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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 57 of 87)
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conferences, and presenting the matter of changing the sixth article in its true light,
and modifying, on sober second thought, the general nature of the proposition, so as
to present it in a more definite form ; and no doubt the consent would have been
obtained. All the members of this Church, with whom I have had any consultation
upon this subject, have been satisfied that in that way it would have been effected. But
the gentlemen of the South, instead of taking that course, issued that address at the
very time that the General Conference passed the resolutions an address which was
manifestly, instead of leaving the subject to the annual conferences, inviting and
urging them, though in form submitting it to them, to make a division of the Church,
instead of going through the process of submitting it to these conferences and getting
their decision. AU that was done was to advise them to appoint delegates to meet
at Louisville, to form a Convention ; and the delegates forming that Convention car-
ried out the division without any consultation and decision upon the necessity of the
case by the various annual conferences in the South. This led to the difficulty, and
to the bringing of this suit. And they did bring this suit, and no further efforts at
adjustment were made, because, from' the moment they took this course, the leading
members that were left behind in the Methodist Episcopal Church, knew that it was
perfectly vain to attempt to effect the concurrence of the annual conferences with
this suit pending over their heads. And I think I may venture to say, that if this
suit was now out of the way but I hold no gentleman's proxy in giving this opinion
and a disposition manifested on the other side to meet in the true spirit of compro-
mise, this whole matter would be settled before eighteen months should pass over.

But while I make these remarks, I am perfectly aware, that there is some excuse
for these Southern gentlemen an excuse which ought to be considered by the
Church that I represent. That unfortunate question of abolitionism which has been,
for the last fifteen or twenty years in this country, Pandora's box, to let out every
evil has wrought them up to a pitch of excitement which forms, if riot a justifica-
tion, at least some excuse for the precipitancy with which they have acted ; and there-
fore allowances ought to be made on both sides of this question, and no doubt in the
spirit of concord and conciliation they will be made. When I make these remarks
on the subject of abolitionism, I do not mean any censure particularly of any persons
who have suffered themselves to be carried away by that spirit. I know very good
men, and pious men, have suffered themselves to engage in it ; and this most diffi-
cult subject to deal with in the world this spirit of wild enthusiasm which sometimes
takes possession of a man's mind is a subject which is not perfectly understood as
yet. It will require a new chapter in the science of mental philosophy fully to
develop it. A mah sets out with the best philanthropic motives in the world to
carry out some great principle of benevolence. He may not be accustomed to take
very enlarged views of things ; hence he suffers that one idea to take full possession
of his mind. He goes on, filled with benevolence and good feeling towards all the
world ; but he finally comes to meet with opposition, and that opposition only stimu-
lates him the more, excites a feeling utterly polemical, and altogether different from



324

that benevolent motive by which he was originally actuated ; and what is more ex-
traordinary, he becomes the victim of the grossest delusion, imagines himself entirely
free of all animosity, and actuated still by his original good feeling. I say that these
enthusiasts act upon principles of mere individualism. They do not look upon sub-
jects on a large scale. A man takes it into his head that a slave would be better off
to be free, and therefore he makes every effort to free him. That does very well in
a mere isolated, individual case. But when you take a slave population, composing
the entire labouring population of a country, and undertake to free them, you are
doing something more than engaging in a mere subject of individual philanthropy.
You are creating a new political power, especially in a country imbued as ours is
with the principle of universal suffrage, and a power which may be the source of
tremendous evil. There is no case iu history in which the whole labouring popu-
lation of a country, being in a state of slavery, have been suddenly freed, except by
our British brethren, who have urged us to that course a course by which they have
prostrated completely their West India colonies. This matter of freeing the masses
in a state of slavery has been, heretofore, in the history of the world, a work of time.
It has taken that course which Lord Bacon tells us is the course of nature. All
great reforms require time long time to work them out without producing more
evil than good.

I have made these remarks upon this subject, because I consider it as deeply con-
nected with the great interests of this country. I have endeavoured to show, and I
hope have successfully shown, that the body which I represent, the real abiding
members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as a body, are not to be charged with
being guilty of that kind of offence, as it is considered in the Southern States, and. by
our Southern brethren, and that it ought not to be imputed to them. That there are
individual members who adopt these abolition views, and who have even in this
Church, by their petitions, excited the Southern mind, and induced them to act with
the precipitancy to which I have adverted, there can be no doubt.

