It is already well known the issue of slavery was very divisive in the United States prior to the Civil War. The issue split families, split friendships, split business ties, and even split church denominations including the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Prior to the 1844 split the Methodist church in America was referred to as the Methodist Episcopal Church, and it was during their 1844 conference that the church had to face the issue of slavery head-on. The controversy centered on Bishop James Osgood Andrew, a Georgia Methodist minister who found himself in the position of slave owner not once but a few times even though records suggest he never actually purchased the slaves.
During the 1844 conference a resolution remembered as the Finley Resolution was passed by delegates asking Bishop Andrew to step down from his position as long as he had slaves in his possession. In retaliation many of the southerners drew up a Plan of Separation, and they withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church. The newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church, South held their first conference in Virginia in 1846.
The split in the church resulted in two factions…one in the north where many members supported the abolitionist movement, and one in the south where views were somewhat different regarding holding slaves.
A Time magazine article from March, 1923 advises many Southerners argued that the issue of slavery was a civil issue and not a religious one. Southerners also argued against the Finley Resolution stating that by passing it the resolution would serve to destroy the church in states where emancipation of slaves was prohibited. The resolution passed by a vote of 110 to 69.
The Methodist churches in Georgia followed in lock-step other Methodists across the south and joined the newly formed Method Episcopal Church, South.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia states:
Despite such divisions, in 1861 the Georgia Conference of the MECS retained a clear majority of the Methodists in the state. The MECS remained active during the Civil War, providing chaplains and religious material to Confederate soldiers.
On the flip-side the Time article advises:
During the Civil War, Lincoln said of the Methodist Church in the North that it “sent more soldiers into the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any other.”
I happened upon the Time article while I was researching something else and decided to find out more about the split in the church. When I teach students about the American Revolution we always take a look at major denominations and how they influenced the cry for liberty or the cry for long live the king. I think it would be interesting to present the same information to students regarding the influence of the church approximately seventy years after the Declaration of Independence during the years leading up to the Civil War.
Bishop Andrew’s story opens up many questions such as:
How did a religious man condone slavery?
How did Bishop Andrew end up with slaves if he didn’t purchase them?
Why would it matter if slavery was considered a civil or religious issue?
Why couldn’t Bishop Andrew just free the slaves if he was the owner and his owning them was causing issues in the church?
James Osgood Andrew was a native Georgian and the son of John Andrew, the first native Georgian to enter the Methodist ministry. It would seem that there is no firm paper-trail regarding how Bishop Andrew ended up owning slaves, but the most accepted story is he became a slave owner through his wives. An article at New Georgia Encyclopedia suggests Bishop Andrew married Ann Amelia MacFarlane in 1816. When she died in 1842, she left the ownership of a slave to him. Andrew’s second wife, Leonora Greenwood, owned slaves as well and upon her death Bishop Andrew took possession of them.
The same article referenced above from New Georgia Encyclopedia states:
Some evidence exists, however, to suggest that Andrew may have first acquired slaves earlier than 1842. A man named James Osgood Andrew is listed on the 1830 Athens census as the owner of two slaves, although this man may not have been the bishop. The U.S. census of 1840, taken four years after Andrew is known to have moved to Newton County, lists him as a resident of that county and the owner of thirteen slaves.
The issue remains murky as there were no laws that required any recordation of bills of sale regarding slaves .
Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that easy for Bishop Andrew to free the slaves that had been willed to him. Going all the way back to 1801 the state of Georgia General Assembly had passed legislation banning manumission of negro slaves. The same law (Georgia Laws 1801, Vol. 1, page 71 Sequential #024) also made it illegal for the Clerk of Superior Court or any Officer of the state to record a manumission. By 1815, the law was amended (Georgia Laws 1815, Vol 1, Page 15 Sequential #010) to allow recording of Wills and Testaments that call for manumission of slaves as long as said Will [did] not have for its object the manumission of slaves only. Parts of the said Will pertaining to the manumission of slaves [were] to be disregarded. Wills whose sole object [was] the manumission of a slave or slaves [could not] legally be recorded. Finally, in 1859, the Georgia General Assembly passed an act making it illegal to free a slave on the death of the master within or without the state though a Supreme Court Decision states that a slave can be removed to another state by the executor(s) of the will to be set free providing all estate debts of the late owner have been paid (Georgia Laws 1859, Vol. 1, Page 68 Sequential #093, Law #091)
Clearly Bishop Andrew had a dilemma…a dilemma that would be the perfect fodder for my students to research, analyze, and discuss.
Throw in the story of Miss Kitty and Bishop Andrew I’ve posted at History Is Elementary (see the link below) and the story takes on a real twist.
We end up with a clergyman who finds he owns slaves but didn’t purchase them…yet he can’t free them because he will then be in violation of state law and subject to fines and arrest. He could sell the slaves under his ownership, but they might end up in a worse condition with a master who would treat them poorly…as if being a slave wasn’t poor treatment enough. To make matters worse Bishop Andrew then becomes the focus of the split in the Methodist Church.
Bishop Andrew did lead the Southern churches in their split and later became the first bishop of the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church, South. During the Civil War he resided in Alabama and retired from his post in 1866. Bishop Andrew is buried in Oxford, Georgia and is remembered as the namesake for Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.
The Time article from 1923 I reference to above indicates there were two Georgia clergymen who prompted this split in the Methodist church. I was only able to find information regarding Bishop Andrew. If someone knows the identity of the other minister please drop me an email or leave a comment.
The Methodist Episcopal Church remained split until Reconstruction when talks began to unify the two factions, but it actually took until 1939 for the two divisions to become one again.
A History of the Methodist Church, South in the United States by Gross Alexander, D.D. written in 1894 is a good resource to read online regarding the Methodist Church. Information regarding the Finley Resolution begins around page 23.
For more on the story of Bishop James Osgood Andrew visit my post at History Is Elementary titled From Eye of the Beholder to Presenting History Accurately