Emmitsburg Council of Churches


In the following history of Ante Bellum Methodism in Winchester, Virginia you will gain a feel for the tension and struggle that people of the Methodist Church experienced. The tensions were shared by all Americans during this tragic period and this is what makes the story important for us all to learn from.

 Although the account takes place in Virginia, there are, no doubt, similar stories to be told here in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  

Ante Bellum Methodism in Winchester, Virginia
 and the Great Schism

John I. Sloat asks rhetorically, "who, at this late day, can write an accurate portrayal of those times that tried men's souls?" With similar sentiment regarding the divisive development of the era, Elizabeth Kern speaks of the squall that refused to abate "as the shaft of red pierced the dawn." It was a fieri time of trial when the anchoring institution of souls and a nation, the Methodist Episcopal Church, would be fragmented and separated into individual pieces by the same founders and dedicated churchmen who had built it up. This was the factual situation for the people of the Border region, the dividing line of the nation in the years from 1844-1866.

The purpose of this paper is to relate clearly the reasons for the lamentable schism that occurred at Market Street Methodist Episcopal Church, Winchester, Virginia on July 5, 1858. I shall present a detailed analysis regarding the motivations of the dissenting leadership as well as present the underlying tensions between Northern and Southern viewpoints during this difficult era. The result of my findings is not so much a conclusive verdict as it is a logical deduction based on the available written accounts of ecclesiastical life in Winchester as well as the greater developments in the Methodist Episcopal church during the Civil War era. 

Within the related historical documents there are also personalities who tell their stories and communicate meaning by their life actions as well as the story of the people caught up in between the strife--the African slaves and free men and women who also were passionate about their Christian faith and Methodism. Thus, an objective historical review is provided as genuine characters are portrayed in their own words and actions.

This research has led me to believe that the Braddock Street group, the seceders from the Market Street Church, saw that there would inevitably be division over the slavery issue, and that this would involve their religious point of view. Therefore, they desired to withdraw from those individuals who posed a threat to Methodism's established theology which consisted of a nonpartisan stance toward the slavery issue. This was the traditional unified norm in Winchester.

Furthermore, the church records portray the great lengths that all involved parties went to in order to avoid conflict, as would be expected of Virginia's genteel Christian citizenry. However, it may also be discerned that the church records carefully conceal the inner turmoil that existed just beneath a thin shell of Southern cordiality. These inner tensions led to the establishment of Braddock Street Methodist Episcopal Church with its affiliation with the Virginia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Less than two years later the breaking point of tensions such as these would lead to the Civil War.

In order to set the stage for understanding the story of Winchester Methodism it is important to clarify the anti-slavery intentions of early Methodism. Bishop Asbury began his ministry in the new nation in 1784. At this time it was established that Methodists could not be holders of slaves. The anti-slavery ruling was based on the doctrine developed at the Christmas Conference of the same year (1784) which stated: "'We view it as contrary to the Golden Law of God...to hold in the deepest debasement...so many souls...of the image of God....' These rules, however, were already marked by the portentous exception exempting those states in which civil laws forbade emancipation."

The slave trade had already taken such a strong hold in the newly founded nation that the Church leadership feared losing a great portion of the newly converted if the discipline prohibiting slave holding were not treated in a more lax manner. This policy was given greater emphasis by the club-brandishing mobs who threatened Methodism's first Bishops, Asbury and Cokesbury. By 1808 the General Conference completely abandoned its attempts to control the "buying or selling of slaves, leaving the matter to each annual Conference." Thus, the Methodist discipline, which was meant to bring about an abstention from slave holding and trading for professing Christians, could not be effectively enacted among members of the church.

In 1844 it became apparent that there were such strongly held opinions on each side of the slavery issue that the fracturing of Methodism, the nation's largest Christian denomination at that time, was destined to take place across the Union. The division of Methodism was of great significance to the young nation because the eventual split between North and South and subsequent Civil War would be physically manifest along the same border lines as the church division. All of the heartache and strife were brought about by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding a certain Methodist Bishop from Georgia named James O. Andrew.

Bishop Andrew had inherited his first slave girl by the death of his first wife, and a second slave was gained by his second marriage. The issue of Bishop Andrew's slave holding became the catalyst of the squabble which broke out during the New York General Conference held in 1844. The resulting strife between a minority of Northern Abolitionists and the Southern attendees at the New York Conference was a disturbing revelation. The extent of damaging influence shown by the Abolitionists signaled that division could not be hindered no matter which decision was made regarding Bishop Andrew's slave holding.

