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 54 of 87)
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discipline and government of the Church, were entitled to the property. I will
refer to the case of Den vs. Bolston, 7 Halstead's Reports, 206. This was the case
of a Dutch Reformed CKurch. Some persons set up a new classis they have, in
that Church, an ecclesiastical jurisdiction called the classis and called themselves
the True Dutch Reformed Church. In this particular case the congregation divided*
and the question arose as to which party was entitled to the property. It was de-
cided that those who had set up the new classis had ceased to be members of the
Dutch Reformed Church, and could not carry the property away with them or call
for a division of it. That is a case precisely in point. There was a case in which a
portion of the Church, and I think it was a majority, undertook to form a new classis,
and they took a new name, and called themselves " The True Dutch Reformed
Church," as in this case under consideration they here call themselves The Metho-
dist Episcopal Church, South. They claimed they had a right to a division of the
funds, but the Court decided that, if they chose to leave the Church, to leave that
ecclesiastical jurisdiction which was there formed and in existence, to form a new
institution and take a new name, they could not claim any portion of the property.
The old Church exists under a certain organism. It exists as a unit, and the body
cannot be thus divided, so as to carry the property with them. And you will find
the same doctrine in the case of the State vs. Crowell, 4 Halstead's Reports, 390.
This was the case of a Presbyterian Church at Perth Amboy. They had a clergy-
man who was silenced in their Church by the Church judicatories ; but a large major-
ity of the congregation, as many as three-fourths, remained attached to him. The
Presbytery sent supplies. The majority refused to pay up the old subscription list,
and set up a new subscription for the support of another minister, the one who had
been silenced by the Church judicatories. Their language to the minority was, " If
you want supplies you must pay for them." Here was a case, where, if this doctrine
of separating and dividing would entitle the separatists to a portion of the property,
they would have been entitled. They were a large majority. They insisted upon
adhering to the minister settled there. He had been silenced by the higher Church


judicatories, and the minority, who were disposed to adhere to the Church judicato-
ries, elected a new pastor. The others refused to join with them, and claimed the
property. The question was. which was entitled to it, or whether they were entitled
to make a division of the property, as well as to secede from the Church. The Court
decided that it belonged to that party which was identified with the Presbyterian
Church, and adhered to its judicatories.

I will not trouble the Court with the citation of any further authorities upon
this point. There was one case, however, which was cited by the counsel on the
other side, to which I will refer the Court the case in 2 Russell's Reports, 114,
where the pew-holders claimed the right to vote on the ground of their having a pro-
perty, and interest, and consideration in the Church ; but according to the established
discipline and government of the Church they were not entitled to vote, and it was
decided, according to the discipline and government, that they had no right, and
that they could claim no right to the property consequent upon a division grounded
upon the refusal to allow them to vote.

I submit then to your Honours, that there are two radical errors in the claim upon
the other side, and two radical errors committed by the Court, in relation to two
facts, when it undertook to carry out the claim in the Maysville case. They are
First, that in this case there was no agreement to divide the Church into two distinct
parts fairly made ; that, on the contrary, the agreement was that the Church should
remain, and this particular body, constituting the minority of the Church, should be
at liberty to withdraw and separate. That was the agreement. And in the next
place, there was no agreement to divide the fund, and no right to have the fund
divided. In this case the agreement required, so far as it goes to divide the fund,
the concurrence of the annual conferences, which has never been obtained. If they
rest on the agreement, they must take it as it is. Unless there has been that con-
currence they have no right to set up the claim.

I now come to consider the next ground of the claim on the other side, and that is,
that in the absence of any agreement, and upon the supposition that there was no
agreement, there has been such misconduct on the part of the defendants and those
connected with them, constituting, as we say, the Methodist Episcopal Church, as
warranted them in separating, and that they are entitled in consequence of that mis-
conduct to recover a proportion of this property. As I have before observed, it is
not pretended in this case that there has been any departure on the part of the de-
fendants from the true doctrines of the Church. That cannot be pretended. The
complaint is, misconduct in the administration of the affairs of the Church, in its go-
vernment or in its discipline ; and the misconduct all has reference to that most un-
fortunate subject in this country, which seems to create trouble wherever it appears,
in State and in Church the subject of slavery. I apprehend upon this subject, the
defendants, and their adherents, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, have carried
out to the very letter the entire doctrines and regulations of the Church upon that
important point, and that there is really no ground of complaint, on the part of
the plaintiffs, against them for the manner in which they have deported themselves
upon that delicate subject. There can be no pretence for alleging that this Methodist
Society are abolitionists I do not use that term in any disparaging sense ; I advert
to it simply to designate a certain class of doctrines and positions which have been
maintained. It cannot be pretended that this Church, as a Church, have adopted
any of these doctrines. They have not undertaken to interfere with slavery, to
abolish it. They have simply carried out those principles and views which have always
existed in the Church, in which the brethren of the South have always concurred
views of a practical character, and which were designed to subserve the interests of



the Church, both North and South. They have not gone one jot or tittle further
than the ancient, well settled, and established principles and usages of the Church
would warrant. I do not mean to trouble the Court with going over the evi-
dence upon this subject, as to what are the opinions and doctrines of this Church ;
that has been pretty fully developed already. I will barely make one or two remarks
on that subject.

