It may come as a surprise to some folks, but we at least began our social involvement on the right foot. For in the very first two decades of our existence as an indigenous and independent church in the new nation, Methodists proclaimed a rather bold campaign against the most pervasive of all American social evils, the practice of slavery.
As early as 1784, in fact–just a quarter century after the first lay preachers arrived on these shores—we even wrote it into the rules at the conference which formed the new “Methodist Episcopal Church,” requiring every slave-holding member of the society to emancipate his slaves or face expulsion from the communion rail and the life of the church. And in doing such, the American followers of John Wesley clearly reflected his own disgust for that most “execrable sum of all villanies,” as he not so euphemistically called slavery.
That opinion was shared as well by Francis Asbury, the first bishop in America, who not only preached to both black and white listeners, but who shared the pulpit with a frequent African-American traveling companion, “Black Harry” Hoosier, by all accounts an equally persuasive preacher of the Word indeed. And Thomas Coke, Wesley’s designated superintendent for the new nation, was even more adamant in his anti-slavery opinion, to the point of being incapable of even discussing the issue diplomatically.
When the organizing conference for the new church was held in Baltimore at Christmas 1784, thus, the question put before the group was a bold one: “Does this conference acknowledge that slavery is contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion, and doing that which we would not others do to us and ours? Do we pass our disapprobation on all our friends who keep slaves, and advise their freedom?” And the answer was “Yes.”
There were many who opposed the stance, of course, including one “high-headed Lady” who told a crowd that she would give fifty pounds to anyone who would “give that little Doctor” (meaning Thomas Coke) one hundred lashes. But the Methodists persevered; in Maryland alone, in fact, over 1,800 slaves were freed in predominately Methodist areas in the decade and a half which followed the new rule. Church leaders even managed to persuade some within state legislatures to support their position, arousing the conscience of many which had been deadened by acquiescence to a clear moral evil.
Eventually, however, faced with rising opposition particularly in the slave-holding states, Methodists began to give into the culture all around them and retreat from their moral high ground as well. By 1804, in fact, the Methodist reversal on slavery was in full-swing, moving from a stance of complete repudiation to one of powerless resignation. Then four years later, though still arguing that slavery was contrary to the spirit of Christianity, the last remaining prohibitions concerning slaveholding by private members were struck from the church’s rules. The 1808 General Conference went so far, in fact, as to direct that one thousand copies of the Book of Discipline be printed with the section on slavery deleted altogether for the use of the South Carolina Conference.
So what happened that caused the great reversal? In a word, success. For from less than 2,000 members in 1775, Methodists grew to well over a million in the decade preceding the Civil War, becoming the largest and most influential church in America. Only in order not to alienate the masses they wished to reach with the gospel, they tragically “drew in their horns” on speaking out on a controversy which threatened to do so.
And on this fiftieth anniversary of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, it is worth remembering as Dr. Martin Luther King once noted that “lamentably it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up these privileges voluntarily.” Likewise, as the experience of the early Methodists demonstrate, even good beginnings can be derailed unless there is a firm commitment to keep the faith, no matter what the consequences.
I can’t help but wonder thus if modern Methodists are still holding out the flame of freedom to all, or we’ve allowed the shifting winds of society to snuff it out? Our own history reminds us that it is far too easy to fall back from doing right when pragmatism pushes us elsewhere.
So what kind of history do you suppose we might be writing now?