Methodist Church, South

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The Methodist Episcopal Church, South or "Southern Methodist Church" split from the national body over the issue of slavery in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. This body maintained its own polity until it reunited with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church to form the The Methodist Church in 1939, which in turn later (1968) merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church. Some more theologically conservative MECS congregations dissenting from the merger formed the Southern Methodist Church in 1940.

History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was appalled by American slavery. When the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was founded in the United States in 1784, the denomination officially opposed slavery. In the early nineteenth century the MEC stance on slavery was weakened by wealthy southerners. Though clergy were still expected not to own slaves. Conflict arose in 1840 when the Rev. James Osgood Andrew of Oxford, Georgia, a bishop, acquired a slave. Fearing that she would end up with an inhumane owner if sold, Andrew kept her but let her come and go. The 1840 MEC General Conference considered but did not expel him. Four year later, Andrew married a woman who owned a slave inherited from her mother, making the bishop the owner of two slaves.

The 1844 General Conference voted to remove the bishop from his bishopric unless he freed his slaves. The decision raised questions (particularly among southern delegates to the conference) about the authority of a General Conference to discipline bishops. Of course, the cultural differences that had divided the nation during the mid-19th century had also been dividing the Methodist Episcopal Church. The 1844 dispute led Methodists in the south to break off and form a separate denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

1850 Census map shows very widespread and uniform distribution

The statistics for 1860 showed rapid growth. MEC-S enrolled 757,205 people including 537,136 whites, an increase of 37,442 over 1858; 207,776 negro members (nearly all slaves), an increase of 19,740; and 4160 Native American members, an increase of 286. In 1858 MEC-S operated 106 schools and colleges. The Civil War was devastating to farms, church buildings and institutions, but it was marked by a series of strong revivals that began in Lee's army and spread throughout the region. The chaplains tended the wounded after the battles. John B. McFerrin recalled: [Alexander pp 71-72]

At Chickamauga, the slaughter was tremendous on both sides, but the Confederates held the field. I remained on the battlefield eleven days, nursing the sick, ministering to the wounded, and praying for the dying. The sight was awful. Thousands of men killed and wounded. They lay thick all around, shot in every possible manner, and the wounded dying every day. Among the wounded were many Federal soldiers. To these I ministered, prayed with them, and wrote letters by flag of truce to their friends in the North.


African Americans

After the American Civil War many African American Methodists in the south left the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and joined either the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, or the Methodist Episcopal Church. Out of 200,000 African American members in 1860 there in 1866 remained only 49,000, and most of them split off on friendly terms in 1870 to form the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, taking with them $1.5 million in buildings and properties. The new denomination avoided the Radical Republican politics of the AME and AMEZ churches. It had over 3000 churches, over 1200 traveling preachers, 2500 local preachers, about 140,000 members, and 22 Annual Conferences, presided over by four bishops.

Growth in late 19th century

The MEC-S energetically tended its base and by 1880 counted 798,862 members (nearly all white), 1,066,377 in 1886. It expanded its missionary activity in Mexico. Although usually avoiding politics, MEC-S went on record in 1886 denouncing divorce and calling for Prohibition, stating: [Alexander p 110]

The public has awakened to the necessity of both legal and moral suasion to control the great evils stimulated and fostered by the liquor traffic. We recognize in the license system a sin against society. Its essential immorality cannot be affected by the question whether the license be high or low. The effectual prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and use of intoxicating liquors would be emancipation from the greatest curse that now afflicts our race. The total removal of the cause of intemperance is the only remedy. This is the greatest moral question now before our people....Resolved, That the time has now come when the church, through its press and pulpit, its individual and organized agencies, should speak out in strong language and stronger action in favor of the total removal of this great evil.

The Methodists modernized after 1844. Ambitious young preachers from humble, rural backgrounds attended college, moved to town, and built larger churches that paid decent salaries and gave the social prestige of a highly visible community leadership position. These ministers turned the pulpit into a profession, thus emulating the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. They created increasingly complex denominational bureaucracies to meet a series of pressing needs: defending slavery, evangelizing soldiers during the Civil War, promoting temperance reform, contributing to foreign missions (see American Southern Methodist Episcopal Mission), and supporting local colleges. The new urban middle class ministry increasingly left their country cousins far behind. As the historian of the transformation explains, "Denomination building—that is, the bureaucratization of religion in the late antebellum South—was an inherently innovative and forward-looking task. It was, in a word, modern." [ Schweiger p. 85]

The returns for 1892 showed: [Alexander p 133]

  • Traveling preachers: 5,368
  • Local preachers: 6,481
  • White members: 1,282,750
  • Colored members: 357
  • Indian members: 10,759
    • TOTAL: 1,305,715
  • Sunday-schools: 13,426
  • SS teachers: 95,204
  • SS students: 754,223
  • Churches: 12,856
  • Value: $20,287,112

The hardscrabble condition of the church is shown by the statistics of academies. Nearly all had been closed by the war. There were 179 schools and colleges open in 1892, but they had only 892 teachers and 16,600 students.

The colleges were in scarcely better condition, though philanthropy was about to dramatically change that. Most were primarily high-school level academies with a few collegiate courses. The dramatic exception was Vanderbilt University, at Nashville, Tennessee, with a million dollar campus and an endowment of $900,000, thanks to the Vanderbilt family. Much smaller and poorer were Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, with its two affiliated fitting-schools and Woman's College; Emory College, in Atlanta, Georgia, (which much later started to receive Candler money ); Emory & Henry, in Virginia; Wofford, with its two fitting-schools, in South Carolina; Trinity College, in North Carolina—soon to be endowed by the Duke family and change its name; Central Methodist University, in Missouri; Southern, in Alabama; Southwestern, in Texas; Kentucky Wesleyan College, in Kentucky; Millsaps College, in Mississippi; Centenary College of Louisiana; Hendrix College, in Arkansas; and University of the Pacific, in California. The denomination also supported several women's colleges, although they were more like finishing schools or academies until the twentieth century, when they began to meet the standards of new accrediting agencies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The oldest Methodist woman's college is Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia; other Methodist colleges that were formerly women's institutions are Lagrange College and Andrew College in Georgia and Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

While the two other major Methodist denominations in America—the MEC and the Methodist Protestant Church—had agreed to ordain women either as local elders and deacons (the MEC) or full clergy (the Methodist Protestant Church), the MEC, South did not ordain women as pastors at the time of the 1939 merger that formed The Methodist Church.

Legacy of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South

The Methodist Episcopal Church, South is most remembered for its reluctance to oppose slavery and its lack of hospitality toward African Americans. However, the church was responsible for founding three of the South's top divinity schools: Vanderbilt Divinity School, Duke University Divinity School, and Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Vanderbilt severed its ties with the denomination in the early 1900s. Duke and Candler maintain a relationship with The United Methodist Church. All three enroll students primarily from mainline Protestant denominations, and all three have a reputation for being progressive.

The denomination's publishing house, opened in 1854 in Nashville, Tennessee, would eventually become home to The United Methodist Publishing House.


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See also