If the North had not objected to the Bishop's retaining of the slaves, there would have been fracturing among the Northern Conferences. On the other hand, a decision against continuance of his Bishopric due to his violation of the Disciplines, rules against church leadership holding slaves, would automatically cause the North - South division. History reveals to us the tragic outcome of the vote, which favored the latter decision. The Civil War is always sadly remembered as a war that pitted brother against brother, and the same was true for the Church as members were pitted against fellow members.

The Winchester Conference of the Methodist Church has a long and proud heritage. Francis Asbury himself first introduced Methodism to Winchester, VA. Actually, he passed through Winchester several times preaching and encouraging the fledgling Christian community. He preached to the colored population as well as the whites. T.K. Cartmell offers first-hand historical information regarding the Winchester area in his treatise entitled Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants. Cartmell speaks of an old slave woman who was "one of the original Africans, known as 'Aunt Chloey'" who recalled her meeting Bishop Asbury, "I never seen Gen'l Washington, but I see that other great preacher, Bishop Asbury." Bishop Asbury records that the Methodist house of worship was established in Winchester June 6th 1793. There is a long list of the early circuit riders who rode the Winchester circuit until the establishment of the Winchester Station in 1830. The present-day Market Street Church building was completed in May of 1855.

It is appropriate at this time to address the internal struggles at Market Street Church, alluded to earlier in this writing, that relate directly and indirectly to the breakup of the Church. Here I will provide pertinent background information that should enable the reader to gain an understanding of the difficulties within the Market Street congregation as I have come to know them.

It has been repeatedly claimed that the reason for the secession of the 32 individuals from Market Street Church in 1858, which led to the subsequent formation of the Braddock Street United Methodist Episcopal Church South, was the result of the disagreement over the seating of the Valley Female Academy students. I will give a full accounting of this incident as described in Elizabeth Kern's History of Market Street Church, "The Old Ship," along with other pertinent commentary. The beginning of the dispute took place in the first week of April 1858, Kern writes:

At the request of Mr. York, (*see below), the Official Board had reserved several pews on the men's side of the church, evidently because there was more room there, so that the students of the Valley Female Institute could be seated together at Sunday services. The plan met with immediate opposition by the former occupants of the reserved pews. One occupant even refused to move from his accustomed place, but sat at the end of the bench on the following Sunday, crossing his feet in such a way as to prevent the students from entering. The girls merely hopped over his feet and filed in. One of these girls visited Winchester many years later and reminisced about this happening. Little did the officials realize that such a seemingly small courtesy of reserving several pews was to make a schism in Methodism in Winchester.

Some further explanation about Mr. York and his Female Academy will enable the reader to appreciate the context of this occurrence. Sydney P. York was a Professor of Natural Science and Belles Lettres; he was also an ordained minister in the Methodist Church. Mr. York came to Winchester from the North after carefully researching the area for its potential as a site for his all-female seminary. The Valley Female Institute claimed for its students the best liberal arts education available. And indeed, it had a highly qualified staff and an excellent facility. The school had moved into the former Market Street Church building located directly opposite the current Market Street Church.

Mr. York saw to it that the building was a state-of-the art facility: a learning institution thoroughly equipped with modern laboratory equipment and furnished with the first flush toilets in the area. In essence, Mr. York had established a fully accredited, Methodist Episcopal Church-approved, northern elitist, educational institution. Mr. York was "a vigorous abolitionist [and] made himself obnoxious to the Confederate cause." One can quickly see that Mr. York's female students in all probability were not merely a hindrance to the physical arrangement of seating in the church, but represented highly unpopular Northern sentiments which, most-certainly, provoked male congregants to anger!

Rev. Benjamin F. Brooke was the Senior minister at the Market Street Church during the time of these events. He mentions Mr. York several times in his personal journal. Apparently Mr. York's abolitionist sympathies were not hidden from General Jackson's army either. From Rev. Brooke's diary we learn that several Union men were arrested on March 10, 1862 and presumably York was taken at this time, along with other Union sympathizers, to the Confederate prisoner-of-war holding area at Mt. Jackson. There is a more definite notation regarding Mr. York's return from Mt. Jackson on March 28. Later this same year York and his family fled Virginia and returned to their home in the North. He had suffered bankruptcy from the failure of the school yet his name lived on as his institution became known in the Winchester area as the old York Hospital, having periodically served both Northern and Southern armies.

