As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

As The Churches Go, So Goes the Nation?: Evangelical Schism and American Fears on the Eve of the Civil War

On April 26, 2019, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (UMC) upheld the core components of a plan reaffirming and strengthening the church’s formal ban on the ordination of LGBTQ ministers and on the recognition of same-sex marriage.[1] This “Traditional Plan” was adopted at a special session of the General Conference the previous month, held in response to a decades-long internal dispute over acceptable expressions of human sexuality within the Methodist Church. Many delegates had hoped the church would remove the prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, allowing individual jurisdictions and churches to determine their stance on these issues. Now the denomination has entered a showdown phase: will conservatives remain within the UMC, as liberals exit en masse? Or will the liberal contingent of the church resist and drive the traditionalists away? Whichever scenario prevails, few disagree that some sort of denominational division looms on the horizon. Observers wonder what this denominational dispute foretells for a divided nation.

Commenters on the current controversy frequently draw parallels to events that took place 175 years ago in the Methodist Episcopal Church: a denominational schism over slavery. As in the present case, social changes outside the church (then a hardening of proslavery politics in the South and the rise of antislavery in the North, now a decades-long movement for gay rights) led to a fracture over the denomination’s formal stance on a controversial question. In both instances, factions within the denomination came to prefer schism to compromise over a moral and political issue. And then, as now, outsiders seek to find within the schism clues about the future of a divided nation.

The conflict over slavery had been brewing for decades. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, America’s evangelical denominations rapidly expanded, becoming the “principle subculture in American society,” but also facing growing pains as members from across the nation sparred over slavery.[2] Methodist abolitionists pushed their national General Conference to denounce slavery as a sin—to purify the church and “cleanse the skirts of her garment from ‘blood guiltiness!’”[3] At the same time, pro-slavery Methodists sought a definitive statement that slavery was not a sin, and specifically, that slaveholding clergy could continue to serve the church. Denominational moderates adopted what they hoped would prove a conciliatory strategy, condemning abolitionism, but also declining to directly assert that slavery was not a sin. This middle road did nothing to appease abolitionists and slaveholders within the church.

James Osgood Andrew, slaveowner and Methodist bishop. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Moderates anxiously condemned abolitionists for “intermeddling” with slavery, hoping they would back down to avoid schism.[4] But by the early 1840s, abolitionist Methodists—thwarted in their attempts at reform from within—chose the purity of their theological convictions over the unity of the church and withdrew from the General Conference. Their departure did not restore hoped-for harmony.[5] The proslavery contingent wanted assurance that the Methodist Episcopal Church was not “tainted with the bloodied principles of Abolition” and did not view slave ownership as a sin.[6] They found an ideal test in the appointment of a slaveholding bishop.

Bishop James Andrew of Georgia owned at least fourteen slaves.[7] As delegates gathered for the 1844 General Conference, they prepared for a showdown over his controversial appointment. Northerners encouraged Andrew to resign, citing the interests of peace and unity. But southerners urged him to remain firm. They argued that his resignation would set a dangerous anti-slavery precedent. Ultimately, the General Conference voted that Bishop Andrew should resign from his office. The decision severed the increasingly tenuous bonds of the Methodist Church. Southern Methodist leaders, rejecting any threat to slavery, met in Louisville, Kentucky, in May of 1845 to organize a separate, pro-slavery, Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The First Secession? Title page of a Northern Methodist history of the 1845 schism over slavery. Courtesy of Google Books.

As the Methodists worked out the terms of their division, slavery debates generated similar acrimony in the Baptist Missionary Boards. Baptists in the South feared that abolitionists had swayed the Boards against slaveholders, and the Georgia Baptist Convention tested the Foreign Mission Board in 1844 by requesting the appointment of a slaveholding missionary. Alabama Baptists quickly followed up, demanding that the General Board affirm that slaveholders were moral equals who had the right to “receive any agency, mission, or other appointment.”[8] When the Board declared that it could not appoint a slaveholder, Baptists in the South swiftly organized their own meeting. The result was a schism among American Baptists and the formation of the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention.[9]

Americans watched with anxiety as both the Methodist and Baptist churches divided. The schism seemed fearful symbols of a deep and unsolvable problem in American culture. They brought up deep-rooted fears about the stability of American democracy and national institutions. They appeared to be an ominous warning of what unresolvable conflict would mean and also seemed to propel the nation toward the disaster of secession.

Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster feared That schism foretold secession. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a frequently re-printed exchange from Congressional debates over the Compromise of 1850, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun both drew on the recent schism to forecast the future. For each man, the divisions offered a lesson Americans ignored at their peril. South Carolina senator Calhoun explained that “the great religious denominations… originally embraced the whole Union” and that “the strong ties which hold each denomination together formed a strong cord to hold the whole Union together.” He saw the disintegration of the churches as both an alarming gauge of the state of the union and a powerful warning against attempts to end or limit slavery. Calhoun warned that political institutions would be the next to fracture. For his part, Webster, from Massachusetts, saw the division as a dire warning about the dangers of inflexibility and failure to tolerate the inevitable diversity that arose in a church that spanned the entire nation. He blamed the schism (and, by extension, the threat of secession) on men “with whom everything is absolute—absolutely wrong or absolutely right.” The exchange between Calhoun and Webster cemented the evangelical schisms in popular memory as at least partly responsible for the disintegration of sectional ties nationwide.[10] Certainly that was how both men viewed it. The Methodist and Baptist churches seemed to lead the nation toward a terrifying conclusion to the crisis over slavery: compromise abandoned and national institutions torn apart. The idea persisted through the Civil War. In 1864, one chronicler noted, “men in all classes of society freely lay the blame of this Rebellion at the door of the Church.”[11]

Implicit in the comparison of the current controversy in the Methodist church to the events of the 1840s is the suggestion that this potential schism is also hastening us along a path to a national cataclysm like the Civil War. Just as they did 175 years ago, Americans attempt to parse the controversy for clues to America’s future. But then, as now, the conflict in the church is a symptom of changes in the nation (and the world), not a cause. Divided churches did not divide the nation in 1861—both collapsed under the weight of the slavery controversy. Methodists fracture along different lines now—they are a global church with members around the world, many of whom oppose changes to the denomination’s stance on gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.[12] The conflict in the church today does not foretell another civil war, but it does suggest that, as in the 1840s, Methodist responses to moral and political disputes may be growing too divergent for one church to contain.

 

[1] Jeremy Steele, “United Methodist Court Keeps Core of New LGBT Legislation,” Christianity Today, accessed May 10, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/april/united-methodists-judicial-review-umc-traditional-plan-lgbt.html.

[2] Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 1.

[3] Orange Scott, “Address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church by the Rev. O. Scott,” 1836, in Emory S. Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism (New York: Abington Press, 1974), 30.

[4] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[5] Bucke, ed., History of American Methodism, 39-47, 84. See also Ira Ford McLeister and Roy Stephenson Nicholson, History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (Marian, Ind.: Wesleyan Methodist Publishing Association, 1959).

[6] James Flay to John McClintock, 1 March 1842, John McClintock Papers, MARBL, Emory University.

[7] Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). Charles Elliott, History of the History of the Great Secession from the Methodist Episcopal Church (Cincinnati: Swormstedt & Poe, 1855), 295.

[8] John Stevens, Brief Historical Sketch of the Western Baptist Theological Institute (Cincinnati: D. Anderson, 1850), 33.

[9] Benjamin Franklin Riley, A History of the Baptists in the Southern States East of the Mississippi (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1898), 207.

[10] Church Topics in Congress,” Louisville Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, July 10, 1850. Some historians have also argued that the disintegration of the churches hastened disunion. See C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985) and Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[11] Robert L. Stanton, The Church and the Rebellion: A Consideration of the Rebellion Against the Government of the United States; and the Agency of the Church, North and South in Relation Thereto (New York: Derby and Miller, 1864), vi.

[12] Emily McFarlan Miller, “Why United Methodists Are Watching the Results of a Denominational Court Meeting,” Religious News Service, accessed May 10, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/04/23/why-united-methodists-are-watching-the-results-of-a-denominational-court-meeting/.

April Holm

April Holm is an Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Her first book, A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era was published by Louisiana State University Press in the fall of 2017. Currently, she is researching a project on provost marshals and civilians in the occupied border region. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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