Next year, 2016, is the next quadrennial session of the worldwide United Methodist General Conference. It will be held in Portland, Oregon. Because of a schism that took place in 1830 and saw the separation of what became The Methodist Protestant Church – a schism over the lack of inclusion of laity in the Annual and General Conferences — the membership of the 2016 General Conference will be half lay, half clergy. The response of the church to issues involving human sexuality, i.e., gay marriage, are expected to figure prominently on the agenda. To be discussed are several proposals ranging from removal of the prohibition for gay marriage to outright schism. As you can see already, it won’t be the first time schism has been threatened in the Methodist Church.
In 1779, in defiance of the-still-in-hiding Francis Asbury — who led his own conference — in Fluvanna, VA, the Methodist Annual Conference voted to separate from Anglicanism. This was a BIG move, but totally in keeping with the spirit of the Revolution that was still going on. Despite its earlier pledge of loyalty to Wesley, the American Methodists voted to separate from his Anglican church. It also voted to ordain its lay preachers, and the conference assumed sacramental authority.
This effectively was the first schism, yielding a northern and a southern conference. Asbury “was not amused.” A year later, in the 1780 conference, Asbury made sure to attend. He was still loyal to Wesley, and he reasserted control.
This Annual Conference was held in Baltimore at the new Lovely Lane Chapel. It represented the “southern” conference only by a disciplinary action: “Quest. 20. Does this whole conference disapprove the step our brethren have taken in Virginia? Answ. Yes.” And then, “Quest. 21. Do we look upon them no longer as Methodists in connection with Mr. Wesley and us till they come back? Answ. Agreed.”
Eventually, when Asbury and a contingent travelled to meet with the southerners, the breach was healed. As an indication of the influence Asbury wielded, the southern Methodists capitulated, agreed to reunite, suspended the sacraments, accept Asbury’s itinerating general superintendency, and wrote Wesley “a circumstantial letter.”
In addition to its disfellowshiping of the southerners, the 1780 Asburian conference took several other actions of note. In particular, it took forceful stands on slavery: “Quest. Does this conference acknowledge that slave-keeping is contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion, and doing that which we would not others should do to us and ours?— Do we pass our disapprobation on all our friends who keep slaves, and advise their freedom? Answ. Yes.” The conference required “those travelling Preachers who hold slaves to give promises, to set them free” adding in one version of the Minutes “on pain of future exclusion.”
The conference balanced this remarkable antislavery commitment with troubling concessions to racism, a foreshadowing of future conferences which would turn away from the clear condemnation of slavery. It specified that gatherings of African Americans should be presided over by a “helper” or “proper white person” and that “the Negroes” not be permitted “to stay late or meet by themselves.” The preachers in conference obviously did not foresee or desire the emergence of Black leadership beyond limited levels or imagine themselves and the laity trusting it. Methodists would live in this ambiguity until the 1970s when the African American central conferences were final disbanded.
As 1780 dawned, with the arrival of the half-way point in the Revolutionary War, despite disruption caused by the war, continued persecution, and the after-effects of internal discord, Jesse Lee reported “a gracious revival of religion in many places,” especially on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Again, in 1781, he noted revival there and a “blessed revival of religion” in Virginia and parts of North Carolina. The engines of revival were the quarterly meetings, classes, family religion, and personal discipline of Methodism.
And the results showed, despite the war turmoil, in the growth of the small movement: nearly doubling from 6,968 in 1777 to 13,740 in 1783.
In our next post, we’ll look at the aftermath of the war. America was now an independent nation. Were the Methodists still part of the British Anglican church? Or were they, too, separate? But they had no ordained clergy of their own. Once again, the American Methodist church, now clearly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, awaited word from Mr. Wesley on what to do.
(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)