My contribution to the People of Faith for Justice blog this month will attempt to help us all understand the challenges one of the largest Christian denominations has endured regarding their role in and relationship to the systemic racism being faced in the United States today.
John Wesley, a Brit and the founder of the “Methodist Movement,” which became the Methodist Episcopal Church, was a strong opponent to slavery. He worked closely with William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament. Wesley worked with Wilberforce against slavery until Wesley’s death in 1791. The Slave Trade Act had been passed in Britain in 1807. It had outlawed slave trade, but not slavery itself, and it was pretty ineffective. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act expanded the jurisdiction of the previous act, and made the purchase and ownership of people illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of certain territories, Ceylon and Saint Helena. Though this Act was repealed in 1998, later anti-slavery legislation remains in effect.
The Methodist movement came to the US and was one of the two largest denominations in the South. There apparently were many slave owners who were Methodists, and their slaves were expected to attend church. They had to sit in the balcony, or, if it was full of white folks, they had to stand outside and listen at the window. I recently read a book entitled, I Am Black, I Am a Christian, I Am a United Methodist. According to many of the writers of this book, Methodism was the denomination the majority of slaves joined when they chose to become Christians. There was something in the message that appealed to them. In reading about Harriet Tubman, I found out that when she escaped and became free, she became a Methodist. I have a feeling that there were many Methodists that participated in her "Underground Railroad."
About 1858 or 1859 The Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery. There was a bishop in the South whose wife owned slaves, and she was unwilling to free them. The bishop accepted that decision so the denomination became Methodist Episcopal North and Methodist Episcopal South. We did not reunite until 1939. However, even in our uniting, a system of segregation continued.
It is helpful to know and understand the organizational structure of the Methodist denomination so you can understand what happened in 1939. Our denomination is organized into geographic areas called Annual Conferences, Jurisdictions and one, worldwide General Conference. For instance, I Iive in the California-Pacific Annual Conference (Cal-Pac), which covers Southern CA, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa. Cal-Nevada is Northern CA and Nevada. The California-Pacific Annual Conference is also a part of the Western Jurisdiction. The Annual Conferences meet each year to do administrative work, set budgets and appoint ministers.
In the United States east of the Rockies, those Methodist Episcopal Churches whose members and clergy are African American were shut out of their geographic Annual Conference; all the African American Methodists formed what they called a Central Conference. I have not been able to find out if they were part of a Jurisdiction, or if they were shut out of that, too.
Every 4 years the General Conference meets. The General Conference includes delegates from around the world. There are Methodists in North America, South America, West and Eastern Europe (even in Russia), Asia and in every country of Africa.
In 1968 The Methodist Episcopal denomination merged with Evangelical United Brethren which was a German-speaking Methodist denomination. By 1968 those members were now fourth generation Germans and there was no longer a need to use the German language in the service. I also recall that the Evangelical United Brethren made it clear that they would not merge with the Methodist Episcopal denomination unless we dissolved the Central Conference. I am sure that was the desire of the majority of delegates. Thus, we became the United Methodist Church.
There still are churches that have a majority African American membership, but they are part of the Annual Conference, the Jurisdiction and the General Conference. We have many African American clergy (women and men) who serve in diverse churches and are also appointed District Superintendents and Bishops. Our Annual Conference has had one African American bishop and two Japanese bishops including the present one in our Cal-Pac Annual Conference.
There are three African American denominations that are Methodist, but are still separate from the United Methodists. These were organized before and after the Civil War. Some of us hoped they would unite with us in 1968. I think I understand some of their thinking. If they joined the larger denomination, they might feel they would be swallowed up and lose some of their identity. I still hope that someday they will become part of the UMC.
The General Conference is working hard to address the issue of racism in our country. We realize it is not just a personal problem; it is part of our culture, economy and public policy on the local, state and national level.
There are two programs being promoted by the General Conference. Resources may be found at United Methodists Stand Against Racism http://www.umc.org/EndRacism
and Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom.
I have never been able to understand if one calls oneself a Christian and especially a Methodist, how one could be a slave owner, but many of them were both, and I know there are still Methodists that don't accept the idea of systemic or cultural racism. The work of becoming antiracist is never done.
The opinions expressed on the PFJ blog are those of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the PFJ Board of Directors or its members.