Recently my family and I were on the East Coast visiting colleges and basking in the glorious hues of fall. Browsing in a used bookstore, I discovered a dusty, leather- bound tome entitled History of Methodism in Maine: 1793-1886. Thumbing through its pages, my eyes fell upon the minutes of the 1840 General Conference in Baltimore. I was gobsmacked to read the following:
The Bishops’ address was read, in which they express their approval of the pastoral address of the previous General Conference, especially that part of it relating to the subject of slavery, concurring in the advice to the entire church “to wholly abstain” from all abolition movements …
My thoughts turned to John Wesley, and to the final letter that he penned a few days before he died in 1791, to William Wilberforce.
Fifty years before Methodists were advised by that 1840 General Conference to refrain from participating in the anti-slavery cause, the founder of the Methodist movement wrote a letter encouraging the great British abolitionist Wilberforce in “opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” (Previously, in 1777, Wesley had published an abolitionist tract called “Thoughts on Slavery.”) Thanks to the courage of Wilberforce and others, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807.
As was the case with Jesus and Paul, within a generation the radical message of John Wesley was watered down to accommodate the status quo. The Methodist Church would split over slavery in 1844 – 16 years before the Southern States seceded from the Union, precipitating the Civil War. The two general conferences, the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South reunited in 1939, but only after the South made the creation of a special “Central Conference” for blacks – “separate but equal” – a condition of the merger.
It is not hyperbole to say we stand at a similar crossroads in our day. A special General Conference will be held in February 2019 in St. Louis. 800 delegates from around the globe will determine the future of the UMC. Just as slavery divided the church then, divergent understandings of human sexuality may well split the church now.
Our bishop, Bishop Robert Hoshibata, is convening “Holy Huddles” for laity and clergy “in order to better understand and prayerfully share our thoughts for our Church.” I have already attended two of these sessions and heartily encourage you to attend the Holy Huddle on November 17th at North Scottsdale UMC, 1:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Here’s the link for more information about Holy Huddles and the 2019 General Conference.
Thanksgiving will soon be upon us. One of the things for which I am grateful is the United Methodist Church and our Wesleyan heritage. My prayer is that we will find a way forward in love, following the counsel of John Wesley, who said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” The very future of our denomination depends upon it.
Grace and Peace,