Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 15

Reformers Meet In Baltimore to Begin Planning for Methodist Protestant Church, Nov. 15, 16, 1827

The Methodist Episcopal Church’s early years were marked by bitter disputes between rival factions. Most readers of this column would be aware of the dispute over slavery in the 1840’s that resulted in northern and southern branches of the church. Less well known was an earlier dispute between democratic reformers and guardians of the old order.

The reformers had a strong argument. The Methodist Episcopal Church was an authoritarian, hierarchical organization. Enormous powers were vested in the bishops and presiding elders. As the United States entered the 19th century, forces were at work expanding social and political equality. The age of Jacksonian Democracy and the “rise of the common man” saw a reshaping of civic life with the expansion of the franchise. There were corresponding democratizing forces at work in commerce and industry.

The MEC was not immune to the forces of democratization. Two of the flash points were the participation of the laity in church governance and the office of presiding elder. As early as the 1812 General Conference Nicholas Snethen introduced a resolution calling for the election of presiding elders by the annual conference. The resolution failed. The 1820 General Conference took up the issue again. It voted that presiding elder vacancies would be filled by a two step process. The bishop would name three candidates for each vacancy, and the annual conference would vote on those candidates. Joshua Soule, newly elected bishop, announced that he would not serve under such a restriction of episcopal power and refused the office. The General Conference then voted to delay the implementation of the rule for four years.

The General Conference adjourned, but the controversy simmered. It was kept alive in the pages of a new magazine, the Wesleyan Repository, founded by a layman, William Stockton. The official denominational organ, the Methodist Magazine, refused to print articles from the reform faction. When the General Conference of 1824 convened in Baltimore, some of the reformers were present as delegates. This Conference focused on allowing lay preachers and laity to have some representation in annual and/or general conferences. When they failed to achieve that change, seventeen reform delegates caucused and began planning their next moves. Out of that caucus came a new periodical, The Mutual Rights of the Ministers and Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Union Societies of reformers.

Reform leaders after the 1824 General Conference found much to criticize. They claimed that they were punished by receiving inferior appointments. Local preacher’s licenses were not renewed, and known reformers were denied ordination. In other words, they felt the entire weight of episcopal Methodism coming down on them.

The controversy was especially strong in the Baltimore Conference. Preachers and laymen were expelled for circulating Mutual Rights and participating in Union Societies. Some of the expelled Methodists met Nov. 15 and 16, 1827. They drew up petitions to the 1828 General Conference to reinstate Dennis Dorsey and William Pool to Baltimore Conference membership.

The reformers lost, but their reform efforts spawned a new denomination, the Methodist Protestant Church. It had no bishops. Appointments were made by a “stationing committee,” and voted on by the annual conference. Laity had equal representation in conferences. The denomination, which began in 1830, merged with the MEC and MECS in 1939 to become the Methodist Church.

What about Texas? There were Methodist Protestant preachers in Texas by the 1830s. The most prominent was William P. Smith who participated in the Caney Creek meetings and attended Dr. Ruter at his death in Washington.


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