Methodist history mixed on abolitionism

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7:00 A.M. ET Feb. 27, 2013

"The Abolitionists" has recently been a part of the American Experience on public television. One has to search hard, though, to find Methodists involved in the recent presentation despite the church's initial opposition to slavery.

John Wesley opposed slavery after reading the work of Anthony Benezet. Wesley's Thoughts Upon Slavery, published in 1774, provided a wide-ranging attack, and, in his final letter written on Feb. 24, 1791, he encouraged William Wilberforce to continue his efforts to abolish the slave trade. The original letter is housed in the Methodist Archives Center and Library on the campus of Drew University.

Such opposition to slavery was maintained in the founding years of the Methodist Episcopal Church by Thomas Coke and was confirmed in the early statement of the new church. The Christmas Conference in 1784 resolved, "We view it as contrary to the Golden Law of God." However, by the 1830s, strong anti-slavery sentiments had given way to grudging acceptance and silence on the part of much of the church.

One striking exception among others was Gilbert Haven, a pastor and chaplain in the Union Army, editor of Zion's Herald and bishop from 1872 to 1880.

Haven letters in United Methodist archives

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History recently acquired about 1,000 letters to and from Haven in a generous gift from his descendants. The commission staff found of particular interest this letter written to the militant abolitionist John Brown.

The commission's archivist, Dale Patterson, wrote for the April 2013, issue of Methodist History, a quarterly journal of the archives and history commission:

John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, along with other crimes, for his raid on Harper's Ferry in late October of 1859 and was executed by hanging on Dec. 2, 1859.

Transcript of Haven's letter to Brown

We do not know if Haven actually mailed the letter and it was later retrieved by him, or if this is a draft and he sent a clean copy to Brown. The lines of text that are crossed out could imply that it was a draft. But, in fairness, crossing out lines of text in a letter was common; many of Haven's incoming letters from friends show the same practice.

Capt. John Brown
Honored Sir

I take the liberty to send you a copy of a discourse I preached on Sabbath Evening Nov. 6th. I trust it will generally harmonize with your views though in some points it will undoubtedly differ from them.

I had the honor of taking you by the hand on the platform of Tremont Temple at the anniversary of the Church Anti-Slavery Society last May, an honor which I shall be proud to tell to my children.

I hope and pray that you and your associates may be saved from the fate that overhangs you. Millions of sympathizers north and south send up earnest prayers for your salvation. The heart if not the millions of prayers from the lips of Northern friends and from the hearts if not the lips of those poor slaves go up daily to God for your Salvation. [a line scratched out by Haven: "cabin of the Slave is full of agonizing entreaty. ...May those prayers be answered by the submission of ..."]

May He in whose hand are the hearts of men move upon him on whose voice your life hangs and may that governor obey to the call of humanity, the call of God that is speaking to his heart.

But if all these cries and tears shall not prevail, may the presence of the Holy Spirit, Comforter, be with you and your fellow sufferers fitting your for heaven sustaining you in your remaining trials and giving you an abundant entrance into the glorious army of the martyrs who have gone up through much tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Most respectfully and Truly

Your friend and the friend of the oppressed
G. Haven
Nov 18th 59

- Courtesy of Dale Patterson, Commission on Archives and History

Haven was a committed abolitionist and had joined the New England Conference in 1851. He had come of age just a few short years after the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 into regional bodies.

The letter gives a sense of the emotion across the nation caused by Brown's action. A few points are worth noting.

Haven mentions having met Brown at an abolitionist meeting at Tremont Temple Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. This is the same church that a decade later would see the founding of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Haven also enclosed a copy of a sermon he preached for Brown to read. He says he gave the sermon on Nov. 6, which points to The Beginning of the End. Haven later published this sermon in a collection entitled National Sermons: Sermons, Speeches and Letters on Slavery and its War. The collection was published in 1869. The sermons were given over a period of years from 1850 until 1868.

And, finally, it is worth noting how Haven sees Brown as a martyr - one who has "... washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Haven was not alone in this sentiment as Henry David Thoreau had written similar ideas in a plea for Brown's life.

Support for colonization movement

But abolitionist sentiment was much muted in the church at large.

Two vocal abolitionists, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott, faced great opposition, left the Methodist Episcopal Church and helped organize the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843.

While official statements from the General Conference and annual conferences were largely silent on abolitionism, there were resolutions supporting the colonization movement, which intended to remove free blacks from North America and settle them in Africa, primarily Liberia. It would not end slavery but remove the freed slave from the United States.

In the Journal, it was recorded that the General Conference of 1840 resolved, "That we view with favor the efforts which are now making by the American Colonization Society to build up a colony on the coast of Africa with free people of colour, by their own consent."

The story of the efforts of the predecessor churches of The United Methodist Church to abolish slavery is a mixed one.

From our vantage point in the 21st century, we can celebrate Gilbert Haven and others like him who fought for freedom, justice and equality, but we also have to acknowledge that many in the church did not have the same vision and accommodated to prevailing attitudes of society as a whole.

*Williams is the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 740-5470 or [email protected].

Methodist treasures at Archives and History

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History features this month "Celebrate African American History Month." The presentation includes a report on the library's special collections on African American history.

The commission's archives also include:

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