Returning to the story Kern writes:

The feelings continued to be strained and at a meeting of the Quarterly Conference on April 7, 1858, James Burnside, in good faith, offered the following preamble and resolutions which were unaminously adopted:

Whereas it is of utmost importance to the prosperity of this station that harmony and Christian feeling should prevail throughout our membership, and all causes of disturbance and dissension be removed: and Whereas some differences of opinion involving feeling has existed in regard to the young ladies of the Valley Female Institute: and, Whereas, as [a] matter of so small a movement ought not to be deemed sufficient to separate Christian brethren: and, Whereas all brethren should be willing to yield their private views and preferences for the good of the whole station, therefore, Resolved, First, That as a Quarterly Conference we most respectfully request the Boards of Trustees and Stewards to have a joint meeting of their boards at their earliest convenience, calmly consider and determine the difficulty and arrange for the seating of said school, that peace and harmony be preserved in our station. Resolved, Second, That we will heartily acquiesce in whatever arrangement they may make, and pledge our influence to see it carried out.

Kern continues,

...At the next Quarterly Conference on June 30, 1858, James C. Watson presented a petition signed by 183 members asking for a change in the sittings of the congregation. This petition was received and laid on the table. Numerous resolutions written in very formal and dignified style followed and were also laid on the table including one submitted by J. Richard Bowen:

Resolved 1. that this conference approve the action of the Boards of Stewards and Trustees in designating seats for the boarders of the Valley Female Institute in that part of the church occupied by females.

Resolved 2. That said boards be requested to change their action assigning seats to the ladies in that portion of the church originally assigned to males.

At a meeting held the next day in pursuance of adjournment, the resolution offered by Mr. Bowen was again submitted, and with this amendment adopted: "Any intrusion upon the seats thus designated by any member of the church with design will be considered a breach of courtesy and good manners." The vote was taken and the resolution was adopted. Rev. W.G. Eggleston, presiding elder, Abraham Nulton, and James Burnside were appointed a committee "to prepare a respectful answer to the memorial presented to this conference, asking a change in the sittings of the congregation."

...On July 5, 1858, thirty members having been granted certificates "as being persons of good report, and consistent members of the M.E. Church" withdrew from Market Street Church. Under the leadership of William R. Denny, father of Bishop Collins Denny, they were organized as a congregation, and applied to the Baltimore Conference for a preacher. The request was not granted as the reason for separation was deemed too trivial in nature. Then the group applied to the Virginia Conference of the M.E. Church, South, which had been founded in 1845, and were assigned a minister. Their church home on Braddock Street was dedicated the next year (1859) by Bishop Granbury as a station of the Virginia Conference.

In order to further supplement Kern's recording of the events already disclosed, it will be helpful to learn more about the personality of Col. William R. Denny. He was a native of the Winchester, Virginia area and had been extensively involved with the affairs of the Methodist Episcopal Church throughout his lifetime. He had multiple business interests in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as up and down the Eastern United States where he dealt in mercantile goods. Col. Denny became a colonel in the Virginia militia in 1858 and was present at the capture of John Brown in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. In 1861 he married Margaret A. Collins, "sister of the well-known pulpit orator of the Methodist Church, the Rev. John A. Collins." 

During the Civil War Denny was taken prisoner twice. He was first captured at Point of Rocks, Maryland by Union forces and imprisoned in Baltimore where he became very ill. A story has been told that he flashed the secret sign of a "Mason in distress" to the prison doctor who, subsequently, made arrangements for his release. Denny's second arrest was at Fort Monroe closer to the end of the war, after which he was returned home. 

Of further interest about the Colonel was his undercover business and war-related transactions in and around Winchester during this time. It seems that Col. Denny was in the habit of meeting in his vegetable garden with a certain woman of ill repute, Ms. Belle Boyd, who would pass on to him covert information regarding movement of troops and other military information about the North, much to his wife's dismay.

 She was herself a Northern sympathizer and vigorously opposed to the woman's presence at the Denny estate (see footnote-Kern p.68). Another item of relative importance is the Colonel's brother, James Denny, who was also a member at Market Street Church and sided with the North. It is most likely that the consequent enmity between brothers, William and James Denny, led to the incident referred to by Rev. Brooke in his journal entry dated Jan.8, 1861. Rev. Brooke writes:

...Charges of enmity were made by the members against each other in very bitter terms, and I bound them over to keep the peace. I found that animosities had existed for years in this church and proposed [a]...covenant. [Four admonitions are given]. All present took the pledge on their knees except for one man, who said he could not speak to a certain brother!

