African-American History Methodist Uncategorized

Bishop James S. Thomas

Bishop James S. Thomas was one of South Carolina’s most significant contributions to the United Methodist Church. His pioneering work helped lead to the end of racial segregation in the church’s hierarchy.

Bishop James S. Thomas with Wofford President Paul Hardin III
Bishop James S. Thomas became the first African-American to receive an honorary doctorate from Wofford College on May 14, 1972.

Bishop Thomas was born a hundred years ago this spring, on April 9, 1919, in Orangeburg. His father, the Rev. James S. Thomas, Sr., was a clergyman serving there. Bishop Thomas enrolled at Claflin University, graduating in 1939 with a degree in sociology. He first became an educator, spending a year as a school principal in Florence County. However, he could not ignore his call to the ministry, and was ordained deacon and elder in subsequent years. He attended Gammon Theological Seminary and served the Orangeburg Circuit, and later, earned a master’s degree at Drew University.

Back in South Carolina, he served two years on the York Circuit, and was also a chaplain at South Carolina State College. From the local church, Bishop Thomas found a calling in higher education, going on to become a professor at Gammon Seminary. While there, he earned his PhD in sociology and anthropology at Cornell University. During part of his time at Gammon, he served as acting president of the seminary.

In 1953, he took a position as associate general secretary of the Methodist General Board of Education, with responsibilities for assisting and supporting the denomination’s historically black colleges. He served at the General Board for a dozen years, retaining his clergy membership in the South Carolina 1866 Conference.

During the 1950s, many Methodists began to question the bargain that had been struck during the reunification of the northern and southern branches of Methodism, the bargain that relegated African-American Methodists into the segregated Central Jurisdiction. As early as 1952, Methodists were arguing that “there is no place for racial discrimination or segregation in the Methodist Church.” In a painfully slow manner, Bishop Thomas was at the forefront of helping to dismantle segregation in the church.

Though the Central Jurisdiction still existed in 1964, Thomas was elected to the episcopacy by the North Central Jurisdiction. He became the youngest Methodist bishop at the time of his election. He was assigned to the Iowa Area, one of the largest annual conferences in the denomination, where he served until 1976. During that twelve years, the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church created the United Methodist Church, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished, and former African-American conferences throughout the country merged into integrated conferences. During that twelve years, Bishop Thomas became president of the Council of Bishops, served as chair of the social principles study commission, and delivered the principal episcopal address in 1976. In 1972, in fact, three native South Carolinians played leading roles in General Conference, one of them being Bishop Thomas.

Claflin remained dear to his heart, and he helped the university raise funds on numerous occasions. A long-time trustee, he chaired the board and was inducted into the Claflin hall of fame. He also received honors from colleges across the Midwest, including Ohio Wesleyan, Iowa Wesleyan, and DePauw, and in South Carolina, both Claflin and Wofford conferred honorary doctorates on him. He was the first African-American to receive an honorary degree from Wofford in 1972.

In 1976, he was appointed to the East Ohio Conference, where he served until retirement in 1988. He continued his ministry as a bishop in residence at Emory and at Clark Atlanta, and continued his work of mentoring and teaching until his death in 2010 at age 91.

African-American History

History and the 1866 Conference


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.

African-American History Methodist

Methodists and Race in South Carolina

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.


African-American History Methodist

South Carolina Methodists and the A. M. E. Church

This was my column in the SC United Methodist Advocate for August 2015.

The murder of nine worshipers at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church has dominated the news in South Carolina this summer, and we Methodists have shared in sorrow and outrage with our fellow Carolinians.

A. M. E. stands for African Methodist Episcopal, which should suggest to Methodists that the two denominations are related. In fact, when it was founded, the American Methodist denomination was called the Methodist Episcopal Church. So it isn’t hard to see that our brothers and sisters in the A. M. E. Church share the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition with United Methodists.

But how did the A. M. E. Church come to be, and what connection do we share? Answering that question requires looking into the early history of Methodism, and especially into Charleston Methodism. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, black and white Methodists worshiped together. By 1815, Charleston’s quarterly conference reported fewer than 300 white members and over 3,800 African-American members, including slaves and free persons. In its earliest years, Methodism took a strong anti-slavery position, though this brought Bishop Francis Asbury and the clergy into increasing conflict with the state’s political leadership and planter class. Mobs threatened and even assaulted clergy, particularly when they believed them to be preaching or distributing anti-slavery literature. In 1800, the General Assembly moved to limit assemblies of African-Americans, slave or free. The law, noted one white clergyman, was really directed at the Methodists. Ultimately, when forced to decide between the Wesleyan position against slavery or spreading the gospel, the church abandoned its anti-slavery position.

