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Black Methodists in Mississippi: A Brief History

By Roy Lawrence

When Rev. Tobias Gibson, Methodist missionary and circuit rider, organized the first Methodist Church in Mississippi at Washington in 1799 there were eight members - six white and two black, a man and wife whose names are not known. The names of the white members are recorded; the two blacks' names are not, perhaps symbolic of the struggle that followed but surely symbolic of the history of blacks in America and in Mississippi specifically.

John Wesley and America's first Bishop, Frances Asbury, both opposed slavery but the holding of slaves was legal in even the earliest of the thirteen colonies. Methodists in both the north and south held slaves. In the early nineteenth century the issue was moving toward the ultimate conflict. In 1844 the General Conference of the Methodist Church agreed to divide the Church into Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, based on differing opinions on how the issue of slavery should be addressed.

Following the Civil War the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) was given permission to occupy the south for missionary purposes. In 1864 the General Conference of the M.E.C (north) addressed the question, "What shall we do with the Negroes?" Before the War the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816) and the A.M.E. Church, Zion, (1820) had been formed. There was as well the Colored Methodist Protestant Church. The 1864 Conference chose to establish General Conferences and Mission Conferences. Delegates acted quickly to form Negro Conferences and in 1864 the Mississippi Department was created to oversee missions in the region of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. This arrangement was met with opposition from southern white churchmen, but in 1865 five new churches were started with over 2,000 members. Eleven black ministers were admitted to the Conference. The second annual Conference was held in New Orleans in December 1866 in spite of the race riots which were occurring there. Rev. Henry Jackson was badly wounded and two new churches were burned - one at Jefferson and one at Carrollton.

Both black and white churches opposed the new conference, as well as secular forces. In spite of this the M.E.C. (north) grew in the region. In Mississippi seventy-seven men became local preachers and there were nine new congregations: Aberdeen, Canton, Corinth, Columbus, Grenada, Meridian, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City.

At the third session of the Mississippi Mission Conference in 1867, James D. Lynch was appointed presiding elder, the first secretary of the conference of his race. Canton is the birthplace of the Mississippi Conference and the first session was held there in 1869 at the Asbury Methodist Church. Later conferences met St. James Church in Columbus (1873), St. Paul Church in Meridian (1875). In 1875 Rev. Oscar Carter, a former slave and admitted to serve as a preacher in Forest and Morton, was murdered in an unsolved case.

Negro Exodus

The late 1870's saw a great many blacks leaving the south, due to the rise in the Ku Klux Klan and Supreme Court rulings that anti-negro violence must be punished by the states, as well as the 1878 drought and yellow fever epidemic contributed to an exodus of M.E.C. members. Only four in one hundred blacks in Mississippi in 1890 were Methodists.

1880-1890

In the 1880's disputes about appointing a Negro Bishop led to a call for General Conference to organize blacks into an entirely separate church which would allow them to have their own bishop. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (later called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) was formed. The A.M.E. Church and the M.E.C. (North) continued as well. By 1890 there was a movement to divide the Conference into parts. Thus, the Upper Mississippi Conference was formed and held its first session at Asbury Church in Holly Springs in 1891. There were five districts: Aberdeen, Corinth, Greenville, Holly Springs and Yazoo River.

Following its founding in 1890 the Upper Mississippi Conference worked to establish itself, while the M.E.C. north also underwent some change along racial lines. The Conference was socially active, protesting inequality in railroad accommodations, supporting a woman's right to membership in the General Conference, resisted further splintering of the Church, and issuing a license to preach to Mrs. Mary E. Jones of Indianola in 1920. Another out migration of blacks occurred in the 1910's and the flood of 1927 delivered severe blows to the church. A period of transition followed and in 1938 the M.E.C. north and south and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited. A Central Jurisdiction, based on racial lines, was featured as well and subsequently proved an embarrassment. It's elimination was finally achieved and led the way to the 1973 mergers of Mississippi's white and black Methodist Conferences, followed by the complete merger into the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1988.

*This article is an abridgment of "A Brief History of Black Methodists in Mississippi," by Roy Lawrence. Mississippi United Methodist Advocate. November 27, 1974. Lawrence, in turn, attributes much of the information to Mississippi Circuit Riders 1865-1965, by Dr. John R. Graham. Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1967, 229 pages. Both titles are available at the J. B. Cain Archives, Millsaps-Wilson Library, Millsaps College.