CHAPTER XXVII. The Great Secession
At the General Conference of 1844, a solemn dispensation came upon the Methodist Episcopal church, then having more than a million of members in her communion. Up to this time no very destructive divisions had taken place among us. The small parties that had filed off, had rather been a help than a serious injury to the Church. No division in doctrines had ever taken place, and, as a large body of ministers and members, there was great unanimity on the Discipline of the Church; and now the division was narrowed down to a single point, namely, slavery in the episcopacy. It is well understood by those who have studied the government of the Methodist Episcopal Church, that she has adopted an itinerant or traveling plan of ministerial operation, as the best and most Scriptural mode of successfully spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and although we believe there are but two ministerial orders, namely, deacons and elders, and finding nothing in the Scriptures contrary thereto, the Methodist Episcopal Church in her early organization saw proper to create a separate office, not order, of superintendent, or bishop. By the consent of all our traveling preachers, the bishop appoints from year to year every traveling preacher to his field of labor; this saves a vast amount of time and trouble in the ministry, in running about and seeking to contract with congregations for a specified time and stipulated amount of salary; moreover, it cuts off the temptation of selling the Gospel to the highest bidder, and giving the Gospel exclusively to the rich, and leaving the poor to perish without the means of salvation; and the poor under this arrangement find the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus Christ, more fully than they can on any other plan, namely, "Blessed are the poor, for they have the Gos pel preached unto them." Moreover, it is the disciplinary duty of our bishops to ordain our deacons and elders, and to travel at large throughout all our conferences, and to have a general supervision of the whole work; and in order to qualify them to act wisely and prudently in changing and appointing the thousands of itinerant preachers to their respective fields of labor, it is required of our bishops to be constant itinerants themselves; and according to the provisions of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, if our bishops at any time cease to travel at large throughout the connection, supervising and superintending the general interests of the whole Church, they shall forfeit the right to exercise the duties of their office.
And right here it may not be amiss to notice, in a few words, the supremely ridiculous and slanderous statements that are constantly emanating from the pulpits and presses of some of the prejudiced denominations, against the absolute and despotic power of our bishops. They state that our bishops give all the law of the Church, and that our preachers and people are bound to bow to their dictum, under pain of expulsion; and that all the Church property is deeded to the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Now, so far from this charge being true, I assert, without any fear of successful contradiction, that a Methodist bishop has not even a vote in any of the rules or regulations of the Church, nor even a veto power on any rule passed by the General Conference; and as for the charge of the bishops having all the property of the Church deeded to them, this old, stale falsehood has not now, nor ever had, the least foundation in truth to rest upon; for I will venture to say that if the whole United States and territories were examined with a search warrant by the entire marshaled hosts of the bigoted and malicious propagators of these falsehoods, that not one solitary case can be found where the Church property is deeded to the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Why do our opponents so constantly and so recklessly persist in reiterating these false charges? Have they no sense of honor or of shame left them? But none are so blind as those that will not see; and I solemnly fear that those wretched editors and pamphlet writers will have a very fearful account to render in the day of retributive justice. But they cannot meet us in the open field of manly and honorable debate, and therefore they resort to the pitiful fabrication of false statements in hope of gulling the ignorant part of mankind.
We have said, up to this time, 1844, no very serious division had taken place in the Methodist Episcopal Church. It is true, there were a few restless spirits, ministers, that had filed off and raised little trash-traps called Churches, such as O'Kelly, Stillwell, Hammett, the Radicals, or self-styled Protestant Methodist Church, and the Scottites, or, as they call themselves, the True Wesleyans. But in all these secessions, there never had been a difference of opinion on the cardinal doctrines of the Gospel propagated by Mr. Wesley, and unanswerably defended by the sainted Fletcher. So may it continue to the end of time!
The Methodist Episcopal Church, from its first organization, was opposed to slavery; and from 1784 to 1824, in her various rules and regulations on slavery, tried to legislate it out of the Church; and she succeeded in getting many of the slaves set free, and bettering the condition of thousands of this degraded race. But the legislatures of the different slave states greatly embarrassed the operations of the Church by narrowing the door of emancipation, and passing unjust and stringent laws to prevent manumission. At this course of legislation, many of the citizens of the free states took umbrage, and commenced a dreadful tirade of abuse on the South, and threw the subject into the arena of politics. This unholy warfare of crimination and recrimination has been carried on with unjustifiable violence, until we are almost brought to a civil war, and the integrity of our happy Union is in imminent danger. How it will end, God only knows.
