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Bishops to "postpone further action" until the next General Conference would have been, in effect, complied with.
But in the light of this analysis it is surprising to see how large a portion of the great discussion of 1844 was irrelevant. Strictly construed, the question before the General Conference was, a decision which must turn upon the historical principles and policy of the Church; but the grave question chiefly debated was, the power of the General Conference to summarily deprive a Bishop of official prerogatives simply on the grounds of unavailability. It may, however, be conceded that it was inost natural, if not indeed desirable and inevitable, that the debate should take the wide range that it did, for the control of strict order would have left some questions of really graver importance, then actually pending, undetermined, doubtless to the permanent injury of the Church.
As a great forensic struggle, its real and relative status has been, without regard to denominational egotism, placed very high. It is not for us to pronounce upon this judgment. But surely a body under the presidency of Bishops Soule, Hedding, Wangh, Andrew, and Morris, including such men as Winans, Drake, Bascom, Capers, Bangs, Olin, Elliott, Collins, and Davis, dead, and many others living, whom, therefore, we do not name, could not want sincerity, breadth of view, strength of judgment, or forensic talent. It was morally impossible that they should agree, and chiefly because of their different stand-points, their associations, and settled habits of thought. Coming up to the question of right from one direction, what was
more natural than that men who knew no other effective method of service or social system but what rested on the basis of slavery, should pronounce it no more wrong in a Bishop than in any other minister of the Gospel; in a minister than in a private Christian; and declare that there was a gross inconsistency in disallowing the convenience of slavery to a Bishop and granting it to other Methodists; and who can deny that they were right in this? No sound mind will set up the claim of historical consistency on the subject of slavery, either in law or administration, for the Methodist Episcopal Church. But it was not legitimate to argue evitable from inevitable concessions; nor the moral right of slaveholding in any man from the fact of slaveholding by
FOURTH SERIES, Vol. XXII.-12
any number of men; nor from the character of any merely human laws. It was legitimate to deem slaveholding an assailable wrong in a high officer, for the disqualifications it would work, and require him to remove the disability or suspend the functions of his office, even though slaveholding in other men could not be successfully assailed. But let us solemnly admit the broader fact, that, under the control of Providence, we had reached the grand epoch in which concessions to slavery must pause, and the Church should calmly lead the State step by step back over the track of its concessions, and firmly reclaim the rights it had waived under control of asserted imperious necessity. Once started, the tread of liberty would be firm and irresistible, both in Church and State, back to “extirpation” and the inalienable rights of man. We stood up for long and weary days and debated the right to demand the panse which must precede our first timid step back toward first principles.
The powers and rights of the General Conference came thus into question. The right to “expel” a Bishop for “ improper conduct” had, as we have seen, been framed into a general law, which certainly did not originate or impair the right, but simply asserted and very imperfectly defined it. But as no one proposed to apply this law in the present instance, and as it was charged that the measure before the Conference was a virtual suspension of Bishop Andrew without the formality of a trial, the right to suspend or remove a Bishop from office summarily, and simply upon grounds of unavailability, pushed itself proininently forward, and must, it seemed, be settled before the sense of this General Conference, or the official decision, should be pronounced.
This question really involved the whole polity and government of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Hence the wide range of the discussion, in which, if strict order made concessions, ecclesiastical science gained much more than ample compensation. But the consideration of two preliminary and decisive issues raised will be sufficient here. The first is a question of history.
The defense set up the claim that there was a “compromise law” on the subject of slavery, to which the Southern delegates in their “protest” gave this expression :
The Southern Conferences, in agreeing to the main principles of the compromise law, finally agreed to in 1804 and 1816, conceded, by express stipulation, their right to resist Northern interference in any form, upon the condition pledged by the North, that while the wholé Church, by common consent, united in proper effort for the mitigation and final removal of the evil of slavery, the North was not to interfere, by excluding from membership or ministerial office in the Church persons owning and holding slaves in States where emancipation is not practicable, and where the liberated slave is not permitted to enjoy freedom.
It was deemed a sufficient reply to this allegation that there is no historical evidence of its truth. It would seem, from the
. various statements made,
That the confederating Annual Conferences, “after a vexed and protracted negotiation, met in convention," and the section on slavery " was finally agreed to by the parties, after a long and fearful struggle," as a "compact," " a treaty,” which cannot be altered by the General Conference until certain constitutional restrictions are removed.
