United under God

Methodist groups' merger ended a great divide

Religion

February 04, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

The hyphen that connects Baltimore and Washington in the name of the local body of United Methodists today represents more than just geographic borders.

The character symbolizes the history of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of United Methodists, borne of the merger of two organizations that had overlapping physical boundaries and racial barriers.

Segregation within individual Methodist churches began not long after the denomination was formally established in the United States at Baltimore's Lovely Lane Meeting House in 1784. Subsequently, African-American Methodists from Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania met separately for a century -- first in 1864 as the Washington Conference and later as the Central Jurisdiction -- to choose new leaders and make decisions for their congregations. White churches in the same area convened as the Baltimore Conference.

Blacks here and across the country recently have begun to call attention to the achievements of their conferences, first established after 1864 for emancipated enslaved people.

During a time of racial turmoil, "the presence of the black churches in that [Washington] conference provided the resources both spiritually and psychologically for folks to be able to cope, to go on," said the Rev. Eugene W. Matthews, a district superintendent for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Matthews, who grew up in Hanover attending St. Mark United Methodist Church, of the Washington Conference, served as a co-chairman of a Washington Conference reunion in September. The group of about 400 celebrated "the contributions and the struggles that were made during the segregated years of that conference that was not really celebrated," the minister said.

"We had strong churches in the area, vibrant churches that provided nurturing, caring, pastoral oversight and Christian education for persons," he said.

The reunion offered an opportunity to remember the institutions established by leaders of the Washington Conference.

The conference "allowed African-Americans to step forward and create the educational and social benefits that weren't available to them," said Dorothy Dougherty, historian of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.

A history of the Methodists in the United States says the segregated past enabled black Methodists to develop leadership both within the church and without.

"In 1864, it was probably the best step for developing the initiative of freedmen in the midst of bondage and black codes of separation," according to Those Incredible Methodists, a history published in 1972 by the Baltimore Conference's Commission on Archives and History.

For example, the Centenary Biblical Institute -- now known as Morgan State University -- was founded in 1867 in the basement of Sharp Street to educate preachers.

"They knew that if there were to be black ministers in the pulpit, there needed to be a place where they were trained," said Dougherty, Sharp Street's historian.

Mount Auburn Cemetery -- a burial ground for blacks dedicated in 1872 -- and the N.M. Carroll Home for the Aged founded in 1870 were also founded for the Washington Conference by leadership based at Sharp Street. Sharp Street also was a hotbed of civil rights activity and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"They began to do things that would heighten the African-American existence that was overlooked by the [larger] church," Dougherty said.

Famous names associated with the Washington Conference and later the Central Jurisdiction include Frederick Douglass and the Mitchell family, such as civil rights leader Clarence Mitchell.

The Methodist Church had split into Northern and Southern factions over the question of slavery in 1844, said retired Bishop Forrest C. Stith.

When the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South merged in 1939, white members of the Southern church were concerned that blacks would be making decisions that affected them -- or a black bishop could be chosen to lead them.

As a result, all African-American Methodist Episcopal churches nationwide were placed in a "Central Jurisdiction," to elect bishops and conduct other day-to-day business, Stith said.

"This was the compromise," he said. "That gave a sense of security to the [Southern] church."

In 1964, delegates voted unanimously to merge the Washington Conference with the Baltimore Conference, according to Those Incredible Methodists.

"In the minds of some, the ... `merger' became a submerger," Stith said. "In spite of the strength and the profound ministries and personalities of the Washington Conference, they still felt in many terms like a stepchild when they came together.

"In a sense, the Washington Conference came in agreeably ... but they had kind of an icky feeling that some of the things they had done, some of the power they had expressed had ended and was never addressed."

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