The Wesleyan Witness on Race
June 19, 2020 By Andrew C. Thompson
The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the public protests that followed in its wake have served as a shocking reminder of the deep, unhealed wounds in America around issues of race. It is hard to imagine a more brutal and stark depiction of the suffering of black America than the picture of a white man with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, slowly choking the life from him over the course of more than eight minutes. In and of itself, Floyd’s killing was a wicked, heinous act. And as the protests and the public conversation since then have shown, it has also put in bold relief a series of unresolved issues in American society: the relationship of urban police departments and black communities, the different ways that black Americans and white Americans experience day-to-day life, and the desperately difficult time we have in even talking about such things with one another.
What is missing (or at least less visible) in the conversation over the past several weeks is a robust element of how the Christian church, and the witness of Christian believers, ought to be playing a role in helping to address racial disparities and heal racial wounds. Even Christian leaders who have spoken out have often resorted to the language of political ideology rather than the language of Scripture, the broad tradition of the church catholic, and the theological grammar of the faith. That such a contribution is needed ought to be obvious to people of faith. When a large segment of the U.S. population is telling the rest of us that it feels like their lives don’t matter, then as a matter of conscience it ought to cause Christians to look both without and within, to ask searching questions about what is going on and what we can do about it.
While conversations leading to constructive action are clearly needed, we also need those conversations to be informed. And for Christian believers, that means going to the resources of the faith to become acquainted with the witness of our ancestors as they dealt with similar, or analogous, situations. For those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, there is a prophetic witness from the early Methodist movement that we would be wise to learn about—indeed, we might find that just such a prophetic witness gives us the courage and confidence to do the things we need to do in our own day.
John and Charles Wesley encountered chattel slavery firsthand during their missionary experience in the American colonies in the mid-1730s. The Georgia colony (to which they were assigned) did not allow slavery at the time, although it was legal and widely practiced in nearby South Carolina. When the Wesley brothers traveled to Charleston (“Charlestown” at the time) in July and August 1736 so that Charles could board a ship to sail back to England, they heard eyewitness testimonies of the types of cruelties inflicted upon slaves by their owners. Charles’ journal is graphic in its descriptions of these acts, which amounted to torture and murder. He refers to “shocking instances of diabolical cruelty,” including a Charleston dancing-master who whipped a young enslaved woman almost to death and then poured hot sealing wax on her bare skin. As Charles relates, “Her crime was over-filling a tea cup.”
In his journal, Charles goes on to criticize a colonial government that essentially allowed slave owners to murder their slaves (a practice which he suggests happened frequently). There was a financial penalty for doing so, but the murderer could have it cut in half by simply admitting to the act. Charles’ incredulity at a system that allowed such a thing is expressed by his shocked comment: “This I can look upon as no other than a public act to indemnify murder.”
The experience of the Wesleys with the institution of slavery while in America stayed with them. In 1774, John Wesley published the treatise “Thoughts upon Slavery,” where he criticized slavery as contrary to both natural law and the Christian gospel. His natural law appeal is aimed at the idea that every human being is deserving of basic freedom. Wesley writes, “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature.” Yet Wesley’s ultimate appeal is specifically Christian in character, which he states in the form of a prayer at the essay’s end: “O thou God of love, thou who art loving to every man, and whose mercy is over all thy works ... Have compassion upon these outcasts of men, who are trodden down as dung upon the earth! Arise, and help these that have no helper, whose blood is spilt upon the ground like water! ... Thou Savior of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed!” In the treatise, Wesley takes aim at both the institution of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade that facilitated it. He includes separate sections addressed to ship captains, slave-trading merchants, and planters, desperately appealing to each to consider fundamental questions of justice and mercy in what they are doing (to say nothing of a number of warnings to them about eternal damnation).
In late February of 1791, just days before his death, John Wesley wrote a letter to William Wilberforce in which he urged the latter to keep up the fight against slavery. Wilberforce was a young Member of Parliament at the time, and his great victory in getting Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was still many years away. In the letter, Wesley refers to slavery as “that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” He exhorts Wilberforce to keep fighting the good fight: “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” Wesley knew he was writing to a man with whom he shared a common spirituality. Wilberforce had converted to evangelical Christianity several years before, and his faith would sustain him throughout a parliamentary career in which he made the fight against slavery a centerpiece of his work.
While the Wesley brothers made their own views clear, the Wesleyan witness on race in the 18th century was not limited to their writings alone. American Methodism took a strong stance against slavery in its early years. Indeed, the official minutes of the Christmas Conference in 1784 that established the Methodist Episcopal Church (and served as the forerunner of the Book of Discipline) mandated the catechism of black Americans and bluntly asked the question, “What methods can we take to extirpate slavery?” The answer for Methodists at the time was that slavery was opposed both by the gospel and “every Principle of the Revolution” (echoing the dual appeal to natural law and the Christian witness in John Wesley’s earlier “Thoughts upon Slavery”). The minutes then go on to require that every slave owner must emancipate his slaves on a timetable based on the enslaved person’s age. The rules thus laid down constituted a “new Term of Communion,” and those who would not abide by them were to be literally excommunicated, or barred from taking the Lord’s Supper.
