It is difficult to stay united when the goal is to be pure.
The tension between unity and purity is reflected in Revelation. When John writes to the seven assemblies in western Asia (now Turkey), he has a mix of blessings and critiques for them. The number seven is important; it symbolizes completeness in Jewish numerology, so these seven Jewish Jesus-following assemblies represent not only themselves as first-century women and men living in the Roman Empire, but also represent all Jesus followers. Their successes and failures represent our successes and failures.
It’s telling, then, that the first criticism Jesus has for any of these assemblies is not idolatry or weakness of faith; it’s a failure to love:
“I know your works, your labor, and your endurance. I also know that you don’t put up with those who are evil. You have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and you have found them to be liars. You have shown endurance and put up with a lot for my name’s sake, and you haven’t gotten tired. But I have this against you: you have let go of the love you had at first.” (Rev 2:1-4)
The assembly in Ephesus had worked so hard to make sure they were right, they had forgotten to love. They were doctrinally pure, which meant they no longer knew how to get themselves dirty.
As the last book of the Bible, Revelation is simply reinforcing the sweep of the gospel proclaimed to that point – and what our response to it should be:
What does God require of us? To do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).
What are the two greatest commandments? To love God [Deut 6:4-5] and love our neighbors [Lev 19:18] (Matt 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28).
Who truly knows God? In whom does God dwell? The one who loves (1 John 4:7-16).
I don’t know what will happen to the United Methodist Church. I know a lot of people are deeply hurt and grieved by the decision made this week, and they now have a hellish choice. How can anyone tell someone else whether they should leave their church home or stay and fight for basic recognition of their common humanity after years of toil and heartache have only led to this tragic step backward?
I know that once again a decision to read the Bible in a certain way has led many sincere and good-hearted people to unnecessarily demean and turn aside their sisters and brothers. They feel they have kept their congregations and their denomination pure; they do not yet see the awful cost. Will it be another century before this breach is healed? God forbid.
To my LGBT friends and family – you beautiful souls whom God has made and declared good, without whom the tapestry of humanity would be dull and incomplete – I love you. God loves you. Although I cannot imagine the pain you have felt this week, please know that I support you and will continue to do so however I can.