The Last Time Methodists Split: A Primary Source

Elesha Coffman

The United Methodist church may be heading for a split over LGBTQ inclusion and the interpretation of Scripture. American religious historians might remember that this church split before, in 1844, over the issue of slavery. In poking around the 1844 history, I ran across the General Conference speech of the man at the center of that crisis, Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia, who had become a slaveholder by marrying a widow who had inherited slaves from her previous husband. Northern Methodists pressed for a resolution that no slaveholder should serve as bishop; Southern Methodists deemed this move a galling overreach. Andrew's speech complicates the true but perhaps overly stark picture of slaveholding Christianity that one gets from, say, the relevant documents in R. Marie Griffith's American Religions reader (Frederick Douglass, from Narrative of the Life of an American Slave; Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South; and George D. Armstrong, from The Christian Doctrine of Slavery). The speech appears in many Methodist sources, including this one, but is not, I think, well known elsewhere. Some highlights:

"Strange as it may seem to brethren, I am a slaveholder for conscience' sake. I have no doubt that my wife would, without a moment's hesitation, consent to the manumission of those slaves, if I thought proper to do it. I know she would unhesitatingly consent to any arrangement I might deem it proper to make on the subject. But how am I to free them? Some of them are old, too old to work to support themselves, and are only an expense to me; and some of them are little children: where shall I send these, and who will provide for them? But, perhaps, I shall be permitted to keep these; but then, if the others go, how shall I provide for these helpless ones? and as to the others, to what free state shall I send them? and what would be their condition? ... I believe the providence of God has thrown these creatures into my hands, and holds me responsible for their proper treatment."

Lots of questions raised here. Did Andrew accurately represent his options and those of his slaves? How might Andrew's wife have responded to Grimke's "Appeal"? Also relevant to the marital dynamic was Andrew's assertion that the slaves were his wife's only means of support in her widowhood, and they would become so again if Andrew died, because, as a lifelong Methodist minister, he had amassed no other wealth.

"I stand on the broad ground of the Discipline on which I took office, and if I have done wrong, put me out. The editor of the Christian Advocate has prejudged this case. He makes me the scape-goat of all the difficulties which abolition excitement has gotten up at the north. I am the only one to blame, in his opinion, should mischief grow out of this case. But I repeat, if I have sinned against the Discipline, I refuse not to die. I have spent my life for the benefit of the slaves. When I was but a boy, I taught a Sunday-school for slaves, in which I taught a number of them to read; and from that period till this day I have devoted my energies to the promotion of their happiness and salvation; with all my influence in private, in public, with my tongue, with my pen, I have assiduously endeavored to promote their present and eternal happiness. And am I to be sacrificed by those who have done little or nothing for them?"

Whether the Methodist Book of Discipline spoke to the issue of a slaveholding bishop was the specific matter before the 1844 assembly. The Book of Discipline is at the center of the UMC's current debates as well, but in both cases there are larger, regional matters at stake. Northerners and Southerners both thought they knew what was best for African Americans, but, for the most part, only Southerners had regular contact with them. (African Methodists in the North had already formed their own denominations, as a result of ill-treatment by white Northern Methodists.) Did that matter? Should it have mattered? Also, note the role of media--the Christian Advocate--in framing, and attempting to influence, the controversy.

"The conference can take its course; but I protest against the proposed action as a violation of the laws of the Discipline, and an invasion of the rights secured to me by that book. Yet let the conference take the steps they contemplate; I enter no plea for mercy--I make no appeal for sympathy; indeed, I love those who sympathize with me, but I do not want it now. I wish you to act coolly and deliberately, and in the fear of God; but I would rather that the conference change the issue, and make the resolution to depose the bishop, and take the question at once, for I am tired of it. The country is becoming agitated upon the subject, and I hope the conference will act forthwith on the resolution."

What strikes me here is both the "rights" language one would expect from a man in the early Republic and Andrew's apparent weariness. To borrow the title of a 1979 work of legal scholarship, sometimes the process is the punishment. Though no current leaders in the United Methodist Church would agree with Andrew's stance on slavery, a few might agree with him there.


Christopher said…
Thanks, Elesha. This reminds me of (and serves as a nice follow-up) to Charity Carney's 2014 post here at RiAH on the same subject:
Unknown said…
Thanks for this, Elesha. It's always fascinating to consider the limits of radicalism and reform movements, or the conservative ways in which radicalism might be expressed. I've seen this trend in the journal of Abner Woolman (, an 18th-century Quaker who sympathized with African American slaves and wanted abolition. At the same time, Abner was sort of sluggish about emancipating two slaves he inherited, he did not encourage all Quakers to free their slaves (viewing emancipation as an individual matter of conscience), and he did not see African Americans as spiritually equal to whites. The short answer is, people are complicated; the long answer is, although we may sympathize with particular aspects of past individuals, there will be nuances of thought and additional perspectives that seem alien to us today.
Louise Knight said…
Thanks for this good post. You ask, "How might Andrew's wife have responded to Grimke's 'Appeal'"? My guess is that she likely would have responded the way that Angelina Grimke's own mother, a lifelong slaveowner, did to her daughter's forceful, Biblically-based arguments. Mrs. Grimke rejected Angelina's personal pleas to free her slaves. They debated the question in the year before Angelina moved north to Philadelphia, five years before Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, and six years before she wrote her first "Appeal." Mrs. Grimke rejected Angelina's argument that her soul, upon her death, was going to hell for owning slaves. In Mrs. Grimke's view (as in her husband's, though he had died some years before, leaving her the legal slaveowner), slaves were of an inferior race who possessed no right to liberty. In my forthcoming book about the Grimke sisters, to be published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 2020, I'll write more about this. For info, see Louise W Knight

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