CHAPTER XIII. Bishop Asbury
In the fall of 1815 our Conference was holden at Bethlehem Meeting-house, in Wilson County, Tennessee. Bishops Asbury and M'Kendree attended, though they were both in feeble health; and this was the last Conference in the West that we were permitted to see Bishop Asbury. He preached to us with great unction and power, though in extremely feeble health, not able to stand, and had to sit while he spoke to us for the last time. At this Conference we elected our delegates to the General Conference, which was to meet in Baltimore on the first of May, 1816. After the election was over, Bishop Asbury called us (that is, the delegates elected) to his room, and then and there told us about the dissatisfaction that had made its appearance among some of the preachers with the government of the Methodist Episcopal Church, explained the cause, and advised us to hold fast to the landmarks of Discipline with a firm grasp. His whole soul seemed to go out after the unity of Methodism, and to adopt every prudential measure to prevent any schism among us. He was very desirous to reach the General Conference; but the Lord ordered it otherwise; for after he left Tennessee to go to South Carolina, he was attacked with a complication of diseases; but still slowly moved on north, in hope of meeting the General Conference in Baltimore. On the 24th of March he reached Richmond, Virginia, where he preached his last sermon. Being too feeble to walk, he was carried in the arms of his friends to the house of God, and then propped on a table; there, as he sat, he delivered his last message to mortal man, hardly able to do so for want of breath. His sermon had a thrilling effect upon the congregation. After preaching he was borne back to his carriage, and still urged on his way toward Baltimore. But when he arrived at the home of his old friend, Mr. George Arnold, about twenty miles south of Fredericsburgh, Virginia, he could proceed no further.
It was on Friday evening, the 29th of March, when this man of God, who had traveled half a century near three hundred thousand miles, was taken from his carriage the last time. He lingered till Sunday, the 31st of March, in great distress of body. On that day, at the usual hour of religious worship, he requested the family to come together. The Rev. John W. Bond, who had been his traveling companion for two years, prayed, and read and expounded the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. During these exercises the dying man of God was calm, and much engaged in prayer. A few minutes after the close of these religious services, as he was sitting in his chair, with his head reclined on the hand of his faithful attendant, without a struggle or a sigh, he fell asleep in death.
He was buried in the family burying-ground of Brother Arnold, at whose house he died; but the General Conference, at its session on the 1st of May, 1816, at the request of the people of Baltimore, ordered his remains removed, and deposited in a vault prepared for that purpose beneath the pulpit of Eutaw-street Church.
The reinterment of this great and good man presented a scene of the most thrilling interest that I ever beheld. The body was followed from the Light-street to the Eutaw-street Church by a vast concourse of people. At the head of the procession marched Bishop M'Kendree, the faithful colleague of the departed Asbury; next followed the members of the General Conference, and last came the people in almost unnumbered thousands. Bishop M'Kendree pronounced the funeral oration, and many were the tears shed by the weeping attendants; and the mortal body of the venerable Bishop Asbury was laid to rest till the general resurrection.
Over the vault is inscribed the following epitaph:
I will here state a case, in reference to Bishop Asbury's transcendently superior talent to read men, which occurred at one of our western conferences. The conference had been preceded with glorious revivals of religion, and many of the wealthy, and some of the learned, had joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, among whom were two very learned young men; one of them the son of a very distinguished, learned teacher, the other the son of a general---a distinguished, wealthy man. Both of these young men professed to have a call to the ministry, and came with a recommendation to the Conference to be received on trial in the traveling connection. They were both present, and Bishop Asbury had narrowly observed their conduct and conversation. At the proper time Brother Learner Blackman, their presiding elder, presented their recommendations. He spoke of them in the highest terms, and considered them a great acquisition to the ministry and the Church. The Conference received them with great unanimity. Bishop Asbury had sat with his eyes nearly shut. After they were received he seemed to wake up. "Yes, yes!" he exclaimed; "in all probability they both will disgrace you and themselves before the year is out." And sure enough, in six months one was riding the circuit with a loaded pistol and a dirk, threatening to shoot and stab the rowdies; the other was guilty of a misdemeanor, and in less than nine months they were both out of the Church. Bishop Asbury would often say to the preachers, "You read books, but I read men."
