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 48 of 87)
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Europe. Therefore it came to pass exactly as the historian had recorded it, that



down to 1784, these bodies were nothing but advisory bodies, without any power to
decide a matter which was debatable. I will not trouble your ftonours with any
further references or citations to establish that proposition. I think it will not be

Now it follows from this that the body which in 1784 created the Church was, as
I have denominated it, a new and extraordinary body, called for a new and extraor-
dinary purpose, and under a new name in that Church ; because, as I have shown,
down to that time a General Conference had never existed, and the regular confer-
ences that existed had been advisory bodies, without the slightest power of determina-

The next important fact is, that this body, which thus created the new Church,
then retired, and did not create or provide for any General Conference at all, even to
administer its affairs. This is a fact of very great importance, and when I come by-
and-by to apply it to an important problem, i.e., with what powers the General Con-
ference of 1792 came into existence, I think it will be found to throw very great light
on that inquiry. The fact is, that this General Conference of 1784 did not create or
provide any General Conference even to administer its affairs ; but on the contrary
it seems to have assumed that the administration would be carried along very well
by the annual conferences, and quarterly conferences, and the officers of the Church.
In point of fact, therefore, there was no General Conference in the Church to do any-
thing under any name. The amount of the matter is, that this extraordinary conven-
tion made it at first, set it in operation, with a bishop, and with annual conferences and
quarterly conferences to advise him as to its administrative economy. Therefore
your Honours will see that the General Conference of 1792, which is relied upon as
starting all at once into existence with power to destroy the Church, did not origin-
ally even come into the contemplation of the plan for creating the Church and pro-
viding for its administration, for it started, and began, and proceeded eight years
unattended and unaided by a solitary particle of administrative agency, except its
bishop and its annual and quarterly conferences, and for a very brief period a body
called a council, to which I shall call attention in a moment. This fact is not con-
troverted by anybody. Everybody agrees that no General Conference existed until
1792. What was the administrative economy of the Church during this time 1 A
bishop at its head, quarterly conferences and annual conferences, that is to say, -local
assemblages called from time to time by the bishop to give him advice, composed the
entire administrative economy of this Church, from 1784 to 1792, and in the contem-
plation of its creators seems to have been thought likely to be enough for the Church
in all periods. The bishop from time to time in these annual conferences, and in
these quarterly conferences, and in his regular conferences, if he chose to call them,
conversed with them on changes of Discipline which he proposed to introduce ; and
if he found by that consultation that his changes would be likely to be acceptable to
the body of the Church, of his own authority he changed the Discipline. That was
so for eight years ; and those were what we should usually call the first and purest
years of the Church, inasmuch as they were those which immediately succeeded its
creation. Nay, so little was a General Conference thought of by the generation
of 1784, that in 1789 I will show it from the historian to whom reference has been-
made it was mutually taken for granted that a General Conference was entirely im-
practicable, and therefore, by way of adding a new administrative agency to the
Church, and for the purpose of collecting the general will of the Church more easily
and more completely, the bishop actually projected the measure of a council, :. e., a
small body that should act and confer with him. That proposition was adopted, and
for some time that body and the conferences, annual and quarterly, and the bishop


made up the whole administrative polity of Methodism. Let me call your Honours*
attention to this administrative economy as I find it in 1 Bangs, page 302 a very
instructive chapter, as I regard it, for more purposes than one, as I hope to have
strength enough and voice enough to make the Court understand before I am through.
He says, speaking of 1789 :

" Having thus noticed the progress of the work of religion in different parts of the
country, let us return to the doings of the conference. In consequence of the exten-
sion of the work on every hand, spreading over such a large territory, there were two
difficulties which arose in the way of proceeding in the manner they had done here-

" 1. It was very inconvenient for all the members of the conference to assemble
together in one place to transact their business. Hence, as we have already seen, the
bishops had appointed several separate conferences for the despatch of their ordinary

" 2. But anything which was done in these separate conferences was not binding,
except simply the ordinations and stationing the preachers, unless sanctioned by them
all. And as this could rarely be expected, constituted as human nature is, it was
plainly seen that there was danger of their falling to pieces, or of their having divers

" To provide against this evil, and to remedy the inconvenience above mentioned,
it was determined this year, as the best thing which could be devised, to have a
council, for the reasons and purposes, and with the powers set forth in the following
questions and answers :

" ' Questions. Whereas the holding of General Conferences on this extensive conti-
nent would be attended with a variety of difficulties, and many inconveniences to the
work of God ; and whereas we judge it expedient that a council should be formed of
chosen men out of the several districts, as representatives of the whole connexion, to
meet at stated times ; in what manner is this council to be formed, what shall be its
powers, and what further regulations shall be made concerning it V "

