The Black Church has served a variety of functions in Black communities. The church offers a separate space where Blacks have asserted a distinct and affirming cultural identity, nurtured a faith to sustain them under oppression, and fostered the development of group leaders. The Black Church is not monolithic, but whatever form it takes, the crucial characteristic is its autonomy from white control. Coming out of slavery, when masters used Christianity in an effort to instill submission and docility, Blacks seized on their new-found freedom to break away and form their own churches. What to make, then, of the choice made by hundreds of thousands of former slaves to join the white-dominated Methodist Episcopal Church? That is the question I explore in A Long Reconstruction: Racial Caste and Reconciliation in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Methodist Episcopal Church was the northern branch of Methodism following the schism of 1844, but the Civil War opened an opportunity for them to reenter the South. Although the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches drew more members, the success of the MEC was nonetheless impressive and surprising. The ability to acquire church properties and the educational opportunities offered by the Methodist’s Freedmen’s Aid Society were important draws, but Blacks were also attracted by the denomination’s purported commitment to “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” Living out that ideal, however, was fraught with challenges, not least because the MEC had also drawn in a large number of white southerners who had been Unionists but hardly racial egalitarians.
In many ways, the experience of Black members in the MEC was not that different from other Black Churches. At the congregational level, there was never a great deal of racial mixing, and for the most part, both races were fine with that. A distinction was drawn, however, between voluntary separation and enforced segregation, which Blacks and their white allies decried as racial caste. A national controversy erupted when the Freedmen’s Aid Society bowed to pressure from their southern white members and established Chattanooga University as a school “for whites.” The MEC’s 1884 General Conference enacted contradictory policies in response to the outcry. On the one hand, local administrators were given considerable leeway in their admissions policy, while at the same time it was decreed that “no student shall be excluded from instruction … because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In effect, Church policy offered support to schools for whites as long as they were kept white by means other than excluding Blacks.
The aspirations of Blacks in the MEC came to rest largely on the hope that fellowship with whites within the Church’s institutional hierarchy would enable them to gain respect and recognition. Yet they were constantly reminded that they lacked the institutional autonomy enjoyed by the African Methodist denominations and thus dependent on white patronage and denied opportunities for advancement. That dilemma was at the heart of the issue of separate annual conferences. Annual conferences were typically responsible for managing affairs in a particular region, but as soon as the MEC began expanding southward, they moved to separate Blacks into their own conferences. When this policy was initially implemented in the border states, it was widely accepted because Blacks were heavily outnumbered and overshadowed by whites, so separate conferences offered an opportunity to find their own voice and raise up their own leaders. Farther south, however, in places like Louisiana and Mississippi, separate conferences were more controversial and struck many as a capitulation to racial caste.
Of all the issues that bedeviled the denomination’s stance toward its Black members, the most enduring and aggravating was the issue of electing a bishop of African descent. The schools of the Freedmen’s Aid Society produced leaders who, by the 1890s, could make a strong case for their elevation to the episcopacy. Foremost among them was J.W.E. Bowen. Bowen had been born into slavery and risen from poverty to become one of the most educated Blacks in the country. He had begun a long career as professor of historical theology at Gammon Seminary in Atlanta, and he had gained some prominence as a stirring orator and skilled organizer through his involvement in the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. Three times Bowen’s name was put forward as a candidate, and each time the white vote at the General Conferences fell short. The major impediment was the rule that bishops exercised “general superintendency” over annual conferences, meaning that a Black bishop could potentially have authority over white churches. It was only after Blacks had essentially surrendered on that issue that two Black bishops were finally elected in 1920.
Blacks in the MEC always found white allies, but they faced headwinds at a time when political commitment to civil rights was evaporating and sectional animosities waning. The Methodist Episcopal Church was the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and reflected a cross-section of racial attitudes. When the goals of racial reconciliation and sectional reconciliation proved incompatible, the denomination proved all too willing to draw the color line. That outcome demonstrates again why most Blacks chose to join their separate Black Churches.
Featured image: public domain via The New York Public Library.