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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.

 

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Documents Methodist

The end of World War II, 70 years later

Seventy years ago this month, World War II came to an end. After six years of fighting (more than that if you include wars in China and Spain that many historians consider precursors of the full-blown war) and the loss of at least sixty million lives, the world entered into an uncertain and exhausted peace.

How did South Carolina Methodists react? The Advocate’s editor put it this way: “So this is victory? It is a victory with the edge knocked off. There is no celebration. No one feels like celebrating. Those of us with sons or daughters or close relatives in uniform are wonderfully relieved that these are safe from the uncertainties of battle or prison life and rejoice at the prospect of having them home. But as for celebrating a victory, significant as it is, the disposition is not in us. A dirty, nasty job came our way, and we did it. Now we feel like nothing so much as a good bath.”

The Advocate often carried letters from clergy serving as chaplains in various parts of the world. Chaplain Charles Brockwell of the Upper South Carolina Conference wrote of preaching in Australia, and in the September 6 issue, of building a chapel and presiding over an Easter service on an unidentified South Pacific island.

The Advocate carried a letter from a German Methodist bishop to the Methodist Board of Missions that was the first such communication in over four years. The letter described the condition of the Methodist Church in Germany, news of the destruction of many Methodist churches in and around Berlin, and of the deaths of many Methodists in air raids. The German bishop painted a bleak picture, with the potential for mass starvation in the upcoming winter, of refugees fleeing in the face of the Soviet Army, and of the loss of most of their savings with the collapse of the German government. However, he noted that in parts of the country, churches had survived and presented an opportunity to rebuild German Methodism. In a more optimistic note, he wrote “we as Methodists seem to have in Germany an opportunity so great, so promising, and so helpful to the life of our people as to surpass anything our fathers dreamed.”

The Advocate came out against compulsory national service, which some civic leaders were supporting in the wake of the war. The editor felt that Americans would support a continued large standing army and navy, and recognized that Americans would have to occupy other countries for the foreseeable future, but that drafting every 18 year old was not the answer to that problem. The editor’s reasoning, however, reflected the strong pro-temperance position of many Methodist clergy of the day. “With an administration that seems to favor so clearly the liquor interests… which lets so many temptations surround those in service, we fear that to send every boy into service for a year would not be the best thing in the world.” In other words, the presence of alcohol in the military made the Advocate suspicious of universal military service.

The war’s effect on life in the state and in the conference did not go unreported. Wofford College was preparing to open its Fall 1945 term, and did not expect to be anywhere near its pre-war enrollment. They anticipated a student body of only 100 or slightly more, President Walter Greene reported. Greene also said that “plans for a football team were not definite.” In fact, not enough students were on campus to resume football until 1946.

These were some of the stories that South Carolina Methodists were reading in September 1945.

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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.

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Methodist

Creating Women’s Organizations in the South Carolina Conference

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

Most South Carolina Methodists realize the strong influence and important work of the United Methodist Women in our churches and conference. When did this work begin?

Just after the Civil War, women’s efforts moved more into the public sphere, as America entered a period of social reform as well as international missionary work. In the Methodist Church, the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society was authorized by the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, meeting in Atlanta in 1878. This followed years of lobbying the bishops to authorize some type of women’s missionary organization. The College of Bishops drafted a constitution, and the wives of the bishops all became vice presidents of the organization. Mrs. Maria Davies Wightman of South Carolina, the wife of Bishop William M. Wightman, was one of those vice presidents.

In South Carolina, which was one of the fifteen conferences of the M. E. Church, South, the Woman’s Missionary Society was organized in December 1878, during the meeting of the Annual Conference in Newberry. A nominating committee, consisting of male members of the Annual Conference as well as women who would be part of the society recommended a slate of officers.

Mrs. Maria Wightman was elected president by the forty women in attendance, representing ten charges or stations throughout the Conference. The first annual meeting of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the South Carolina Conference was held in Trinity Church, Charleston, being Mrs. Wightman’s own church, in April 1880. This was the first time a woman ever presided over a public meeting in South Carolina. Mrs. Wightman remained the society’s president, providing spiritual leadership to their work until her death in 1912.