On the first of May, 1844, our General Conference met in New York. From 1824 to this time, our rules on slavery had remained the same. The Northern preachers of the Methodist Episcopal Church, some of them, had taken the ultra ground that slaveholding, under all circumstances, was sinful, and therefore, law or no law, practicable or impracticable, all slaveholders, under all circumstances, should be expelled. However, the more prudent and far-seeing part of our ministers and members of the Church saw that this was totally wrong, and threw themselves into the breach, and prevented a fearful division of the Church; and the fog and smoke of run-mad clerical abolitionism ended in a feeble secession under Scott & Co., and a few of the same cloth and kidney.
In the meantime, slavery in the South had been rapidly gaining strength, by stringent legislative acts and ministerial advocacy. More and more did the legislatures of the South block up the way to practicable emancipation. This threw the North into a fearful rage; hence there was a mutual crimination and recrimination, and both ultra parties threw the subject into the political arena, and appealed to Caesar instead of going to God in humble prayer, and asking Divine direction on this fearful question.
There had at no time been a slaveholding preacher elected to the office of bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, nor was there ever a time within my remembrance when a slaveholder, as such, could have been elected bishop without giving strong assurances that he would emancipate his slaves; for the plain reason, to say nothing about the evil of slavery, he never could travel at large through the connection, as the Discipline required, acceptably, as a slaveholder. There were many eminent and distinguished ministers in the Southern conferences, some of whom would, no doubt, have been elected to the office of bishop but for their being slaveholders. Bishop Andrew had been elected to that office in 1832, by the General Conference, but it was because we verily believed him free from the evil of slavery; and but for the same cause of slavery, I have no doubt others of our Southern ministers would have been elected to that office. When we met in General Conference in New-York, Bishop Andrew, by marriage and otherwise, had become connected with slavery. This fact came upon us with the darkness and terror of a fearful storm, and covered the whole General Conference with sorrow and mourning. Those of us who believed slavery an evil, though not sinful in all cases, saw at once that it was utterly impossible for Bishop Andrew to travel at large through the Methodist connection, and discharge the important duties of that office with acceptability and usefulness, unless he would give the General Conference assurances that he would, as soon as practicable, free himself from this impediment. But this he absolutely refused to do. Our Southern brethren took the strong ground that slavery was no impediment to the official relation of a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The true course that the General Conference ought to have pursued toward Bishop Andrew, was to have arraigned him for improper conduct, as the Discipline provides for the trial of a bishop, and suspended him from all official acts; and then, if they of the South were disposed to secede, let them secede and set up for themselves. Then all the humbuggery about a division line, and of the Church property, would have been saved. And if the division or secession of the Church had been left to the vote of our Southern brethren, it would have been a poor little thing; and I think that every unprejudiced mind must see clearly that the secession from our beloved Church was brought about by a set of slaveholding Methodist preachers, and not by slaveholding members, led on by a slaveholding bishop; and everyone acquainted with the circumstances of this dreadful rupture in the Church, and with the actions and course of Bishop Soule, will see that he was the leading spirit in the whole affair.
However I may forgive, I shall never forget the unjustifiable course that Bishop Soule took in dividing the Methodist Episcopal Church.
To talk about the General Conference having power to divide the Church and to form a division line, that the ministers from either side should not cross to bear the tidings of salvation to their dying fellow-men, is certainly the climax of absurdity; and then to force the members on either side of this line, north or south, to hold their membership in a division that was not of their choice, is despotism in the superlative degree. Could the Pope of Rome more completely demand passive obedienee and non-resistance than did the General Conference of 1844 in this monstrous act? And yet the very ministers composing the General Conference who, in conjunction with their fellow-laborers in the ministry, had praised the Methodist Episcopal Church as the best Church in the world, and had taken an active part in taking into said Church the hundreds of thousands that composed her membership, assumed to themselves the power to divide said Church, and draw a line, and say to preachers and members, "Thus far shalt thou come, and no further."
I sincerely thank God, upon every remembrance of the acts or doings of the General Conference of 1844 on this matter, that my little abilities were put forth to prevent this catastrophe, though I was found greatly in the minority. Yet, I am glad to say, it was an honorable minority, which, by the whining sycophancy of the South, and uncalled-for sympathy of the North, were overwhelmed by the vote of the majority.
I say here again, as I have elsewhere said in this narrative, that the General Conference of 1844, and all the General Conferences that ever existed, had no more power to divide the Church than I, as an individual, had; and it is my deliberate opinion that the members of the General Conference who concocted and completed this measure of so-called division of the Church, ought to refund the whole amount of money gained by the South in the Church suits, and let the poor, superannuated preachers, their wives and children, and the widows and orphans of our ministers that have been left nearly destitute of the means of living since the death of their faithful husbands and fathers, have it as a fund for their support.
