The history of Methodism and its political involvement over the last century forms an essential and largely overlooked part of American history. Understanding America may be impossible without understanding the central role of Methodism in shaping culture and politics. Methodist political pronouncements have no longer attracted the publicity of 50 or more years ago. Other religious movements have since taken greater prominence…not the least to be the Muslim religion.
Methodism appropriately began in America shortly before its War for Independence. Led primarily by the young, tireless circuit rider Bishop Francis Asbury, who had been ordained and dispatched across the sea by an aging John Wesley. The Methodists in a few decades went from a few thousand believers to become America’s largest Church. Methodists led the great revivals of the early nineteenth century and deeply shaped America’s nineteenth century moral and cultural ethos, focused not only on personal morality but also reforming civic righteousness.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, a group of Methodist clergy visited their most famous parishioner in the White House office, William McKinley. He had been raised by a devoutly Methodist mother, professed Christ at a Methodist camp meeting when only 10 and joined the Church at age 16. He later served as a Sunday school superintendent at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Canton, Ohio, where he had married, and where his funeral would be held after his assassination in 1901. During his presidency, he attended the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. He even hosted Sunday hymn sings at the White House. Pious, avuncular, widely popular, uncomplicated and Mid-western, he was an appropriate icon for stolid nineteenth century Methodism. Today he might be termed their ‘poster boy’.
During this time frame America was being thrust into an arena it had never really aspired to. The U.S. had won a war against imperial Spain during the previous year, after fighting primarily in Cuba and Puerto Rico and after Admiral Dewey’s famous victory over the Spanish fleet at the Philippines, all of which had been Spanish colonial possessions for centuries. Only shortly into his presidency had the U.S. Senate narrowly ratified a treaty designating the Philippines as a U.S. possession. It was with mixed emotion that President McKinley viewed the situation. Late one night he got on his “knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance…” Of the options he was offered he decided “there was nothing for the U.S. left to do but to take them all in, to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could do by them.” [Richard V. Pierard,”A Nation on a Mission”, Christianity Today, christianitytoday.com/ch/2008/issue99/5.23.html (August 8, 2008)]. Bishop Oldham had warned that absent U.S. control, the Philippines could have fallen to Japan. [“Oldham Talks to Methodists”, New York Times (May 9, 1908)]. Methodist clergy who raptly heard President McKinley’s spiritual justification for U.S. retention of the Philippines probably did not fully realize how McKinley’s policy, inspired by Methodist prayer, would elevate their nation into global power for the next century. Nor could they have appreciated how their denomination would at first fully embrace America’s role as benevolent colossus, and then, fitfully, late in the century turn angrily against it.
But now on to prohibition. Passions over liquor even undermined Methodist enthusiasm for their favorite son, President McKinley. He had forsworn smoking and liquor as a pious young man. But later in his political emergence he smoked cigars and apparently took an occasional glass of wine. The purity of his political opposition to the liquor trade was also questioned. Only months after his fervid meeting with Methodist clergy, his Attorney General validated the sale of liquor in U.S. Army canteens. A temperance leader exclaimed to the Methodist Episcopal Church’s New York Annual Conference in April 1900: “The President may wink at the army canteen in this country, but God winks at no canteen, and the mothers, the sisters, and the children are crying to the Church for judgment on this accursed thing…For we all know that both of the two great political parties today are slaves of the saloon, and could not elect their candidates without making concessions to the saloons.” [“Church and Liquor Traffic”, New York Times (April 9, 1909)].
The New York Methodists eventually toned down their original denunciation of the Attorney General. The Superintendent of West Point even pointed out that army canteens inhibited drunkenness by keeping soldiers on base. He even warned Methodists about ‘cooperating’ with ‘rum sellers’ who would benefit if army canteens could not sell alcohol. Another Methodist resolution urged the U.S. not to introduce liquor into new territories, like the Philippines, where it would neutralize the combined influence of “flag, arms, and missionaries.” [“Methodist Conference”, New York Times (April 8, 1909)].
McKinley’s own drinking habits even came under scrutiny at the Vermont Methodist Episcopal Church Annual conference in April of 1900. One preacher alleged the President drank wine at public occasions. I guess they were not too worried about offending in those days. McKinley having been queried during a “long talk” prior to the commentary explained that he allowed his wine glass to be filled at state occasions but always left it untouched, while drinking water from a separate glass. [“Bishop Defends President”, Washington Post (April 15, 1900)]. At the Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference of May 1900 in Chicago, temperance activists sought to censure McKinley as President and as a Methodist over the army canteen policy. No opportunity into the purview of politics escaped. With an election coming up, the Republican National Committee dispatched a representative to intercede on the President’s behalf. [“To Shield President”, Washington Post (May 20, 1900)]. The resulting resolution did not criticize McKinley specifically but “earnestly” appealed for his “powerful influence” to “protect our soldiers from a foe more deadly than shot or shell”. [The Book of Discipline, Methodist Episcopal Church (1900), pg. 379]. Prohibitionist Party candidate John Woolley showed up at the General Conference hoping to exploit potential dissatisfaction with McKinley but he apparently failed. One hostile newspaper columnist, labeled Woolley a stalking horse for Democrats…how times have changed! He reported that the Prohibitionist had been “practically knocked out” by the Methodists. In retribution, Woolley loudly condemned pro-McKinley Methodists as ‘sell-outs, despite generous attention the Methodist press lavished on him. [“John G. Woolley’s Canvass”, Washington Post (October 20, 1900)].
In the meantime, Virginia Methodists, meeting later in 1900 in Norfolk, refused to compromise on alcohol. One minister “laid special stress on drunkenness among negroes, and declared that the two great questions before Southern people are the negro question and the liquor question.” He went on further to say,”When the latter is solved…the first will also be adjusted.” [“No Dispensary Compromise”, Washington Post (September 14, 1900)].
In 1908, Alabama Congressman Thomas Heflin, an ardent segregationist, was en route to a lecture at a Methodist temperance event when he shot a whiskey drinking black man on a Washington, DC, trolley car. The altercation happened after Heflin demanded the drinker put away his bottle. Heflin was briefly arrested , and the black man was hospitalized. [“Bullet Aids in War on Rum”, Chicago Daily Tribune (March 28, 1908)]. Racial attitudes and conflicts over alcohol would repeatedly interact among Methodists and Americans throughout the early twentieth century.
As the century progressed so did the battle over alcohol. Next week we will follow the ‘fight’ that eventually led to a controversial Constitutional amendment and the lawlessness in brought to the nation. Right in the heat of the battle were the Methodists, not shying away from or fearing involvement in politics.
– Bob Munsey
Members of the House and Senate are not our leaders, they are our employees sent to Washington to work for us.