Methodist Families: A Review of Three Recent Books

Christopher Jones

Anna M. Lawrence. One Family Under God: Love, Belonging, and Authority in Early Transatlantic Methodism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011.

Charity R. Carney. Ministers and Masters: Methodism, Manhood, and Honor in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 2011.

Mark Auslander. The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2011.

Note: I first read Anna Lawrence’s book last summer and planned on reviewing it at the time. As I prepared to post my thoughts, though, I became aware of the pending release of Charity Carney’s book and decided to hold off and review the books together. And then, while browsing the UGA Press Catalog for Fall 2011, I came across The Accidental Slaveowner, and figured it might be worthwhile to review all three together. I’m now posting my review of all three before another book dealing with Methodism and the family is published. Unfortunately, reviewing all three together means this review is a bit lengthymy apologies, but all three books deserve the attention. Thanks to Paul Harvey and the presses who provided a copy of each book for review for their patience. --CCJ

In One Family Under God, Anna Lawrence takes a cue from 18th century Methodists themselves and uses “family” to refer to both biological families and the religious family of “brothers” and “sisters,” “fathers” and “mothers,” converts to Methodism joined. Citing religious families’ “elastic … ideas of membership,” “flexibility of familial association” that emphasized choice, and their “exaltation of the ‘soul mate’ as a central consideration for marriage,” she argues for a reassessment of “the formation of the modern family” that privileges evangelical contributions to that process (2).

In the eighteenth century, Methodists and other evangelicals both challenged existing notions of family by expanding its meaning and also led the shift toward what are today recognized as conservative domestic values. Their ability to do so was a result of their careful positioning of themselves within the larger society. “Unlike Moravians, Methodists never sought to create separate Methodist settlements,” Lawrence explains. “They lived with within communities and families that held different, often conflicting, values” (100). Early chapters examine the place of family and families in conversion narratives, church organization, and Methodist sermons and publications, while later chapters focus on Methodist (and anti-Methodist) discourse about sexuality and its actual practice as manifest in Methodist marriages and ministerial and lay celibacy. Especially good is Lawrence’s consideration of both male and female celibacy. John Wesley and other Methodists departed from other Protestants in promoting the practice (if sometimes only temporarily). Far from copying the much-despised Catholics, though, Wesley emphasized not only the religious motivations for sexual abstinence (male itinerants and female exhorters alike could remain focused solely on their ministry) but also the more practical temporal concerns (the difficulty of supporting a family on an itinerant’s meager earnings). Once ministers located and/or retired from the ministry, they could and did settle down and start families of their own.

Unlike others who have focused their analyses of religious families on the very local communities they joined and in which they worshipped and lived, Lawrence argues that the Methodist family transcended these local ties by seeking to organize and unite adherents throughout the Atlantic world into “one family under God.” This explicitly transatlantic focus builds on the work of David Hempton and others in looking beyond national borders in narrating the story of early Methodism and is a welcome addition (although it unfortunately ignores Canada and the Caribbean). The final chapter explores the political and social realities Methodists faced during the American Revolution, a conflict that within the Methodist community became “a struggle between Wesley and ‘his sons’” (192). When American Methodists separated from their British brothers and sisters and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, they became something akin to cousins instead of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and siblings living in distant locales. The ever-increasing number of black slaves and free people of color who converted to Methodism presented American Methodists with new challenges and opportunities in defining familial roles. While Methodism allowed for some mobility for African Americans, black preachers were always seen as little brothers and black laypeople as children, never the spiritual “fathers” and “mothers in Israel” their white counterparts understood themselves to be.

Over time, the issues of race and slavery divided Methodists in America into northern and southern factions. Even as Methodists exerted an impact on developing notions of family, the powerful forces of local community and regional culture in turn affected them. Charity Carney’s book picks up at this point. Focused less on families and more on Methodist notions of masculinity and manhood, Ministers and Masters nevertheless complements Lawrence’s book quite well. As Paul noted in his brief summary of the book last month, Carney argues that “the combination of cultural influences and Methodist disciplinary practices created a distinctive manhood for ministers who were eager to prove their masculinity as southern men and their spiritual purity and authority as southern ministers” (13). Marking a distinct departure from the eighteenth century precedent described by Lawrence, Methodist men in the nineteenth century South came to reject celibacy as an ideal and instead embraced their identity as southern patriarchs. But this didn’t make them any less Methodist. Drawing upon the legacy of Francis Asbury (if somewhat selectively), Carney explains, they “felt the need to prove themselves as powerful patriarchs while also submitting to church discipline,” thus “caus[ing] the MEC, South to buttress patriarchal (and, by extension, episcopal) authority and gradually push aside debates over democracy and equality” (42). Thus staking out something of a middle ground within southern culture, Methodist preachers established “a new type of patriarchy in the South,” highly moralistic and thoroughly manly. Methodists, for example, “deplored dueling, but their doctrine did not exempt them from the rituals of confrontation promoted by southern patriarchy,” and “clergymen still incorporated elements of the duel into their rhetoric” (23). This southern Methodist masculinity was evident in the ministers’ defense of the episcopacy, their interactions with non-Methodist rivals and challengers, their poverty, and their theology. It was also evident in their domestic lives, and Carney carefully examines attitudes toward wives, toward children, and toward slaves in succeeding chapters. In each instance, the Methodist stance was one that simultaneously upheld and challenged southern norms. Wives of Methodist ministers were thus expected to not only be spiritual and moral guardians, but also “thrifty, healthy, pleasant, well-educated, and submissive” so as to be best suited for “the itinerant lifestyle” (85). Children, meanwhile, were sometimes portrayed as “models of piety and spirituality” whose disobedience to parental rule was justified by appeals that privileged piety over ungodly patriarchy (91). Nevertheless, the ideal remained a Methodist father presiding over his strong but submissive wife and obedient children.

