This Week in Texas Methodist History April 26
Texas Conference Delegation Departs for General Conference, May 1, 1922
On May 1, 1922 a special Pullman car pulled out of Union Station in Houston on the International and Great Northern RR on its way to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
In Methodist parlance the first person elected at the prior annual conference is said to “lead the delegation.” In 1922 that honor was held by J. W. Mills, pastor of First Methodist Church Beaumont. Other clergy delegates were Sam Hay, First Methodist Houston, W. F. Bryan (Marvin Methodist in Tyler), C. T. Talley (Marlin District), L. B. Elrod (Huntsville), and James Kilgore (SMU).
The lay delegates included two women. The 1918 General Conference had dropped the all-male rule for delegate election. The two women were Mrs. J. W. Mills (see post for Nov. 14, 2010) and Althea Jones, a member of St. Paul’s in Houston. Although women were eligible, only 18 of the 386 delegates were women. Mills and Jones from the Texas Conference and one woman each from the North Texas and North West Texas Conferences meant that 4 of the first 18 female delegates were Texans.
Male lay delegates included W. L. Dean (Huntsville), R. M. Kelly (Longview), T. E. Acker (Jacksonville), J. W. Torbett (Marlin), and W. C. Windom(Center), and R. W. Adams, director of the fledging Methodist Hospital in Houston.
The choice of Hot Springs as the site for the General Conference may seem odd since Hot Springs was a resort town with a shady reputation, the kind of place church people avoided. Actually the resort town had two sides. Its famous bath houses were a favorite destination for wholesome relaxation and soothing warm waters. The other side, of course, was that Hot Springs had been a center for gambling and its associated police corruption for decades. I am still somewhat puzzled over the choice of Hot Springs at the General Conference site. It would be like meeting in Las Vegas today—not going to happen. Perhaps the town seemed less seamy after Prohibition drove the alcohol out of the public view.
What were the main issues of the General Conference? As with every quadrennial session, those issues reflected internal conflicts and also attempts to deal with issues brought up in the larger society.
The issue of term limits for bishops was on the agenda again, as well as a new rule that would require bishops to live in an assigned episcopal area.
In 1922 there had been a resurgence of nativism as demonstrated by the vigor of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the proposals reflecting that mood was a resolution that would replace the words “holy catholic church” in the Apostle’s Creed with some phrase that did not include the word “catholic.” Some of the proposed replacement phrases such as “Church of God,” and “Church of Christ,” were already being used by other denominations and thus not very practical. They were successful in passing the resolution, but the action was subject to vote in the all the annual conferences where it failed.
One major point of contention was an obvious power grab that took the form of a proposal to re-organize the missions of the MECS. For decades the women had operated both foreign and home missions with a great deal of autonomy from the larger denomination. The women of the MECS educated parishioners, raised money, recruited, and administered missions with female executives in decision-making positions. One of the proposals delegates would debate reflected the conservative backlash against Progressivism, or the “Return to Normalcy.” The proposal was to consolidate the Woman’s Missionary Society with the denomination’s Board of Missions. The argument ran like this—since women now had representation in General Conference, they no longer needed a separate organization. One newspaper report stated, “. . .the women’s council will exist only as an inspiration and educational force, without executive force.” One can imagine the reception this proposal received among the women activists of the period.
As with all General (and later Jurisdictional) Conferences, there was a buzz about the election of bishops. Traditionally the leader of the delegation, in this case Mills, would be mentioned as a candidate. Not in 1922. Sam Hay, the pastor at First Methodist Houston, was the main candidate from the Texas Conference. Other Texans mentioned were Hiram Boaz and Charles Selecman, both of Dallas.
The conventions of the day required a façade of indifference for the office, and Hay issued the obligatory statement, “He was eminently happy in his present work, but if called to the bishopric, he would serve to the best ability. If not elected, he would be just as well satisfied to continue as pastor.”
Hay and Boaz were elected at Hot Springs, but Selecman had to wait until 1938.
Delegates no longer travel in chartered Pullman coaches, but the General Conference still meets in quadrennial sessions. Those sessions still deal with both internal conflicts and responses to the larger society.