What does slavery have to do with it?

It seems rather impossible to have a conversation about human sexuality within the UMC (I could stop this sentence here in reality) without slavery coming up. There is an apparent need to equate the two which is really silly. “Further, let us not confuse this with slavery, as only the most disingenuous reader of Scripture and Christian doctrine will confuse the two.” (Joel Watts MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary). I am not even going to say much more about the two issues in scripture past what has already been said above. What I do want to do is look at what the history of the Methodist church can teach us from what happened with slavery.

From the beginning, American Methodism had been staunchly against slavery. That did not change. ” The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America” spoke against it, instructed pastors to speak against it, told pastors not to admit slave owners to positions of authority, and went so far as to say that anyone selling a slave should be expelled from the society of Methodists, and more. There can be little doubt that the Methodist Episcopal Church was abolitionist in it’s make up and instruction. If we are being honest though, there was a different understanding of scripture that was present in some. A different interpretation if you will. It is well known that there were those who believed, wrongly, that slavery was allowable, and even encouraged, in scripture. Unfortunately, by 1830, the Methodist Episcopal Church was still against slavery, except that it had allowed a different interpretation to take root and influence the practice, if not the faith statements. The UMC website describes it this way: “However, by the 1830s, strong anti-slavery sentiments had given way to grudging acceptance and silence on the part of much of the church.” What happened here, in effect, was an agree to disagree stance on an issue that the church had a clear teaching about. The silence kept the church together because they felt they were better together presumably. No need to argue, just live and let live for the majority of the church. Some, such as Bishop Gilbert Haven, fought staunchly to end slavery and to uphold the teachings of the church, but most had a sort of middle road do as you wish understanding. 

From the beginning though, the Methodist Episcopal church experienced division over slavery and segregation. In 1787, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia withdraws leading to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The issue? Segregation. In 1796 a group splits from John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York leading to the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion. Both are still strong Methodist denominations. Both are brothers and sisters in the faith. You can, and should, read about the history of the AME, and the AME Zion church on their respective websites. What do they have in common? Methodists were not living into the faith that the church had taught and stated as true and instead committed to a more middle of the road and do as you will sort of practice. In 1834, The Wesleyan Methodist church forms over the unwillingness of the Methodist Episcopal church to take a firm stance against slavery. Finally in 1844, The MEC South splits away because of a Bishop who refused to follow the teachings of the church as contained in the discipline. The reason? He owned slaves and would not get rid of them. So what? It matters of course because it is our history, but what is there to learn about today?

Our history teaches us that when the Methodist church moves away from strong statements of faith in favor of allowing ‘different interpretations’ on issues of importance, the result is discord, and eventual separation. Our history teaches us that when the standards that the church has set are violated without effective response, we have rogue Bishops subscribing to a faith that differs from the faith of our founders, and that said Bishops will lead us to separation. Our history teaches us that when Methodist unity is based on anything other than a robust understanding of scripture as articulated by our standards of faith, it is not unity at all, but a delaying of the inevitable. In many ways our history show us where we are right now. That is the only thing that slavery has to do with the questions of human sexuality in the church. The history of how not being faithful to the teachings of the church and the vows made to the church tore the church apart. We don’t need to try another sort of centrist type movement because we already have. The last time we did, we still have not healed as at least three major off shoots of Methodism exist because Methodists were not faithful to the teachings of their church and allowed for ‘different interpretations’ in defiance of the theology of the church. We have had centrism already, and we are not whole because of it. The place of slavery and it’s Methodist history is relevant to this time. It shows us that we don’t want to try the centrist view again. It doesn’t have the effect of Uniting Methodists, it only divides them until we are more fractured than we started as.

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