Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.
Francis Asbury: “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not a sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.”
The issue of slavery was very complex and multifaceted for the Methodist Episcopal Church, just as it was in culture. It was a moral and political debate that would eventually tear both Church and nation apart. Slavery would not legally end until Lincoln’s Emancipation in 1863. Two decades before that, in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South contingents along the fault line of slavery. It would take nearly one hundred years for the divisions to heal and the main bodies of the church to reunite.
Abolition was the general position of John Wesley and the English Methodists. In England, William Wilberforce had been waging his campaign to abolish Britain’s slave trade that would eventually result in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. About the time the Methodist Episcopal Church was forming in America, Wilberforce experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and worked closely with Methodist and Quaker abolitionists. Wilberforce was strongly influenced by John Wesley, who had been actively involved in the abolitionist movement prior to Wilberforce. Just days before his death, in a letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley called slavery “that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature” and referred to the American form of slavery as “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”
On the other hand, George Whitefield, a Calvinist Methodist preacher and close friend of John Wesley, was a vocal and influential champion for the institution of slavery on both economic and scriptural grounds. Whitefield argued that Christian slaveowners had a moral obligation to treat their slaves humanely, to care for their physical well-being, and to provide good spiritual training. But blacks were not equal to whites; they were a lesser form of creature. God, in his providence, had subjugated them to the care and authority of the whites.
Undoubtely influenced by Whitefield’s position, most southern Methodist conferences, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia, held that the Bible sanctioned or even called for slavery. Conveniently, this theological position reinforced the economic arguments of the South. Like Whitefield and other notable Christian pro-slavery leaders, the southern position argued that neither God nor the early church condemned the practice. They pointed to Jewish laws in the Old Testament detailing the proper treatment of servants, the Apostle Paul’s admonitions regarding slaves’ and masters’ treatment of one another, and the New Testament letter to Philemon, a slave-owner and early Christian. Additionally, most southern preachers advocated a divide between political and religious realms. Slavery was a secular, legal structure, not a matter for the Church. The Church’s concern were the “winning of souls” and the spiritual wellbeing of people, not their political status. This included slaves. Conveniently, for the southern churches, the Church simply had no business interfering in the affairs of government.
On the other side, most northern conferences favored abolition. For them, slavery was a moral rather than a social or political issue. Many preachers strongly believed slavery to be inconsistent with Christian belief or practice, and considered it an unjust social evil. In America, slavery was an immediate and much more socially volatile issue for the common citizen than it was in England. As a result, it was far more personal and emotinoal. Asbury was caught in the middle. As bishop, Asbury was convinced his leadership had to span both sides of the divide. On the one hand was the mandate to care for and minister to slaves while advocating for an end to the system. On the other was the need to hold together the whole movement in unity and fellowship. Then, as now, the question of what unity meant or required was messy and harder to discern in the moment.
Asbury shared Wesley’s abolitionist views, insisting slavery was morally wrong and contrary to Scripture. The question was what to do about it in a church whose people firmly occupied diametrically opposed sides. He lamented that there was “not a sufficient sense of religion or liberty to destroy it. [Christians] in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” Compounding the problem was the fact that Methodism was strongest in the south. In essence, the problem Asbury believed he faced was a Gordian knot: choosing between pursuing the abolition of slavery and maintaining the unity of the church. As history proved, it was a knot impossible to untie.
Throughout his ministry, Asbury showed concern for the condition and spiritual life of slaves and free blacks. He actively supported their participation in worship services, class meetings, and love feasts. He placed special emphasis on the education of slaves and their children, and traveled closely with Richard Allen, a free black, who would soon go on to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In places where segregation was demanded, he helped establish classes and churches just for blacks. But elsewhere, he was frustrated, sometimes to the point of anger, by the lack of charity towards slaves, such as one meeting where nearly one hundred slaves had to stand outside a half-empty house because they were not worthy to come inside with the others.
Early on, Asbury actively campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He sought to maintain the anti-slavery stance of Wesleyan Methodism in the church, endorsing resolutions calling for manumission and expulsion for unjust or inhuman trading of slaves. One northern conference “almost unanimously” agreed and resolved “not to hold slaves in any State where the law will allow them to manumit them, on pain of forfeiture of their honour and their place in the itinerant connexion [sic].” In any state where slaveowners were forbidden by to law to grant slaves their freedom, the conference agreed that slaves were to be paid and, when the current slaveowner dies, to entrust the slaves to a new owner who would work to bring about their legal freedom. But just a few years later, he described how grieved he was at Methodists who would “hire out slaves at public places to the highest bidder, to cut, skin, and starve them…I will try if words can be like drawn swords, to pierce the hearts of the owners.”
Eventually, Asbury realized he was walking the proverbial razor’s edge. Offsetting his concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of slaves and free blacks was his concern that a strong abolitionist stance threatened to divide the church along northern and southern lines or drive southern preachers out of the connection. He soon realized that a strong abolitionist campaign would stir up bitter feelings and potentially destroy the church.
By 1809, his position had tempered considerably. He lamented the loss of “great numbers” because slave-owners kept their slaves away from the Methodists due to their abolitionist principles. This was where he famously noted, “would not an amelioration in the condition and treatment of slaves have produced more practical good to the poor Africans, than any attempt at their emancipation? The state of society, unhappily, does not admit of this.” Regrettably, this emphasis on care at the expense of freedom would be echoed by slavery sympathizers in the church across the next 100 years. Asbury never relented with his belief in the immorality of slavery, but in the end he adopted a less active and public pursuit of social reform. He shifted to focus on amelioration of the slaves’ condition. Like many other leaders of the day, Asbury was content to allow emancipation to wait until a later day, hoping the institution of slavery would eventually die out.
Pradaoxically, Asbury’s position represents a posture of embracing humanity. Caught in what was truthfully an impossible situation, Asbury sought to embrace the slaves and hold the church together. Although from a modern, evangelical, Christian perspective, Asbury’s softening on abolition can be rightly criticized, one must appreciate the real tensions and exigencies of the day even while not needing to justify Asbury’s decisions. The humanity Asbury sought to embrace was fractured, broken, and deeply flawed. To embrace the whole of his social reality, Asbury had to reach his arms around two sides of a great cultural chasm. In one sense, Asbury felt he could not fully give himself to one cause without losing his ministry to the other; to choose one over the other was fundamentally wrong.
Asbury’s compromise was to leave the political arguments to others. All along, his primary concern had been the wellbeing of slaves and blacks regardless of their legal status. Whether or not emancipation was to be the law of the land, Asbury sought to embrace and care for them. That he did not go far enough in pursuing their legal freedom is a matter of debate and historical judgment (he did not). That he worked within the confines of the legal boundaries of his time to embrace those who suffered injustice and oppression while working to hold the Methodist church together is beyond dispute. From his perspective, the price would have been the unity–and even the existence–of the Church, a price he was simply unwilling to pay.
Asbury’s record on the problem of slavery is not flawless—he could have done a number of things differently—but his fundamental motive and concern was for the entire spectrum of those in the church. In this regard, Asbury’s embrace of humanity, in spite of its many foibles, misjudgments, and misguided actions, is nonetheless one born of love and identification with his fellow men.