For nearly 100 years, the Methodist Episcopal Church was divided into northern and southern wings. Sixteen years before the Southern states seceded, the Annual Conferences in the South withdrew from the denomination and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. What could have caused this split?
The short and answer is, the inability to find a compromise on the issue of slavery. From our earliest days, Methodists talked about slavery. John Wesley was a strong opponent, and as early as 1743, he had prohibited his followers from buying or selling the bodies and souls of men, women, and children with an intention to enslave them.
The 1784 Christmas Conference listed slaveholding as an offense for which one could be expelled. However, in a sign that the church would face conflicts over this issue, the 1785 General Conference suspended it. Methodists in SC and other states evangelized among the slaves, eventually appointing ministers to serve on the plantations. By 1795, according to Conference historian Dr. A.V. Huff, a number of South Carolina and Virginia ministers signed covenants not to hold slaves in any state where the law would allow them to manumit them, on pain of forfeiting their honor and their place in the itinerancy. If the state would not allow manumission, they agreed to pay the slave for his or her labor.
But Methodists struggled with how to square their denomination’s opposition to the peculiar institution in a country where slavery was legal, and in some parts of the country, widely supported. And after 1792, slavery began to grow more popular in the Deep South. The invention of the cotton gin suddenly made growing upland cotton more profitable, and it made more South Carolina farmers want more slaves to grow more cotton. The backcountry famers that the church wanted to attract suddenly became more supportive of the practice of slavery. As the church was hoping for emancipation, the society was growing more committed to slavery.
When copies of the General Conference’s 1800 “Affectionate Address on the Evils of Slavery” arrived in Charleston, a storm erupted. John Harper, who gave out copies, suddenly found himself targeted for spreading abolitionist propaganda. He escaped, but his colleague George Dougherty was nearly drowned under a pump. Asbury himself made a personal compromise. If it came to evangelizing the South or upholding the Wesleyan antislavery position, anti-slavery had to go. In 1804, he would not allow General Conference to take a stronger anti-slavery position. He allowed the printing of two Disciplines that year – one with the portion on slavery omitted for South Carolina. It was at the 1804 General Conference that Asbury reportedly said, “I am called to suffer for Christ’s sake, not for slavery.”
Several General Conferences struggled with the issue, first pressing traveling elders to emancipate their slaves, then suspending those rules in states where the laws did not permit manumission. By 1808, General Conference threw up its hands, finding the subject unmanageable, and gave each Annual Conference the right to enact its own rules relative to slaveholding.
The denomination remained divided on the subject of slavery, with some northern Methodists becoming more convinced of slavery’s evil and some southern Methodists more convinced that it was a positive good. Other southerners felt that any denunciation of slaveholding by Methodists would damage the church in the South. They were caught, in effect, between church rules and state laws. Eventually, the northern and southern branches of the denomination found they could no longer live together, and the church split, a schism that took almost a century to repair.