The anthors of the “Reply to the Protest” are confident that no transactions ever occurred which would properly admit of any such construction. They say:
If it had been the intention to guard the question of slavery by constitutional provisions, it would have been done when the Church actually did meet to form a constitution. But nothing of the kind appears. For when, in 1808, it was resolved that the General Conference, instead of consisting, as before, of all the traveling Elders, should be a delegate body, and when it was determined that that body (unlike the General Government, which has no powers but such as are expressly conferred) should have all powers but such as are expressly taken away; when this vast authority was about to be given to the General Conference, among “the limitations and restrictions” imposed there is not one word on the subject of slavery; nor was any attempt made to introduce any such restriction. The only provision anywhere established by that General Conference, of constitutional force, was the general rule forbidding the buying and selling of human beings with an intention to enslave them. So that, in direct opposition to the assertion of the protest, we maintain that the section on slavery is a mere legislative enactment, a simple decree of a General Conference, as much under its control as any other portion of the Discipline not covered by the restrictive roles. If additional proof of the truth of this position were needed, it might be adduced in the fact, that the section which the protest represents to have been settled in 1804 was not only altered at the General Conference or Convention of 1808, but also in the delegated General Conferences of 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824. And although the protest speaks of it as usually known” by the name of " The Compromise Act,” the greater part of this General Conference have never heard either that appellation or that character ascribed to it until the present occasion.
To this we only add, that there never had been any “high contracting parties” capable of making any such binding "compromise.” The persons differing were inseparable
. parts of an organic unit, all alike bound by the official acts of the General Conference, and no other; while the historical character of all “rules and regulations” touching the subject of slavery, modified or repealed from time to time by vote of majorities, as necessity or discretion seemed to require, shows beyond all contradiction that they were not intended as fixed compromise acts, to be kept in the undeviating faith of “ treaty stipulations,” but concessions, for the time being, to be interpreted in the light of the general rule, and as soon as possible to be adjusted to the great historic purpose of extirpating the crying evil. There was, then, no “compromise law” to break.
The other great preliminary question raised was the character of Methodist Episcopacy. We were all, historically and by profession, Low Churchmen. We accepted, from Mr. Wesley, Lord King's Account of the Primitive Church, and presbyterial ordination. We rejected “the figment of succession," and all ideas connected with the position that Bishops are, jure divino, a third order. If any thing was Methodism in Church polity, the Episcopate is an office, and not an order, certainly was. Fearing the tendency to prelatical pretensions, Mr. Wesley had insisted that our chief executive officer should be styled “Superintendent,” and not “Bishop.” In orders he was an Elder only; in office he was simply primus inter pares. He would, therefore, be elected by his peers, not appointed by any state or ecclesiastical authority; and as stability and safety must be combined in the exercise of his functions, the Discipline would be silent as to the duration of his term of office. By the fairest construction in the world, therefore, he held his office wbile he was available, and the power from which he received it would be the judge of the time when he should cease to exercise it. It was not, as we think, sufficiently exact to say, as was frequently said in this discussion, that he was simply “an officer of the General Conference." He was rather the officer of the whole Church, responsible to the General Conference.
The most plausible objection to this view was found in the
fact of distinct ordination. Here it may be confessed that Wesley, by retaining the separate forms of ordination for Deacons, Elders, and Superintendents, while he rejected as unhistorical the order of Bishops as distinct from Presbyters, handed down to us an embarrassing inconsistency. Our explanation is no doubt logically sound, as we insist that “the laying on of hands” is simply a form, primitive and apostolic indeed, which may be used as a solemn and decent method of investing with holy orders—a ceremony accompanying invocation or benediction, “the right of confirmation," or any other solemn official act of consecration. Or, as liable to abuse, it may be dispensed with. It is, therefore, perfectly safe to say, that in Episcopal Methodism the ordination of a Bishop adds nothing which affects any question of discipline. Whatever would be a lawful act of suspension, deposition, or expulsion, if a Bishop were constituted by election alone, is not rendered illegal“ by the imposition of hands.” But as neither the election nor ordination constituted an order, but both created an officer, it would have been in exact accordance with Methodist polity, as it was with the law of the Church, to have deprived Bishop Andrew of Episcopal functions without impeachment or trial. This was, however, as we have
neither done nor attempted; but simply the decision was formally made that slaveholding was an impediment to the exercise of Episcopal functions, and the Bishop left to his own choice as to which of the two incompatible things should continue. All judgment upon his decision was waived until it should be made, and the General Conference should be again convened.
This makes perfectly distinct the official grievance of the South in the case of the Bishop. Was it sufficient to justify a disruption of the Church?
Fidelity to history will show that it was not so considered by the Southern members of the General Conference. On the fifth day of June A. B. Longstreet presented the following declaration:
The delegates of the Conferences in the slaveholding States take leave to declare to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church that the continued agitation on the subject of slavery and abolition in a portion of the Church, the frequent action on the subject in General Conference, and especially the,