by Fred Schrock

The Sum of All Villainies: Research

Note: This is the second of two posts enhancing my upcoming article in Western New York Heritage magazine, to be published in the Summer 2013 issue.

B.T. Roberts’ tiny Buffalo home, while covered in vinyl, is still occupied on the West Side after 150 years. (Thanks to Chris Brown for pointing it out to me.)

In researching this project, the most difficult problem with sources was the lack of quality. Besides an abundance of texts by Methodist ministers and bishops who used documents as soap boxes for a particular side, or bureaucratically heavy official minutes, almost nothing existed. Matters worsened when discussing regional topics, such as the excommunication of Benjamin Titus Roberts, and small sects, such as the Wesleyan Connection. As far as I know, there exists today not one history devoted to the following events concerning Methodism in Upstate New York that a church body did not commission or write itself. Historiographically, the goal of this paper is to present, for the first time, a discussion of Methodist slavery politics as it pertained to a particular area of the United States, free of denominational rhetoric or proselytizing.

Still used today, the first works on the subject of difficulties in the Genesee region were yoked to the Church. Written by a former Genesee Conference Secretary, F. W. Conable’s History of the Genesee Annual Conference remains the best official account of the events surrounding the General Conference of 1860. As an official history, however, it is the infertile seed of a disappointing family tree. Edited by Bishop Matthew Simpson, 1878’s Cyclopedia of Methodism drew greatly from the details of Conable’s work. Simpson failed to acknowledge the value of Free Methodist reformers, describing the creation of the organization as if it were a sect of fundamentalist outsiders whose leaders “encouraged a spirit of wild fanaticism.” In the one-page article “Free Methodism,” the massive Cyclopedia devoted about one-third of its one hundred line text to the reasons behind the Churches’ split.

On its title page the 1838 edition of the “Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge” purports “an impartial account of the principal Christian denominations that have existed in the world from the birth of Christ to the present day, with their doctrines, religious rites and ceremonies, as well as those of the Jews, Mohammedans, and heathen nations.”

Firstly, Simpson insinuated that the leaders’ actions were unusual and corrupted, with reasons foreign from the author’s beliefs and point of view. The early Free Methodists “professed themselves to be moved by the Holy Spirit, and believed it was their duty to bear open testimony against what they alleged to be the sins of the church” (emphasis added). This description tried to place doubts on the veracity of the Free Methodists’ beliefs. Secondly, Simpson made the blanket statement that these leaders’ complaints were “of the decline of spirituality in the church.” Absolutely no mention of abolition or the slave issue exists in the entire entry, let alone any hint of problems with the episcopacy. The author did mention “various church trials” and that “two of the leaders were expelled,” but failed to mention the names of the leaders. He named B. T. Roberts later, but only as the Church’s first superintendent and founder of The Earnest Christian. Roberts took offense at the Simpson article, so much so that he wrote the Bishop personally. The Free Methodist founder included this correspondence, the Cyclopedia entry, and other commentary in his 1879 book Why Another Sect.  In it, he argued fifteen separate complaints he held against the published tenets of “Nazaritism” and ideas of “wild fanaticism” as written by the Bishop.

Though consisting of much one-sided information, many previous religious historians considered the Cyclopedia of Methodism an authoritative account of the Methodist Episcopal Church decades after its compilation. Histories of the entire Methodist organization, such as Dr. James M. Buckley’s History of Methodism in the United States, relied heavily on the Cyclopedia. Histories by Free Methodist members or sympathizers provided better information. The first official Free Methodist account by Rev. Elias Bowen, one of the original Susquehanna Circuit pastors from 1816 to 1817, looked at numerous sources including the Buffalo Christian Advocate and the Northern Independent, Conable’s minutes, and Roberts’ writings for a more balanced and total depiction of the story. In some places the author copied entire newspaper articles and speeches into the main part of the text. This writing style may not be very literary, but at least it possessed specific, concrete facts and acknowledged the differing points of view of Church members. Two other important Free Methodist histories followed using similar sources and historiographical technique: the Free Methodist Church published Bishop Wilson T. Hogue’s History of the Free Methodist Church of North America and Bishop Leslie Ray Marston’s From Age to Age: A Living Witness during its golden and centennial anniversaries, respectively. Hogue devoted fully half of his two volume History to the denomination’s formation in much the same style as Bowen. As expected he found Roberts’ works most accurate, forming most of his perspective. Hogue’s criticism of Conable and his followers was harsh and defensive of the Free Methodist sect:

Published in 1918, “Daybreak in the Dark Continent” appears to reflect similar impressions of “heathen nations” as the “Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.”

It is equally difficult to conceive of how such honored men as the two last named authors [Simpson and Buckley] could have been betrayed into giving general currency to such unauthorized, inaccurate and harmful statements. . . . The most charitable view that can be taken of their action in this matter is to attribute it to prejudice on their part. But even this is a reflection upon their credibility as historians.

he Western New York Heritage article is a careful synthesis of these and other unstable sources. Though most of the information used showed bias, misinterpretation of facts, quotes, or opinions are entirely mine. It is the author’s hope to enlighten the casual reader as well as those with a working knowledge of the topic.

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