The Court will have been struck, I am sure, by the recital of the impracticability
of holding General Conferences to collect the general will for the administration of
ordinary- affairs. Therefore the idea of a council develops itself. The answer to
the question then is :

" Answer. 1st. Our bishops and presiding elders shall be the members of this
council ; provided, that the members who form the council be never fewer than nine.
And if any unavoidable circumstance prevent the attendance of a presiding elder at
the council, he shall have authority to send another elder out of his own district to
represent him ; but the elder so sent by the absenting presiding elder shall have no
seat in the council without the approbation of the bishop, or bishops, and presiding
elders present. And if, after the above-mentioned provisions are complied with, any
unavoidable circumstance, or any contingencies, reduce the number to less than nine,
the bishop shall immediately summon such elders as do not preside, to complete the

" 2dly. These shall have authority to mature everything they shall judge expedient.
1. To preserve the general union. 2. To render and preserve the external form of
worship similar in all our societies through the continent. 3. To preserve the essen-
tials of the Methodist doctrines and discipline pure and uncorrupted. 4. To correct
all abuses and disorders ; and, lastly, they are authorized to mature everything they
may see necessary for the good of the Church, and for the promoting and improving
our colleges and plan of education.

" 3dly. Provided nevertheless, that nothing shall be received as the resolution of
the council, unless it be assented to unanimously by the. council ; and nothing so as-
sented to by the council shall be binding in any district, till it has been agreed upon
by a majority of the conference which is held for that district."

This council, thus and then and upon that policy created, existed but a little while ;
but as it was really the predecessor of the General Conference proper, and was the first
large or general administrative body ever collected under the new Church, I believe


your Honours will be inclined to say the child was the father of the man in this
instance. And when you come by-and-by, when we arrive at 1792, to inquire with
what scope of power the General Conference then met, you will regard as a fact of
extraordinary importance, not to say decisive interest, that it was immediately prece-
ded in this very line of development of administrative agency by a bishop's council
intended to collect the general will. There will not be a particle of doubt left on the
mind of any fair historical inquirer, that there never was the least intention, from 1792
to 1808, to clothe the General Conference with a scintilla of authority more than was
given to the bishop's council. It is for that reason, that I have somewhat solicitously
called the attention of the Court to the powers and objects of the council, as they are
stated in Dr. Bangs's History. The first is, to promote the general union. They
were not creating a body to provide means for facilitating the destruction and disrup-
tion of the Church, but simply and solely, when, after having provided a series of
administrative agency that had worked well, outgrowing its infancy, the Church de-
manded something more, this further administrative agency was provided, to collect
the general will more easily, and do greater service. Then and for that purpose, to
meet that exact want, this council was devised and introduced. It was tried for a
brief space of time, and then abandoned, and in its stead was substituted the Gene-
ral Conference. But I submit that there cannot be a particle of doubt that it was
intended to have, and did have, through its brief period of somewhat unpopular exist-
ence, the very same work to do, and did the very same work, nothing less and nothing
more, which the General Conference which assembled in 1792 did. Therefore I
hope I shall be excused for reading again the powers of the bishop's council, that
you may see whether the Methodists at this time were carving, and whether they
were anything more than carving out, a mere series of devices for a more perfect
Christian and associated life, which the old convention of 1784 organized, and organ-
ized to exist. The powers of the council are :

" 1. To preserve the general union."

Not to destroy the Methodist Episcopal Church, but to preserve the general union
of the Church, simply and solely by enabling this wide-spread community to concen-
trate their wills upon the administration of its affairs from day to day.

" 2. To render and preserve the external form of worship similar in all our societies
through the continent. 3. To preserve the essentials of the Methodist doctrines and
discipline pure and uncorrupted. 4. To correct all abuses and disorders ; and, lastly,
they are authorized to mature everything they may see necessary for the good of the
Church, and for the promoting and improving our colleges and plan of education."

