H. B. (Henry Bidleman) Bascom.

The Methodist Church property case. Report of the suit of Henry Bascom, and others, vs. George Lane, and others, heard before the judges Nelson and Betts, in the Circuit Court, United States, for the Southern District of New York, May 17-20, 1851 online

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Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bidleman) BascomThe Methodist Church property case. Report of the suit of Henry Bascom, and others, vs. George Lane, and others, heard before the judges Nelson and Betts, in the Circuit Court, United States, for the Southern District of New York, May 17-20, 1851 → online text (page 1 of 87)
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3lt?ort of tit Suit of












THIS Report, which was agreed upon by both parties to the
suit, is published, with their common sanction, by the
Book Agents at New-York and Richmond.




HENRY B. BASCOM, and others,

In Equity.
GEORGE LANE, and others.

Counsel for Plaintiff*,

Counsel for Defendants,

FIRST DAY. MONDAY, May 19, 1851.

MR. LORD. MAY IT PLEASE YOUR HONOURS, In opening a case of this magnitude
and importance, I feel that it is incumbent on me to give a brief detail before reading
the papers, in order that these papers, and the whole subject, may be more easily
understood. In our ordinary controversies we need no such preliminary ; but we
are now investigating the concerns of a religious denomination, and this controversy
will relate to matters which are not of general information. The Court, therefore,
will indulge me in the endeavour to state some of the general facts and circum-
stances out of which the controversy arises, particularly with the view of having an
accurate definition of the subjects which will constantly recur in the reading of
the papers.

The subject of this controversy is what is called, among gentlemen of this denomi-
nation, their " Book Concern." This is a fund which, upon the papers, appears to
amount to some $750,000. The origin and history of it seem to be this : Upon
the earliest establishment of the Methodist denomination by Mr. Wesley, he called
to his aid the press in the dissemination of religious truth ; and when Methodism
was first introduced into this country, books were provided from England, to supply
the wants of its very few adherents in regard to religious literature. Upon the
independence of this country, the Methodist denomination had become measurably
numerous, though not large. When it was organized as a separate Church, in
addition to the means of instruction afforded by preaching, it was very obvious that
a great want was to be supplied in the furnishing of religious literature to its people ;
and one of their preachers organized a system of publishing books in this country.
It was originally established in Philadelphia. This preacher, whose name I think


was Cooper, lent a small sum of money to the object, and invested it in books.
They were sold among the denomination ; and out of the profits a small capital was
gradually formed, which was employed in publishing books. This came to be a
matter of some magnitude ; and in the year 1836 it had been removed to this city,
and become an extensive establishment. It had undergone considerable vicissitudes ;
but at that period it was emerging from its difficulties, and becoming a great esta-
blishment. It was then destroyed by fire. It was afterward reinvigorated, as
everything in this city seems to have been by the fires of that period ; and from that
time to the present it has gone on with great prosperity, so that it has accumulated
a capital of about $750,000.

The manner in which these books were circulated will perhaps be worthy of your
Honours' attention in the history and consideration of this case. It was early pro-
vided that the preachers should see that their congregations were supplied with
books. They took the books from the publishing establishment, and sold them : and
in that way there was in fact a real, substantial, and beneficial monopoly in the fur-
nishing of religious books, and all the preachers were agents in carrying it out.
They ' ere very faithful men stimulated, not by the love of gain, but by the higher
pu.j.ose of religious devotion. Of course, a fund thus constructed could not but
become very considerable. Your Honours will have your attention called to the
fact that it was really the result of the devotion and sen-ices of the preachers. It
was not, like many charitable funds, a fund growing out of donations of wealthy
men ; but it was, in its main features, the earnings of this system. Its profits, after
providing capital enough to carry on its business successfully, were devoted at an
early period to one single purpose in two or three branches : That purpose was,
the making up of the deficiencies in the salaries of travelling preachers, and provid-
ing 'for the supernumerary, superannuated preachers, the wives and children of
preachers, and the widows and orphans of deceased preachers. The number of
these appear regularly on the Minutes of the General Conference of this society.
That, therefore, was the destination of the profits of this fund ; for it was no object
to accumulate capital for the mere purposes of accumulation.