Although the Civil War era is typically remembered as a war in which families found themselves fighting against their own kin, seldom is consideration given to the related church splits which caused equally grievous situations. Interestingly, Roy White, descendant of Col. Denny, has said that James Denny protected and looked after the Colonel's business and property interests while the Colonel was imprisoned.

Col. William Denny had obviously established his personal allegiance to the Southern cause based on his actions. And so there is a more convincing case made for the Braddock Street group's desire to be separated from the many brothers and sisters remaining at Market Street who were more readily aligned with the Union. Rev. Brooke's journal reveals that several congregants (in addition to York) were arrested and held in Rebel prisons. And yet, to muddle a clear verdict that the Market Street Church is completely committed to abolitionism, there is the account disclosing that Rev. Brooke himself owns a Negro slave. The Reverend's journal reads:

March 15, 1862 - Federal chaplains called to see me, four of them from New England,...one of them was Alfred Chenowith, a minister who used to travel the circuit in this county....He said that he was not a chaplain but a map guide. "Worse for that," said I, you, who, as a circuit rider know every bridle-path in this Valley, have come...to guide the bayonets...." While I was talking to him Rev. McRhea slipt into my kitchen and was trying to persuade my Negro cook to run away and put herself under the protection of the army....

To add to the conflicting testimony I shall now present the first-hand account of Mr. T.K. Cartmell, introduced earlier as an author, but who also served for numerous years as Clerk of the County Court, Frederick County, Virginia in the mid-to-late 1800's. From his unique position within the court system it is readily apparent that Mr. Cartmell could access inside information. Cartmell writes of the division of Methodism--North and South, then goes on to give his perspective on the Market Street Church schism. Here is Cartmell's account:

The Southern [Methodist Episcopal Church] membership was slow to become too distinctive, desiring to cling to the Mother Church for many reasons; and this is why we find the one church, [Market Street] in Winchester until a year or two before the impending Crisis came. While it was well known for many years that differences existed in the Winchester congregation, no overt act occurred to produce a separation. All were disposed to worship together; but it finally became apparent that harmony was affected, and although many regretted the necessity, yet all felt there was a principle to stifle if this condition continued. 

At last the momentous step was taken, when on July 5th, 1858, thirty members withdrew....This band of thirty, who stood for the principles as they viewed the situation, were no laggards--they proceeded to organize a separate Church, and on the 24th of the same month, Rev. W.W. Bennet, Presiding Elder of the Washington District duly organized them as a Congregation under the Virginia Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church South. The writer remembers the reception given their first Pastor, Rev. George H. Ray....

Cartmell does not even mention the incident with the girl's school, and this leads me to believe that the contentions leading to the schism were more accurately related directly to the slavery issue. The incident with the Valley Female Institute was merely the last straw. However, I would like to present one last question over the issue before moving on, and this is the attempt by the schismatics to secure a minister from the Baltimore (North) Conference. Does not this demonstrate Denny's desire to remain affiliated with the North? I'm not sure how to answer this, but we can only wonder what would have happened if the Baltimore Conference had sent them a New England preacher, especially with the subsequent Southern Conference's dropping the "slave disciplines" altogether in mid-1858. Therefore, it seems most logical to assume that either Denny had a specific (and familiar) Northern candidate in mind or he was merely carrying out a procedural mandate, all the while knowing that his next appeal to the South would not be turned away, and therefore, strengthening his position. It is possible that Denny knew Bishop William Capers, of the Southern Church, who actively sought out Northern congregations along the border region to convert them over to the Southern Conference, as is attested to in William Warren Sweet's account -- (Virginia Methodism--A History.249).

It becomes apparent from Rev. Brooke's diary that the Market Street Church must have considered itself detached from the Baltimore Conference (North) as of March 7, 1860. This must be true because Rev. Brooke reports that the Conference in Winchester unanimously passed the following resolution:

This Conference disclaims having the least sympathy with Abolitionists--on the contrary, we are determined not to hold conexion [sic] with any ecclesiastical body that makes non-slave-holding a condition for membership in the church.

