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.