A February observation

Warning: This post covers early twentieth century white supremacy.

The writer James Loewen introduced me to the term “nadir of American race relations“. The first sentence of the linked Wikipedia article correctly specifies the period: “from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the early 20th century”. At the same time, this same first sentence misses the point by stating that this was “the period in the history of the Southern United States”. This nadir might have been more open in the South, yet it was not limited to the South.

The nadir of American race relations is a difficult subject for many reasons. I am going to limit this post to an observation concerning how the current Discipline “glosses over” this reality. In a sense I am discussing events and attitudes that took place decades before I was born. In another sense, I am discussing historical interpretation that was written during my lifetime. How we write history today matters.

I have written previously about a concern with the current Discipline‘s Historical Statement. Briefly, this concern is that I can’t find any authorization from the General Conference for the major rewrite that first appeared in the 1996 Discipline.

For this post, I’m going to set that concern aside and comment on one particular passage from the current Historical Statement (pages 19-20):

A more important union, at least by statistical measurement, took place among three Methodist bodies—The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Protestant Church, and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Representatives of these churches began meeting in 1916 to forge a plan of union. By the 1930s their proposal included partitioning the united church into six administrative units called jurisdictions. Five of these were geographical; the sixth, the Central Jurisdiction, was racial. It included African American churches and annual conferences wherever they were geographically located in the United States. African American Methodists and some others were troubled by this prospect and opposed the plan of a racially segregated jurisdiction.

The above passage implies that the plan to segregate The Methodist Church based on race arose over decades. This implication is simply not true. The first proposal coming out of the first “meeting in 1916” included the provision for racial segregation.

A Working Conference on The Union of American Methodism met in Evanston, IL on February 15-17, 1916. This conference took place under the auspices of the John R. Lindgren Foundation of Northwestern University. From the foreword of this conference’s report: “The negotiations for the reunion of the Methodist Churches in the United States, action taken by the last General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the approach of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which will receive and consider the action of the Church South, suggested the desirability of making Methodist union the topic for the work of this year.”

The conference’s report has a “Plan of Unification Proposed by the Joint Commission”. On page 481 under the title “Proposed Basis of Union” appears item 3 (the “General Conference” apparently refers to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South):

We suggest that the governing power of the reorganized church shall be vested in one General Conference and three or four Quadrennial Conferences, both General and Quadrennial Conferences to exercise their powers under constitutional provisions and restrictions, the General Conference to have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and the Quadrennial Conference to have full legislative power over distinctively local affairs. The following exception was made by the General Conference: However, we recommend that the colored membership of the various Methodist bodies be formed into an independent organization holding fraternal relations with the reorganized and united church. We suggest that the colored membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and such organizations of colored Methodists as may enter into agreement with them may be constituted and recognized as one of the Quadrennial or Jurisdictional Conferences of the proposed reorganization.

The 1916 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church agreed with the above provision. In its reply to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the General Conference specifically stated, “conforming to the suggestion of the Joint Commission the colored membership of the reorganized Church be constituted into one or more Quadrennial or Jurisdictional Conferences.” This was adopted May 16, 1916 (page 712 of the Journal).

I need to comment on the report of the “Working Conference”. The report’s foreword states, “This conference was described as a ‘working conference’ to indicate that it was not the controlling purpose of the gathering to adopt resolutions, to carry on negotiations, or to appeal to public sentiment; but that it was its purpose to gather into a clear, impartial and scholarly statement the facts and considerations relating to union, in the hope of helping to a wise decision those bodies and persons whose duty it will be to act officially.” Even though I knew previously about the nadir of American race relations, I still wasn’t prepared for one section’s title (click to enlarge):

"The Problem: The Negro" page 221 (1916)

“The Problem: The Negro” page 221 (1916)

This section’s title reflects the tone of some of its contributions: white supremacy. Pretending this ugly side of history did not exist does not entitle us to conclude that this ugly side does not exist.

Now we can return to the passage from the current Discipline‘s Historical Statement that inspired this post:

A more important union, at least by statistical measurement, took place among three Methodist bodies—The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Protestant Church, and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Representatives of these churches began meeting in 1916 to forge a plan of union. By the 1930s their proposal included partitioning the united church into six administrative units called jurisdictions. Five of these were geographical; the sixth, the Central Jurisdiction, was racial. It included African American churches and annual conferences wherever they were geographically located in the United States. African American Methodists and some others were troubled by this prospect and opposed the plan of a racially segregated jurisdiction.

I simply cannot find this passage honest. The provision for racial segregation into a Jurisdictional Conference was in the proposal starting in 1916, from the beginning.

Perhaps one could split hairs and argue that the name “jurisdictional” wasn’t settled until the 1930s, along with the actual number of jurisdictional conferences. Although technically true, so what? The “plan of a racially segregated jurisdiction” was presumably opposed because it was racially segregated, not because it was called “jurisdictional” instead of “quadrennial” or because of the number of “jurisdictional” conferences. Racial segregation within churches did not begin in the 1930s.

The current Discipline‘s Historical Statement does acknowledge that in 1870 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South “voted to transfer all of its remaining African American constituency to a new church. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now called The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) was the product of this decision.” The current Discipline‘s Historical Statement neglects to mention that by the time of the Plan of Union that created The Methodist Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church had been segregating annual conferences by race for decades. These annual conferences for “the Negro work” provided the basis for the Central Jurisdiction.

In other words, every single annual conference in the Central Jurisdiction at the beginning of The Methodist Church (see Journal, pages 854-856) was originally an annual conference in the Methodist Episcopal Church (see 1936 Journal, pages 375-388). Last year this realization shocked me. Now such a shock only speaks to ignorance.

Who writes history?

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