In the early history of this Church, in this country, there certainly was, under the
auspices of the foreign members who took the control of the government of it, a dis-
position at once to abolish slavery, and they introduced such a provision as, if carried
out, would lead to that result. But your Honours are aware that it was at once
abandoned, and a rule of practical convenience was substituted in its place. -They
gave up all such pretensions. They adopted what ought to have been, and what
was properly the true rule upon that subject to let it alone, to leave the domestic
institutions of the different States to the States themselves, and not to interfere with
it any further than was necessary and convenient for the wholesome and conservative
administration of the affairs of this Church. I might refer you to the address which
was delivered to the British Conference upon this subject, which has already been
read to the Court, which shows what their principles are. Their doctrines in 1804,
settled down to this principle : individuals were at liberty to hold slaves or not, as
they thought proper. Officers of the Church were required to free their slaves when
it was practicable when it was allowed in the States in which they lived. But as
to the bishops, the doctrine never extended to them. It has always been maintained
and held, that bishops should not be the holders of slaves, and we have this most
important fact in the history of this Church, that until the time of Bishop Andrew,
there never had been a slaveholding bishop in it. Prior to this time, at least two-
thirds of the bishops had been taken from the Southern conferences, and all of them,
without any apparent difficulty or dispute among them, had been men who neither
owned nor held slaves. Bishop Andrew did no't own or hold a slave at the time he
was created a bishop. This is a most important circumstance upon this point.
Usage, in the absence of any express provision, goes far. In the absence of express
provision, I may say, it is conclusive upon what are the true principles of the Church.
Ancient usage is the common law of the Church, and must govern it. In one of
those cases to which I have called your attention, you will observe that ancient
usage was resorted to, to ascertain what were the doctrines of the Church, and in
order to ascertain the doctrines, with a view to settle the question of property. Now,
when yon find that in this Church one portion, and a very large portion of this ter-
ritory, is slaveholding ; when you find, at the time of the creation of this Church,
and for a long period, every State held slaves, the fact that no one of the bishops has
ever been a slaveholder until the case of Bishop Andrew, and that he was not a
slaveholder at the time of his appointment, I think it may be stated as conclusive
evidence, that there has been a doctrine in this Church, well settled and constantly
acted upon, to elect to that important office no person who was a holder of slaves.
Now, you observe that there is nothing in alf this proceeding on the part of these
Methodists, in their government and discipline, which is at all hostile to the existence
of this domestic institution in the South. They, of course, believe it would be bet-
ter not to have slaves if it could be avoided, but they adopt this belief upon the same
principle that they would decide upon any abstract question ; for instance, that it
would be better that the serfs of Russia should not exist, or that the labouring, the
manufacturing population of England should be in a much better condition than they
are, which is really a great deal worse than the condition of our Southern slaves.
They would hold all this in the abstract, and they consider the condition of the Rus-


sian serfs, and of the manufacturing and labouring population of England, as an evil
in the abstract, as they consider slavery an evil, and they would endeavour, as far
as practicable, to improve both ; but they would not be so Quixotic as to undertake
to abolish the institutions of Russia, or the institutions of England, when doubtless
such an abolition would cause more evil than good, though it might be better if these
portions of the human race were in a better condition. And for the same reason
they would not undertake to abolish slavery in the United States. In that particular
they leave each State to work out for itself. But in consequence of the opinions of
many persons who are members of the Church, who are opposed to slavery, and in
order to make the officers of their Church useful, and dispense the benefits of reli-
gion through the whole territory of the Church, they have gone thus far. They have
said that the travelling preachers and ministers of the Church shall emancipate their
slaves where it is practicable, and that bishops shall not be elected when they are
holders of slaves.

MB. RKVKEDY JOHNSON, There is no positive rule on the subject.

MR. WOOD, I stated, as to the bishops, there was no express rule about it ; but
I have referred to the anpient and established usage as settling the common law in
the Church, precisely as in the case already referred to, where the common and
established usage in regard to the doctrines of the Church, settled, in the absence of
any express provision, that that was a Trinitarian Church.