In Charleston, most black Methodists worshiped at Bethel and two other churches, with separate classes, leaders, and stewards. They even reported to a separate quarterly conference (what we now call a charge conference). Around 1815, white leaders moved to take control of financial and disciplinary matters. Many of the earlier histories, such as Francis Asbury Mood’s Methodism in Charleston, claimed that the finances showed evidence of corruption, though it’s more than a little possible that the coffers of the black quarterly conference simply were deeper as their numbers were larger. Along with their relegation to the balconies of the churches, this loss of influence and leadership in the church angered Charleston’s black Methodists. Such was their disappointment that they began making plans both to leave the denomination and to attempt to gain legal control over Bethel’s property. Two free black Methodist local pastors traveled secretly to Philadelphia and were ordained deacons in the A. M. E. church.

In Philadelphia, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church had been founded by Rev. Richard Allen under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church by 1794. At this point, they were still Methodist, and relied on white elders to serve communion. Allen, who had been born into slavery in Delaware, had purchased his freedom in 1780 and was present at the 1784 Christmas Conference, though the conference denied him a vote. He served in the free black community of Philadelphia, but again finding Methodism’s treatment of its African-American members unequal, began planning to leave. Some congregants followed Allen in 1816 into the A. M. E. Church, the first fully independent black denomination in the United States, with Allen as their bishop. The A. M. E.’s church structure is remarkably similar to that of the United Methodist Church, with General and Annual conferences, bishops, and a judicial council.

After the trustees of Bethel in 1818 decided to build a structure on the part of the church cemetery reserved for black members, and ignored their protests, the black members withdrew. Some 4,300 members in the three churches left to form the African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Charleston, led by Rev. Morris Brown, who had been ordained by Allen. Their absence from Charleston’s Methodist churches was obvious to everyone. Within a matter of years, the “African Church” in Charleston became implicated in Denmark Vesey’s abortive insurrection, as he had been a class leader at Bethel and then at the new church. The church was destroyed by angry whites, largely forcing the congregation underground until the end of the Civil War. But they could not extinguish its flame.

African-American History Methodist

Selma, fifty years ago

This was my Advocate column for March 2015.  

Fifty years ago this month, a group of civil rights protesters met Alabama state and local lawmen on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The protesters were beginning a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for African-Americans in Alabama and much of the rest of the South. A recent movie, Selma, has brought new attention to the events surrounding what came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” and no doubt there will be other remembrances of those events in coming weeks.
Advocate editor Rev. McKay Brabham wrote a long and thoughtful piece in the March 18, 1965 Advocate about the events of March 7 and the following days. Here are some excerpts.

“No mistake should be made at this point: The Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. is every bit the potent pressure group its friends or critics claim that it is. Certainly its impact upon the President of the United States must be recognized as formidable if the Commission is given its share of credit, as it should be, for his presence before the Congress last Monday evening.

“…It was clear from the meeting last Friday in the Lutheran Church of The Reformation that the skilled and dedicated leadership of the commission is committed without question to absolute equality before the law for all people. It is also evident that the Commission’s leaders are equally willing to take the word of Dr. Martin Luther King and those associated with him as to legal or other strategic means for achieving it. The Commission operates under a mandate from the General Board given in 1963, ‘to do everything possible by Christian, non-violent means to work for the achievement of racial justice in the nation.’

“Those Christians who seek to maintain a concern for all of God’s children – of all colors – must reckon with this fact in their efforts to exercise the force of reconciliation in our time. Without an understanding of its emotional impact and its power over men’s minds and wills, they stand to be ready victims of traps such as enmeshed the police of Alabama at Selma when their unleashed brutality provided the springboard for Selma’s dive into world history.

“Selma did provide an occasion for real heroism and spiritual power, according to what we could learn from those who had gone there on Monday and Tuesday, and who shared the fears of the Negro community. The listener did not have to agree with the tactics to appreciate the response of faith on the part of those who felt called to witness in Selma.

African-American History Methodist

The 1866 Conference

This was my column in the SC United Methodist Advocate for February 2015

150 years ago this month, the Union Army, fresh from its march across Georgia and its capture of Savannah, set out to march across South Carolina. In February 1865, on a cold and very windy night, much of Columbia burned. (I don’t want to start an argument about who did what, but it’s safe to say that General Sherman’s army was there and the city was burned and leave it at that!) Sherman’s march across the middle of the state left an indelible mark on South Carolina. The Civil War, which started in Charleston Harbor four years earlier, had come home to the Palmetto State, and nothing would ever be quite the same.