This council I have said was unpopular. The next fact we find is, that in 1792 the
first General Conference ever convened in America under the Methodist Episcopal
Church, assembled. We find all at once, in 1792, that it had been ordained by the
constituent body, by the Methodism of the country, that from that time forward such
a body should assemble once in four years, for the same purpose and clothed with the
same powers. Now the problem is, with what powers, and for what purposes, the
constituent creator and sovereign of 1792 all at once wakes up and ordains that there
shall be in the Methodist ecclesiastical polity, from that time forth, a General Confe
rence, assembled, and sitting, and doing its work every four years. I submit that
prima fade we have established, that the only purpose for which the constituent body
could have all at once called a General Conference into existence, was for the pur-
pose of enabling it to act as a body of mere administrative power, and with no power
at all beyond it. The sovereign will in 1784 had made the Church, and set it in ope-
ration, and left it to carry on its practical life by officers and annual and quarterly con-


fercnces. For some time these answered that purpose very well. In the progress
of events it was found that a council would be a convenient addition to the existing,
appointed series of administrative devise, and thereupon a council was created ; but
nobody will pretend, that in creating a council they meant to go beyond the creation
of a mere administrative body, with no more power to dissolve the Church than the
bishop had. That body was unpopular, and did its work but for a little time. Then
comes the General Conference. Prima facie, I submit that the very date of its birth,
the very order in which it comes into existence in the series of administrative agen-
cies, the very fact that the great want of the Church at that time was not a power to
destroy, but a power to administer, the very fact that the Church was already cre-
ated, and set going forever, shows that the General Conference came into existence
as an administrative body, and an administrative body alone. This is the inference
the historian would make, if he were to inquire into the matter independent from this
controversy. This is the inference, I think, which this Court will make. It actually
was created to be, and became to be, just what we should infer from the historic
facts the time when it came into existence, the order in which it stood, and was pro-
bably designed. I have a right to stop here, and call on the counsel on the other
side for a particle of proof, that the prima facie inference is not the true inference in
regard to the character of the General Conference. I call upon them now to
exhibit to the Court one solitary scrap of proof, that the General Conference of to-day
possesses a particle more power than the bishop's council of yesterday. I press
them on the historical question. If it were a question on the history, of Rome, to be
illustrated by a Niebuhr, or by a Neander on the history of the Church, I respectfully
submit that it is perfectly manifest as a solution of the historical problem, having re-
gard to the dates and series of events and the demands of the Church, that at the
time the General Conference came into existence, it was just exactly what the
bishop's council had been, what the bishop had been, what the annual and quarterly
conferences had been administrative functionaries, but neither creators, nor de-
stroyers, nor participators in a particle of that transcendent power. I call then on
the other side for a historical deduction ; and I have only to submit, and I demand
judgment for the defendants in this case on it, for it puts an end to this controversy,
that the plaintiffs have not furnished your Honours with a solitary particle of proof,
to show that the powers taken by the General Conference exceeded those which I
have been attempting to present.

Then where is the proof to come from 1 There are only two sources of evidence.
They may, in the first place, call attention to the Discipline of 1792, to find there
written a code defining the powers of the General Conference. It is silent on the
matter. There is not one word in the history of the Church, not one word in the
v/ritten constitution, showing with what powers the constituents, in 1792, intended to
invest this body at the time it was called into existence.

Then we are driven to the other source of inquiry. How are we to ascertain the
powers possessed 1 By looking only at the powers which it put in exercise. The
Court are, therefore, simply on these proofs, which the parties on both sides lay before
them, to see if the General Conference, from 1792 to 1808, ever dreamed, so far as
Hs powers and intentions can by possibility be conjectured, that they were clothed
with a solitary particle of power beyond the authority possessed by the bishop's
council, which preceded it. On the contrary, the General Conference went on in
the path of the bishop's council and the annual and quarterly conferences. We find
it going on, in the same useful, but well-defined and comparatively humble path of
mere administrative service. We find it here and there making changes in the Dis-
cipline of the Church, and those not considerable changes. I submit that not one


act of a higher degree of power was done in this period, and that nothing was done
by the General Conference, from 1792 to 1808, which had not been done over again
in the period which preceded it. Therefore, unless the learned counsel are prepared
to say, that the bishop's council, before 1792, could have dissolved the Church, the;
plaintiffs have not presented a scrap of evidence that the General Conference, after
1792, could dissolve the Church.

The only answer I heard suggested to this by my learned brother was, that this
Conference must have had all power to dissolve the Church, because it was com-
posed of all the preachers. Because it was composed of all the preachers, did it neces-
sarily have power to destroy the Church 1 On the contrary, I suppose the question
is exactly this : With what powers, and for what purposes, do flie preachers appear
to have decided, all at once, to introduce and establish a General Conference 1 That
is the question. The question is not, whether all the preachers, assembled under a
special call for that purpose, might or might not, at any period before 1808, pull
down the Methodist Episcopal Church. That is not the question. The question is,
for what purposes, and with what powers, they decided, in point of fact, that they
would at once introduce, and make part of their regular polity, a General Conference 1
We do not advance one solitary step to the solution of that, by being told that all the
preachers were members of that Conference. Suppose they were. The very last
thing they might have dreamed of on earth would be all at once to set going a body
that should have power to destroy the Church. They might have introduced such a
General Conference beyond all doubt ; but the question is, whether they did so in
point of fact. For the proof of that we have to go back again to the language of the
constitution of the Church, in which there is not a word about it from beginning to