It is as clear to me as a sunbeam that the General Conference had no constitutional right to form this sham line of division that they did, and thereby force thousands of our pious and devoted members south of that line to take their membership in an openly avowed slaveholding Church, or remain forever without Church privileges; and when the piteous wailings of these forsaken members, thus cut off from the Church of their early and only choice, came up for four years, is it any wonder that the General Conference of 1848, that sat in Pittsburgh, should virtually declare the action of the General Conference of 1844 unconstitutional, and declare that line null and void, to all intents and purposes, and once more authorize our preachers to go, without limitation or restriction, "Into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." Now, although this is not to be wondered at, when we consider the sympathetic, religious appeals made to that body from our lost members in the dreadful wilderness of slave territory, still there is a wonderful and marvelous thing that confounds all my sense of justice, truth, and righteousness, still existing in the Methodist Episcopal Church; that is, that there are to be found members, preachers, and editors of our Church papers, that, with run-mad violence, oppose the reorganization of conferences in slave territory, and are unwilling to send, or support our preachers that are sent to preach, the Gospel of the Son of God to these misguided and blind slaveholders, or to the poor, degraded, ignorant thousands of slaves that have souls to be saved or lost forever. I am fully aware that here I tread controverted, enchanted, and disputed ground; but, perhaps, as this may be the last opportunity that I may have this side the grave to be heard on this subject, I beseech my readers, whether they agree or disagree with me in my sentiments on this vexed question of slavery, to hear me for a few moment without "malice prepense" or aforethought, as to the history of the rupture in the Methodist Episcopal Church, at the General Conference of 1844. I beg leave to refer all concerned in this matter to the most excellent history of the great secession, published by Dr. C. Elliott; a book which, large as it is, ought to have a place in every library of the Methodist Episcopal Church. If they will get this book, and turn to chapters xx, xxi, pages 286-318, they will find all the facts concerning the acts and doings of the General Conference of 1844, detailed with an impartial and truthful particularity worthy of all commendation; and, indeed, the book throughout is a valuable work, and should be in the hands of every preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
I wish to say here, I was born and raised in a slave state, or states, and for more than sixty years have been acquainted with the sentiments of the Methodist Episcopal Church preachers and members on the subject of slavery. I have seen thousands of poor slaves converted to God; I have, I verily believe, also seen thousands of slaveholders soundly converted to God, whose fruit in after life gave ample evidence of the genuineness of their religion; and since I have had a mature judgment on the subject of slavery, I have steadfastly believed it a great evil, and without boasting I will say, I have been the agent or instrument of freeing scores of the poor slaves, and not only of their emancipation, but also of the colonization of many of them, returning them to their own country free and happy. But this all took place before the legislatures of the slave states blocked up the way, by stringent laws, to practicable emancipation. These stringent laws of the legislatures of slave states were passed chiefly from two causes: first, their inherent love of oppression; and, second, from the extreme and violent manner of intermeddling with the legal rights of the slaveholders in the South by the rabid abolitionists of the North. And now, I would soberly ask, What has all this violent hue and cry of proscriptive abolitionism done for the emancipation of the poor degraded slaves? Just nothing at all; nay, infinitely worse than nothing. It has riveted the chains of slavery tighter than ever before; it has blocked up the way to reasonable and practicable emancipation; it has engendered prejudice; it has thrown firebrands into legislative halls, both of the state and general governments; millions are expended every year in angry debates; laws for the good of the people are neglected; time, talents, and money thrown away; prejudice, strife, and wrath, and every evil passion stirred up until the integrity of the union of our happy country is in imminent danger; and what has it all amounted to? Not one poor slave set free: not one dollar expended to colonize them and send them home happy and free; and such is the unchristian, excited prejudice, that mobs are fast becoming the order of the day. Presses demolished; preachers of the Gospel, hailing from free states, are hunted down by blood-hounds in human shape; they are tarred and feathered, and threatened with the rope if they do not leave in a few hours; and such is the prejudice produced by the angry and unchristian fulminating thunders of this one-eyed and one-idead, run-mad procedure, that the Gospel is well-nigh totally denied in slave states to both owners and slaves in many places.