A second missionary organization, the Parsonage Aid and Home Mission Society (having been organized in the Methodist Church in 1886) was changed to the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society in 1890. In 1898 the organization had the name of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society.
In 1910 the General Conference made provisions to unite these two Societies: The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 32 years old, and The Woman’s Home Missionary Society, 25 years old. They came together and formed the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It was optional as to whether the two Societies should unite into one conference society, so in South Carolina, the two organizations did not unite until the Conference split into two Annual Conferences in 1914.

The women of the South Carolina Conference met January 22, 1915, at Florence and organized. The women of the Upper South Carolina Conference also met the same year and organized as the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Upper South Carolina Conference, thus bringing home and foreign mission work into a single organization for each conference.

In 1940, after Methodist reunification, the society had another name change. Both upper and South Carolina conference societies became the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of their respective conference. In October 1948, when the two conferences merged back together, the Woman’s Societies of Christian Service also merged. And, after the creation of the United Methodist Church in 1968, the present United Methodist Women’s organization was born.

For more information about the history of our conference’s women’s organizations, you can read Daring Hearts and Spirits Free: South Carolina Women in the United Methodist Tradition, edited by Harriet Anderson Mays and Harry Roy Mays.

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Methodist

From the Archives: Creating Women’s Organizations in the South Carolina Conference

This was my column for the July/Annual Conference edition of the SC United Methodist Advocate

Most South Carolina Methodists realize the strong influence and important work of the United Methodist Women in our churches and conference. When did this work begin?

Just after the Civil War, women’s efforts moved more into the public sphere, as America entered a period of social reform as well as international missionary work. In the Methodist Church, the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society was authorized by the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, meeting in Atlanta in 1878. This followed years of lobbying the bishops to authorize some type of women’s missionary organization. The College of Bishops drafted a constitution, and the wives of the bishops all became vice presidents of the organization. Mrs. Maria Davies Wightman of South Carolina, the wife of Bishop William M. Wightman, was one of those vice presidents.

In South Carolina, which was one of the fifteen conferences of the M. E. Church, South, the Woman’s Missionary Society was organized in December 1878, during the meeting of the Annual Conference in Newberry. A nominating committee, consisting of male members of the Annual Conference as well as women who would be part of the society recommended a slate of officers.

Mrs. Maria Wightman was elected president by the forty women in attendance, representing ten charges or stations throughout the Conference. The first annual meeting of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the South Carolina Conference was held in Trinity Church, Charleston, being Mrs. Wightman’s own church, in April 1880. This was the first time a woman ever presided over a public meeting in South Carolina. Mrs. Wightman remained the society’s president, providing spiritual leadership to their work until her death in 1912.

A second missionary organization, the Parsonage Aid and Home Mission Society (having been organized in the Methodist Church in 1886) was changed to the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society in 1890. In 1898 the organization had the name of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society.
In 1910 the General Conference made provisions to unite these two Societies: The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 32 years old, and The Woman’s Home Missionary Society, 25 years old. They came together and formed the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It was optional as to whether the two Societies should unite into one conference society, so in South Carolina, the two organizations did not unite until the Conference split into two Annual Conferences in 1914.

The women of the South Carolina Conference met January 22, 1915, at Florence and organized. The women of the Upper South Carolina Conference also met the same year and organized as the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Upper South Carolina Conference, thus bringing home and foreign mission work into a single organization for each conference.

In 1940, after Methodist reunification, the society had another name change. Both upper and South Carolina conference societies became the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of their respective conference. In October 1948, when the two conferences merged back together, the Woman’s Societies of Christian Service also merged. And, after the creation of the United Methodist Church in 1968, the present United Methodist Women’s organization was born.

For more information about the history of our conference’s women’s organizations, you can read Daring Hearts and Spirits Free: South Carolina Women in the United Methodist Tradition, edited by Harriet Anderson Mays and Harry Roy Mays.

Categories
Methodist

The 1915 Annual Conference

This was my June column for the SC United Methodist Advocate.  Next week, South Carolina Methodists will gather for our Annual Conference.  

As South Carolina’s Methodists gather in Florence for Annual Conference, let’s look back a century and see where we gathered in 1915.

