"Alas for the Church of God": Southern Methodist Leaders and the Quest for Ecclesiological Identity, 1844-1876
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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This dissertation traces the formation, development, and preservation of a distinctive “southern Methodist” identity by southern Wesleyan leaders during the Civil War era, and describes the tensions faced in seeking to faithfully fulfill the components of that identity. Southern Methodism was birthed into both a particular social ethos and a distinguishing ecclesiastical philosophy. It took organizational form in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, following the 1844 separation of southern and northern delegates to the Methodist Episcopal Church’s General Conference session. Southern Methodist leaders sought to maintain their ecclesiological character while embracing their southernness. They witnessed against the ills and sins they perceived in the society around them, even as they defended that society’s foundations. They engaged ecumenically with other faith communities, but conserved their denominational distinctives, occasionally in aggressive manners, and they zealously maintained their Wesleyan legitimacy, while battling for recognition and autonomy from their estranged northern counterparts. Political secession and the American Civil War complicated all of these areas, while also adding problematic issues of loyalty and submission for a religious body that traversed both Confederate and Union territories. Southern Methodist leaders struggled to carry out their sense of civic duty and to sustain their ecclesiastical channels, which proved a gargantuan task in the face of wartime chaos and northern Methodist attempts at taking over the southern jurisdiction. By the close of war, the southern church’s prospects for autonomous survival seemed bleak. Southern Methodist leaders, however, proclaimed their intentions to rebuild their denomination and remain a separate body of Methodism. Beginning with the critical General Conference of 1866, they did just that, and by the end of Reconstruction had eliminated any doubts of their church’s endurance. Meanwhile, at Cape May in 1876, northern Methodist representatives finally recognized the southern denomination as a coequal and co-legitimate branch of original American Methodism, providing the ecclesiological fulfillment of identity that southern Methodist leaders had asserted and sought for over 30 years.