Now, in this case, on what principle did they act 1 Why, it is no objection to a
man in the slaveholding States that he does not own slaves. If a person not owning
slaves, living in the slaveholding States, should be made a bishop, he is not the less
acceptionable to the community because he does not own slaves ; but when he
comes to the free States, where many persons believe that slavery ought not to
exist, and that he ought to manumit his slaves, it would destroy his usefulness, or
greatly mar it, if he held slaves. They have simply adopted it as a conservative
rule of action. I must call the attention of the Court to some passages in the Ad-
dress which they made to the foreign conferences. In the address of the British
Conference to the General Conference, page 64 of the First of the Proofs, is the
following :

" But while we freely indulge in sentiments such as these, we cannot forget that
on one subject especially the subject of American slavery you, our beloved
brethren, are placed in circumstances of painful trial and perplexity. We enter,
with brotherly sympathy, into the peculiar situation which you are now called to oc-
cupy. But on this question, we beg to refer you to what occurs in our address to
you from the Conference in 1836, a proper copy of which will be handed to you by
our representative ; as also to the contents of the preceding letter of 1835. To the
principles which we have affectionately but honestly declared in these two documents
we still adhere, with a full conviction of their Christian truth and justice.

" The time which has elapsed, and the events which have taken place, eince the
preparation of the above-mentioned papers, serve only to confirm us yet more in our
views of the moral evil of slavery. Far be it from us to advocate violent and ill-con-
sidered measures. We are, however, strongly and unequivocally of the opinion that
it is, at this time, the paramount Christian duty of the ministers of our most merciful
Lord in your country, to maintain the principle of opposition to slavery with earnest
zeal, and unflinching firmness. May we not also be allowed, with the heart-felt soli-
citude of fraternal love, to entreat that you will not omit or qualify the noble testi-
mony which we have extracted, in a note to our address, from your Book of Disci-
pline, but that you will continue to insert it there in its primitive and unimpaired

I will read one or two passages from the answer to this :


" Of these United States, (to the government and laws of which, ' according to the
division of power made to them by the Constitution of the Union, and the constitu-
tions of the several States,' we owe, and delight to render, a sincere and patriotic
loyalty,)" [no " higher law" here set up,] "there are several which do not allow of
slavery. There are others in which it is allowed, and there are slaves ; but the ten-
dency of the laws, and the minds of a majority of the people, are in favour of eman-
cipation. But there are others in which slavery exists so universally, and is so closely
interwoven with their civil institutions, that both do the laws disallow of emancipa-
tion, and the great body of the people (the source of laws with us) hold it to be trea-
sonable to set forth anything, by word or deed, tending that way. Each one of all
these States is independent of the rest, and sovereign with respect to its internal
government, (as much so as if there existed no confederation among them for ends
of common interest,) and therefore it is impossible to frame a rule on slavery proper
for our people in all the States alike. But our Church is extended through all the
States, and as it would be wrong and unscriptural to enact a rule of discipline in op-
position to the constitution and laws of the State on this subject, so also would it not
be equitable or Scriptural to confound the positions of our ministers and people (so
different as they are in different States) with respect to the moral question which
slavery involves.

" Under the administration of the venerated Dr. Coke, this plain distinction was
once overlooked, and it was attempted to urge emancipation in all the States ; but
this attempt proved almost ruinous, and was soon abandoned by the doctor himself.
While, therefore, the Church has encouraged emancipation in those States where the
laws permit it, and allowed the freed man to enjoy freedom, we have refrained, for
conscience' sake, from all intermeddling with the subject in those other States where
the laws make it criminal. And such a course we think agreeable to the Scriptures,
and indicated by St. Paul's inspired instruction to servants, in his First Epistle to the
Corinthians, chap, vii, ver. 20, 21. For if servants were not to care for their servi-
tude when they might not be free, though if they might be free they should use it
rather, so neither should masters be condemned for not setting them free when they
might not do so, though if they might, they should do so rather. The question of
the evil of slavery, abstractedly considered, you will readily perceive, brethren, is a
very different matter from a principle or rule of Church discipline to be executed con-
trary to, and in defiance of, the law of the land. Methodism has always been (ex-
cept perhaps in the single instance above) eminently loyal and promotive of good
order ; and so we desire it may ever continue to be, both in Europe and America.
With this sentiment we conclude the subject, adding only the corroborating language
of your noble Missionary Society, by the revered and lamented Watson, in their
instructions to missionaries," &c.

