Monday, June 19, 2006

This Week in Texas Methodist History-June 19

Juneteenth Means Freedom for Enslaved Methodist Texans--June 19, 1865

Emancipation came to enslaved Texans on June 19, 1865 when General Gordon Granger read the proclamation at Galveston. The political, social, and economic impact of emancipation has been a favorite topic for historians, but what about the religious impact? Freedom for enslaved Texans meant that they had the freedom to organize their religious lives as they saw fit. The impact upon Methodism was immediate and profound. The events in the years immediately following Juneteenth shaped religious patterns for decades to come.

The largest denomination in Texas before the Civil War was the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It had both the largest number of European American and the largest number of African American members. Annual conferences regularly appointed ministers to "African Missions" in the plantation districts of Texas. In some places, such as at Marshall, African American and European Americans worshipped together in segregated seating arrangements. European Americans generally tried to control African American religious expression and channel it into acceptable forms. Favorite themes included an encouragement of patient suffering in this life in order to receive a heavenly reward. A favorite text was "Servants be obedient to your masters." Even under this oppresive system there were a few outstanding enslaved preachers, including "Uncle Mark" in Washington County.

The most immediate effect of emancipation was that the northern branches of Methodism, including the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the African Methodist Episcopal Church(AME), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion(AMEZ), could now operate in Texas. The MEC was especially vigorous. By January, 1867 it was strong enough to hold an organizing conference at Trinity Church in Houston to create an annual conference. There were seventy preachers in attendance as charter members. As political resconstruction proceeded, a grand competition occurred among the various branches of Methodism. Preachers and their congregations were courted to try to get them to change denominations. The rivalry was intense. In 1867 the Freedman's Bureau chief in Brenham reported that he spent his Sundays breaking up fights in Sunday Schools. It was during this period that many African American Texans became Baptist. That was one avenue that led to harmony rather than contention.

European American members of the MECS were stunned by the exodus of African Americans from their denomination. They seemed incapable of understanding the need of emancipated persons to leave an institution that had been vigorous in its defense of slavery. Eventually the MECS helped its remaining African American members form a new denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).

The events set in motion by Juneteenth took decades to work themselves out. For Texas Methodists the main implication was that eventually there emerged a state with several Methodisms, including some in which African Americans had complete autonomy.


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