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Denominations Splitting Everywhere Once upon a Time

One characteristic of a Protestant denomination is that they can change: sometimes one denomination will split into two denominations or sometimes two or more denominations join to form one larger denomination. One exceptionally tumultuous time in America saw three of the largest denominations split: Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the period from 1844-1861.

If you remember history class, that was just prior to the Civil War starting in 1861. These three (partly) split over the same issue over which the country (partly) split: slavery. The Methodists split in 1844, the Baptists in 1845, and the Presbyterians in 1857. And how did they split? You guessed it: they split into the northern branch and the southern branch of each denomination.

Methodists. [Originally, the Methodist movement in America was known as the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). "Episcopal" was dropped in 1939.] The MEC, founded in 1784, opposed slavery. Over time that view changed as slavery became more important in the South. Nevertheless, although members of the denomination could have slaves, the clergy could not. The split centered on Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia. He was made a bishop in 1832 at a time when he did not own slaves. Eventually, though, Andrew married a woman who owned a slave, making him a slave owner.

In 1844, Andrew traveled to New York for the annual General Conference of the MEC. While there some northern bishops raised the issue of Andrew being a slave owner. Eventually a vote was taken concerning this issue: 136 voted for separation, fifteen voted against it. The northerners retained the MEC name whereas the southerners became known as the MEC (South).

Baptists. The first national gathering of Baptists in the country was at the Triennial Convention in 1814. Just as with the later Methodists, the northern Baptists were against slavery whereas the southern Baptists were for slavery. Once again the group held together until slavery became an issue. The Georgia Baptists recommended that James E. Reeve, a slaveholder, become a missionary. The northern Baptists balked at the idea of a slaveholding missionary and declined to appoint him. Southern Baptists gathered in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 and formed, you guessed it, the Southern Baptist Convention. Presbyterians. Unlike the Methodists and Baptists, the Presbyterian split did not center on an individual but the idea of slavery itself. As early as 1787, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia had suggested that slaves be freed. The Presbyterians split in 1837 into Old School and New School Presbyterians over the issue of how to incorporate new ideas into the synods and churches (New School wanting to use new ideas, and Old School rejecting them). Slavery was a minor issue and the division was mainly between northern Presbyterians—dominated by the New School group—and southern Presbyterians—dominated by the Old School group. Eventually the New School Presbyterians (in the north) split over the issue of slavery in 1857, with the Old School Presbyterians splitting in 1861 (in the South).

In all three denominations, other issues contributed to the splits, but slavery was the straw that broke the camel’s back in each case.

©2005 Mark Nickens

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