A Methodist Cloud of Witnesses

Scripture: Mark 3:13-19; Hebrews 12:1-2

Once in a while, I will recount pieces of our Methodist story to you.  I know well that we who gather here each week consider ourselves personally Methodist to greatly varying degrees, but our Methodist story and history has shaped who we are as a church, both here in this place and as part of a bigger church.  It provides a theological lens through which I preach, and if we let it, I believe that it can call us back to our mission today.

It’s also, as usually told, a pretty white story.

It is, after all, a story that starts with two brothers in England in the 18th century, and probably about reflects the limited diversity of the circles they moved in.  But that is also far from the whole story, and so today in honor of Black History Month I want to tell you another piece of it, and to introduce you to some of the people beyond the white Europeans who helped shape the church we have today.  I first want to acknowledge my main source for what I’m going to tell you today, Black People in the Methodist Church: Whither Thou Goest? by William B. McClain.

I just said the usual “white” Methodist story reflects the diversity of John and Charles Wesley’s world, but even that isn’t completely true.  Almost from the beginning, the Methodist movement counted people of color among its ranks.  John Wesley wrote in his journal in 1758 that he had baptized two slaves from Antigua – the first “African” Christians he had ever known.  He doesn’t record their names, only that they belonged to a Mr. Nathaniel Gilbert, and judging from his use of pronouns at least one of them was a woman; but he does record that they were so filled with zeal and enthusiasm from this new experience of God’s grace that they went back home and converted Nathaniel Gilbert, who later became a Methodist preacher.  When the three returned to Antigua, they started the first Methodist meeting in the “New World,” and by 1786, only two of its 1500+ members were white.

The Methodist movement came to the American colonies in the 1760s, and in 1784, in the wake of the American Revolution, officially became the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The movement from its inception in England had tended to attract poorer, less educated people, who were drawn to the dynamic, plain-language preaching and the emphasis on an experience of grace, rather than the heady high-church services they were used to. The early Methodist movement in America was no exception, and it began to attract both slaves and free black folks, among others – it also helped that Wesley and many early Methodists were fervently anti-slavery.  (“That execrable sum of all villainies,” Wesley once described it.) The first Methodist Society in the colonies was begun in 1764 in Frederick County, MD, and included on its rolls Anne Sweitzer, a slave belonging to the Sweitzer family.  A few years later when the John Street Society started meeting in New York City, one of its charter members was Betty, a black servant of the founding preacher’s cousin.  Multiple white leaders of Methodist societies wrote about how impressed they were with the number of black people coming to meetings.  Some of the black Americans who joined the movement also went back and converted their masters.  (Conversion doesn’t necessarily seem to have meant that those slaveholders released their slaves.)

Even so, the idea that back in the 1760s and 1770s Methodists were having integrated worship gatherings is a pretty powerful one to me.  It didn’t last long; at the John Street Society, for example, a balcony was eventually put in so blacks and whites could sit separately.  But it makes me think about how church can and should be a place where these social boundaries and hierarchies are rendered powerless in light of our identity in Christ – and how easy it is for churches to become places that uphold and theologically justify those boundaries instead.  We have not been immune to that.  But the best parts of our Methodist heritage at least point us in the direction of inclusion and equality, and call us to a higher standard than the world around us on those things.

One thing the Methodist movement did that some other churches didn’t was allow black folks to preach as lay preachers. (It allowed women to be lay preachers, too.)  Later some places passed laws forbidding black people to preach, so the Methodists sent them out as “exhorters” instead.  These black preachers went out and preached and converted others, largely slaves, and they became in effect the pastors of their own congregations.  And they were good. Some of them became known as “Sons of Thunder,” from the passage we just heard where two of Jesus’ disciples get that nickname.