We received our appointments for this conference year, 1815-16, with but little dissatisfaction. I was returned to the Green River District. Our increase of members or preachers, in the Ohio and Tennessee Conferences, was but small this year, though we had some increase.
In the spring of 1816 our General Conference convened, on the 1st of May, in the city of Baltimore. This was the second delegated General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the first to which I was elected.
We had no steamboats, railroad cars, or comfortable stages in those days. We had to travel from the extreme West on horseback. It generally took us near a month to go; a month was spent at General Conference, and nearly a month in returning to our fields of labor. How different the facilities of travel then and now.
Bishop Asbury being dead, and Bishop M'Kendree's health being poor, it became necessary to have two more bishops, and, accordingly, we elected Enoch George and R. R. Roberts, two good men, and talented, regularly drilled in the itinerant work, and well prepared, from experience and practice, to sympathize with the seven hundred traveling preachers they had to station every year, suiting their talents to over two hundred and fourteen thousand members in these United States and Territories, and the Provinces of Canada.
This was a year of general prosperity throughout the connection; over thirty thousand probationers had been added to the Church. Many of us feared that at the decease of Bishop Asbury, dissensions and divisions would arise and injure our beloved Zion; but we had no question that gave us much trouble at that time. It is true, slavery was a troublesome matter to legislate on; but the one-eyed creature called Rabid Abolitionism had, at that time, been just born, and had but just cut its teeth, and could not bite hard; and it is a notorious fact, that all the preachers from the slaveholding states denounced slavery as a moral evil; but asked of the General Conference mercy and forbearance on account of the civil disabilities they labored under, so that we got along tolerably smooth. I do not recollect a single Methodist preacher, at that day, that justified slavery. But O, how have times changed!
Methodist preachers in those days made it a matter of conscience not to hold their fellow-creatures in bondage, if it was practicable to emancipate them, conformably to the laws of the state in which they lived. Methodism increased and spread; and many Methodist preachers, taken from comparative poverty, not able to own a negro, and who preached loudly against it, improved, and became popular among slaveholders; and many of them married into those slaveholding families, and became personally interested in slave property, (as it is called.) Then they began to apologize for the evil; then to justify it, on legal principles; then on Bible principles; till lo and behold! it is not an evil, but a good! it is not a curse, but a blessing! till really you would think, to hear them tell the story, if you had the means and did not buy a good lot of them, you would go to the devil for not enjoying the labor, toil, and sweat of this degraded race, and all this without rendering them any equivalent whatever!
I will here repeat what I have elsewhere stated in this narrative: that I verily believe, if the Methodist preachers had gone on as in olden times, bearing a testimony against the moral evil of slavery, and kept clear of it themselves, and never meddled with it politically, and formed no free-soil or abolition societies, and given all their money and the productions of their pens in favor of the colonization organizations, that long before this time many of the slave states would have been free states; and, in my opinion, this is the only effectual way to get clear of slavery. If agitation must succeed agitation, strife succeed strife, compromise succeed compromise, it will end in a dissolution of this blessed Union, civil war will follow, and rivers of human blood stain the soil of our happy country.
At this General Conference I heard, for the first time in my life, whisperings and innuendoes against the government of the Church. I suppose radicalism had just pipped. Many of our preachers that had traveled had, as I said before, married into slaveholding and otherwise wealthy families. Some of the first order of talent, that had located, began to say that local preachers ought to have a voice in the lawmaking department of the Church; and in order to make friends, they said the laity ought to have a voice in all the Conferences; but there was no special outbreak at this General Conference. But the unhallowed leaven of disaffection spread; the friends of reform (so called) established a press, and formed what they called Union Societies; so that by public lectures, the Union Societies, and the press, by 1820, when the General Conference met again in Baltimore, it was astounding to see what evil disaffections had taken place.
