Methodists and Slavery

February 04, 2006

Sometimes the thing to do when figuring something out is to hash it publicly.

The following long paragraph came out of the draft chapter three. My advisor did not like it because its points were banal or repeated the arguments in the other parts of that sub-section. I need a better "so what" for the anecdote.

The Methodist Church similarly emphasized interactions with other religious groups, and regularly defended itself against the charge that it was undermining civil order. The Methodists had most of their early growth in the upper South, especially on the Delmarva peninsula. During the 1780s and 1790s Methodist itinerants regularly pressured their hearers to manumit their slaves, appealing to civics and Christ in equal measure. The 1784 Conference that formed the Methodist Episcopal Church as a distinct denomination separate from the Church of England passed an anti-slavery provision in its initial discipline, but opposition from the Deep South made them table it. Anti-slavery Methodists tried again in 1796, to similar opposition. The 1800 General Conference called for an anti-slavery address to be published to all the local circuits – an action that led to immediate and violent opposition in the lower South. The 1804 and 1808 Conferences backed away from the issue, officially making slavery a matter of local and not national discipline. As Francis Asbury famously commented, "I was called upon to suffer for Christ's sake, not slavery's." The Methodist Episcopal Church continued to grow, and grow rapidly, but after 1800 it no longer appealed to African-Americans in the Deep South, who overwhelmingly allied themselves with the Baptists. Methodists did, however, retain their access to white Southerners. The various conferences went on to pass their own disciplinary rules about slavery, with Northern and some upper South conferences banning or restricting it, the Deep South saying little on the question.
So, where do I want to go with this?

I have a following paragraph talking about local v. national institutions, and the importance of local prejudices and local styles even within the centralized and national Methodist Church. That is fine, but that point will get its power from the conclusion to the slavery paragraph. And where do I want to take that slavery paragraph?

I think that this anecdote wants to go to a discussion of the informal boundaries of the American Religious settlement and the difficult distinction between civic morality and personal morality. I will refer to those, but they are points that I make elsewhere as well. I have spent the morning hashing around looking for something more to say.

I think the point to make is that the norms of American civil religion were set primarily through cultural and social power, not political power or legal strictures. I will write it that way and move on - if I get too badly stuck on this point I will just cut the whole Methodist bit and go on.

Posted by Red Ted at February 4, 2006 10:15 AM | TrackBack