A Sobering Lesson From History

“To see Methodism … substantially united would be worth living for and sacrificing for through the toiling of long years.”

The Long Road to Methodist Union, p. 108

On November 7, 1919, almost one hundred years ago, a group called the Joint Committee of Reference met in Richmond, Virginia, for several days of diligent work. Fourteen men, including pastors, laypersons, and bishops from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, gathered to produce a plan by which those two separated denominations would be united into the Methodist Church.

They came up with an impressive proposal for reorganizing both churches into one new church that would not be separated by the north-south division that dated to 1844. It was not the first attempt to find a way to overcome this division. Several overtures had been made as early as 1866, immediately after the Civil War. The primary cause of the division was over slavery, and since slavery was eliminated as a result of that war, it seemed that the impediment to unifying the two groups was now gone. So, as soon as the war was over, the process toward unification began, but it was not nearly as simple or straightforward as we might think, looking at it from our distance in history.

The proposal drafted in Richmond one hundred years ago was not adopted. It would be another twenty years of intense negotiations before the 1939 plan of union was finally adopted, uniting the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church into one body known the Methodist Church. The Kansas City gathering at which this union was finalized in May 1939, was a time of great hope and celebration. It had been 111 years since the Methodist Protestant Church had departed, and 95 years since the Methodist Episcopal Church South had separated. It had been 74 years since the end of the Civil War. Many ardent hearts and minds and spirits had yearned and worked earnestly for decades to bring about a unified Methodism.

That year, when the Alexandria District was formed, we had churches from all three denominations sitting within blocks of one another. Imagine a new family moving into the area and having to figure out whether they should go to the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, or the Methodist Protestant Church. The three denominations were competing with one another and confusing the witness of the Gospel in the life of the community, not to mention the duplication of resources that was required for all of those rival buildings, pastors, musicians, Sunday School teachers, etc. When the time for union came in 1939, those who had worked so hard for it expected it to last for many years to come.

Little did any of them foresee that the new church would last less than 30 years before major changes would be made. In 1939, it seemed to those gathered that the creation of a Central Jurisdiction for all African American Methodists was the way to go. By 1968, the notion of having a separated jurisdiction based on race was seen as an embarrassment, and it was done away with at the same time as the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to create the United Methodist Church in April of 1968.

I have been learning about how difficult it was to undo the division of Methodism in the 1800s, despite the desire to do so in the 1900s. Once the division was accomplished, the mending of the division proved much more difficult than most anyone anticipated it would be. One source of this saga is the book I have been reading called The Long Road to Methodist Union, by John M. Moore (Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1943).

One sample passage will give a feel for the lesson we should pay attention to and reflect upon. It is from pages 131-132, quoted at length (and remembering that these were the days before women were allowed access to the tables of leadership in any of these churches):

            These ministers and laymen of both Churches were all very strong men as would be indicated by the high places that they occupied in their Church and in their communities. They did not agree in their interpretations of the history of the past, nor in their conceptions of what should take place in the future…. It was to be a battle of vigorous intellects and mighty wills. They soon realized that they had no tea party nor ecclesiastical rally. They looked at each other across a deep gulch cut sharp by the storms and torrents of many years. They were one people in faith, spirit, purpose, and religious life; but something very hard to understand had grown up between them. They were now, in reality, two peoples, and they could hope to come together, not on the basis of the distant past, but only upon a satisfactory structure for the approaching future.

            With this early realization, they conscientiously, diligently, sympathetically, and strenuously set about the task of devising and creating an adequate governance structure. They had before them scant sketches of a possible plan which the General Conferences had instructed them to observe. Five days were spent in speech-making, reciting history, defining attitudes, stating positions, and telling each other their doings – putting it mildly – and all in fine spirit and in entertaining statement.

            Finally, it was agreed to appoint four major committees to which the subjects would be assigned for study and for formulation and recommendations.

This describes a meeting that was held in 1916, only fifty years after the Civil War, and a full generation before the Plan of Union was adopted in 1939. Most of those present at the 1916 meeting did not live to see 1939.

There is much fascinating information in this book, all about another time and another context. But I do think that there is a lesson for our time and context. As we consider the alternatives about how to deal with our current differences over LGBTQIA+ inclusion, some are proposing that we divide into separate denominations. It would be wise to consider our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who may be left to mend our divisions. Is it worth it? Can we not find a way to work our way through these differences without dividing apart?

Should we separate, we can anticipate that the day will come when people will ask why we have different expressions of United Methodism within a few blocks of one another, competing against one another, confusing our neighbors, wasting precious resources. The lesson from the book cited above is that getting back together will not be nearly as easy as we may envision. It is a sobering lesson.

Grace and Peace,

Jeff