They then came out boldly. They wanted to revolutionize the whole government of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Many of our old and talented preachers were loud and bitter in complaints against our Church government; and I was greatly alarmed to see so many strong, talented men carried away. Some of the hardest and bitterest things ever written or spoken against the power of the bishops, or the despotism of the itinerant preachers' administration, were spoken and written by men that were afterward made bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Southern Church. Motion after motion was made, resolution after resolution was introduced, debate followed debate, for days, not to say weeks. The radicals wanted to take away the power of the bishops to appoint preachers to their fields of labor; especially to deprive them of the power to appoint presiding elders, and make them elective by the annual conferences; to have a lay delegation, and many other things.
Finally, they concentrated all their arguments to make presiding elders elective; but on counting noses, they found we had a majority, though small; and rather than be defeated, they moved for a committee of compromise. Strong men from each side were chosen; they patched up a sham compromise, as almost all compromises are, in Church or State. The committee reported in favor, whenever a presiding elder was needed for any district, the bishop should have the right to nominate three persons, and the conferences should have the right to elect one of the three. This report passed by a vote of about sixty; there were twenty-three, if my recollection is correct, in the minority against it.
This report having passed, the radicals had a real jubilee. It was the entering wedge to many other revolutionary projects; and they began to pour them in at a mighty rate. I had, in my speech in debate on the subject, predicted that this would be the case. Our friends began to see their error, but it was well-nigh too late.
In the meantime Bishop Soule, now of the Church, South, had been elected to the office of a bishop, and he informed the General Conference, that he could not be ordained, because he could not conscientiously administer the government according to this inglorious compromise. (Perhaps this was the best act that Bishop Soule ever performed.)
In the meantime I visited the room of Bishop M'Kendree, who was too feeble to preside in the Conference. He wept, and said this compromise would ruin the Church forever if not changed, and advised that we make a united effort to suspend these rules or regulations for four years, and we counted votes, and found we could do it, and introduced a resolution to that effect. And now the war commenced afresh, and after debating the resolution for several days, the radicals found that if the vote was put we would carry it, and they determined to break the quorum of the house, and for two or three times they succeeded. Bishop Roberts at length rebuked them sharply, and said, "If you cannot defeat the measure honorably, you ought not to do it at all. Now," said he, "keep your seats and vote like men." This awed several of them, and they kept their seats; the vote was put and carried, and these obnoxious rules were suspended for four years.
But peace and harmony were very far from being restored to the Church. A strong and violent effort was made for the next four years by the revolutionists, to carry their radical measures, and thousands of our members became disaffected, and by their constant agitations disturbed the peace, and endangered the harmony of the Church, until it really became imperatively necessary to arrest these lawless disturbers of the peace of the Church. They were arrested, brought to trial, and expelled for rebellion against the constituted authorities of the Church.
These wholesome and salutary measures were, by these self-styled reformers, denounced as tyranny and despotism. At our next General Conference, in Baltimore, in 1824, the radical war against the Church still raged with unabated fury; but we still had a majority in favor of our old and well-tried government, and we succeeded, after long and tedious debate, in suspending those heretical rules for four years more. This was the death warrant to the revolutionists. From this time, many of the preachers and members began calmly to review their ground of reform, and became well satisfied that it was all wrong; and they retraced their steps, and became able and efficient expositors of the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The reaction threw death and destruction into the radical ranks, and created, as they thought, the necessity of a separate organization. Accordingly, they set to work, and formed what they were pleased to call the Protestant Methodist Church, in which they incorporated all those radical measures for which they so strenuously contended before their amputation or secession. They carried off thousands of our members, and many of our very talented preachers, and now they thought that they would sweep the world; and truly they have swept it, for they formed a complete trash trap, and a great many of our unfaithful members and preachers, that walked disorderly and would not be reproved or cured, have gone into it, and upon the whole they have saved the Methodist Episcopal Church a great deal of trouble in trying and expelling disorderly preachers and members; for whenever they were expelled or arraigned for misconduct, they fled to these seceders. They took them in, regardless of the crimes laid to their charge; and by 1828, when our General Conference sat in Pittsburgh, this little radical brat gave its last squeak among us, and we repealed those obnoxious rules and regulations. The Church was restored to peace and harmonious action, and we have done infinitely better without them than we did with them.