I have now, I believe, gone over this case, and I think I have said enough to satisfy
the Court that these plaintiffs can have, upon sound principles of law and equity, as
administered in cases of this kind, no right to this property ; that they have not
waited to abide by the agreement which was made between these parties, which I
verily believe would have effected a division of the property, as well as a division
of the Church, if they had waited, and which I verily believe also on sound princi-
ples might have been carried out under the sanction of a court of equity, but not
without such sanction. And I do think if they were to discontinue this suit, and let
it pass away, that an arrangement would be effected between these parties in a spirit
of peace, and in the spirit of that religion which they all profess, and which I trust
most of them, or the great body of them, feel and act upon. Why, it would be most
extraordinary if compromises in these religious controversies could not take place.
Nine-tenths of the disputes of the world are settled by compromise ; and is a religious
controversy to form the only exception ? Are men who are bound together by the
same religious faith, professing the same principles, worshipping the same God, seeking
the same home hereafter, and by the same religious process, are they alone to be an
exception to this great principle of settling controversies by compromises 1 I trust
not ; and that I believe is the way, and the only way, in which this question ever can
be settled.

If the Court will allow me, I will call their attention to another subject. I am
aware that an attempt has been made to raise a prejudice against my clients, for
holding on to this controversy. I will call the attention of the Court to some resolutions
of the Conference of 1848 on this subject, to be found on pp. 94 and 95 of the Journal :



325

" Whereas it is now ascertained that the recommendation of the General Conference
at its session in 1844, to change the sixth restrictive articje, so as to allow of a divi-
sion of the property of the Book Concern with a distinct ecclesiastical Connexion
which might be formed by the thirteen annual conferences in the slaveholding States,
has not been concurred in by a vote of three-fourths of all the members of the seve-
ral annual conferences present and voting on said recommendation ;

"And whereas the thirteen protesting annual conferences in the slaveholding States
have formed themselves into a separate and distinct ecclesiastical Connexion, under
the title and name of the ' Methodist Episcopal Church, South,' and their General
Conference in 1846 did authorize three commissioners (whose credentials have been
received by this General Conference) to present and adjust their claim on the funds
of the Book Concern of the Methodist Episcopal Church ;

" And whereas our common and holy Christianity prescribes and enjoins the most
pacific measures for the settlement of all matters in dispute between individuals, as
well as associations of professing Christians, and the whole Christian world will ex-
pect ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ to adopt the most peaceful and conciliator)
measures for the settlement of any claim that may be urged against them ;

" And whereas this Conference desires to advance, as far as its constitutional
powers will authorize, toward an amicable adjustment of this difficulty ; therefore,

" Resolved, By the delegates of the several annual conferences of the Methodist
Episcopal Church in General Conference assembled, that we hereby authorize the
book agents at New-York and at Cincinnati to offer to submit said claims to the de-
cision of disinterested arbiters ; provided that if said agents, on the advice of emi-
nent legal counsel, shall be satisfied that when clothed with all the authority which
the General Conference can confer, their corporate powers will not warrant them to
submit said claim to arbitration, this resolution shall not be binding upon them.

" 2. Resolved, That should the agents find, upon taking such legal counsel, that
they have not the power to submit the case to voluntary arbitration, and should a
suit at law be commenced by the commissioners of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
South, said agents are hereby authorized, then and in that case, to tender to said
commissioners an adjustment of their preferred claims by a legal arbitration under
the authority of the Court.

" 3. Resolved, That should the agents find that they are not authorized to tender
a voluntary arbitration, and should no suit be commenced by the commissioners afore-
said, then and in that case the General Conference, being exceedingly desirous of
effecting an amicable settlement of said claim, recommend to the annual conferences
so far to suspend the ' sixth restrictive article' of the Discipline, as to authorize our
book agents at New- York and Cincinnati to submit said claim to arbitration."

It thus goes on with a number of resolutions to the same effect, inviting an amica-
ble adjustment of this case. My clients then cannot be blamed for having brought
on this controversy, or for its continuance.

HON. REVERDY JOHNSON, May it please your Honours, I propose to consider
the question in this case under four general heads :

The first is, the power of the General Conference of 1844 to adopt the Plan of
Division of the 8th of June of that year.

2d. The construction of that Plan ; which, as I shall maintain, is that the division
of the Church was made to depend exclusively upon the decision of the conferences
in the States in which slavery exists, and upon no other contingency, and that the
change in the sixth restrictive article in the constitution of the General Conference
was made to depend, and solely to depend, upon the decision of all the annual confer-
ences of the entire Church as at that time constituted.

3d. That by force of the division of the Church, produced under the Plan, by
the decision of the annual conferences in the States in which slavery exists, the pro-
perty of the Church is to be divided, upon equitable principles, between the two
Churches, North and South, without regard at all to any change of what is termed
the sixth restrictive article.



4th and lastly. That admitting that the Conference of 1 844 had no authority to
adopt the Plan of Division which they undertook then to adopt, or that that Plan
was conditional, and the condition not carried out, the state of things which still
exists entitles the plaintiffs to relief upon the present bill."