Of course, in those days, Annual Conference met in the fall instead of late spring. And following the action of the 1914 General Conference and 1914 Annual Conference, the conference had divided in two. With African-American Methodists in a separate Annual Conference, that meant three conferences met in South Carolina that year.

The first session of the Upper South Carolina Conference met on November 24, 1915 at Bethel Church in Spartanburg. The Advocate noted that “the place of meeting is the beautiful new Bethel Church, Spartanburg…. While it is the youngest Annual Conference in the world, it is nevertheless one of the greatest. It is composed of a body of about 130 aggressive clerical members…. It represents about 50,000 lay members, and is situated in a compact, healthy, and very beautiful territory. The Bethel people constitute one of the best congregations in our Southern Methodism.”

Collins Denny presided over the session, which had to organize the new conference from scratch. The presiding elders, acting as the committee on nominations, appointed committees on public worship, on Sabbath observance, on temperance, on conference relations, and even a committee to review district conference journals. As was the custom, members of the conference stayed in the homes of Spartanburg Methodists, including a number of Wofford faculty members. The faculty at Converse College invited the Conference to dinner on the Thursday night of Conference. That might have been a Thanksgiving dinner, since that Thursday happened to be Thanksgiving Day. (And current conference members used to complain about attending Annual Conference on Memorial Day!) Bishop Alpheus W. Wilson preached the Thanksgiving sermon to an overflow crowd at Bethel.

The Upper South Carolina Conference recognized that the 1866 Conference was meeting at the same time, also in Spartanburg, and sent fraternal greetings to the conference. Interestingly, the conference’s members received enough mail that the Spartanburg Post Office set up a temporary mail room in a Sunday School classroom.

As soon as Bishop Denny had adjourned the Upper South Carolina Conference on Monday, November 29, he must have boarded a train to head for Charleston. That’s where the South Carolina Conference convened on Wednesday, December 1, at 9:00, at Trinity Methodist Church. That conference also met for six days, which meant that Bishop Denny had spent 12 out of 13 consecutive days presiding over annual conferences! The staff of the Advocate had to work about as hard, covering both conferences, and many members of one wound up attending the other conference, as several clergy were transferring between conferences that year. Both conferences, in fact, gave the privilege of the floor to the members of the other conference.

The reports and events of both conferences took several weeks’ worth of Advocate pages to summarize, and no doubt Methodists all over the state used the paper to keep up with the goings-on at the two Annual Conferences. And no doubt the Methodists of South Carolina today will use the Advocate as well as more modern technologies, to keep up with the events in Florence.

Categories
Documents Methodist

Clergy Directories

This was my column in the May 2015 issue of the SC United Methodist Advocate.  We’ve made some new resources available on our institutional repository site.

For over 100 years, the Annual Conference has published clergy biographical directories about every ten years.

The first volume was called Twentieth Century Sketches of the South Carolina Conference, M. E. Church, South and was edited by the Rev. Watson B. Duncan. The biographical sketches of each clergy member of the conference were often prepared by their friends, and could be quite lengthy. These can be very useful for modern researchers, as they frequently mention the minister’s accomplishments in the appointments where they served. Most, but not all, were accompanied by photographs. The volume began with an introduction by Wofford’s then-president, Dr. James H. Carlisle, in which he referred to the book as a “family album.” That seems an accurate description for a conference of not many more than 200 members.

Rev. Duncan published a revised and expanded version of the volume in 1914. He was collecting information for a new edition when he died, at which point his family gave the information he had collected to the editor of the Advocate. The 1930 Annual Conference asked a group of ministers to work toward a new edition, and ultimately, the Advocate board of trustees took on the project. The directory evolved into something more: a short history of the South Carolina and Upper South Carolina conferences and their institutions. Published in 1932 as Builders: Sketches of Methodist Preachers in South Carolina with Historical Data, the volume contained photographs, shorter biographical sketches, and an additional fifty pages of history and data.

From that point forward, a directory emerged about every ten years through the 1960s, with biographies in the front and separate glossy photographs in the back. The merger of the 1866 and 1785 conferences delayed production of the 1970s volume until 1975, and the format returned to that of the early 1930s, with sketches and photographs side by side. The 1985 edition, celebrating the bicentennial of American Methodism, contained a 90-page history of Methodism in South Carolina, prepared by Dr. A. V. Huff Jr. Subsequent editions of the directory emerged in 1991 and 2001, though all of the post-1961 directories had increasingly smaller photographs and shorter biographies.

