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Methodist history mixed on abolitionism

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A letter written by Gilbert Haven to abolitionist John Brown is among letters recently gifted to The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History by descendants of Haven.  UMNS photos courtesy of The General Commission on Archives and History.
A letter written by Gilbert Haven to abolitionist John Brown is among letters recently gifted to The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History by descendants of Haven. UMNS photos courtesy of The General Commission on Archives and History.
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7:00 A.M. ET Feb. 27, 2013

The Abolitionists” has recently been a part of the American Experience on public television. One has to search hard, though, to find Methodists involved in the recent presentation despite the church’s initial opposition to slavery.

John Wesley opposed slavery after reading the work of Anthony Benezet. Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery, published in 1774, provided a wide-ranging attack, and, in his final letter written on Feb. 24, 1791, he encouraged William Wilberforce to continue his efforts to abolish the slave trade. The original letter is housed in the Methodist Archives Center and Library on the campus of Drew University.

Such opposition to slavery was maintained in the founding years of the Methodist Episcopal Church by Thomas Coke and was confirmed in the early statement of the new church. The Christmas Conference in 1784 resolved, “We view it as contrary to the Golden Law of God.” However, by the 1830s, strong anti-slavery sentiments had given way to grudging acceptance and silence on the part of much of the church.

One striking exception among others was Gilbert Haven, a pastor and chaplain in the Union Army, editor of Zion’s Herald and bishop from 1872 to 1880.

Haven letters in United Methodist archives

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History recently acquired about 1,000 letters to and from Haven in a generous gift from his descendants. The commission staff found of particular interest this letter written to the militant abolitionist John Brown.

The commission’s archivist, Dale Patterson, wrote for the April 2013, issue of Methodist History, a quarterly journal of the archives and history commission:

John Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, along with other crimes, for his raid on Harper’s Ferry in late October of 1859 and was executed by hanging on Dec. 2, 1859.

Haven was a committed abolitionist and had joined the New England Conference in 1851. He had come of age just a few short years after the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 into regional bodies.

The letter gives a sense of the emotion across the nation caused by Brown’s action. A few points are worth noting.

Haven mentions having met Brown at an abolitionist meeting at Tremont Temple Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. This is the same church that a decade later would see the founding of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Haven also enclosed a copy of a sermon he preached for Brown to read. He says he gave the sermon on Nov. 6, which points to The Beginning of the End. Haven later published this sermon in a collection entitled National Sermons: Sermons, Speeches and Letters on Slavery and its War. The collection was published in 1869. The sermons were given over a period of years from 1850 until 1868.

And, finally, it is worth noting how Haven sees Brown as a martyr — one who has “... washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Haven was not alone in this sentiment as Henry David Thoreau had written similar ideas in a plea for Brown’s life.

Support for colonization movement

But abolitionist sentiment was much muted in the church at large.

Two vocal abolitionists, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott, faced great opposition, left the Methodist Episcopal Church and helped organize the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843.

While official statements from the General Conference and annual conferences were largely silent on abolitionism, there were resolutions supporting the colonization movement, which intended to remove free blacks from North America and settle them in Africa, primarily Liberia. It would not end slavery but remove the freed slave from the United States.

In the Journal, it was recorded that the General Conference of 1840 resolved, “That we view with favor the efforts which are now making by the American Colonization Society to build up a colony on the coast of Africa with free people of colour, by their own consent.”

The story of the efforts of the predecessor churches of The United Methodist Church to abolish slavery is a mixed one.

From our vantage point in the 21st century, we can celebrate Gilbert Haven and others like him who fought for freedom, justice and equality, but we also have to acknowledge that many in the church did not have the same vision and accommodated to prevailing attitudes of society as a whole.

*Williams is the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 740-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Methodist treasures at Archives and History

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History features this month “Celebrate African American History Month.” The presentation includes a report on the library’s special collections on African American history.

The commission’s archives also include:

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