The Slavery Question and the Form of Discipline

[Methodist Episcopal Church].
A Form of Discipline for the Ministers, Preachers, and Members (Now Comprehending the Principles and Doctrines) of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank… sold by John Dickins, 1791. (Disciplines 1784 (1791) 1784 (1791) copy 2)

At the back of this copy of the 1791 Form of Discipline for American Methodists, signed “Sterling Gardner his book, bought February 9th 1797, price 25¢,” five otherwise blank pages were inscribed with the names and birthdates of thirty individuals, all born between 1788 and 1819. Although the children were grouped according to whether they were Nancy’s children, Dinah’s children, or Judah’s children, none were identified with surnames, and one was called “Negro Stephen.” This likely indicates that these families were owned as slaves.

John Wesley was an ardent opponent of slavery, and the rules of the 1784 Baltimore Conference for American Methodists (contained in this 1791 Form of Discipline) unconditionally prohibited the owning of slaves. However, Methodist policies on slavery after 1800 allowed a steady erosion of these founding principles. In 1804, the General Conference printed two editions of the Form of Discipline so that the edition for the southern United States omitted the prohibition of slavery. Later, presiding bishops at the annual conferences sought to maintain neutrality and kept abolitionists from speaking on this divisive issue. In 1844, the ownership of slaves was the central cause of the schism that created the Methodist Episcopal Church, South – a separation that endured until the reunification of the two church bodies in 1939.

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The Slavery Question and the Form of Discipline