These inquiries are, all of them, plain and simple. To be fully comprehended
they require no extent of legal learning no depth of particular research. To be
properly enforced they demand no particular ability ; and I should therefore approach
the argument, if the controversy turned upon them alone, with no other solicitude
great as the pecuniary amount which depends upon this decision may be, and impor-
tant as it is to those whom I represent than that which ordinarily and properly
belongs to the relation of counsel. But I confess a deeper and more absorbing
anxiety ; and that I rise oppressed by the responsibility which I feel is upon me.
When I remember the origin of this dispute, I lose sight of the dollars and cents
which it involves, and for a moment forget the direct and peculiar interest of my
clients. There are reflections connected with that origin of such general and pervad-
ing interest, so directly and vitally important to the usefulness of this very esti-
mable denomination of Christians heretofore so harmonious and prosperous, so
material to the quiet of the public mind, and possibly so important to the very exis-
tence of the form of government under which we live, that I feel a trembling and
nervous apprehension lest the proper adjudication of it by this Court, instead of
being assisted, may be, in a measure, impeded by the manner in which I shall dis-
charge my duty. The heart of the entire nation has been feverishly palpitating for the
last few years, and yet so palpitates, in fear that, unless the very cause from which
this dispute springs, is speedily and forever terminated by the good sense, virtue, and
patriotism of the people and of all the authorities, state as well as national, the peace
and happiness, the power and the glory which have heretofore illustrated our
career, and made us the admiration if not the envy of the world, will be substituted
by discord and wretchedness, debility and degradation, civil war and bloodshed.
And is it too much to say that this alarmed state of the public mind is, in a great
measure, to be attributed to the very controversy which your Honours are now called
upon to settle 1 I have an abiding hope, and it is a consolation which will go with
me through the argument, that the principles of law which the Court will have occa-
sion to inculcate, and the rights which your duty will call upon you, as it will be your
pleasure, to maintain as existing in the various sections of these United States, are
such, and so firmly established, that, with the claims to the respect and confidence
of all, which station, attainment, and patriotism give to this tribunal, the settlement
of this case will tend much to quiet the public apprehension as well as to settle the
particular dispute. It will be my part, as far as I am able, to assist the Court in the
deliberations, which I trust will lead to this happy result.

First. Had the Conference of 1844 the power to adopt the Plan of Division of the
8th of June in that year 1

My learned brothers upon the other side deny the power, and deny it with an
earnestness and an ability which demonstrates a foregone conclusion in their own
minds, that if the power can be maintained the rights of the complainants will be
established. Where then in 1844 was the Methodist Episcopal Church in these
United States 1 An associated body of men, tracing their origin, as far as their
particular and exclusive organization was concerned, to the proceedings of what
has been denominated the General Conference of December, 1784. In the exercise
of their rights as citizens of the United States, inspired by the spirit of the holy
calling to which the men of that day had devoted themselves, with the assent of
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, they resolved upon establishing a particular and



327

exclusive ecclesiastical jurisdiction for themselves within the limits of the United
States, if not co-extensive with the continent of America. I understand my brother,
who spoke first upon the other side, as conceding, what indeed could not be denied,
that in the very nature of such an association, whether looking to its original and
inherent rights at the moment of the adoption of its constitution, or at the objects to
be accomplished through the instrumentality of that constitution, there must exist
somewhere a power to change ; and indeed it cannot be true that such power does
not continue to exist, unless it be true that as a matter of law the exercise of such
a power, by reason of that exercise, exterminates then and forever the power itself.
Now if I can show to the Court standing upon the authority of that concession, if I
had not even higher ground to stand upon that the Conference of 1808, which dele-
gated its powers to the Conference by whom the Plan was adopted of June 8, 1844,
had all the powers of the original Conference of 1784, the controversy in this branch
of it is at an end.

Methodism, as you know, honours, and may well and proudly honour, as its author
and founder, John Wesley, of England, an Elder in the Church of England, whose
holy life and extent of foresight and of wisdom, well challenge admiration. Upon
prudential and patriotic reasons, which I commend to those who differ with my
clients in this particular exigency, he resolved that it was his duty as a man,
and a subject, and a Christian, to take no step which could endanger the political
institutions of his country. He established, therefore, no peculiar Church ecclesias-
tically with reference to the government. He rendered a ready and willing obedi-
ence, from the moment he was converted to the lights of Methodism, to the estab-
lished Church of the land, believing, as he did, that that Church was inseparably
connected with the political institutions of his country. His power over Methodists
was absolute and despotic. The only government, so far as it was a government,
that Methodists recognised, rested in his will, and reposed, and confidently and safely
reposed, upon his virtue and piety. He appointed the preachers. In him was
vested the property of the Church. He controlled it in everything ; and the mem-
bers who devotedly followed him were too happy to live under the government of
such a man.