That this professed reform has proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, an entire failure, I think cannot be questioned by any impartial and unprejudiced mind. Over thirty years have rolled by since they organized. They boasted that they commenced with over twenty thousand members, headed by a strong corps of talented preachers; and after gathering up thousands of the expelled and disaffected members of the Methodist, as well as other Churches, their numerical strength at this day is not, perhaps, over seventy thousand. They have tried to their hearts' content their Presbyterian form of government and their lay delegation. Their operations remind one of an old horse-mill with about one third of the cogs out of the main wheel. There is a mighty jarring and jolting, and often a mighty strife about who shall be the big man. Woe to them that kick against the pricks.
And now I say, and I speak with a respectful deference, was there ever a heresy in doctrine or Church government that was not started by preachers? Look at the ten thousand and one erroneous doctrines, schisms, and divisions, that have sprung up almost in every country and clime, and in almost every age, and then ask, was there not a preacher or preachers at the head of it? And here I may speak with confidence, and say, so far as the Methodist Church is concerned, from the days of John Wesley down to the present, there never has been a schism or a division in our Church but it was headed by a preacher or preachers, that have become wise above what is written. Witness the seven divisions among the Wesleyan Methodists in England; then view the secessions in these United States, in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Look at Hammet in the South, at Stillwell in New-York ; see James O'Kelley in Virginia; then behold the radical secession from 1820 to 1828 throughout the length and breadth of the land; then come to the great secession of the South in 1844.
If these secessions had been left to the voice of our members, would they ever have taken place? No, verily, no, will be the answer of every intelligent man, woman, and child. But these preachers took an ungodly advantage of the members who stood firmly and strongly opposed to a division of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and now, to keep up appearances, these very preachers, with their bribed judges, sneeringly call the Methodist Episcopal Church the Methodist Church, North, and say we are all rabid abolitionists, when they do verily know it is all false. At their late General Conference they have fully disclosed the cloven foot of the Slavery-loving preachers, for they have stricken out of their Discipline every rule on the subject of Slavery, and had well-nigh stricken out that part of the General Rules that interdicts the slave trade, (according to their interpretation.) I should not be greatly surprised if, in a few years, this rule goes by the board, and some of these Slavery-loving preachers are engaged in importing them by the thousands into this land of the free and home of the brave. O, kind Heaven, prevent it, and reclaim these wretched wanderers!
And now, though we have spoken freely of preachers and their faults, their errors ought not to be concealed. But this fact is not, as we conceive, any triumph to infidelity, nor should it discourage the Church. Among the first twelve that Christ called to the blessed work of the ministry there were two that fatally erred: Judas betrayed and Peter denied him; the love of money and the fear of man were too strong for their religious attachment to Christ, and only proves the necessity of sacrificing everything for the immortal honors of the cross; and although our sins are as near and dear to us as a right eye, hand, or foot, they must be plucked out, or cut off, and cast from us, knowing it is better, infinitely better, to make these sacrifices than retain them all, and be cast into hell. What a sad account will many preachers have to give in the day of judgment, who have preached a free salvation to listening thousands, while their poor degraded slaves are deprived of many of the blessings of life, and privileges of civil and religious liberty. These preachers must and do know that slavery is at war with the attributes and perfections of God, who will never punish the innocent or let the guilty go free.
Who ever before knew of a professed slavery Church? that is, one which justified slavery by the word of God? Well may some of them be ashamed of their assumed name, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and wish to change it; for it is evident that they can never preach the Gospel successfully in any country that opposes slavery; for they could not, by possibility, have any confidence in such preachers; and the poor slaves, in proportion to their capabilities of reasoning on the subject, just in that ratio must they lack confidence in such preachers. Nay, they must lack confidence in that God and religion that these preachers recommend to them and I am solemnly afraid that thousands of these poor slaves will be lost under the influence of these slaveholding preachers; but I predict the downfall of such a Church, and hope by other men and means God will yet save the thousands of the South, and preserve our happy Union until it shall give liberty, civil and religious, to unnumbered millions of the human family.