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Methodists and Race in South Carolina

Written By: Phillip Stone - Feb• 01•16

This was my column in the February 2016 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate

Methodists, like any other group with a long history in South Carolina, have had to face questions of race and relations between African-American and white church members throughout our history.  Over the next few years, a number of anniversaries will give us ample opportunities to talk more about these questions as well as the ways we have evolved into the conference we are today.

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of what has been historically known as the South Carolina Annual Conference (1866), the conference established by the northern branch of Methodism to minister to African-Americans in the Palmetto State.  The General Conference in 1864 had authorized creating missionary conferences in the former Confederacy, and it was under this authority that a missionary Annual Conference convened on April 2, 1866 under the leadership of Bishop Osman C. Baker.  Its first members of the conference were the northern missionary clergy, but on its first day, that conference admitted five African-American members.  From that beginning came a century’s work in church building, education, and outreach in South Carolina.

The need for ministerial education was immediately recognized, and the Baker Theological Institute was organized in Charleston.  Dozens of men attended the institute for further ministerial study, and over the next few years, they were ordained into the ministry and joined the South Carolina Conference.  Three years later, the conference established a university, the funds for which came from Lee Claflin and his son, Massachusetts Governor William Claflin.  In 1870, the South Carolina Conference met at Claflin University. Claflin and the Conference became almost one and the same over the next decades.  The state’s African-American Methodist clergy were educated there, as were teachers for the state’s African-American schools.  Those individuals spread out throughout the state, founding churches in communities far and wide.

During the period from 1866 to 1939, the two South Carolina Conferences, with their founding dates of 1785 and 1866, were technically part of two different denominations.  They knew each other existed and even shared a common tradition, but they had separate ecclesiastical structures, different bishops, and different Books of Discipline.

Much of that changed in 1939, when the three branches of American Methodism, after being divided for close to a century, and after two decades of negotiations, formally reunified into the Methodist Church.  But, merger did not happen at the conference level, and as a compromise, the jurisdictions were created.  African-American Methodists were placed into a racially-segregated Central Jurisdiction, and as such, South Carolina’s white and African American Methodists remained in separate Annual Conferences with separate bishops.  Movements in the Methodist Church throughout the 1950s and 1960s sought to eliminate the Central Jurisdiction, and much of the turmoil in South Carolina Methodism 50 years ago revolved around how to resolve these issues.  We’ll look at some of those questions over the next few months.

 

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