The early American Methodists’ determination to act counter-culturally (that is, in accordance with the gospel) as regards race is also shown in the career of a black Methodist preacher named Harry Hosier. He was a traveling companion of some of the most prominent white Methodist preachers of the day in the 1780s and 90s, including Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson. In his journal, Garrettson describes preaching missions with Harry Hosier as his traveling companion, and he remarks on Hosier’s preaching ability and the positive reception he received from white congregations. Thomas Coke became acquainted with Hosier during his first trip to America in 1784, and he commented on the enthusiastic response Hosier received from audiences both black and white. “I really believe that he is one of the best preachers in the world,” Coke records in his journal. “There is such an amazing power [that] attends his preaching, though he cannot read; and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.”
When set against the historical period in which they lived, these testimonies of early Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are prophetic in the biblical sense of that word—they call people to a way of living faithfully to the word of God and anticipating of life in the kingdom. They can and should serve as examples to Wesleyan Christians of the present as we engage the particular challenges of our day. Yet it is also true, of course, that the witness of Methodists as regards race soon became less beholden to the gospel and more conformed to the ways of the world—particularly as Methodism in America continued to develop.
Examples of a growing cultural conformity abound. In 1792, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones led other black worshipers to walk out of St. George’s Church in Philadelphia over prejudicial treatment related to seating arrangements in worship; that act of protest eventually led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME Church, along with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, and the Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church, were all created by black Methodists due to exclusionary treatment by their white Methodist counterparts. Indeed, the most faithful Wesleyan witness on race after the 1790s was largely borne by black Methodists who struggled courageously to form their own churches and engage in the work of ministry against overwhelming obstacles. Added to that, we could include white Methodists in the holiness movement in the first half of the 19th century, who actively fought for abolition and, in some cases, separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the denomination’s failure on the issue of slavery.
White Methodists in the MEC tradition did not only push their black brothers and sisters out, they also embraced prejudice within their own denominational context. From the late 1780s onward, there was a growing tendency by white preachers to “spiritualize” the gospel particularly in relation to slavery so that the salvation of souls was emphasized to the exclusion of the salvation of bodies. That led to a growing acceptance of slavery where preachers would not challenge the “peculiar institution” so that they could gain access to audiences of enslaved men and women on plantations. Indeed, the creeping acceptance of slavery by the church led to the situation in the 1840s (unthinkable in the days of Asbury and Garrettson) where Methodist bishop James O. Andrew was himself a slave owner. The constitutional crisis precipitated by Bishop Andrew’s case at the General Conference led in 1844 to a split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. That capitulation to culture anticipated the North/South split of the Civil War that would occur less than 20 years later.
Thus, in a period of 60 years, the Methodist movement in America had gone from excommunicating slaveholders to finding itself with a slaveholding bishop. It’s a legacy that should make it little surprise that, when the northern and southern branches of the MEC finally reunited in 1939 (along with the Methodist Protestant Church), those Methodists’ great-grandchildren nevertheless created a provision called the “Central Jurisdiction.” The Central Jurisdiction was a racially segregated administrative unit within the newly created Methodist Church that ensured that black congregations would be separate from white congregations and that black bishops and pastors would never be appointed to serve in white contexts—in other words, the new denomination created for itself its own form of Jim Crow.
If these negative examples were all that Wesleyans had to look at, then our situation would be depressing indeed. Yet if we look further back into that earlier history—before the Central Jurisdiction, before the 1844 split, before the splintering off of black Methodist denominations, and before Richard Allen and Absalom Jones walked out of St. George’s Church in Philadelphia—then we encounter a very different kind of witness. It is a witness much less beholden to culture, much more prophetic in character, and much more biblically faithful. It could be said that the Methodist witness on race (at least among whites) was faithful so long as it was a Wesleyan witness, i.e., so long as it remained closely connected to the faithfully biblical and deeply counter-cultural impulse that drove the Methodist movement in its earliest years. It was only when Methodism began to give way to its cultural context that it began, slowly but surely, to become indistinguishable from the racism and prejudice of American society writ large.
Of course, we shouldn’t look primarily to the Wesley brothers, or to early Methodism, for the basis of how to view race and culture at all. We should instead look to the Bible (which is exactly what John Wesley would tell us to do). And the Bible points to an equality of all children of God by virtue of the redemptive work of Christ—for there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Moreover, the work of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward is aimed at healing the confusion of Babel and thereby bringing people of different cultures, ethnicities, and tongues into Christ’s beloved community together. We can overcome racism because we have been made “ambassadors for Christ” and given a “ministry of reconciliation” to one another and to the world (2 Corinthians 5:14-21).
Yet the Wesleyan witness can offer us a helpful and needed contribution—it can provide a lens through which to see how the biblical witness finds purchase in the hurly-burly of everyday living. What it shows us is the evangelical imperative of speaking out on behalf of justice and compassion in a world where remaining silent would be so much easier. It shows us how important it is not to stay silent, but to engage in the hard work of proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ to people of all ages, nations, and races. The implications of that love determine how we are meant to treat one another, and how we are meant to live together.
So as Wesleyans, who take the Scriptures as the rule of our faith and embrace our particular heritage as a continually fruitful source of guidance for practical Christian living, perhaps we can hear another version of John Wesley’s advice to William Wilberforce calling out to us in the present: “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till every expression of racist sentiment and all forms of racial prejudice vanish away before it.”
Andrew C. Thompson is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He holds a Th.D. from Duke University and previously served for four years on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary.
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