It is now necessary that I should introduce another subject the conferences of
the Methodist Episcopal Church because they become very important, vitally im-
portant, to be understood in this controversy. The concerns of the Methodist
Church are managed by what are called Annual and General Conferences. At the
introduction of Methodism into this country, its preachers were not very numerous.
Although the extent of country was great, there were in all but seven annual con-
ferences. I ought, perhaps, to explain what the annual conferences are. Originally
all the preachers of this denomination met every year, and disposed of that which
was general in their concerns. The conferences consisted of travelling preachers,
who served particular districts of country, somewhat analogous to the division of
districts in our judicial system. Originally the whole of Methodism in the United
States was but one conference, and consisted of but a small number of preachers.
In 1784 that was the case. But it very soon became necessary to divide this con-
ference. It was divided ; but, although a division, in fact it was a multiplication
also. At first the annual conference was in fact the General Conference of the Metho-
dist Church ; then the earliest formed from this were the Philadelphia and New-York
Conferences. As the territory increased, these annual conferences were divided, and
formed new bodies ; until in 1844, which is the period at which we shall arrive, there
were something like thirty-two or thirty-three annual conferences. These annual
conferences had a general oversight of the Churches ; they examined the character
of the preachers, the working of the system, and reports were yearly made to them


of the deficiencies of the funds raised in the districts to supply their preachers.
Every two years preachers were changed from one congregation to another. Collec-
tions were taken up in these various congregations to supply the preachers. Their
salaries were very small ; the people, to a great extent, poor. Many of these dis-
tricts could not quite pay their preachers. These deficiencies were reported to the
annual conferences, and supplied out of their funds. That will show your Honour.-
what we mean when we come to speak by-and-by of the " deficiencies " of the
travelling preachers. That means the deficiencies in funds supplied by poorer con-
gregations to pay their own preachers ; for it is a part of the economy of this Church
that the richer portions of the country should supply the wants of the poorer, and
the clergy always be kept on a footing of absolute equality. Every four years these
annual conferences met in a General Conference. This General Conference was the
general legislative body of this Church, and all matters of general concern were there
considered. They established articles of religion ; they made changes in the religion
and economy of the Church. Every year when they separated, they published a
new book of discipline, which contained the doctrines of the Church, and that super-
seded everything which had gone before, and became the law of the Church as to
organization, discipline, and doctrine. This was therefore the act of the Church in
the most absolute sense. This was the state of things from the organization of
Methodism in this country in 1784, up to 1808. In 1808 the body had become so
numerous, and its power was so absolute, that the more conservative men in the
Church were a little alarmed at the extent of it ; because it will appear in its history
that it was considered capable of changing the articles of religion, and it was consi-
dered dangerous that such a body, which might be attended by more members from
nearer, and less from more distant conferences, should have such great powers. In
1808 a change was made in the organization of the General Conference. They
resolved that the General Conference should consist of delegations from each annual
conference. It was, therefore, the general body of the Methodist Church, met toge-
ther in the form of its ministers, but only by committees. Instead of being a
meeting of the whole absolutely, it was a meeting of the whole by delegations. At
that period provision was made against the absolute power which this body possessed,
and there were various " restrictive rules," so called, established to limit it. Those
restrictions were to this effect ; and the extent of the powers of that body, as it existed
before, and, indeed, as we say, continued to exist, will appear by the character of
these restrictions. Our view of the powers of that body is, that they were equally
unlimited with those of previous General Conferences, except so far as these restric-
tions restrained them. One of the restrictions was, that they should not change
the articles of religion ; another that they should not change their hierarchy ; another,
that they should not change the degree of representation. That is, supposing the
delegation be one out of every eight in the annual conferences, that ratio should not
be changed by the General Conference. Another was, that they should not change
what were called the rules of the United Societies. The United Societies are eccle-
siastical organizations of the members of the Churches, with rules which govern
them in their relations with one another, with the world, and in regard to religious
observances. It was provided that the General Conference should not make a
change with regard to the mode of trial of members and preachers ; and the last, the
sixth restrictive rule, (which is the one which will most come before your Honours'
attention.) provided that they should never apply the profits of this Book Concern
to any other purpose than that of supplying the deficiencies of the travelling, and
providing for the supernumerary, superannuated preachers, their wives and children,
and the widows and orphans of such as were deceased. There was one provision

over-riding the whole that upon the request of three-fourths of the annual confer-
ences, sanctioned by a vote of the General Conference, these restrictive rules might
be varied, but without this primary vote of the Church they could not be changed.
That presents to your Honours the subject of the general and annual conferences ;
and a great question in this case will arise upon the character and power of the
General Conference, and the instruction and effect of that sixth restrictive rule.

