This Week in Texas Methodist History August 2
Houston’s Tri-Weekly Telegram Sneers at Possibility of MEC and MECS Unification, Aug. 7, 1865
If you think you’ve lived through tumultuous times, you might want to consider what was happening 150 years ago this week. The war resulting in the greatest loss of life and property in the nation’s history was finally over. Slavery was abolished. The president who led the nation was assassinated, and some of the conspirators in the plot that killed him had already been tried and hanged. Congressional factions were at odds with each other over Reconstruction policy. The former Confederate states were in the process of writing new state constitutions and re-forming governments. In every road, village, and city in the nation one could see wounded veterans, many of whom were now amputees or sightless. Southern roads were also crowded with former enslaved persons desperately searching for family members who had been snatched from them in heart-wrenching sales. It was truly a time of turmoil like no other in our nation’s history.
In times of turmoil, we humans need secure institutions to provide stability and unity—of all the religious institutions in the United States in August, 1865, none was more important that the Methodist church. Unfortunately both the northern and southern branches were still trying to make sense of the new realities. They had separated only twenty years earlier. Methodist leaders in both the North and South remembered the bonds of friendship they had once known. The Disciplines of the northern and southern branches had not diverged in matters of faith and practice in the intervening years. The cause of the separation—slavery—did not exist. Why should the two branches remain separate? Why indeed?
Immediately after the end of the Civil War the MEC bishops met at Erie, Pa., to discuss just such a reunion. The bishops passed several resolutions. One was expressing loyalty to President Johnson so long as he kept the peace with other nations, did not try to roll back abolition, and administered justice fairly. They also dealt with the most difficult question of all---What would be the status of the freedman in the Methodist Church? Before the war Methodist churches in the South counted thousands of enslaved persons on their membership rolls. Some were even licensed as exhorters and local preachers. If the northern and southern branches reunited, what would be their status?
Naturally there were different answers to such momentous questions. The MECS bishops met at Columbus, Ga., in July, in part to formulate a response to the MEC bishops. Meanwhile the various annual conferences responded to local situations in a variety of ways.
The owner/editor of Houston's Tri-Weekly Telegram, Edward H. Cushing (1829-1879) although Vermont born and Dartmouth-educated, became an enthusiastic supporter of the southern cause. In the August 7, 1865 edition of his paper he lambasted the possibility of reunion of the northern and southern branches of Methodism. He cited the insults of some Northern Methodists who had talked about the South as a new mission field. The confiscation of some MECS churches by federal troops and the capture of the Publishing House in Nashville added fuel to the flames of hatred. The unreconstructed Cushing naturally blamed the MEC. He said the MECS would be willing to enter into reunification talks, but the arrogant attitude of the North kept them from such discussions.
The real question though, was the freedmen. In August 1865 neither the North nor the South had an answer. Over the next decade each side formulated different responses. The MECS “spun off” its African American churches into a new denomination called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church South (CME). Initially the MEC created racially integrated annual conferences in the South, but at the 1872 General Conference passed legislation allowing those annual conferences to split along racial lines. They did so, and the result was African American MEC annual conferences and European American annual conferences existing side by side in the southern states. Their only contact was at General Conference.
Readers of this column will know that reunification eventually did occur in 1939. Long after the Civil War and Reconstruction animosity, the South eventually got the price it demanded for reunification.
Reunification was achieved at the cost of humiliating the African American members of the MEC by placing them in the so-called Central Jurisdiction—thereby making sure no African-American bishop would ever preside over a European-American annual conference in the South. "Real" unification did not occur until 1968.