Meanwhile, “ministers adopted the idea of slaveholder paternalism but combined it with an egalitarian religious ideal.” They “continued to support both white superiority and spiritual equality, two concepts suspended in fundamental tension within the Methodist worldview” (117). This increasingly distinct sense of southern Methodist masculinity—especially as it related to slavery—ran into and against their ministerial colleagues in the North, culminating in the 1844 split of the MEC into Northern and Southern organizations. The man at the center of the controversy—Bishop James O. Andrew—looms large in Carney’s book. His many writings provide wonderful evidence and examples of several of her main points. Somewhat surprisingly, though, she ignores a key element of Andrew’s life and the 1844 schism—the accusations of his illicit affair with one of his female slaves, “Kitty.”

That subject is taken up, though, in the third book reviewed here. Mark Auslander’s The Accidental Slaveowner investigates the episode and the way competing memories of it have shaped life in the town of Oxford, Georgia, where Andrews lived in 1844. Bishop Andrew’s ownership of Kitty and other slaves stood at the center of the controversy, and white residents of Oxford from then until now have embraced a particular version of that story, in which the Bishop inherited slaves that he could not legally manumit. When offered her freedom, Kitty--out of loyalty to Andrew--volunteered to remain in slavery instead of being shipped to Liberia, thus signaling the reciprocal bonds of friendship and respect that united master and slave. Black residents of Oxford, however, have consistently contested that memory, passing down through the generations an alternative history in which “Kitty was the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew, and the Bishop was the father of her children” (171). An anthropologist, Auslander is interested in not only the “myth” at hand (the history and its contested memory), but also “ritual” and “place” (the way that history is reflected in the relationships, values, practices, and local landscape of Oxford. He thus spends considerable time examining (among other things) the white-run “Kitty’s Cottage” (a small museum and historical site school kids visit) and the racially segregated cemetery that he, his wife, and a group of their students from Oxford College worked with community members to beautify and repair. Interested primarily in “the long-term consequences of this peculiar mythologized geography for local white and African American families,” Auslander argues that “the varied versions of the Kitty myth … may be understood as a series of attempts to resolve the fundamentally irresolvable paradoxes of blood and law posed by slavery” (34). Central to his narrative, then, is family, and if one can tolerate the occasional lapses into theory-laden anthropological jargon, that narrative if well worth reading.

In addition to providing a thoroughly-researched and critical look at James Andrew’s relationship with Kitty (Auslander concludes that he is “inclined to trust the oral historical accounts that have been passed down in the Oxford black community … that Kitty was sexually involved with Bishop Andrew under conditions that were not of her own choosing” (201)) and its conflicted legacy in Oxford and beyond, he also provides biographical portraits of the other known slaves owned by Andrews, traces the fascinating story of Kitty’s offspring, and even managed to track down some of her living descendants (who knew nothing of their ancestor and her central role in American and Methodist history). Methodist families, we are reminded, were interracial not only in the metaphorical sense of denominational family but also sometimes in the biological and sexual sense, too. Auslander’s analysis thus points to an important component of Methodist patriarchy—the coercive power that often underlay its claims to both ecclesiastical and sexual authority. As Paul Harvey, Ed Blum, Charles Irons, and others have demonstrated, evangelical religion in the American South cannot be properly understood without consideration of the ways in which black and white religionists reciprocally shaped each other’s experiences. The same appears to be true of evangelical families, too.

Unfortunately (at least for the purposes of this review), Auslander is less interested in exploring what is uniquely Methodist about his subjects. In his reading, “the white story of Kitty and Bishop Andrew … presents in microcosm the idealized image of the Christian plantation, in which a benevolent white master oversees a community of loyal bondservants bound together in Christian matrimony” (25). This may be an accurate assessment, but bringing it into conversation with Carney’s more nuanced reading of Methodist masculinity and Anna Lawrence’s exploration of early Methodist families might illuminate the narrative in important ways.

All three books deserve to be read by anyone interested in race, religion, gender, and the family. Each succeeds in taking Methodist history beyond linear narratives of its early growth and eventual accommodation to American society and collectively point to family, gender, and race as crucial to understanding the movement in all of its regional and chronological manifestations. 


Curtis J. Evans said…
thanks for these very helpful reviews. Seems like these works build on in important ways books such as Donald Mathews', "Religion in the Old South," and Christine Heryman's "Southern Cross," both of which give a central place to Methodists and advance an argument about the significance of a move away from a general valoration of celibacy and the exemplary figure of a single itinerant minister charging into the frontier to that of the ideal of a more settled and formed family (as a model of piety and the locus of religion formation. Of course, Heryman suggests that church discipline, with its intense intervention in the personal lives of devout Methodists, eventually gave up some of these functions to the internal "judgment" of the family. I look forward to reading these books and perhaps incorporating some of their particular insights into my "Christianity and Slavery Class."
Mrk Auslander said…
Thanks, I appreciate the review of my book "The Accidental Slaveowner." One point of historical correction: Bishop Andrew did not offer multiple enslaved people their freedom. The only one of the 45 or so enslaved persons whom he owned during his life to whom he offered freedom was Miss Kitty (Catherine Boyd). She declined in December 1841 the possibility of being sent to Liberia and thus remained enslaved in Oxford, Georgia for the rest of her life. Her three children remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War. Thanks-Mark Auslander
Christopher said…
Thanks, Curtis. I'm glad the reviews were helpful.

And thanks for commenting and offering that correction, Dr. Auslander. I've updated the post.