Next we will get into a subject that has had as major impact on our society almost as had co-habitation. It is a subject that traces back to biblical times and before. The subject is marriage and divorce. Methodist bishops during the twentieth century’s early decades thundered against divorce. The Episcopal Address to the 1904 Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference bewailed: “The multiplication of divorces, the facility with which they are secured, the totally insufficient and comparatively trivial grounds on which they are granted, such as ‘desertion’, ‘incompatibility of temper’, ‘neglect’, the utter disregard of the solemn words of the Savior on this subject, the effrontery of public decency with which they are sometimes secured in high life…divorce being followed in some instances by remarriage within a single hour, the same judicial ermine being sullied by both functions…surely these things demand the solemn rebuke of the Church, and its sharp discipline of any of its members who violate the law of God in matters so vital to the purity of the family and the well being of society.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1904) Page 147]. (Little did they know that in the relatively near future politics would join in as part of the problem.)
The 1908 Episcopal Address complained that some states’ divorce laws permitted “consecutive polygamy.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1908) Page 133]. The 1912 Episcopal Address reiterated: “The Church must stand inflexibly for the sacredness of the marriage covenant.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1912) Page 218]. The 1916 Episcopal Address regretted that the “recourse to divorce in most cases is taken by persons who care nothing for the appointment of the family.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1916) Page 147]. (The Church was up against politics and may not have even known it at the time.)
The 1924 Episcopal Address asked: “Is there any one situation which should so shock and shame the American people as the steady growth of the divorce evil?” The bishops faulted the “passion for luxury, immodesty in dress (they really knew nothing about that subject in 1924 compared to today.), pernicious incitements of modern fictions, the unwholesome familiarities of the modern dance, and the passing of much of the sacred home life of yesterday, and above all the loss of the sense of God and of moral responsibility.” They urged a “return to the former ideals of personal virtue, modesty, and social propriety” and for the “moral forces of the Republic” to “arise in their might and compel a legislative remedy for the disgraceful situation.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1924) Page 182]. (Two thoughts…one, they should go back and study biblical history and see that nothing really has much changed. Two, this legislative solution that they sought turned out to be part of the enemy.)
The 1928 Episcopal Address stressed Methodism’s “opposition to divorce except upon scriptural grounds, and we cannot justify the remarriage of even those who are the innocent parties in proceedings for divorce except where the action is based on marital infidelity.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1928) Page 185]. Subsequent Episcopal Addresses did not mention divorce.
Then in 1972 the General Conference meeting in Atlanta brought up a subject that had been long ignored by the church…that of homosexuality. The Conference ruled that “sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond.” It called homosexuals “persons of sacred worth” and insisted society should “ensure their human and civil rights,” while declaring “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” [The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1972 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1972) Page 86]. Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey denounced the passage on homosexuality as a “pious platitude.” [“Methodists Get New Guidelines”, Chicago Tribune (April 19, 1972) Page B9]. Delegates had amended the initial neutral draft on homosexuality to specify its practice was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The original drafter, a California minister, complained this addition had “confused the issue, because no judgment had been intended. [“Homosexual Marriages Opposed by Methodists”, New York Times (April 27, 1972) Page 16]. The delegates also resolved: “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.” (Apparently the delegates did not have the fortitude to call homosexuality what the Bible calls it…abomination. [“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination”…Leviticus 18:22. Also, [“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lust of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things that are not fitting…who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only to the same, but also approve of those who practice them”]…Romans 1:24-28, 32. (Might the results of this 1972 General Conference be called ‘cowardly’? ) By 1980 the specific disapproval of homosexual marriage disappeared from the Book of Discipline.
Next week we will look at the controversial subject of ‘abortion’. As divorce and marriage concerns receded, birth control became an emerging issue. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt, who regarded birth control as “race suicide”, had implicitly warned against it when addressing the delegates of the 1908 northern General Conference in Washington, DC. It will probably be an involved couple of weeks as the subject is too complex to limit to one week.
– Bob Munsey
“For avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy…the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments.” Gouverneur Morris