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The General Conference of 1836 opened in the city of Cincinnati, on Monday, the 2d of May. The bishops were Roberts, Soule, Hedding, and Andrew. Roberts was born in Maryland. He was of a kind and placid temper, and little was heard of him in reference to the great agitation in the Church. Soule was of northern birth and education, but somehow had obtained a southern heart. Hedding was from the valley of the Hudson; but, like Bangs and Fisk and Whedon, was an antiabolitionist. Andrew was southern. His course was along the natural line of his birth and education.
The body was composed of 146 delegates from 22 annual conferences, 90 members from free state conferences, and 56 from slave state conferences.
On the 12th of May, S. G. Roszel, of the Baltimore conference, brought forward, as heretofore mentioned, resolutions of censure against two of the northern delegates, who had been guilty of attending and addressing a meeting of the Cincinnati Anti-slavery Society.
The fact alluded to in these resolutions of censure was, that William H. Norris, of the Maine Conference, and George Storrs, of the New Hampshire conference, both well-known abolitionists in their respective locations, had attended a regular weekly meeting of the society above-mentioned, and their remarks were so well received that they resulted in the addition of fifteen members to the society.
Over these resolutions the combat raged for two days, with the result that they were adopted, with the addition of a third resolution directing that “the foregoing preamble and resolutions be published in our periodicals.”
The temper of the pro-slavery side of the debate may be understood from the remark of William A. Smith, of Virginia, in favor of a proposed amendment which called for the publication of the names of the two active abolitionists. “Let them,” said he, “be brought forth in all the length and breadth of their damning iniquity.” But the amendment failed to be adopted.
It was now seen that there was work for a Committee on Slavery, and such a one was appointed, to which was referred a number of abolitionist petitions from the New England section of the Church. But the most interesting matter laid before
them was the following, offered by William Winans, of Mississippi, and seconded by Jonathan Stamper, of Kentucky:
“Resolved, That a pamphlet circulated among the members of this Conference, purporting to be 'An Address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, by a member of that body,' containing reports of the discussion on modern abolitionism palpably false, and calculated to make an impression to the injury of some of the members engaged in the aforesaid discussion, is an outrage on the dignity of this body and meriting unqualified reprehension."
The mover then proceeded to pour out the vials of his wrath against the unknown author of this seditious pamphlet. When he down Orange Scott arose, and announced that he was the author in question. No full report of the speech in which Scott defended himself is accessible in any of our Church journals; but the wide range of the debate may be gathered from the fact that the power of Congress over the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia, which the north affirmed and the south denied, was one of the chief questions traversed.
When the Winans resolution came to a vote, Scott moved as an amendment that his own name be inserted therein in place of the words, “by a member of that body.” This was not agreed to; but after many severe remarks against him, the resolution was passed by a vote of 97 yeas to 19 nays. This vote shows how weak was the northern majority of the body, as against the determined and united southern minority. Notwithstanding the large number of ministers and members of the Church in New England who were on the abolitionist side, Orange Scott comprised in himself alone almost the whole of the antislavery party in the General Conference of 1836.
It should be noted in this connection that on his return to his New England home his conference passed his character, and the editor of Zion's Herald wrote him a note, congratulating him on the noble and dignified stand he had taken in the General Conference, saying, “Every lover of human rights will honor and bless you for not having flinched in the hour of trial.”
Near the close of the session the Committee on Slavery reported, for substance, that it was not advisable to meddle with the Chapter on Slavery as it then stood in the Discipline, and the Conference adjourned, its members carrying home with them a vague sense of the impending struggle which, at no distant day, was destined to rend the Church in twain.
These pages do not purport to give a history of the progress of the "irrepressible conflict” during the interim of the quadrennial sessions of the General Conference, but a brief reference to the doings in some of the annual conferences between 1836 and 1810 is needed, in order to a better presentation of the subject in hand.
At the session of 1836 in the Pastoral Address of the Bishops these words occurred:
“We have been agitated much on some portions of our work with the very excitable subject of what is called Abolitionism.
.. From every view of the subject which we have been able to take, and from the most calm and dispassionate survey of the ground, we have come to the solemn conviction that the only safe, Scriptural, and prudent way for us, both as ministers and people, to take, is wholly to refrain from this agitating subject."
