Slavery and Methodism Today

Slavery and Methodism Today

An excerpt from “Slavery and the founders of Methodism

In 1774, John Wesley published his “Thoughts Upon Slavery.” The founder of the Methodist movement insisted that the concept of enslaving other people was based on “false foundations.” He described the horrific evils of the slave trade. He denied that it was acceptable for anyone to be excused from judgment on the grounds that one was not personally a slave owner. For Wesley, merely tolerating the existence of a system of enslavement was an accommodation with evil.

In 1780, the American Methodists required preachers to deliver sermons against the evils of slavery. Church leaders declared that the enslavement of other persons is “contrary to the laws of God.”

In 1785, the first Book of Discipline published by the Methodists included a piece of church legislation that any church member who buys or sells slaves is “immediately to be expelled” from membership, “unless they buy them on purpose to free them.”

In 1800, the General Conference issued a “Pastoral Letter on Slavery.” It said “the whole spirit of the New Testament militates in the strongest manner against the practice of slavery.”

That pastoral letter directed annual conferences to appeal to the legislatures in their respective states for the emancipation of slaves. And it called for “the universal extirpation of this crying sin.” So the documented history of Methodism makes clear that the founders of the church considered slavery to be “evil.”

Forty-four years after the General Conference enacted church laws to demand that Methodists free their slaves or leave the church and to insist that Methodists take public antislavery steps, the denomination decided to divide. Rather than require a slave-owning bishop to emancipate the people whom he considered his property, Methodists split into two denominations. Rather than politically mobilize to end the system of slavery in each state, Methodists split along the boundaries of states that affirmed enslavement.

This is the legacy of Methodism in the United States with regards to human slavery.

But what of slavery of a man or woman’s soul?

The irony of the pending UMC split is that a great many are focused on making atonement for the sin of slavery by others, while they themselves are promoting a form of slavery that leads to a never-ending darkness.

As the above article makes clear, John Wesley,”Denied that it was acceptable for anyone to be excused from judgment on the grounds that one was not personally a slave owner.” In our day, we might say, “Yes, she or he is a slave to sin, but what is that to me?” Worse, we call slavery, freedom.

If we do not believe sin leads to slavery and death, then we should love our neighbor as ourself and affirm our neighbor’s behavior.  Each of us must give an account to Christ for every word and act. The costs of our beliefs, whatever they may be, is great. 

Methodists split into two denominations. Rather than politically mobilize to end the system of slavery in each state, Methodists split along the boundaries of states that affirmed enslavement.

Methodists are on the verge of another split, this one along the boundaries of those who affirm the good and perfect law of our Lord (Psalm 19:7) and those who deny the liberating and transforming power of Christ.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)

Do we believe the perfect royal law of our Lord as found in Scripture (James 2:8) is of man or God? Slavery to sin and the author of Scripture marks the line of demarcation for the UMC split. 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:27-28)

If we do not believe sin is slavery then we deny Christ, for it is because of sin that he came and died.

The legacy of Methodism today will last, not merely for a few centuries, but eternity. May God have mercy on us if we fail to feed the sheep of Christ with the words of his–and our–Father.