Methodist Reunification

A few months ago, I wrote about the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern branches.  Since we’re members of the United Methodist Church today, we know that at some point, we got back together.  When did that happen?

The northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church, along with the Methodist Protestant Church, joined together to create The Methodist Church in 1939 at a uniting General Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.  Reunification came about after two generations of movement in that direction, and several South Carolina Methodists were instrumental in that movement.  Dr. Henry Nelson Snyder, Wofford’s president from 1902 to 1942, was a member of the reunification commission that first convened in 1916.

The division in the church had occurred in the generation before the American Civil War, and in the generation following the war, Methodists on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line began reaching out to each other.  They recognized that they shared a common tradition and knew that good relations between the two denominations would have to grow before any further steps toward cooperation might ever happen.  Beginning in the late 1870s, some sixty years before formal union, the two churches were sending fraternal delegates to each other’s General Conference.  By the 1890s, the two churches were willing to create a joint commission on federation, though they were still far from any plan of union.  The joint commission looked for and found areas where the two denominations could work together, such as on publishing and on foreign missions.  Tensions still existed, however, as both churches were seeking new members in the western states. At a major conference in 1910, delegates from all three denominations agreed to study a union of the churches, not simply a federation.

The thorny American problem of race relations, however, reared its head, and a proposal coming out of this group would have placed all of the African-American members of the new denomination into a separate “Quadrennial Conference” as the regional bodies we now know as jurisdictions were tentatively named.

By 1916, the commission on federation became a joint commission on unification, with a goal of creating a new denomination.  It met some six times in the next 3 years to perfect a plan of union.  Still, the role and treatment of African-American members was of primary concern to the southern delegates.  And, the churches early on decided on the need for an independent judicial council, for whereas the southern church relied on the college of bishops as the final arbiter of the church constitution, the northern church relied on the General Conference to hold that role. By 1920, a new constitution had been proposed, both General Conferences had considered it, and in 1924, both General Conferences approved it and submitted it to the annual conferences for approval.  It required a ¾ vote of all of the southern annual conferences to go into effect.

However, many southern Methodists objected to unification in the mid-1920s, fearing integration, social liberalism, loss of control of the church, loss of identity, and even that northern ministers would come South and take all of the better appointments!  When the votes of the annual conferences were tallied, a majority had approved, but nowhere near the ¾ majority required.

This proved to be only a temporary setback.  Several powerful bishops had opposed the plan, as had many members of the laity.  But, Methodist young people were strong supporters of church union.  By 1935, all three denominations were using the same hymnal, one that the three denominations had worked to develop.  The churches agreed on the jurisdictional system as the basis for uniting the church, and they also agreed on the need for equal representation of the laity and clergy in each annual conference.  In 1936, the General Conferences of the Methodist Protestant and Methodist Episcopal churches approved the plan of union, and their annual conferences moved quickly to ratify.  In the South, the annual conferences acted first, and about 86% of the members of the conferences approved.  Approval of the southern General Conference was almost a foregone conclusion in 1938.  The Uniting General Conference convened on April 26, 1939.

Reunification, however, brought about some unwelcome compromises.  African-American Methodists were placed into a segregated Central Jurisdiction, and as such, the South Carolina Conference (1866) became the South Carolina Conference, Central Jurisdiction, with bishops elected by that jurisdiction.  The jurisdictional conference itself was the compromise that brought about reunification, as many southerners wanted bishops to be selected within each region.  The Central Jurisdiction existed until it was abolished in 1968, which was the same time that the United Methodist Church was created.

By Phillip Stone

I've been the archivist of Wofford College and the South Carolina United Methodist since 1999. I'll be sharing college, Methodist, and local history, documents, photographs, and other interesting stories on this blog, which I've been keeping since December 2007.