One of these “Sons of Thunder” was Harry Hoosier, also known as “Black Harry.”  He was a free black man who happened to meet Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury sometime around 1780, when he was working as a carriage driver.  Asbury noticed that though Hoosier couldn’t read or write, he had a gift for both memorization and speaking, and he began to teach him the Bible and train him as a preacher.  One Methodist historian wrote that while Hoosier continued to sometimes serve as a carriage driver for his more prominent white Methodist counterparts, “he excelled all of his masters in popularity as a preacher” (41). Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said that “making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America.”  Someone else noted in a letter that while Harry Hoosier officially preached to black people, white people always hung around to listen, too.

Harry Hoosier was in attendance at the Christmas Conference of 1784, when the Methodist Episcopal Church was born. He was not allowed to vote.

Also in attendance was Richard Allen, a former slave who was licensed as a Methodist preacher at that conference.  Instead of becoming a traveling preacher like Harry Hoosier, he moved to Philadelphia and became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he got to preach the early services – 5 am, attended by black folks.  As Allen’s services grew, the white congregants of St. George’s decided to restrict him to a separate area of the church, which he justifiably did not take kindly to.  In 1787 he and fellow preacher Absalom Jones led their congregants in a walk out from St. George’s and never looked back.  They bought land and built their own church.  This was the beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

It seems to me that in the ongoing fight against evil, injustice, and oppression, there can – potentially – be multiple faithful responses.  One is the response that says I refuse to stay and stand for this anymore, I won’t let my presence lend legitimacy to what you are doing.  The other says I’ll stay; I’ll work for change from the inside; I’ll let people see through experience and relationship that they were wrong about me.  One was the path of Richard Allen; one was (arguably) the path of Harry Hoosier.  Both, are parts of our story.

I mentioned before that early Methodists were anti-slavery.  But as the Methodist Episcopal Church became more established, it began to make compromises.  In 1780, back before there was an official denomination, the Baltimore Conference of Methodist Societies asked the question: Does this conference acknowledge that slavery is contrary to the law of God, man and nature and harmful to society?  They voted yes.  Then they asked: Ought not this conference require those traveling preachers who hold slaves to give promise to set them free?  Again, they voted yes.  And in 1784 when the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, they voted that they considered it their “bounded duty to take immediately some effectual method to extirpate this abomination from among us.” (57)

Spoiler alert, they never extirpated it.  By 1785 – one year later – they changed things so that this rule only applied as much as it was consistent with the laws of individual states.  In 1808, the rule against slaveholding was struck from the Methodist books altogether.  And it wasn’t long before slavery as an institution was being justified theologically.  As William McClain writes, “Compromises which had once tortured the conscience became virtuous in themselves.”

The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) did eventually split over the question of whether slaveholding was acceptable.  That was in 1844, and the church became the MEC and the MEC South – clearly, mirroring divisions in the country as a whole at the time, which the church can be so good at doing.  To me it’s interesting to think about this history in light of the present reality of the United Methodist Church, in which we are standing on the brink of a split again, this time over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people.  They’re not the same issue, and I think we can argue about what parallels can and can’t be drawn, but to me this part of our story is a good reminder that compromise and staying together aren’t ultimate goods in themselves.  Certainly God wants us to share and model a higher unity in Christ despite our political differences; and certainly many of us would look back and say it’s better to split than to compromise the witness of the whole church around something like slavery and the inherent worth and freedom of God’s children.

Of course, we can’t just implicate the Southern church here; the American North has historically never lacked for its own share of racism.  As the Civil War drew to an end, and the MEC (North) thought about how to incoporate freed slaves into their church, they decided to establish black missionary conferences, which essentially meant that black people had their own churches and church governance system, but of course under the umbrella of white denominational leadership.  At first these missionary conferences did not have the right to send delegates to General Conference, but two years later a couple conferences sent delegates anyway, so James Davis of Delaware and Benjamin Brown of Washington were the first two black people to have a vote at General Conference.

In 1920, Robert E. Jones was elected as one of the first two black bishops in the Methodist Episcopal Church, still under this missionary system.  He later became the first black bishop in the reunified Methodist Church.

