Saturday, May 03, 2008

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 4

General Conference of MECS meets in Dallas, May 1930.

The 2008 General Conference of the UMC in Fort Worth naturally brings to mind the three other General Conferences to meet in the Metroplex. The MECS met in Dallas in 1902 and 1930. The MC met in Dallas in 1968 to unite the EUB and MC into the UMC.

Texas Methodist historians are interested in the 1930 meeting because two Texans were elevated to the episcopacy, A. Frank Smith of Houston First and Paul Kern of Travis Park San Antonio. The third bishop elected was Arthur J. Moore of Birmingham, Alabama. Smith and Moore became the most powerful bishops of the middle third of the 20th century.

The election of these two relatively young men who would each serve until retirement in 1960 was little noted by the national press. The attention of nation was riveted on one of the most dramatic episodes ever to occur in a Methodist General Conference, the tearful apology of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. The apology was a condition of a compromise designed to avoid a church trial after the Committee on the Episcopacy had voted for such a trial.

The church trial was ostensibly on the charges of participating in a “bucket shop” operation of fraudulent stock market operations during the 1920’s, but, as is often the case, there were many other currents running through this episode.

The most controversial was Cannon’s open and enthusiastic political involvement. Prohibition of alcohol was his main issue, and to promote that cause he broke with other Southern Democrats to work for the election of Herbert Hoover in the election of 1928. He also was intensively involved in Virginia state politics. After Hoover’s election, documents surfaced that implicated Cannon in a money laundering operation in which the Republican Party had supplied the Anti-Saloon League with funds for the campaign. It also appeared that some of those funds had stuck to Cannon’s fingers as they passed through. Combined with lingering stories about war profiteering on flour speculation during World War I, a public feud with fellow bishop Collins Denny, and even uglier rumors (supported by incriminating letters) about adultery with his secretary, Cannon’s detractors had plenty to work with. (Cannon married his secretary after his wife’s death.)

In spite of all his baggage, Cannon had plenty of support at General Conference His position was that he was being persecuted for his prohibitionist views. The public apology in Dallas in May was followed by an appearance before a U. S. Senate investigating committee in June. He had been summoned because it appeared that his stock market “investments” were financed with some of the money given to the Anti-Saloon League by the Republican Party. Although he came to the committee voluntarily, he refused to answer their questions. On his second day before the committee, he dropped the bombshell. He announced, “I’m leaving. You can issue a subpoena if you wish.” The Senate committee did not follow through. Cannon had won again.

That victory was short lived. In 1931 a federal grand jury indicted him for violating campaign laws. He was accused of borrowing $65,000 for the 1928 campaign and keeping $48,000 for himself. He eventually was found not guilty, but his effectiveness as a political operative and a bishop was over. His latter episcopal duties included extended voyages to foreign missions. He died in 1944.
One can read many more details in Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Robert A. Hohner, (1998)

**Texas footnote. Cannon lived briefly in San Antonio after his election to the episcopacy in 1918. He presided over Mexican missions and the Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences. He moved to Nashville in 1919.


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