In the early decades of the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of American Christians belonged to one of three denominations: Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. All three split down the middle over the slavery issue, just as the Episcopalians are doing today over homosexuality.
The Presbyterians were the smallest of the three in numbers, but the strongest in terms of money and influence in the community. Presbyterians dominated the boards of the American Bible Society and the American Sunday School Union. The national church was a highly structured organization of hierarchical presbyteries, synods, and assemblies, with a rigidly Calvinist orientation. When their Methodist and Baptist rivals began to surpass them in numbers early in the century, some Presbyterian ministers loosened up a bit and began to preach what Rick Warren would today call a “gospel of love.” What really got the innovators in trouble, though, was the questioning of slavery, which we saw in Part 1 was a fundamental pillar of the Christian church. By 1837, the elders had enough. In a carefully plotted move, they voted at that year’s General Assembly of the entire church to expel four synods centered in New York and Ohio that were irredeemably contaminated with heresy, especially the heresy of abolitionism. The expelled synods, calling themselves “New School” Presbyterians, regrouped a year later to form a competing church, which claimed approximately 100,000 members – the same body count as today’s split-off Anglicans.
Though there were other theological differences between the groups, the Cincinnati Journal and Luminary emphasized that “The real question is not between the new and old school — it is not in relation to doctrinal errors; but it is slavery and anti-slavery. It is not the standards which were to be protected, but the system of slavery.” Rev. Lyman Beecher, the most well-known God expert of the day, blamed the arch pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun: “They got scared about abolition. . . . John C. Calhoun was at the bottom of it. I know of his doing things—writing to ministers, and telling them to do this and do that. The South finally took the Old School side. It was a cruel thing—it was an accursed thing, and ‘twas slavery that did it.”
Next came the Methodists, who had grown from a splinter group in Revolutionary times to include some 45% of all Southerners. This growth occurred despite the fact John Wesley, who founded Methodism in England, called slavery “that execrable sum of all villainies.” Methodism was tightly organized, and its original 1784 ordinances prescribed that “No person holding slaves shall in future be admitted into society, or to the Lord’s Supper, till he previously comply with these rules concerning slavery. Those who buy, sell, or give [slaves] away, unless on purpose to free them, shall be expelled immediately.”
Lawyers and theologians have ways of twisting words, though. The truth, some decided, was that slavery might have been a problem in Wesley’s England, but it was not a problem here in the USA because the slave owners here were such kind people. The Georgia Methodists resolved unanimously that: “Whereas, there is a clause in the discipline of our church, which states that we are as much as ever convinced of the great evil of slavery; and whereas the said clause has been perverted by some, and used in such a manner as to produce the impression that the Methodist Episcopal church believed slavery to be a moral evil; Therefore, Resolved, — That it is the sense of the Georgia Annual Conference that slavery, as it exists in the United States, is not a moral evil.”
Having made their position perfectly clear, pro-slavery Methodists were incensed that some ministers never got the memo, and continued to preach against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference met in Cincinnati and overwhelmingly approved some clarifications: “1. Resolved, by the delegates … in General Conference assembled, that they disapprove in the most unqualified sense, the conduct of the two members of the General Conference who are reported to have lectured in this city recently, upon, and in favor of, modern abolitionism. 2. Resolved, … that they are decidedly opposed to modern abolitionism, and wholly disclaim any right, wish, or intention to interfere in the civil and political relation between master and slave as it exists in the slave-holding states of this Union.”
That drove out 22 ministers and 6,000 members, to establish what they called the “Wesleyan Methodist Church.” An even bigger controversy erupted at the 1844 General Conference, though. Delegates learned that the new Methodist bishop of Georgia, James O. Andrew, owned slaves as a result of an inheritance from his first wife and his second marriage to a slave-owning woman – a circumstance quite similar to that which sparked today’s Episcopal split-up, the ordination of a bishop in New Hampshire with an un-Biblical personal lifestyle. When a group of delegates tried to get Bishop Andrew to desist from exercising his office while this “impediment” of holding slaves remained, the southerners had enough; a few months later what was called “The Methodist Episcopal Church, South” was formally born, soon including several highly acclaimed universities and colleges. It did not agree to re-unite with the northern Methodists until 1939, over 70 years after the end of the Civil War.
Nearly as large as the Methodists, the Baptist churches were less highly structured, with each congregation comparatively free to manage its own affairs. Still, they were united in the common effort to hire missionaries to spread Christianity among the heathen. In 1840, Baptist abolitionists issued “An Address to Southern Baptists” denying the standard Biblical justifications for slavery and imperiously demanding that the Southerners “confess their sinfulness” – just like today’s rebels demand that those who appointed the gay bishop in New Hampshire must “repent.” They wanted nothing to do with people who disagreed. “We cannot and we dare not recognize you as consistent brethren in Christ … and we cannot, at the Lord’s table, cordially take that as a brother’s hand, which plies the scourge on woman’s naked flesh,—which thrusts a gag into the mouth of a man,—which rivets fetters on the innocent,—and which shuts up the Bible from human eyes.”
(At least back then the language was more colorful than it is today. The cleverest retort the Bishop of Fulham could come up with for his liberal opponents is that “not only are they not very good Christians – they are also not nice human beings.”)
The southern clergy declined the opportunity to confess their sinfulness. Instead, they replied that “unless aspersions upon their character ceased they would cut off their benevolent funds to the general Baptist agencies and, if necessary, even separate from them altogether.”
In 1844, Alabama Baptists demanded that the Baptist General Convention declare that slaveholders were just as eligible to become missionaries as non-slaveholders. When the Acting Board replied that they could “never be party to any arrangement that which would certainly imply approbation of slavery,” the southerners called for an assembly in Augusta, Georgia the following May, at which the Southern Baptist Convention split off to become a separate church. As the secession conference ended, those present joined hands and sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Unlike the Methodists, the northern and southern Baptists never did reconcile, and the Southern Baptist church today comprises America’s largest single Protestant denomination.