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Just Us or Justice?Moving Toward a Pan-Methodist Theology
By F. Douglas Powe Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHistorical Roots of Just-Us
Black and white Methodists found themselves on opposite sides of debates concerning social and political issues, theological doctrines, and even styles of worship from the very beginnings of Methodism in the United States. In the 1760s, laypersons, including some black men and women, started the first American Methodist Societies. "Negro men and women were accepted into [early American] Methodism with whites, irrespective of their race or slave status." For various theological and economic reasons the Methodist Episcopal Church shifted its position and eventually split over the issue of slavery. Frederick Norwood points out that even Francis Asbury, who picked up John Wesley's antislavery gauntlet in the United States, compromises on the issue of slavery. Asbury and some other Euro-American Methodists sought to keep the church together (North and South) even if this meant supporting slavery, with which they disagreed in principle.
The tension slavery caused, experienced by Asbury and others, was not uncommon during the beginnings of Methodism. In a cursory look at history, two major themes emerge confronting African American and Euro-American Methodists: (1) because of slavery American Methodism has had to broaden its theological base; (2) the historical roots of just-us run deep in American culture and this is reflected in American Methodism. The theological lens holding the two themes together is my claim that Euro-American and African American Methodists developed divergent views of the doctrine of salvation—views that translated into different theological agendas.
Othal Lakey, in his comprehensive history of the CME Church, discusses the impact slavery had on American religion and specifically on Methodism. He writes:
We here maintain that the organization and history of the CME Church is reflective of the fact that American slavery—that peculiar institution—constituted the formative experience for the existence of Black Americans. By this we mean that the history of Black people, and especially the nature of Black religion, must be understood in light of slavery as the milieu in which the personal, social, and spiritual life of Black Americans was shaped; the condition out of which they emerged as a race; and the legacy of which has impinged upon every aspect of their lives.
Lakey captures how ensnarling slavery was for African Americans. No part of life was untouched by the institution of slavery, and its legacy continues to haunt African Americans today. Lakey recognizes that part of the legacy that must be told is how slavery influenced the way blacks were incorporated into organized church life.
For American Methodism, a vital part of this legacy includes why Africans were attracted to Methodist classes and not to other denominations. Lakey suggests it was the "spiritual fervor, preaching style, structure of the societies, [and] doctrinal simplicity" that made Methodism attractive to Africans. In fact, in 1828 one out of every four Methodists was African. During the establishment of Methodism, African Americans were an integral part of the story because the message of salvation was meant for both blacks and whites.
The message was more experiential than that of other denominations and allowed slaves to participate. The reason Africans resonated with the experiential message was that it reminded them of their own African religious traditions. The key point is that early Methodists were able to connect with African slaves, who became a significant numerical presence in the movement. Lakey credits a sincere emphasis on salvation as one of the factors for the growth of Methodism among slaves.
Lakey also suggests that even at this early stage just-us soteriological concerns started taking root. He outlines three reasons some slave owners wanted to evangelize their slaves. First, evangelizing slaves was perceived as a way of countering antislavery sentiment. Slave owners needed to justify owning and treating humans in a deplorable manner. The slave owners' message of salvation was that the souls of slaves could be saved while their bodies stayed enslaved. A separation between the body and soul in terms of salvation was created to justify dehumanizing the body. The separation of the body and soul was given Episcopal legitimacy when Asbury compromised his staunch antislavery stance, buying into justifications for the institution.
Second, evangelism to slaves was perceived as a "spiritual tonic." The goal here was to make slaves more docile. Many slave owners became convinced that their slaves would become better servants if they heard certain scriptural references. This, of course, meant that preachers were very particular about what they preached to the slaves, and messages on obedience were a high priority. It also meant keeping slaves from reading so that they could not read the Bible themselves and learn what the Euro-American preachers were omitting.