Now, I apprehend that no man, however sensitive he may be upon this subject of
slavery, can see anything in the conduct of this Church with which to find fault.
They are disposed to be eminently loyal, to submit to the laws and government of
the country, to leave this domestic institution to those who are concerned with it, to
let them act in their own way. If there is any evil in slavery, they must bear it ; if
there is any danger in any sudden abolition of it, they must be subjected to that dan-
ger ; and therefore they ought to be allowed to judge for themselves. That is the
doctrine of Methodism. Some of these early bishops, it is true, who were not fami-
liar with our institutions, coming from abroad, undertook to go further, and meddle
with this subject, and turn Quixotes in philanthropy, as there were formerly Quix-
otes in knight-errantry. But they abandoned that very soon, and took a broad and
practical ground. They allowed slavery to exist ; they carried out the old primitive
doctrine of the apostle, who, when he converted a runaway slave, advised him to
go back to his master, and advised the master to treat him well. They are aware,
and they have been aware, that if they promote a sound body of Christian morality,
and leave that to work itself, it will more effectually modify and ameliorate anything
that may be harsh or severe in political or domestic institutions, than by attempt-
ing directly to meddle with them ; and therefore they give to Caesar what be-

ongs to Caesar. I take that to be the old sound doctrine of the Methodist Church,
and that it has always been carried out. And the Southern branch of this Church
always acted with them, until they had become (and I do not blame them ; it is not
for me to blame any of the parties in this case) extremely sensitive upon that subject
from the conduct of certain individuals in other portions of the United States, who
have undertaken to go beyond this sound doctrine, and interfere with their domestic
institutions, beyond what reason, good sense, or Christianity would call for or admit.

Now, what is the reason why the officers of their Church, their travelling ministers
for instance, are required to emancipate their slaves where it can be done 1 and what
is the reason why a bishop in no case is allowed to hold slaves 1 Not that they want
to interfere with the domestic institutions of the South. All they want is to render
their officers acceptable, and acceptable to all men ; to be all things to all men, in
the sense in which St. Paul used that phrase ; to be acceptable, in order to do good.
That was their object ; and they believed, and they now believe, that to carry out
the great purposes of their Church, it is all-important that those rules should be ob-
served, without attempting to meddle with the domestic institutions of the South.
They were willing to appoint Southern ministers to the bishopric, as they always
have done, but just select those who do not own slaves. Among these Christians
of primitive habits, where there are ministers in abundance who do not own property
of that kind, and who own very little property of any kind, where the land they cul-
tivate is Immanuel's land, there is no difficulty in selecting proper persons for that
office, who are free from this objection.

One great principle it is a radical principle, and was set forth in the Address of
the bishops, which was signed by the two Southern bishops, Soule and Andrew is
the doctrine of the itinerancy of the bishops. It is looked upon as one of the essen-
tial doctrines of that Church. It will not do to establish local bishops. It will not
do, they say, to make any exceptions. They have adopted in this case the primitive
rule of the apostles to travel, not to abide in one place ; to go abroad, to scatter the
seeds of the Gospel through every land. Their bishops are to travel, each and all
of them, over every portion of the dominions and jurisdiction of their Church. But
when they go into that part of the country where slavery happens to be in bad odour,
and where they are to make their efforts not only to confirm those already in the
faith, but convert others to it, any one must see that they become inefficient if they
are the owners of slaves ; and therefore it becomes necessary to do one of two things :
either require that the bishops elected shall not be slaveholders, or dispense with the
rule that they shall be itinerant, and make them local. The latter they could not do
without abandoning Methodism, because the great founder of Methodism laid that
down as an essential rule. He adopted the episcopacy of the English Church, but
it was not a mere local, lazy episcopacy, such as he found there. He wanted an ac-
tive travelling episcopacy, and to keep them active and efficient he determined to
introduce this as an indispensable rule of the Church, that they should be itinerant ;
and they have continued to be so. Here is the great origin of all their doctrines in
regard to slavery doctrines in which the Southern branch, as well as the Northern,
unti. a. comparatively recent period, all concurred, and about which there appears to
have been before this not the slightest difficulty. And what is this recent difficulty 1
How did it arise 1 We first hear of it in the General Conferences of 1840 and 1844.
It appears that among individual members of this Church in the Northern and Middle
States, there were some abolitionists. And when we consider the state of society
in this section of the country for a number of years past, the vast influence which the
foreign abolitionists have had upon our country, and the attempts which were made
by the foreign bishops to introduce these doctrines here, meddling with institutions


with which they had no concern ; meddling with our servants who are in a state of
slavery, but in a much better condition than their own at home, many of whom are in a
condition at present which a British minister lately described as formerly applicable
to a certain portion of their society in early periods of their history without panta-
loons, when, I say, we look at this, and the constant efforts which they had made,
is it surprising that there should be individual members of this Church who should
adopt these doctrines, and who should undertake to flood the conferences with their
petitions and memorials, as the same class of people undertook to flood the congress
of the United States 1 And they actually did for a number of years overwhelm it with
these worse than useless petitions, backed by an old gentleman in congress of great dis-
tinction, but whom I have always considered as acting very erroneously on that sub-
ject. If, when these petitions came in, the conferences had adopted and acted upon

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 54 of 87)