Racism Influences Methodists' History
Racism has been a defining force in shaping the Methodist movement in the United States from its earliest days.
Today, the United Methodist Church is confronting that past. It has repented for its racism, and launched efforts to fight racism in the denomination and society at large. It is also seeking reconciliation with African American Methodists.
"The history is important to understand the present," says Bishop Forrest Stith of Upper Marlboro, Md. He is championing a move to establish a heritage center to preserve the historical journey of African-Americans in the United Methodist Church.
"If you haven't been around a long time, it's a history that people are quickly forgetting," says Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of Nashville, Tenn., who became one of the first church's first African-American bishops when he was elected in 1980.
|Bishop Melvin G. Talbert|
African Americans were among the first Methodists in the United States, attending the early revival meetings and contributing two popular preachers - Harry Hosier and Richard Allen - to the church. Racist attitudes were already at work, as African Americans were forced to sit in church balconies and receive Holy Communion after their fellow white worshipers.
In 1787, Allen and other black Methodists walked out of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to protest their treatment by whites. Allen later helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became its first bishop.
The AME Church was the first of three historically black denominations that were created because of racism in the predominantly white Methodist church. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was organized in 1796 by blacks protesting discrimination at John Street Methodist Church in New York City. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (originally the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church) was created in 1870 as the result of an agreement between white and black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
The formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, reflected the fact that even white Methodists could not agree on issues of race and slavery. Methodism's founder, John Wesley, was an outspoken opponent of slavery, denouncing it as evil, and the Methodist Episcopal Church held to his view. However, the Southern churches broke away in 1844.
In 1939, relationships finally began to mend, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and a third denomination, the Methodist Protestant Church, reunited to form the Methodist Church. However, Southern white churches still did not wish to "annual conference" with black churches.
The uniting churches resolved their problem by creating the Central Jurisdiction, a unit of the new denomination based not on geography but race. The church remained segregated for nearly 30 years, until the Methodists merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church. With that 1968 merger, the Central Jurisdiction's churches, clergy and bishops were integrated into the denomination's five U.S. geographical jurisdictions.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the United Methodist Church is focusing on racism and promoting diversity with more vigor than ever. It is actively promoting more inclusiveness and diversity in its institutions and leadership. One of its 14 churchwide agencies, the Commission on Religion and Race, focuses on those issues, and caucuses such as Black Methodists for Church Renewal and Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic Americans also keep them in front of the church. Through programs such as Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, the National Plan for Hispanic Ministries, the Council on Korean-American Ministries and the Native American Comprehensive Plan, the denomination is building up racial-ethnic congregations.
The church's General Conference, its top lawmaking body, held a service of repentance and reconciliation during its 2000 gathering in Cleveland. Leaders of the AME, AMEZ and CME churches spoke at the service, affirming the United Methodists but also emphasizing that the denomination has much work to do as it pursues reconciliation. Similar services are being held throughout the United Methodist Church's regional units in the United States.
The United Methodists and the three historically black denominations are struggling with their past and working for a more united future through the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union. They also are combating racism through an ecumenical organization called Churches Uniting in Christ. The group, which also includes five other denominations, elected Talbert as its first coordinating council president early this year. The Rev. James Lawson Jr. of Los Angeles, a retired United Methodist pastor and civil rights legend, says he considers the group "genuine in its efforts to fight against racism."
One of the United Methodist Church's greatest strengths is its multiculturalism, and that has posed additional challenges as the denomination seeks to be more inclusive. Programs and groups in the church now focus specifically on the concerns of Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans, among others. In addition to 14 African-Americans, the church's Council of Bishops includes two Hispanics and a Korean American.
Yvonne J. Medley, a writer based in Waldorf, Md., contributed to this report.
This United Methodist News Service article was released 7/31/2002.