Third, some Euro-American preachers and missionaries were able to feel good about themselves by helping the poor slaves. The thinking behind this was that Africans were just heathens and white preachers were doing them a service by bringing them the gospel. The thought was, "We are civilizing the savages." This approach reinforced the superiority of those bringing the gospel over those needing the gospel. Moreover, it created a way to deal with guilt for some of the Euro-American preachers and missionaries who felt like they were "giving back" to society.
Along these same lines was the attempt by some Southerners to distinguish between personal sins and social evils. The focus was on personal sins and not on social evils. The state-run institution of slavery was a social evil, but the business of the church was personal sin. The idea was to help those benefiting from the institution of slavery to feel better about themselves, protect their property rights, and separate their personal actions from a social structure over which they had limited control. The separation of personal sins from social evil enabled many Euro-American Methodists to benefit from slave labor without having to feel guilty.
Even today, the tendency is for the South to be denigrated because it supported slavery, and for the North to be exalted. The truth is not that easy. The fact that an African American lived in the North and was technically free did not necessarily translate into neighborly treatment by Euro-Americans. Three out of the four black Methodist denominations started in free states (AME, AMEZ, and African Union Church). Richard Allen gives us insight into how African Americans were generally treated by some Northern Methodist congregations. He writes:
A number of us usually attended St. George's church in Fourth street; and when the colored people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better.
Explicit in Allen's comments is the fact that African Americans were being ushered into new seats that were not comparable to the ones in which they previously sat. Implicit in his comments is the fact that African Americans were assigned certain seats even before the infamous incident at Saint George's. Although Allen and the other African Americans were free, they were not treated the same as Euro-American members of the congregation.
Certainly not every congregation in the North treated African Americans unjustly, but the separation of the races after 1800 became common practice. It seems unlikely that the African Americans left the classes and societies just for the sake of starting something new. Explicitly stated by Allen, and reading between the lines of other similar situations, it is not a far stretch to suggest many African Americans left because they were not being treated as full partners.
Even the blacks that stayed in the Methodist Episcopal Church started to worship separately from Euro-Americans. In 1867 two of the Northern conferences had churches with entirely black clergy and laity; most of the others were predominantly white. William Gravely suggests the segregation of the races in the North was because of the "inability of the churches to transcend racial distinctions in their own membership." Although many Northern cities did not enslave African Americans, it is a reach to say they were treated the same as whites.
If the South focused on separating the body and the soul, then the North focused on a complete separation of the races. Although African Americans were free in the North, this did not translate into nonracial ecclesial practices. William Gravely writes: "The class meeting structure was, therefore, the earliest separate African Methodist group experience. As racial separatism increased and the number of African converts grew, the class gave way to the racially distinct congregation or society." In the South the idea was that the salvation of the soul did not mean the freedom of the body. In the North the question of salvation was not explicit in the separation of the races, but it did imply the races were expected to work out their salvation separately. The long-term impact of this separation was different soteriological emphases between blacks and whites even though the ultimate goal of "heaven" remains common language.
Some Euro-Americans reinforced the separation of the races in the North by treating African Americans as second-class individuals (they were less than citizens). Richard Allen reports in his memoirs:
Rev. Bishop Asbury sent for me to meet him at Henry Gaff's. I did so. He told me he wished me to travel with him. He told me in the slave countries, Carolina and other places, I must not intermix with the slaves, and I would frequently have to sleep in his carriage, and he would allow me my victuals and clothes. I told him I would not travel with him on these conditions. He asked me my reason. I told him if I was taken sick, who was to support me? And that I thought people ought to lay up something while they were able, to support themselves in time of sickness or old age. He said that was as much as he got, his victuals and clothes. I told him he would be taken care of, let his afflictions be as they were, or let him be taken sick where he would, he would be taken care of; but I doubted whether it would be the case with myself.
The dialogue between Allen and Asbury is quite telling related to the treatment of African Americans. Allen perceptibly understands that Asbury's argument is faulty because of the difference between how blacks and whites were treated. Asbury as a European male and bishop benefited from the structure of society in a way that Allen could not. African Americans were a part of the church in the North numerically but had no real voice in its governance or theology.