Over the past few years, the conference archives at Wofford has been trying to make these directories available online. First, we focused on the photos, making the images from the 1901 through 1961 directories available on a Flickr site. We also had a late 19th century photo album that we scanned and made available. That’s the William Wynn Mood photo album, and it has photos of some late 19th century clergy that are otherwise unavailable. Student workers along with the Rev. Luther Rickenbaker, senior research associate in the archives, helped prepare short biographies to accompany the online photos. These photographs have helped local churches as they’ve worked on publishing histories or displaying photos of former ministers.

The photo albums are available from this page, and individual photos can be downloaded and printed: http://www.wofford.edu/library/archives/methodist.aspx

However, we always wanted to make the full directories available so that researchers, local church historians, and others could examine the full biographies of our clergy. Our new digital repository software has made this much easier, and this spring, we’ve posted the 1901, 1914, 1942, and 1952 directories. The 1932,1961 and 1975 directories should be available by the time you read this column. They are available on Wofford’s digital repository site, which is located at http://digitalcommons.wofford.edu/methodistdirectories/. The files are fairly large, so it might take a few moments to download them.

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Alumni Methodist

Bishop Coke Smith

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

Alexander Coke Smith is another of South Carolina Methodism’s contributions to the episcopacy.

Bishop A. Coke Smith '72
Bishop A. Coke Smith ’72

Born in Lynchburg, SC, Coke Smith enrolled at Wofford in 1868 and graduated in 1872. His father was a Methodist minister, so he grew up in parsonages around the state. Following his graduation from Wofford, he joined the South Carolina Conference, and was sent to his first appointment, Cheraw Station. After but a year there, he went to Columbia to serve at Washington Street, where he remained three years. He was the junior preacher in his first and the pastor in charge the second and third years – at the ripe old age of 26. Next, he went to Greenville Station – Buncombe Street – in 1876, serving for 4 years. Continuing his journeys around the state, the young minister went to serve Trinity, Charleston for three years, from 1880-82, where he became close to Bishop William M. Wightman in his last years.

Smith then spent four years, 1883-86, as the Presiding Elder of the Columbia District, and following that, was elected to the professorship of mental and moral philosophy at Wofford. He followed in the footsteps of William Wallace Duncan, who had just been elected a bishop. That chair on the Wofford faculty actually produced three bishops, Duncan, Smith, and Smith’s successor, John C. Kilgo. Additionally, that faculty position was responsible for fundraising, so it gave Smith the opportunity to travel around South Carolina, representing Wofford, preaching in various pulpits, and making stronger personal connections.

Though a young man, Smith sometimes suffered under the strain of his workload. Wofford historian David Duncan Wallace noted that “he had just almost killed himself saving souls in one of the greatest revivals in the history of Charleston,” and proceeded to conclude the process by his labors for raising the college endowment.

After 4 years at Wofford, he was elected to the 1890 General Conference delegation, heading the South Carolina delegation. He was just 41 years old. The General Conference elected him as one of their three missionary secretaries, but he only stayed in this position for a few months before he was asked to become professor of practical theology at Vanderbilt. He moved again in 1892, transferring his membership to the Virginia Conference and serving churches there until 1902. He came close to being elected a bishop in 1898, and finally, was elected to the episcopacy in 1902.  Incidentally, his younger brother, an 1889 graduate, was Ellison D. Smith.  Known as “Cotton Ed,” the younger Smith was elected to the US Senate in 1908, serving six terms.

He died in December 1906 in Asheville, having served a relatively short tenure as a bishop. Collins Denny, himself later a bishop, noted that Smith was “a man of rare versatility and adaptability, and charmed every circle and community into which he entered. He was a past master in delicate humor, and this gift was his servant, never his master.” His Methodist education had served him well, for “he had read widely and well, and his tenacious memory gave him ready command of his resources.” Bishops often need a blend of skills, and from what his contemporaries wrote, A. Coke Smith brought a mix of political acumen, intelligence, and preaching ability to that office.

Categories
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.

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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.