I now come to the particular controversy in this case. It is one in relation to
which the excitement at this time and in this country is great. It grew out of the
existence of slavery. Very early the Methodists, both on the subject of temperance
and of slavery, took a ground, the highest and most exclusive ; and one of the rules
of the United Societies (which are the particular, and private, and domestic organiza-
tions of Churches composing the denomination) was, that no person should belong to
them who bought men and women with the view of reducing them to slavery. As
we suppose, that originally had reference to the slave-trade as a matter of commerce
which was then carried on. But very soon it was evident that this Society viewed it
in a larger aspect, and in one of the earlier conferences a rule of a very extreme
character was adopted. It was at a conference which began at Baltimore in Decem-
ber, 1784, which is known as the " Christmas Conference." They adopted a rule
quite exclusive on the subject of slavery, not merely as to the buying and selling of
men and women, but in the most severe form and manner, compelling the manumis-
sion of slaves. That threatened to become so destructive to the Society, in its
attempts to penetrate the Southern and Western parts of the country, which were
considered the most open fields for the operation of the Methodist principles, that at
the first meeting of the conference afterwards, the very next year, the rule was
suspended, and in the next book of discipline it was omitted. From time to time
rules were adopted in this Church, sometimes of a more stringent, and sometimes of
a more lax character, on the subject of holding slaves. The Church, North and
South, always considered slavery an evil ; that is, that it would have been better if
no such thing had ever existed. They, however, treated it as one of the evils among
them, and conformed their religious discipline on the subject to the laws of the
various States ; so that it was declared that no person should hold any office in the
Church who did not manumit his slaves, when the laws of his State permitted it. If
the State did not permit it, the holding of slaves was not to be a subject of official or
personal reproach. They provided also that their preachers should teach the
members of their Churches to instruct their slaves ; showing that they took the
practical view of this as a thing to be dealt with as existing, and which it was not
in the power of any man, or body of men, clerical or lay, by their wishes to destroy.

About the year 1836, the agitation, which has been called " abolitionism," began
in this country. In 1840, it began seriously to disturb the peace of the Methodist
Church. In that year a case arose from one of the Baltimore Conferences, which
gave very serious concern and alarm to the conservative members of the General
Conference ; and the bishops and conference, in their action on it, gave it what I
would call a " go-by." They avoided dealing with it in its strength, and expressed
conservative and soothing opinions, recommending to all the avoiding of any agitation
of so destructive and distressing a question. From that time until the meeting of
the General Conference in 1844, this agitation raged among the Northern and North-
Western conferences, and had, of course, produced a reaction at the South. In 1844,
the thing became exceedingly rife, and presented itself in the General Conference of
that year in a form which was decisive. And it will be one of the objects of the
papers which we shall read, and the argument we shall present, to show that a state
of things occurred which made necessary the separation of this Church into two parts.

It seems that the Baltimore Conference, which lies on a line between the North
and the South, took ground with the more ultra persons in the Norths There was a
preacher named Harding, who, by marriage or inheritance, acquired one or two slaves
which, by the laws of Maryland, he could not emancipate. This circumstance was
brought very early to the attention of the General Conference of 1844, in connexion
with a vast number of petitions from New-England, Western New-York, and other
places, on the question of slavery. It came up in an appellate form. The Baltimore
Conference had suspended this clergyman, degraded him, in fact, on account of this
connexion with slavery. It was in vain urged that his connexion with the slaves was
such that he could not manumit them.

HON. REVERDY JOHNSON. In fact they were not his.

MR. LORD. The Conference determined that they would degrade him for that con-
nexion, though the slaves were not his. He appealed to the General Conference,
and there the question was discussed with great animation and great ability, and the
sentence of degradation was confirmed.

The matter, however, then took a still graver aspect. One of tho bishops, a
gentleman of Georgia, was in a somewhat similar position. He had one slave left
him, on condition that he should liberate her and send her to Liberia, with her
consent. But she would not go to Liberia, and the bishop remained her owner. She
lived where she pleased, but still remained legally a slave ; and, as it was said, she
might have been sold for his debts, and he made liable for her support. Ho also,
through inheritance from a former wife, had a slave whom he could not manumit.
Also upon his second marriage, his lady had some slaves which he could not
manumit ; indeed they were secured to her by marriage settlement. This was his
connexion with slavery. In every other respect ho was blameless. Everything
estimable was conceded to him. But the spirit of agitation was rife ; it had been
warmed up in the Conference by the debates on the Baltimore case ; and nothing
would do but that this bishop should be dealt with. But it was a matter of some
delicacy to deal with the bishop. Should he be tried 1 for there was a provision for
the trial of bishops ; and if he should be tried and condemned, he would not only be
degraded from the episcopacy, but expelled from the Church. They did not venture
to go against this man in that way. A course was taken which, if this had not been
a religious body, sincerely adherent to religious principles, (however, we may deem
them mistaken,) would have been regarded as debasing. I will not characterize it
otherwise than as a queer sort of proceeding. They resolved to request Bishop
Andrew to desist from all action as a bishop, during the existence of his connexion
with slavery ; which was very much the same as if Congress, or any body that should
assume to itself such an office, should say that one of your Honours venturing to take
a little wine at dinner should be requested never to act as judge until you chose to
abstain. In other words, without a crime which could be tried, on a matter of mere
expediency they requested this bishop to cease to be a bishop. And it was fol-
lowed up by several circumstances at that Conference, unintentional I am persuaded,
which gave effect to this degradation, and which are rarely to be seen in such

