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A Word about Black History in the Methodist Church

February is Black History Month. This is a reminder we still have much work to do. It is my hope and prayer one day that Black History Month will no longer be needed. Though our schools have been integrated, out telling of history hasn’t. Here is a unique opportunity for the church to set precedence on how we ought to tell American History.

The Methodist movement in America was intertwined with slavery and capitalism. When John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, visited America and ministered in Georgia he said, “the American form of slavery was the most vile that he had ever seen,” therefore, the Methodist preachers were forbidden to hold slaves. This moral stance, along with fiery preaching and singing, drew African slaves to the Methodist movement both in the North and the South.

Initially, American Bishops Asbury and Coke were staunch supporters of the rule against slavery drafted by the Christmas Conference held in Baltimore, Md. Dec. 25, 1784. Dr. William B. McClain, professor of homiletics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. reminds us: “Asbury and Coke fought vigorously and courageously, but to no avail. At the conference that met on June 1, 1785, six months after the Christmas Conference conceded, “The rules against holding slaves would only be applied if the laws of the states were consistent with church’s official position. This would set the stage for the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which split away from the ME Church in 1844.

The Church would remain split by geography until 1939. It was the union of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and The Methodist Protestant church, that gave birth to what would be called the Central Jurisdiction. There would be five geographical areas in the new Methodist Church and one Central Jurisdiction made up of all Black Methodists regardless of geography.

This separate but unequal practice would continue until 1968, when The United Methodist Church was formed by the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Central Jurisdiction was dissolved as a condition of union forced by the EUB Church, and at the Uniting Conference all these entities became The United Methodist Church.

More recently, Indiana was served by Bishop Woodie W. White, an African-American bishop, who worked hard to bring about the very spirit of the Uniting Conference. For 12 years, he made significant strides toward healing our fractured Methodist history. Now Bishop Coyner has come to lead us further in our journey. One only needs to look at the staff of the new Indiana Conference to see the mantle and mandate for inclusivity has been carried forward. Are we perfect? Absolutely not! Are we better? Absolutely we are!

Our history of overcoming racism is the hope upon which we can seek, energize and expand our work in Indiana. I am so proud to have served a church from the Old Central Jurisdiction, but I am equally as proud to serve Wesley UMC in Indianapolis, which embodies the spirit of the Uniting Conference. Wesley is a church that is open, and ready to receive whomever the Lord sends into its midst. I believe the Rev. John Wesley would be proud of our efforts as a church and an Indiana Conference to be a “Church for all people.”

Reginald E. Lee serves as pastor of Wesley UMC in Indianapolis.