Saturday, July 31, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History August 1

Fowler Orders O'Conner to Ease Slavery Controversy August 1, 1843

Readers of previous posts have learned of Littleton Fowler’s recruitment trip to Ohio for the annual conferences of 1842. That recruitment trip was spectacularly successful. The Texas Conference was invigorated by able preachers from the Ohio and North Ohio Conferences. Two of the recruits, John Wesley DeVilbiss and Homer Thrall, were two of the most prominent preachers in Texas for years to come.

William O’Conner, another recruit, lived less than a year after transferring to Texas, but he was the subject of an intense controversy over slavery in the summer of 1843. We know about the case from the correspondence between Littleton Fowler, John Woolam, and William Alexander. Unfortunately none of O’Conner’s letters have survived to tell his side of the story.

We can piece together the incident from the letters. O’Conner made disparaging remarks about slavery in the presence of William R. Alexander (Robert’s brother) in Harrison County. O’Conner is alleged to have said that he “. . . had as soon associate with the devil as with slavery. That the Methodist preachers who own slaves are trampling with impunity the Discipline under their feet. . .”

Accusations and counter-accusations flew back and forth. Alexander denied calling the circuit stewards together to try to remove O’Conner. He maintained they only wanted to consult with him. On August 1 Fowler wrote O’Conner, telling him to “cool it”, and to remind him of the conversations they had on the subject in Ohio and en route. Fowler’s admonition is the same advice presiding elders and district superintendents have been giving throughout Methodist history—if you keep on with this controversy, you’ll become unappointable.

At the first opportunity Fowler went to Harrison County and heard O’Conner’s side of the story in person and was partially won over to the preacher’s version of events. . Unfortunately O’Conner died soon after that visit in October, 1843, and was buried near Marshall. He was only 27 years old. The following April, when Fowler went to the 1844 General Conference in New York, he stopped in Cincinnati to make a pastoral call on O’Conner’s parents. He wrote back to his wife, Missouri, that Mrs. O’Conner cried as if her son had just been buried.

The correspondence concerning the O’Conner-Alexander affair is in the Fowler Collection at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, SMU. .


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