Asbury does eventually ordain Allen as a local deacon in 1799, but even this ordination comes with second-class ramifications because Allen was not connected to the conference. Those connected to the Methodist Church in the North treated not only Allen in this manner but other blacks as well. The undeniable consequence was that Northern Euro-American Methodists were the only ones who governed the church and determined its theological moorings. African Americans could support the efforts of Euro-Americans, but "true" salvation was only possible within a white ecclesial structure. The Methodist Episcopal Church's noninclusion of African American voices in key ecclesial positions supports this strong statement. The idea inherent in this Northern complicity suggests that separating personal and social salvation was just as easily accomplished in the North as it was in the South, thus negating a more holistic view of theology.
Just-us in Methodism and American Culture
The backdrop for the way many Southern and Northern Methodists perceived African Americans helps one understand how these ideas developed into just-us mind-sets. Four attitudes that were prevalent in many Euro-Americans in both the North and South during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are: the idea of innate superiority, social incompatibility with blacks, a narrowing morality, and Christian paternalism. For instance, the idea of separating personal sin from social sin gets translated into a method for narrowing one's moral focus to redefine soteriology in a direction that often negates social ills. Certainly it is an oversimplification to create exact matches between all four mind-sets listed above with a corresponding issue related to Northern or Southern Methodists. It is not an oversimplification to argue that the attitudes of just-us I will describe are, at least in part, rooted in issues related to social, political, and moral issues.
Many white Americans believed themselves naturally superior to African Americans. They had to. Sociologists often describe the mechanisms of oppression in terms of seeing the oppressed as "the other." It was not possible to enslave Africans if one thought of them as human beings like oneself.
James McPherson writes:
One of the most formidable obstacles to the abolition of slavery and the extension of equal rights to free Negroes was the widespread popular and scientific belief, North as well as South, in the innate inferiority of the Negro race. Most white Americans took it for granted that Negroes were by nature shiftless, slovenly, childlike, savage, and incapable of assimilation as equals into white society.
What McPherson describes is the logic necessary in order to enslave someone. Enslaving an equal is consciously more difficult because to treat an equal as nonhuman requires perceiving some difference between you and that individual. Frederick Douglass suggests that oppressors find in the character of the oppressed the full justification for oppressing them. Some Euro-Americans developed theories related to the origin and intellect of African Americans, making blacks inferior by nature to whites. The arguments of African American inferiority were so pervasive that even Euro-Americans who did not support the institution of slavery often believed in the superiority of Euro-Americans.
One of the proponents of African American inferiority was Thomas Jefferson. David Walker, in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, claims because these ideas of inferiority originated from such an important source they would "never be removed from this side of eternity." One of Jefferson's most telling paragraphs against African Americans proposes:
Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.
Jefferson questions whether African Americans are part of humanity, claiming that their mental endowments and the difference of color were major obstacles to full emancipation. Unfortunately, African Americans were put in a position of having to respond to these claims and prove them wrong. The theological ramifications of these claims implied that African Americans were not fully human and therefore did not, indeed could not, have the same relationship to God as Euro-Americans.
A goal of those proposing African American inferiority was to justify the enslavement of blacks. If African Americans were not equal mentally to other races, then to enslave them was not denying their humanity. To maintain the plight of Africans they were not taught to read or write, because it was feared they would become educated. The fear was if Africans became educated then they would think they were equal to white people. Even in the North, African Americans were not instructed in the same manner as Euro-Americans, according to the following account:
Here is a fact, which I this very minute take from the mouth of a young coloured man, who has been to school in this state (Massachusetts) nearly nine years, and who knows grammar this day, nearly as well as he did the day he first entered the schoolhouse, under a white master. This young man says: "My master would never allow me to study grammar.... They would not allow any but the white children to study grammar." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Just Us or Justice? by F. Douglas Powe Jr. Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Historical Roots of Just-us,
2. Experiencing Just-us,
3. Wesleyan Soteriological Just-us,
4. African American Soteriological Just-us,
5. Moving toward a Pan-Methodist Soteriology,
6. Engaging Friendship,