I therefore submit, with very great confidence, at least so much as this, that the
plaintiffs have entirely failed to show that even before 1808 this General Conference
could ecclesiastically work a division of the Church. There is an utter failure to
show it in point of fact. We deny it by our answer. The fair result of the historical
investigation seems to be that they did not possess it ; and unless it be held that be-
cause the preachers might have clothed it with all powers, they necessarily decided
so to clothe it, there is a total failure, as far as I can see, of this part of the plaintiffs'

The hour of adjournment having arrived, the Court adjourned until to-morrow


MR. CHOATE resumed, May it please your Honours, if, on this review, or any
review of the history of the Church, and of the Conference of 1792, the Court should
be of the opinion that it is a probable inference that that Conference came into existence
as a mere body of administration the last and ripest of the series of administrative

agencies then the case on this point is ended. If your Honours should only doubt

on that question, the case on this point is also ended. If, however, you are of opi-
nion that it has been clearly and certainly established as a proposition of historical
fact, by the proper species of evidence, and the requisite degree of it, that this Con-
ference, ab origine, was clothed with these extraordinary powers, then we have
arrived at the question, whether or not the same extraordinary power was bestowed
upon the representative General Conference created in 18081 This is a mere matter
of intent. It all turns on the single inquiry, and that, I think, is not extended and




not difficult, whether the constituency of 1808 intended, as a matter of intent, to
clothe the General representative Conference, which it then, for the first time, brought
into existence, with a power to dissolve and destroy, by dividing the Church. For,
I take it that it is a universal and elementary proposition, that the powers of a
representative and delegated body are exactly what the constituent creator meant to
give it no less and no more. I take this as a universal and elementary proposition,
running throughout all agency, as between parties of substitution, of representation,
of delegation, from the broadest to the narrowest, that the intention of the constituent
defines and measures the power of the delegate. While this is true, undoubtedly,
throughout the law of agency, in a general way this is recognised to be true by every
school of politics in its application to the highest departments of government under
the constitution. Even they who hold that the representative is not to be palsied by
the will of his constituents, place themselves on the broad, general, original ground,
that the constituent, by the act of creating the representative function, at first intended
to clothe the representative, as a matter of intent, with the power and to devolve on
him the duty of acting from time to time, of acting upon his own independent judg-
ment, un&fiected by the occasional interposition of the irregular and uninstructed will
of the constituent. So that I believe I may submit it as a doctrine universally
accepted, and everywhere applied, that the will of the constituent is the limit and the
measure of the power of the representative.

Turning, then, to this transaction of 1808, in search of the intention of the consti-
tuent, I do not know that it is not enough for me to say that I can discern no trace
of an intention to confer such power. Your Honours will find the history of that
transaction on p. 13 of Proofs No. 1. You will there find that the constituent body
began, in the first place, by composing the new representative General Conference,
and then, in article 5, on the same page, it proceeds to define the power which it
intends to confer. The language is simply and exactly " The General Conference
shall have full power to make rules and regulations for our Church."

Now, resting there, and not advancing to the subject of the restrictions b^- which
this grant of power is presently to be limited in a very important degree, I must say,
that I discern no evidence that this bestows the capacity of destroying or dividing
the Church at all. On the contrary, what it seems to me I find the constituent body
doing is exactly this : The Methodism of the United States had long before decided
to become, and to be one Church ; had, by a paramount and fundamental law,
ordained unity as the form of its organic being ; and here, in furtherance and exe-
cution of that ordination, it goes on to create a body which, under certain restrictions
and limitations, shall make rules for the guidance of the affairs of that unity thus
previously created, existing and intending to exist indefinitely. I deduce this as all
that the constituent body intends to do in the first place, from the nature of the act
that he is doing, and from the character of the actor that is doing it. What is the
act being done 1 And who is the actor that does it 1 An existing Church, already
a quarter of a century old, created by the general Methodism, for a life all but per-
petual on earth, having an existing government, is found simply amending a single fea-
ture of that government. It is found to be doing nothing less, and nothing more, than
altering the third article in the Discipline of the Conference which preceded it. I now
respectfully submit that from the act which is being done and the actor who is doing
it, from the nature of the act and the actor, the indefinite future existence of the
association is properly assumed as a thing beyond controversy, and aliunde estab-
lished and settled ; and therefore the implication is simply this that whereas here
is a Church, to exist long, if not forever, and to its administration and government a
General Conference is needful, they proceeded to constitute such a General Confer-

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 48 of 87)