200 Years of United Methodism
An Illustrated History

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Suffrage and Slavery

Two rip currents were part of the tide of nationalism: the push for extending the vote to more persons and the push for extending freedom to slaves. As these currents battered the ship of Methodism, they caused it to split, twice.

Portraits of Methodist heroines published for the Methodist centenary celebration in 1866.Suffrage and slavery were closely linked issues. When the Methodist Discipline of 1784 condemned slavery, it recalled "the unalienable rights of mankind" and "every principle of the revolution." But this linking of opposition to slavery with the American Revolution's quest for voting rights was forgotten as more and more whites received a vote in secular and church elections. Soon the church's statements on slavery reflected the majority opinion in various parts of the country. Where the voters favored slavery, as in the South, the church sailed with the pro-slavery current. Where the voters favored the abolition of slavery, as in some sections of the North, particularly New England and New York, the church rode the waves of abolitionism. Where the voters were prepared to live and let live, whether slave or free, the men at the helm, the bishops, cried, "Don't rock the boat!" Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York City, erected 1878. Engraving, New York, 1884.This conservative cry was first heard, however, not in connection with slavery but with regard to democracy in the church.

Democracy was not a dominant characteristic of the adolescent Methodist Episcopal Church. Preachers were given their appointments by bishops, and they had to go where they were sent whether they liked it or not. Laity were not represented in the annual and general conferences where church policies were hashed out. Both these denials of what many considered fundamental human and Christian rights sparked reform movements. One of the reformers exclaimed: "O Heavens! Are we not Americans! Did not our fathers bleed to free their sons from the British yoke? and shall we be slaves to ecclesiastical oppression?"

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