United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is a major Protestant denomination in Georgia and the largest Methodist denomination in the state. Created in 1968, the UMC was formed by the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, both of which were the products of earlier unions. All had similar beliefs and institutional structures, as well as a long historical association with one another, and their mergers were representative of a larger ecumenical trend among twentieth-century Christians.
During the nineteenth century, the Methodist Episcopal Church suffered from divisions at the national level, the effects of which were evident in Georgia. First, reaction against centralized authority led to the organization in 1828 of a new denomination, initially called the Associated Methodist Churches. At an 1830 meeting in Baltimore, the leaders of this new denomination officially adopted the name Methodist Protestant Church, and that same year they formed the Georgia District of the Methodist Protestant Church in Newton County at the Salem Camp Ground. In 1853 membership in the Methodist Protestant Church in Georgia totaled more than 3,000.
During the Civil War (1861-65), the Georgia Conference of the MECS continued to function, although its General Conference did not convene until the end of the war. Neither the General nor Georgia conference officially supported secession. Eleven Methodist missionaries and seven Methodist chaplains provided religious services to Confederate forces during the war. Beginning in 1862 Georgia Methodists also contributed to the Soldiers' Tract Association, a mission of the MECS that provided bibles, hymnals, and other religious publications to the Confederate army. In 1866 the Georgia Conference of the MECS was divided into the North Georgia Conference and the South Georgia Conference, and by 1870 the MECS in Georgia had recovered both members and financial resources to the prewar levels of 1860.
The strength of the MECS in Georgia prevented other Methodist denominations from gaining a strong foothold in the state. In 1867 the Methodist Episcopal Church attempted to reestablish a presence in the South by creating a Georgia conference, which struggled to attract new members from both white and black MECS communities. In 1876 African American members of the Methodist Episcopal Church established a separate conference, known as the Savannah Conference. That same year, delegates from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the MECS formed a commission to begin negotiations for reunification.
Additional competition for members arose after the Civil War with the arrival of two black northern denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, both of which ministered to newly freed slaves. In addition, a group of black MECS leaders broke away from the General Conference in 1870 to form the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (later the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church).
In 1937 the unification plan for the three denominations was complete, and in 1939 the MECS, Methodist Episcopal Church, and Methodist Protestant Church merged to form the Methodist Church. The Central Jurisdiction was created simultaneously as a separate body for African Americans within the Methodist Church. At the time of unification the combined membership of the North Georgia and South Georgia conferences of the MECS was 273,500, while the Methodist Episcopal Church reported 4,715 white members in the state.
In 1940 Bishop Moore was appointed leader of the Atlanta Area of the Methodist Church, which included all of Georgia and Florida. In 1948 the area was reduced to cover only Georgia. Moore served until 1960 and was concurrently president of the denomination's General Board of Missions and Extension. The Atlanta Area was divided into North Georgia and South Georgia conferences and subdivided into twenty-one districts under the episcopal leadership of John Owen Smith, who served from 1960 until 1972. Another Georgian, William Ragsdale Cannon, dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University during the 1960s, served as bishop of the Atlanta Area from 1972 to 1980.
The Uniting Conference also directed that all general and annual conferences of the UMC—including boards, agencies, commissions, and committees at all levels—be composed of equal numbers of lay and clerical delegates elected in annual conferences. One-third of the lay delegates were to be women; young adults, youth, and ethnic minorities were to be included as well. A number of name changes resulted from the merger—for example, the Women's Society of Christian Service became United Methodist Women, Methodist Men became United Methodist Men, and Methodist Youth Fellowship became United Methodist Youth.
In 1972 the General Conference meeting in Atlanta voted to limit to eight a bishop's maximum number of service years within a single geographical area.
During the administration of Bishop Ernest A. Fitzgerald, who served from 1984 to 1992, the Atlanta Area petitioned the General Conference of the UMC to be divided into two episcopal areas. The request was granted in 1988, the bicentennial year of the first Methodist conference held in Georgia. The North Georgia Conference retained Bishop Fitzgerald, and the South Georgia Conference received its own bishop, Richard C. Looney, who served from 1988 to 2000. From 1992 to 1996 Bishop J. Lloyd Knox led the North Georgia Conference; he was succeeded by Bishop G. Lindsey Davis in 1996. In 2000 B. Michael Watson became bishop of the South Georgia Conference. The UMC in Georgia had a total of 473,564 lay members and 2,070 clergy (full members) in 2003. As of 2005, the North Georgia Conference had 342,045 members, and the South Georgia Conference had 137,822.
Inclusiveness and Outreach
In the late 1960s Church Community Centers were created in Atlanta and Savannah, with a plan to establish a center in every community with a population of 10,000 or more. A Community Outreach Ministry and an Emergency Aid Ministry were formed. In 1968 the Board of Health and Welfare Ministries expanded Magnolia Manor, which had opened in 1963 to provide intermediate patient care. Today Magnolia Manor operates facilities in Americus, Macon, Macon County, Marion County, Moultrie, Richmond Hill, St. Marys, and St. Simons Island. Also in 1968 the South Georgia Agency for the Retarded was founded. Originally located in Albany, the agency is presently housed at Wesley Glen Ministries in Macon.
Wesley Homes, which opened in the 1960s to provide residential facilities to the elderly, expanded to include eight facilities by 1984. Wesley Woods Center, the geriatric division of Emory Healthcare, became a major health provider during this time, while Epworth Towers in Atlanta, Lanier Gardens in Athens, and St. John Towers in Augusta offered residential homes for senior citizens. In the 1980s the Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta was cited as an example of a community-oriented ministry. The minister, Cornelius Henderson, subsequently became president of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta and was elected bishop in 1996.
Evangelism, a historic priority among Methodists, received special attention under Bishop Cannon, who was noted for his pastoral and ecumenical concerns. The "Year of Evangelism" in 1973 emphasized the importance of youth in Christian work. Through the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the World Methodist Council, Cannon helped to focus attention on world hunger and ethnic minorities. Under his successor, Bishop Joel D. McDavid, who served from 1980 to 1984, the emphasis on youth continued with the initiation of the annual Bishop's Convocation for Confirmation. In 2004 the UMC in Georgia celebrated the bicentennial of the Methodist Episcopal Church's founding in the United States with the theme "200 Years of Growth and Progress."
As of 2002, 291 women and 168 African Americans, as well as Africans, Asians, and Hispanics, served as clergy to 1,599 churches and agencies. Within the state the UMC maintains relations with two theological seminaries, nine universities and colleges, three hospitals, two children's homes, at least ten institutions for the disadvantaged and elderly, two conference centers, and camp facilities for youth. Since 1972 the UMC has endeavored "to strengthen the fellowship" with other denominations in the Wesleyan tradition. In 1996 the Pan-Methodist Commission on Union was created with members from the UMC; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion; and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
John G. McEllhenney et al., eds., United Methodism in America: A Compact History (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1992).
Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism: A History of the United Methodists and Their Relations (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974).
Alfred Mann Pierce, A History of Methodism in Georgia, February 5, 1736-June 24, 1955 (Atlanta: North Georgia Conference Historical Society, 1956).
Grant S. Shockley, gen. ed., Heritage and Hope: The African-American Presence in United Methodism (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1991).
Marynell S. Waite, ed ., History of the South Georgia Conference: The United Methodist Church, 1866-1984 (Dallas, Tex.: Taylor, 1984).
David S. Williams, From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia's Religious Heritage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
Frederick V. Mills Sr., LaGrange College
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