It seems that after every General Conference they republished their Discipline,
Hymn Book, and some publications that were of a character to be renewed. It was
put, as a question, What should become of the name of Bishop Andrew 1 Should
it be put in the Hymn Book 1 The vote of the Conference was that it should ; so
that in every Methodist congregation there should appear to the children, while


turning over the leaves of the Hymn Books as their parents were singing, the name
of Bishop Andrew. The question would be, What is the matter with Bishop An-
drew ? In that way, unintentionally, this degradation was made in the most con-
spicuous manner in which I think it could be. At that period there was a new
flection of bishops, and when other Reverend gentlemen acted in the consecration,
Bishop Andrew, who was on the spot,* a man of unblemished character, against
whom no shadow of imputation rested, was excluded ; at least, having been re-
quested to suspend his duties, he could not with decency act.

This, as your Honours may see, was the declaration of a permanent purpose,
which it was very evident to the gentlemen of the Southern Conference, prevented
them from prosecuting in harmony the objects which the Church had in view as
they define it the spreading of Christian holiness over these lands ; for it was evi-
dent, these principles being assented to, that this Church must be extinct in the
Southern States. The gentlemen from the Southern States made a declaration to
the Conference of 1844, that such would be the effect of these measures being taken.
They also made a protest, which will be presented and read, giving very fully their
views on this subject. That protest was followed by a reply on the other side,
which gave the views of the majority. That, I presume, will also be laid before
the Court, and you will see whether or not there had not arisen a state of things in
which, as the delegates of the South expressed it, the Church was already divided.
This became apparent to some gentlemen of wisdom in that Conference ; and it was
moved to appoint a committee for the purpose of determining whether there could
not be a division of the Church into two bodies, so that they might go on separate
from each other, in pursuit of the same objects, with the same organization, only, as
a Methodist writer, an English gentleman, expressed it, " Whereas this year it was
the province of Canterbury, next year it might be the provinces of Canterbury and
York." A plan of division was presented, underwent discussion, and was adopted
by a large vote. It was in substance this : That if the Southern conferences should
find it necessary, they might organize themselves into a separate and independent
Methodist Church at the South, and in that event commissioners were appointed to
deal with regard to the distribution of the funds. That was made the occasion, in
connexion with the constitutional scruples of some gentlemen, of the question, whe-
ther they would have a right to give to the Southern body of the Church their share
of the Book Concern without an alteration of the restrictive articles. A provision
was made that this fund should be divided, if the sixth restrictive article was
changed, and a ratio of division was provided, and commissioners were appointed on
the part of the Northern Church to act with commissioners from the Southern
Church to carry this division into effect. They then separated. On the separation,
the gentlemen from the Southern conferences immediately presented the subject in
a general address to the Southern conferences, giving them the details of what had
happened in the General Conference, and asking the Southern conferences to take
up the question and say whether they found it necessary to form an independent
body or not. The fifteen or sixteen Southern conferences sixteen, I think, there
were all united in voting that it was impossible to go on with the Northern gen-
tlemen in this state of things ; that the only way of retaining the existence of the
society in the South, was by establishing a separate organization. They elected
delegates to meet at Louisville in 1845, by whom this measure should be considered
in general council. The Convention of 1845 adopted a plan of a Southern organiza-
tion, and appointed a General Conference of the Methodist Church, South, to be
held in 1846. They adopted every article of religion, every article of doctrine,
This was afterwards shown to be a misapprehension of the counsel as to this fact.

everything of discipline, and the organization of the Church, as held by the Northern
Church. Indeed, they took the established Book of Discipline, and printed it anew,
with the same mode of representation, and in every respect the two were identical,
except that the General Conference, instead of being one, was now divided into two.
They appointed commissioners to deal with commissioners from the Church, North,
with respect to the division of the common fund. When these commissioners
assembled, this state of things met them : the commissioners of the Northern Church
had been overtaken by scruples as to the constitutionality of that thing, and refused
to treat at all. The commissioners of the Southern Church deferred until their
Conference of 1848 met, which determined, after the Mississippi style, that the Con-
ference of 1844 had no power to enter into this plan, and that the Northern Church
was the only Church ; and that the plan of the Southern Church, which had really
been formed at the invitation of the General Conference of 1844, was null and void,
and that by that very organization they had all become seceders ; that is to say,
these fifteen or sixteen conferences had ceased to be members of the Methodist
Episcopal Church at all. They adopted an additional rule, which, I confess, always
seemed to be one which nothing could sanction, that the supernumerary and super-

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bidleman) BascomThe Methodist Church property case. Report of the suit of Henry Bascom, and others, vs. George Lane, and others, heard before the judges Nelson and Betts, in the Circuit Court, United States, for the Southern District of New York, May 17-20, 1851 → online text (page 1 of 87)