One of my pet peeves is the assertion that the church was wrong on slavery, specifically the Methodist church. There are examples from the early church that proves there was not an endorsement of slavery, but I shall leave that for another time to focus on our Methodist heritage. Let’s start with John Wesley who was an ardent opponent of slavery (a simple google search about Wesley on slavery will reveal more sources than I care to list) as were the early Methodists in the United States. Allow me to quote a rather long passage from “The Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America 1778
Quest. WHAT regulations shall be made for the extirpation of
the crying evil of African slavery?
Answ. 1. We declare, that we are more than ever convinced of the great evil of the African slavery which still exists in these United States; and do most earnestly recommend to the yearly conferences, quarterly meeting, and to those who have the oversight of districts and circuits, to be exceedingly cautious what persons they admit to official stations in our church; and in the case of future admission to official stations, to require such security of those who hold slaves, for the emancipation of them, immediately or gradually, as the laws of the states respectively, and the circumstances of the case will admit: and we do fully authorise all the yearly conferences to make whatever regulations they judge proper, in the present case, respecting the admission of persons to official stations in our church. 2. No slave-holder shall be received into society, till the preacher who has the oversight of the circuit, has spoken to him freely and faithfully on the subject of slavery. 3. Every member of the society who sells a slave, shall immediately, after full proof, be excluded the society. And if any member of our society purchase a slave, the ensuing quarterly meeting shall determine on the number of years, in which the slave so purchased would work out the price of his purchase. And the person so purchasing, shall immediately after such determination, execute a legal instrument for the manumission of such slave, at the expiration of the term determined by the quarterly meeting. And in default of his executing such instrument of manumission, or on his refusal to submit his case to the judgment of the quarterly meeting, such member shall be excluded the society. Provided also, That in the case of a female slave, it shall be inserted in the aforesaid instrument of manumission, that all her children who shall be born during the years of her servitude, shall be free at the following times, namely—every female child at the age of twenty-one, and every male child at the age of twentyfive.—Nevertheless, if the member of our society, executing the said instrument of manumission, judge it proper, he may fix the times of manumission of the children of the female slaves before mentioned, at an earlier age than that which is prescribed above. 4. The preachers and other members of our society are requested to consider the subject of negro-slavery with deep attention, till the ensuing general conference; and that they impart to the general conference, through the medium of the yearly conferences, or otherwise, any important thoughts upon the subject, that the conference may have full light, in order to take further steps towards the eradicating this enormous evil from that part of the church of God to which they are united.
Hard to argue that the early Methodists were anything except against slavery.
Lest we ignore our heritage, the United Brethren of Christ (parent of the EUB as well has having close ties to Methodists) took hard stances against slavery by not allowing members to sell a slave, and by 1837 ruled that slave owners could not continue in membership.
Now let’s be honest here. It was a struggle in the Methodist church. Annual conferences and local congregations struggled with and debated the issue. It was a time of strife all over. I would be remiss if I did not say so, yet, the church remained opposed to slavery. In 1844 everything comes to a head when a bishop (one of five at the time) named James O. Andrew had acquired slaves by marriage. The General Conference voted to suspend the Bishop for such time as he could not or would not free his slaves. A few days after this, those who did not agree drafted a plan of separation and that was that. There is the brief overview of Methodism and slavery.
There are many who like to compare our current struggles in dealing with LGBTQ questions with the Church’s struggle with slavery. I agree with them to a point, there are indeed parallels to it, especially in the history of how and why things occurred. I suspect that we would be better off if the General Conference still had the power and ability to suspend rogue bishops. We may indeed have split by now if they did, but I suspect this would have been settled by now.
In finishing this up, I too want to suggest that we look at the actual history of what happened. The split happened because there were those who refused to submit to the authority of the church. The split did not occur because there were those who wanted to abolish slavery as a moral stand, but because of those who believed the exact opposite. The church had taken a strong moral stand against slavery and those for slavery left. That is the history of the matter. The split was not because there was a group of deeply moral people who could not tolerate slavery so they left, but rather because a group of people was unwilling to submit to the authority of the General Conference. Sound familiar?