When the MEC and MEC South finally united again in 1939 and became the Methodist Church, this missionary conference structure was institutionalized in what was known as the Central Jurisdiction.  The church – today, still – is divided into jurisdictions, comprised of annual conferences: for example, we are in the Virginia Conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.  What the Central Jurisdiction did was take the black churches all over the country and make them part of one big separate jurisdiction, in a fully segregated church.  One delegate recorded that when this plan was adopted, the white delegates got up and sang “Marching to Zion,” while the black delegates remained seated and wept (75).

When do you think the Central Jurisdiction was finally abolished? 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren and became the United Methodist Church.

Nothing justifies institutionalized segregration.  Still, Bishop Jones and other leaders in the Central Jurisdiction did a lot to build a robust black Methodist Church on their own.  They supported black colleges and seminaries, established religious retreat centers, and built up the Methodist Church in Liberia; women’s mission groups flourished.  Some leaders saw the situation as an opportunity, while still hoping it could lead to something more. Bishop Jones said at the first meeting of the Central Jurisdiction in 1940: “We of the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church have an advantage for the promotion of interracial Christian brotherhood which is not held by any other religious group of people” (88).  In other words, the connection that did exist between white and black churches and white and black Christians wouldn’t have been possible between two different denominations.  There were other leaders who took a more biting approach, such as Bishop Alexander P. Shaw, who said “We consider [the plan] expedient only on account of the Christian childhood of some American Methodists who need a little cuddling until they can grow into full grown manhood and womanhood in Christ Jesus.” (90)

The church has come a long way since then.  And it hasn’t.  Kind of like our country as a whole.  The legacy of racism is one that is not easily shaken.

In 1968, with the Central Jurisdiction abolished, the way was finally opened for black Methodists to be leaders over the whole church.  Here I want to introduce you also to Bishop Leontine Kelly.

She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and the wife of a Methodist minister, and when her second husband died, she became a Certified Lay Speaker herself, and was eventually ordained and served right here in the Virginia Conference.  In 1984 she became the second woman and first black woman to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church.  She was elected by the Western Jurisdiction, despite opposition from her own Southeastern Jurisdiction, which by the way wouldn’t elect a black female bishop until 2016 when our own current bishop, Sharma Lewis, was elected.[1]  Bishop Kelly grew up with parents who were strong advocates for black people and for women, and she carried that legacy into her own work as a trailblazer in the UMC.

This is our Methodist story as much as John and Charles Wesley are our Methodist story.

It’s a complicated story: one that has both good and bad things to say about us as a church, from abolitionism to institutionalized racism.  The United Methodist Church still has this legacy of racism and segregation to contend with.  Racism and segregation are hardly unique to our story, but they are part of it.  The United Methodist Church today is still something like 90% white in the US, though membership is growing in African and the Philippines even as it declines here (which makes for some interesting global dynamics at times, since our denominational structure still assumes a church centered in America.)  Just because you change the rules officially doesn’t make things automatically inclusive or just; that takes a lot more time and intentionality and listening, but often changing the rules is enough to make us think we don’t have more work to do.  Just because everyone is allowed doesn’t mean everyone will feel welcome, or everyone’s leadership will be honored.

I hope this story helps us contend with that history a bit, but I also want to lift up these faithful people who are part of our Methodist story.  Some of them worked within the institution to strengthen the church with the tools allowed to them, never giving up on the hope of greater justice.  Some broke barriers and challenged other people’s assumptions and prejudice.  Some broke free of a structure that never reflected God’s will for the church.

All of them used their God-given gifts to build up God’s church.  And all of them called, and continue to call, the church to something greater: to be a place where human rules and boundaries and hierarchies can be rendered powerless in the name of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this great cloud of witnesses, who still accompany us on our journey.


[1] https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishop-leontine-kelly-dies-at-92

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