From what soon followed it would appear that the bishops were inclined to take their own official advice as a part of the law of the Church, for they at once proceeded to enforce the above-mentioned "solemn conviction" upon the annual conferences over which they presided. For example: At the next ensuing session of the New England Conference Bishop Hedding informed Orange Scott that he would not be reappointed as presiding elder of the Providence District unless he would pledge himself to refrain from lecturing and writing on the subject of slavery. This action led the offending brother, not long after, to accept an agency for the National Anti-slavery Society, and ultimately drove him out of the Church along with that band of secessionists who afterward formed the Wesleyan Methodist Connection.
At the same session a Committee on Slavery was appointed; but when their report was presented the bishop refused to have it read. In like manner Bishops Andrew and Waugh--the lat
ter being one of the new general superintendents elected at the General Conference of 1836—acted on the authority of their “solemn conviction" in the northern conferences held by them, refusing to receive reports or put motions unfriendly to slavery, though in conferences at the south they made no objection to similar proposed action against abolitionism. The subject is a painful one, and brevity in the treatment of it is best. But, . as can be readily seen, the efforts of the bishops to stop agitation by assuming powers which were never committed to them, only added fuel to the fire, until it set the whole Church ablaze.
The General Conference of 1840 was held in Baltimore, Bishops Roberts, Hedding, Andrew, Waugh, and Morris presiding. The senior Bishop Soule was absent at first, apparently on account of sickness. Bishop Andrew was also absent for a time, but both appeared later in the session. The Conference was composed of 143 members, representing 28 annual conferences. Of this number, 94 were from conferences in free states, and 49 from conferences in slave states. Thus if the question of slavery had been a geographical one, the strength of the Conference in favor of abolition ought to have been nearly two to one; but notwithstanding this heavy majority, the northern men were not able to control the action of the body. During the entire quadrennium there had been such an increasing excitement on the subject of abolition in New England, especially within the territory comprised in the New England Conference, that it was expected on all hands that the session of 1840 would witness a severe conflict between the two opposing parties.
The Committee on Slavery was composed of twenty-eight members, and contains some historic names: Nathan Bangs, of New York, chairman of the committee; George Peck, secretary; Orange Scott, the prominent anti-slavery agitator from the New England Conference; Leonidas L. Hamline, H. B. Bascom, and W. M. Wightman. Three of these, Hamline, Bascom, and Wightman, reached the episcopal chair; Hamline in the old Church, and Bascom and Wightman in the Church South. Waugh was strongly conservative. Thus the weight of the episcopal influence was heavily on the conservative side.
The Bishops' Address, which was a lengthy document, requiring an hour and three-quarters for delivery, treated, as by
necessity, upon the subject of slavery. Among other things it said:
"We regret that we are compelled to say that in some of the northern and eastern conferences, in contravention of your Christian counsel and of our best efforts to carry it into effect, this subject (of slavery) has been agitated in such forms and in such a spirit as to disturb the peace of the Church. This unbappy agitation has not been confined to your annual conferences, but has been introduced into the quarterly conferences, and made the absorbing business of self-created bodies in the bosom of our beloved Zion. The proposed object of these operations is to free the Methodist Episcopal Church from the 'great moral evil of slavery,' and to secure to the enslaved the rights and privileges of free citizens of these states. How far the measures adopted, and the manner of applying these measures, are calculated to accomplish such an issue, even if it could be benefited by any action of ecclesiastical bodies, your united wisdom will enable you to judge.
“The result of action had in some conferences on the resolution of the New England Conference, recommending a very important change in our General Rule on Slavery, affords us strong and increasing confidence that the unity and peace of the Church are not to be materially affected by this exciting subject. Many of the preachers who were favorably disposed to the cause of abolition, when they saw the extent to which it was designed to carry these measures, and the inevitable consequences of their prosecution, came to a pause, reflected, and declined their co-operation.
“Our General Rule on Slavery, which forms a part of the constitution of the Church, bas stood from the beginning unchanged, as testamentary of our sentiments on the principle of slavery and the slave-trade; and in this we differ in no respect from the sentiments of our venerable founder, or from those of the wisest and most distinguished statesmen and civilians of our own and other enlightened Christian countries.
"In all the enactments of the Church relating to slavery a due and respectful regard has been had to the laws of the states; never requiring emancipation in contravention of the civil authority, or where the laws of the states would not allow liberated slaves to enjoy freedom.
“The simply holding or owning slaves, without regard to circumstances, has at no period of the existence of the Church subjected the master to excommunication. Rules have been made from time to time regulating the sale and purchase and holding of slaves, with reference to the different laws of the states where slavery is tolerated, which, upon the experience of the great difficulties of administering them, and the unhappy consequences both to masters and servants, have been as often changed or repealed.