The tide of conversion rolled on. From the few who originally met in the private
room of Wesley, thousands were seen coming under his banner, until at last, for con-
venience' sake, and for convenience' sake alone, without stripping himself of any
power which by the original form of government was his, he asked from time to
tune the advice of his followers, following it or not, just as he thought advisable for
the interests of the Church. In anticipation of his death, he intrusted the whole pro-
perty of the Church, which stood in his own name, and was to stand until his death,
and the entire government of the Church, to one hundred of his followers preachers
of his own selection. From that time until a comparatively recent period in the
history of the sect, the whole government was centred in these one hundred men.
At last, Wesley's spirit being called to the Author from whom it came, and the pro-
gress of enlightened civilization having yet more illuminated the public mind, and
broken down many remains of former religious persecution, the Methodist Church
within the last fifteen or twenty years in England has become a separate ecclesias-
tical establishment, governed by a president and governors invested with all ecclesias-
tical power. But from first to last the entire power of the Church, whatever that
may have been, was vested, first in Wesley, then in the one hundred men, and now
is in the particular organization which prevails in England, without a remnant of
power to be found elsewhere in any of the followers of this faith.

My learned brother who concluded to-day, stated in perfect fairness, and by his



328

statement answers, if he will permit me to say so, a great part of the argument of
his colleague that there was a leading and important distinction between the delega-
tion of mere power from a principal to an agent, and a delegation of sovereign power
by a sovereign body to those to whom the sovereign body thinks proper to intrust
such sovereign power. Now such was the condition of things in 1784, as far as
concerns the power of John Wesley, when he wrote his letter of the 10th of Septem-
ber in that year. The preachers in this country, during the revolution and before it,
had vainly solicited from him authority to establish a religious government for them-
selves. This he steadfastly refused. He was restrained, as he says in that letter,
by the patriotic considerations to which I have adverted, that such an establishment
might endanger the institutions of the country to which he owed allegiance. A train
of events sundered the American provinces from the political government of England,
and a new state of things existed which rendered Wesley's scruples inapplicable, and
made it his duty to agree that there should be such a peculiar and distinctive estab-
lishment. Where did the predecessors of the Northern preachers, from whom all
authority is derived, look for the power to call the Conference of 1784, for the purpose
for which it was called 1 To John Wesley, as the person in whom, at that time, was
vested the entire and exclusive sovereign power of the Church. It is unnecessary to
inquire whether by virtue of some inherent and inalienable right, the power might not
have been found in these gentlemen in 1784 irrespective of the will of Wesley. It is
sufficient for me to show that in 1784 they claimed, and claimed alone, the power
they exerted in the Conference of that year, under the authority of Wesley, as the
author, sovereign, and founder of the Church. Who constituted the Conference of
17841 My learned brother, who spoke first upon the other side, would have had
your Honours to believe, what of course he satisfied himself was the fact, that that
Conference was called together not only by the preachers of the Church, but by all
the lay members. There is not a word of truth in the statement, although, of
course, the learned counsel believed it to be true. It was a general assembly of the
preachers connected with the Methodist denomination of Christians, convoked only
as preachers, without reference to any lay authority express or implied. Not being
as familiar with the history of the Church as my colleague, who was kind enough to
undertake to lay before the Court the evidence which is found spread upon the records
in the case, I inquired, as soon as the statement was made, whether there was any
foundation for the assertion that the Conference of 1784 had any other authority for
its convocation than the authority of Wesley, and the authority in themselves as
preachers alone connected with the Methodist Association. I found that there was
not. If your Honours will turn to page 5 of the Proofs, No. 1, you will find, that
immediately succeeding the letter of Wesley, which authorized the separate organi-
zation, it is stated : " To carry into effect the proposed organization," (Wesley's
proposed organization,) " a General Conference of preachers was called, to meet at
Baltimore, at Christmas, 1784. Sixty out of the eighty-three preachers then in the
travelling connexion attended at the appointed time. At this conference, say the
annual minutes of 1785, it was unanimously agreed that circumstances made it expe-
dient for us" (that is the preachers) " to become a separate body," &c. They ad-
mit no constituency. The time is perhaps coming when, in all probability, they will
be obliged to admit one for the good of the Church. They resolve for themselves,
and for themselves alone, as the possessors of all the ecclesiastical power known to
the Methodist Church, to carry out the particular organization authorized by John
Wesley, without reference to any other authority than his, and their own conviction
that the good of the Church demanded such a special and particular organization.
It is true, the Church being organized in 1784 through the instrumentality of this



. F'
329

Conference, the travelling preachers who constituted the Church supposing the
Church and the governors of the Church, for the sake of argument, to be identical
that from the period of that Conference until 1792 there was no other General Con-



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 57 of 87)