The Union Army’s arrival and the end of the Civil War signaled something else for the majority of South Carolinians: freedom. The end of the war brought reality to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and as a result, those held in slavery found themselves free. These newly-free persons sought to form separate institutions, including churches, where they could be independent of their former masters.

Churches, naturally, were high on the list. Methodist missionaries had worked among the slaves throughout the antebellum era, and the Northern branch of Methodism had also sent missionaries to work in the Sea Islands, which came under Federal control early in the war. So, the work of founding a new Annual Conference was well underway by the summer and fall of 1865. Though many white South Carolinians expected to return to something resembling the social and religious system from before the war, African-American South Carolinians were not interested in returning to sit in the church balconies. With the support of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a missionary Annual Conference convened on April 2, 1866 under the leadership of Bishop Osman C. Baker. The previous General Conference had authorized creating missionary conferences in the former Confederacy as the need arose, and the first members of the conference were the northern mission workers. On its first day, that conference admitted five African-American members.

The need for some 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. The conference boundaries included South Carolina, eastern Georgia, and Florida. Just three years hence, the conference established a university, and clergy members Willard Lewis and Alonzo Webster purchased the property in Orangeburg. The funds for the new university came from Lee Claflin and his son, Massachusetts Governor William Claflin, and the university bears their name. In 1870, the South Carolina Conference met there.

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. Born out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the 1866 Conference became the backbone of African-American Methodism in South Carolina, and its heritage lives on in the modern-day South Carolina Annual Conference.

African-American History Brushes with History

Fifty Years Ago

History happens on ordinary days.

Most of the time, we don’t know when we get up in the morning that something earth-shaking is going to happen during the day.  And that’s certainly how it must have been fifty years ago today, on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  And as I sit in my office this afternoon and watch the CBS News coverage unfold as the nation watched on that day, it’s essentially like watching the first draft of that story being written.  (Since we have the advantage of history, we know that they got some things wrong in that chaotic first hour.)

This post, however, isn’t quite going to be about what you thought. Instead, I want to mention an event that happened at the same time here at the college.

On November 22, 1963, a meeting took place in the board room at Wofford College.  The meeting convened at 2:00 PM, just as those attending would have been hearing the first word of the shocking news from Dallas.  Gathering that afternoon were a members of Wofford’s board of trustees who were members of a special committee appointed to consider the college’s desegregation.  The board had heard a report from President Charles F. Marsh on October 7 about desegregation, a report that listed the possible outcomes of a decision to admit African-American students and a decision not to admit African-American students.  The meeting lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes, and though it took no formal action, laid the groundwork for the board’s vote in May.

The committee, as the minutes note, had an exchange of views, and directed the chair to contact the chairs of the boards of trustees and the presidents of both Columbia College and Spartanburg Junior College.  No doubt they felt it was courteous to let the other Methodist colleges in the state know that they were deliberating a monumental change in the college’s admissions policy.  The minutes do not say this, but they must have also asked the president to ask the faculty for input, as a few days later, Dr. Marsh shared his confidential memorandum with them and asked them to share their thoughts with him or the committee.  The committee agreed to meet again on January 9, at which point they would have further discussions and reach a decision.

History is made in large and small ways, in planned and unplanned moments.  I wish somebody had recorded the other conversations that were going on in the board room while the trustees considered a change that would have such a strong effect on life at Wofford.

African-American History Current Affairs Documents

Wofford’s Desegregation Decade

A newspaper clipping announcing Wofford’s decision to desegregate

Let me take a moment of personal privilege to talk about an exhibit that the library has mounted in the Chapman Gallery on the Wofford campus this past month.  In February, we put together an exhibit on Wofford’s Desegregation Decade in which we examined the decision to admit African-American students to the college in 1964.  The exhibit also looks at the first African-American students and graduates and at some of their activities at the college.

The exhibit will be up until next Thursday, March 28.  So, if you haven’t been through the Campus Life Building, stop in and see some of Wofford’s recent history.

The images come from archival collections, including the papers of President Charles F. Marsh, from clipping files, and from copies of the Bohemian.  College photographer and graphic designer extraordinare Mark Olencki designed the panels from materials the archives provided.  Here are a few of the images from the exhibit.

African-American History Brushes with History Methodist

How the Methodist Church split in the 1840s

This column appears in the February 2013 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate.  I thought that sharing some information about why the Methodist Church split before the Civil War would be interesting.  

