By 1820 America had expanded from the original thirteen to twenty-two states, eleven of them banning slavery within their borders and eleven permitting it. Congress preserved the uneasy balance with the Missouri Compromise of that year, linking the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state in order to maintain equal voting strength for the two sides in the Senate.1
Chapter 2 explores a pivotal point in American history. It was a time that would prove equally critical in the life of the Methodist movement. Three options existed. Methodists could: 1) support slavery; 2) oppose slavery, but in a way that called for progressive reform; or, 3) oppose slavery by taking a clear and decisive stand against what John Wesley had once described as “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.”
Methodism, at least as it found its expression in England, “had a heritage of antislavery reform.”2 Wesley delivered anti-slavery sermons, more than a few of them in Bristol, a hub for slave-trading activity. A week before his death Wesley wrote a letter to William Wilberforce encouraging him to campaign for the abolition of slavery.
American Methodists were, however, divided on the issue. Following in their founder’s footsteps American Methodists “incorporated antislavery sentiments into its earliest regulations.”3 It would not take long for resistance to arise. Southern Methodists expressed concern, going so far as to suggest that members and local congregations may leave the fledgling denomination over such a stance. Within a few months the denomination’s leaders would bow to the pressure, reversing the antislavery stance.4
Many years of dissension and division would follow. In 1804, two versions of the Discipline were made available. One copy, containing the antislavery sentiments, was made available for most of the church; and another copy, with the antislavery sentiments stricken, was available for the states south of Virginia.5 At the 1836 general conference, Methodist abolitionists caused such an uproar that even the bishops made it clear that they were unwelcome at the conference.6 One abolitionist, Orange Scott, would cause such an uproar that he “was informed that he could not continue as a presiding elder unless he would agree to refrain from speaking or writing on abolitionism.”7 Scott would not back down, however. As Black and Drury note, “His response was to serve [a small] church so well that it experience unprecedented growth and within a year had added 120 to its membership rolls.”8
On November 8, 1842, things would finally come to a head. Orange Scott, LaRoy Sunderland and Jotham Horton announced their intent to withdraw from the denomination over the issue of slavery.9 Bolstered by congregations in Ohio, New York and Michigan the group would hold its first meeting in Andover, Massachusetts, making plans at that meeting for a second convention, which was to be held in Utica, New York, for the expressed purpose of “organizing the new denomination.”10 They would call themselves “The Wesleyan Methodist Church” and have as their denominational publication The True Wesleyan.
- American Methodism, true to its British roots, was a lightning rod for radicals. These folks were not only radical in their theology –– proclaiming a message of holiness/sanctification –– they were radical and called for the reform of society.
- Those who endeavored to bring reform within the church, ended up on the outside looking in.
- I’m proud of the fact that Wesleyan-Methodists have a long history of standing for the dignity and rights of others, even when it has not been a favorable position to hold.
- Church polity and policy reflect the fact that many changes were reactionary in nature.
- Numerical increases can too easily be perceived as a sign of blessing.
- Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012), 24. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 25. ↩
- During this season the church continued to grow. The denomination appeared to be enjoying showers of blessing from Almighty God. Numerical increase, plus the biblical call for unity led many to believe that compromise was not only permissible but a decision that clearly resulted in God’s blessing. ↩
- Black and Drury, 26. ↩
- Ibid., 27. ↩
- Ibid., 28. ↩
- Ibid., 29. As pastors know all-to-well, numbers speak. Increases in attendance and membership tend to get ‘superiors’/bishops to look the other way. ↩
- Ibid., 30. ↩
- Ibid., 32. ↩