But I think I hear you say, Let slaveholding preachers preach to these slaves and slaveholders. But if slavery is a sin in all circumstances, how can slaveholding preachers successfully preach the Gospel to these poor sinners? Well, say you, let the devil take them all. O no, God forbid! there surely must be a better way; these poor slaves surely are not to blame for their condition. Are there no bowels of mercy to yearn over them? Many of these slaveholders, from circumstances beyond their control, are not radically slaveholding sinners; above all men that dwell in the South, they are entitled to our pity and commiseration, and we should surely carry the Gospel to them, and our skirts will not be clear of their blood if we do not.
Do we reclaim drunkards by telling them that they steal their rum, and lie in the meanest way of all men to get their intoxicating beverages? No, verily; we pity them, reason with them, and knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men; and when all moral suasion fails, do we say drunkenness is the open door to all sins, and therefore it is the sum of all villainies, and that they cannot be made Christians? No. When all moral suasion fails we try by legal enactments to put the temptation out of their way, and urge them to become Christians. Do we induce sinners to reform, repent, and be converted, by abusing them, and telling them of all their dirty deeds, and saying it is impossible for persons guilty of such dirty crimes to become Christians? No, we warn them, in a Christian spirit and temper, to flee the wrath to come; we assure them that the happy gates of Gospel grace stand open night and day, and that Christ will turn none away empty that will come unto him; for whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. And we urge them to seek the Lord while he may be found, and call upon him while he is near.
I blame no man for believing that slavery is wrong and a great evil, and every reasonable man must deprecate its existence; and I know that there are thousands of our Southern slaveholding citizens that not only believe, but know from daily experience, that it is a great evil, and would willingly make any reasonable sacrifice to rid themselves and their happy country of it. And I believe, from more than twenty years' experience as a traveling preacher in slave states, that the most successful way to ameliorate the condition of the slaves, and Christianize them, and finally secure their freedom, is to treat their owners kindly, and not to meddle politically with slavery. Let their owners see and know that your whole mission is the salvation of the slaves as well as their owners, and that you have not established any underground railroad, and that it is not your mission to abduct their slaves. In this way more is to be done for the final extirpation of American slavery than all others put together, for these ultraists breathe nothing but death and slaughter.
I will further state that it is my firm conviction that every Methodist preacher sent as a missionary herald to labor in slave territory, ought to be instructed by the ruling authorities of the Church not to meddle with slavery, but to attend strictly to his spiritual mission. This is the way the Wesleyan mission committee instructed their missionaries sent to labor in the West Indies, where slavery abounded in its worst forms; and if those missionaries were known to disobey those instructions, they were immediately recalled; and although these missionaries were tied up to the one grand object of Christianizing the people, yet finally the Gospel leaven so mightily worked, that slavery was abolished, and universal freedom triumphed and prevailed. Let us hope that this will be the case with American slavery; and after having expended all our wrath without availing anything worth talking about, let us now henceforth use Christian weapons, and Christian weapons alone, and the mighty monster will fall.
I do solemnly declare, that no circumstance ever occurred concerning the welfare of the Church, which afflicted me so sorely as the transactions of the General Conference of 1844. It seemed to me that I could not survive under the painful fact that the Methodist Church must be divided, and all the time of the protracted debates I knew, if the Southern preachers failed to carry the point they had fixed, namely, the tolerance of slaveholding in the episcopacy, that they would fly the track, and set up for themselves. And in that event, many souls would be injured, and perhaps turn back to perdition; and that war and strife would prevail among brethren that once were united as a brotherly band, and that they must of necessity become a slavery Church. And I the more deeply regretted it because any abomination sanctified by the priesthood, would take a firmer hold on the community, and that this very circumstance would the longer perpetuate the evil of slavery, and perhaps would be the entering wedge to the dissolution of our glorious Union; and perhaps the downfall of this great republic. And though I stood alone among the delegates, my colleagues, of my own beloved Illinois Conference, in my vote against all these revolutionary and divisive measures in the General Conference, it afforded me great pleasure to learn that my course in the General Conference was approved by an overwhelming majority of the preachers and members of our conference. And it still affords me unspeakable pleasure to know that I shall not have to answer before my final Judge for the sin of dividing the Methodist Episcopal Church, a Church that, under God, I am indebted to for all I have and am; a Church that I have spent a long life in trying to build up, and for the prosperity of which I have made sacrifices, and in the communion of which I have enjoyed so many unspeakable privileges, and all the comfort and pleasure, worth calling so, in this life.
This Church I love, and want no other on earth, and in her fellowship I hope to live and die, and with her members, and all other fellow-Christians, I hope to spend a blissful eternity in adoring God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, in the enjoyment of redeeming grace and dying love.