Bishop William Capers of South Carolina

For nearly 100 years, the Methodist Episcopal Church was divided into northern and southern wings.  Sixteen years before the southern states seceded, the southern Annual Conferences withdrew from the denomination and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  What could have caused such a split?

From its earliest days, Methodists debated the issue of slavery.  More precisely, they tried to decide what relationship the church should have to the peculiar institution in a country where slavery was legal, and in some parts of the country, widely supported.  Methodist conferences even before the first General Conference spoke out against slavery, suggesting that clergy who held slaves should promise to set them free.  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.

The spark that caused the division came when Bishop James O. Andrew, a native and resident of Georgia and a former member of the South Carolina Annual Conference, married a woman who had inherited slaves from her late husband.  Many northern Methodists were appalled that someone with the responsibilities of a general superintendent of the church could also own slaves.  This was the main topic of debate when the General Conference convened in New York City on May 1, 1844.  The six week session would be the longest General Conference in Methodist history.

Bishop Andrew learned of the impending conflict as he traveled to New York, and he resolved to resign from the episcopacy.  However, the southern delegates persuaded Andrew that his resignation would “inflict an incurable wound on the whole South and inevitably lead to division in the church.”  When the conference convened, Bishop Andrew was asked for information on his connection with slavery.

Bishop Andrew explained that first, he had inherited a slave from a woman in Augusta, Georgia, who had asked him to care for her until she turned nineteen, and then emancipate her and send her to Liberia, and if she declined to go, then he should make her “as free as the laws of Georgia would permit.”  The young woman refused to go, so she lived in her own home on his lot and was free to go to the North if she wished, but until then she was legally his slave.  He also inherited a slave through his first wife who would also be free to leave whenever he was able to provide for himself.  Finally, his second wife brought slaves to the marriage, but he disclaimed ownership of them.  “I have neither bought nor sold a slave,” he told the General Conference, “and in the state where I am legally a slaveholder, emancipation is impracticable.”

A group of northern delegates proposed a resolution that the bishop was “hereby affectionately asked to resign.”  Some took the position that the bishops were officers elected by the General Conference and could be asked to resign or deposed by majority vote.  Others took the view that it was a constitutional office and bishops could be removed only by judicial process.  A substitute resolution by one of the bishop’s friends, an Ohioan, asked the bishop to desist from exercising his office as long as he was a slaveholder.  After a 12-day debate, other efforts at compromise, including one that would have allowed Andrew to serve wherever he would be welcomed, failed when it became apparent that the New England conferences would secede if it passed.  One of the prominent speakers in the debate was William Capers, who was the leader of South Carolina’s delegation and a future bishop.

The motion asking Andrew to desist from serving as a bishop ultimately passed, 111-69.  General Conference then worked through the beginnings of a plan of separation.  Annual Conferences throughout the South sent delegates to a convention in Louisville in May 1845, where they formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  For the next 94 years, the two strands of the Methodist Episcopal Church operated separately.  Their separation was one of the turning points on the road to the Civil War, for the Methodist Church was one of several national churches and institutions that broke apart because it could not withstand the growing tensions surrounding the divisive issue of slavery.

African-American History Documents

See it while you still can!

This is the final week for the "African-American Experience from Slavery to Freedom" exhibit here in the library.  The exhibit, which has been in the gallery since early February, has brought together documents from special collections, the Littlejohn Collection, the college archives, and the Methodist archives.  We've tried to show some books, papers, letters, and photographs that tell us something about the experience of slavery and life after emancipation.  

I've previously blogged about some of the items in the collection.  Those items would include the Letter from George Washington Carver to Dr. Henry Nelson Snyder, which gives evidence that the noted African-American educator spoke at Wofford during the height of the era of segregation.  There's no evidence in the local press of this talk, so it's hard to know how the community or campus reacted other than what's said in the two letters.  

An important development in the years after Emancipation was the growth of black churches.  Silver Hill Methodist Church, in Spartanburg, was an early black Methodist church, and we've put up a picture of their founding minister, Rev. James Rosemond.  In an earlier post, I shared other images – one in particular of a receipt for the purchase of a slave by Wofford Professor James Carlisle.  

As part of the exhibit, we hosted three well-attended lectures, one by Dr. Phil Racine, one by Dr. Denise Frazier, and one by Dr. Tracy Revels.  I hope these will be available for us to share with a wider audience soon.  

Special Collections Librarian Luke Meagher, Dean of the Library Oakley Coburn, and I all put a lot of thought and planning into the exhibit, and college photographer Mark Olencki turned the images into very attractive posters during a very hectic month.  If you're around this week, come by and see it before the images disappear back into special collections.