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History and the 1866 Conference

Written By: Phillip Stone - Feb• 02•18

 

This was my column in the February 2018 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate

One great resource for the history of the Annual Conference, and particularly for African American churches, is the book Passionate Journey: History of the 1866 South Carolina Annual Conference. This book, by the Rev. John W. Curry, a long-time member of the 1866 Conference, tells the story of the founding of that Conference in the aftermath of the Civil War and emancipation, but it also talks about how it grew and evolved into a strong force.

The book does not dwell in the far past, but does discuss the conference’s early leadership and its challenges. Some of its initial leaders were white northern clergy who came to South Carolina to help re-establish the Methodist Episcopal Church in the state. Within a few years, most of these clergy gave way to native-born African American leaders, though the conference had white presiding elders as late as 1884. The first African American bishop to preside over the 1866 Conference was R. E. Jones in 1926. After the 1939 reunification of Methodism and the creation of the segregated Central Jurisdiction, all of the Conference’s bishops were African-American until the last quadrennium before merger. Those early leaders worked under difficult circumstances, as white Carolinians were resistant to the changes taking place around them. The Rev. B. F. Randolph was assassinated in October 1869. Rev. Thomas Wright of York was attacked in his home. Rev. J. R. Rosemond was unable to serve many of his rural Spartanburg congregations during 1870 and 1871.

Importantly for local churches that are seeking information about their early history, the book provides brief sketches of many early clergy leaders in the conference. These clergy were often instrumental in founding or leading some of the older churches in the conference. The book also contains sketches of some of the earliest congregations, including Centenary, Wesley, and Old Bethel in Charleston, Trinity Orangeburg and Trinity Camden, Cumberland in Florence, John Wesley in Greenville, Wesley in Columbia, Silver Hill in Spartanburg, Thompson Centennial in Anderson, and Emmanuel in Sumter.

The work of women’s organizations in the Conference makes up one chapter, with a focus on the various missionary outreach activities. Plans in the 1890s for an orphanage did not materialize, though education remained an important focus. Missionaries to Africa were sent in 1906 and 1907, and the Home Missionary Society was organized in 1910. As early as 1920, lay women were elected to represent the Conference at General Conference. During the 1920s, one woman, Rev. Minnie Berry, was licensed as a local pastor and later ordained deacon.

Rev. Curry’s book has good information about the 1866 Conference’s role in the modern Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. In particular, Rev. Curry focused on the role played in Orangeburg by Trinity Church and the ways in which members of the congregation supported the movement. The book also focuses on material that will be helpful to historians today as we work on remembering the 50th anniversary of the merger of the two conferences into the present South Carolina Annual Conference.

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