General Conference of 1792

General Conference of 1792
General Conference of 1792

It seems like forever since I did an update to our ongoing story of early American Methodism! During our trip this fall, among the Methodist historic sites we will visit are the two oldest, continuously operating Methodist churches – John Street in New York City and St. Georges in Philadelphia. Both have been in the contemporary news lately and I paused to post about them. First, I posted an article regarding the coming together of the Episcopalians and United Methodists at John Street UMC in March for a joint service of Holy Communion. And yesterday, the Methodist Roots of Mother’s Day, which included a stop at Old St. Georges.

And, once again, I’ve been away for a few days. I was in Lakeland, Florida, this week for a meeting of 2nd chair leaders (executive pastors and executive directors) of large United Methodist churches.

But now, “back to our story.”

After the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in December, 1784, Methodism still needed connectional administrative, policy-making, and legislative authority. So the first General Conference of all the traveling preachers was called and met once again in Baltimore, November 1–15, 1792.

Book_DoctrinesAndDiscipline_CME_1874.jpgUnfortunately, no journal or minutes from this first General Conference survives. However, it did leave its record in the Book of Discipline, which it revised. Perhaps most important, it gave itself legislative power for the church, established itself as a permanent body, to convene again in four years (from which the very Methodist term “quadrennium” derives), “to which, all the preachers in full connection were at liberty to come.” The General Conference has been meeting every four years since. The next one is next year, 2016. Except now, the General Conference consists of about 1,000 delegates, half lay, and half clergy. How we got THERE, with full inclusion of the laity, is further along in our story.

Rev. James O'Kelly
Rev. James O’Kelly

The 1792 General Conference clearly worried some over the power it was lodging in the presiding eldership (district superintendents), for it limited the term of presiding elders in one place to four years (it is six years today). Perhaps motivating limitations on the presiding eldership were the political machinations and intense criticisms of the bishops by the presiding elder from the Virginia–North Carolina border, James O’Kelly. Here’s a name every Methodist history nerd should know – James O’Kelly – hero to every Methodist preacher who feels abused by the appointment system.

The second day of General Conference, O’Kelly placed a motion on the floor giving preachers who thought themselves “injured” by the bishop’s appointment the “liberty to appeal to the conference” and the right, if the appeal was sustained, to another appointment. This was a direct attack on the authority of the bishop. Despite the lack of any official minutes of the Conference, the tenor and intemperate tone of the “long” debate can be discerned in O’Kelly’s account of the event.

O’Kelly appealed to the ideology of republicanism— the rhetoric of the Revolution, of American liberty, of democracy. This republican imagery made considerable sense to some Methodist preachers. Should not an American church conduct itself along American principles? Had they not been injured by appointments? (Many preachers today feel the same way!!) Did not Coke and Asbury connive to increase their power? Had not the preachers been obliged to check episcopal tyranny already? Were not the preachers’ liberties in danger? Would it not be better safeguarded in conference rather than episcopal hands?

However, intemperately defended, O’Kelly’s motion failed. After the vote, James O’Kelly walked out with a party of supporters to form a rival Methodist movement – O’Kelly’s schism was the first of what would be many schisms in the American Methodist movement. Called the Republican Methodists, O’Kelly’s new church had considerable appeal, especially in lower Virginia and upper North Carolina, which is where O’Kelly’s district was located. Through more than a century of schisms and reunifications, the remnants of O’Kelly’s movement finds itself today in the Churches of Christ circle.

For a time the Methodist Episcopal Church seemed to be coming apart at the seams, barely a decade into its existence. O’Kelly’s movement proposed a polity protective of liberty, grounded in Scripture alone, and explicitly antislavery as O’Kelly explained in his apologetic writings. Also in 1792, William Hammett was in the process of drawing off Charleston Methodists into a church committed to following Wesley’s primitive Methodism, taking that as its name, and criticizing Coke and Asbury. (Interestingly, after John Wesley’s death, a British Methodist movement emerged in England by that same name, Primitive Methodists. I had the privilege of preaching in one of their churches during our trip to England in 2011.)

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

In the same time frame, Black Methodists under Richard Allen took important steps along the way toward independence, walking out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (which we will visit) and establishing Bethel Church as an African congregation. Allen, and those who followed him out, believed the way Black Methodists were treated at St. George’s – forced to sit in the back of the church – was not consistent with either Methodist beliefs or the gospel.

Not all Black Methodists in Philadelphia followed Allen into Mother Bethel Church, however. A small group decided to give mother Methodism a little more time to treat them with dignity and respect and organized in 1794 as African Zoar.

Both the Allen movement and the Republican Methodists held up Methodism’s antislavery banner, championed liberty, and called for a more democratic church. These issues would not go away, and the schisms cost the MEC some of its most fervent opponents of slavery, most articulate exponents of liberty, and its most egalitarian spirits. Historian William Warren Sweet estimates that the overall losses suffered by the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1790s to the Republicans, to William Hammett, to Richard Allen’s Black Methodists movement, and to other causes amounted to some 10,000— roughly 20 percent of the membership total.

Unfortunately, these schisms would not be the last, nor the most damaging.

Next time, we look at how Methodism contributed to a new phenomenon not known in the churches of Europe – denominationalism.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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