Reverend Brooke's declaration is a direct contradiction to the ruling of the Baltimore Conference which had simultaneously re-affirmed and updated its anti-slavery prohibitions in 1860. The "new chapter" that was officially adopted by the northern Baltimore Conference read: "We believe that the buying, selling or holding of human beings, to be used as chattels is ...inconsistent with...that Rule in our discipline which requires...us to do no harm."

Although the language of this rule was threatening for the border Conferences, it was somewhat repressed by an overriding clause that expressed the "advisory and admonitory...character" of the document.

The Northern Conference had delayed the institution of more stringent slavery Disciplines in order not to alienate or provoke the Border Conferences. This was also characteristic of the Southern congregants who delayed their abandonment of the anti-slavery disciplines until 1858 when they did just that. Nevertheless, the Winchester Conference, adhered to the Baltimore Conference-North right up until the aforementioned decision of March 7, 1860. Note that Rev. Brooke was not adopting the Southern Conference agenda but was participating along with many other Border church members in their own independent Border Conference. The Border region was a confusing and difficult place for the faithful.

The history of African American Methodism in Winchester apparently dates back to Francis Asbury's earliest preaching engagements in 1772 as is explained in the John Mann United Methodist Church History. The earliest mention of a Methodist house of worship for the "colored people" is noted by Cartmell who refer's to 75 years of Negro church involvement within the Winchester area, I presume he is referring to black Methodism. This would date the predecessors of John Mann Methodist Episcopal Church to 1833 as a "separate organization" from the Market Street congregation. Sloat gives an account of the Market Street church property records as follows: "From the records we learn that the church property in 1844... [included] a house of worship for our colored people in good order and free from debt." The following account of the church comes from Frederick Morton who explains that the John Mann Church was originally "a log cabin built on the present site of the brick building which stands on Cork Street" in Winchester -- the John Mann Methodist Episcopal Church.

There are numerous references to the rebuilding of the John Mann Church in 1858. On November 20th of that year the Winchester Republican and General Advertiser provides a glimpse of the determination and joyous spirit engendered by the people of the John Mann congregation: "Gas has been taken into the Colored Methodist Church on Cork street....The trench was dug Thursday and filled up Friday night, the preachers of the church leading the way with joyful hymns." However on a more sobering note, one has to wonder about the reason for these church members having to do this work at night. Presumably their services were required by their white owners during the day.

The question arises as to the presence of Negroes in the congregation at Market Street Church. There is no record of any animosity between whites and the Africans who worshiped at Market Street Church, although it had always been required that the blacks sit separately from the white congregants and not commune until after the whites had partaken. Kern's account notes that on March 6, 1861 there were 9 "Colored Member Preachers" in addition to 3 "Colored Exorters." Considering that these men must have had their families with them the black members of the congregation might have numbered 30 to 50 people.

A matter of vital importance to the development of African American Methodism is the dissolution of the Slave Code Law in 1864. Prior to this date "...it was a requirement of the slave code that two [white] men should be in attendance at any religious meeting of the Negroes." The two white preachers from Market Street who worked with the John Mann congregation were J.R. Bowen and Joseph Nulton. There were also two colored preachers, Rev. Scott of Delaware (present at John Mann church dedication Dec. 26, 1858) and Rev. Martin Spriddle from Baltimore.

As the war progressed and Union troops flooded into the South, there were emancipated slaves exercising their new found liberty. They are gathered and have organized themselves in order to gain complete control of their church. Once again Rev. Brooke has recorded the historic moment in his journal of the events which took place on March 15, 1862. He writes:

I looked out and hundreds of Negroes were in the streets shouting: "Massa Abe has set us free!" At night, the colored people held a meeting at the church and passed resolutions that "no white man should preach to them who did not go in for President Lincoln and the war for the liberty of the slaves!"

The following morning, March 16, 1862, the New England (abolitionist) chaplains had gathered in Market Street Church with many Union soldiers. Rev. Brooke writes, "Rev. McRhea was in my pulpit - he said he 'was going to hold forth' - and commenced with a hymn, and then, such a prayer I never heard. 'Crush! Crush! Crush!' was his only idea." Obviously Rev. Brooke was not pleased about the Yankee Reverend stealing into his pulpit, to say nothing of the Northern rhetoric being prayed down upon Brooke's own congregants of Virginia! In another entry of Rev. Brooke's journal dated May 3rd, 1862, he writes: "Saw Col. McDowell - Provost and got colored church shut up on account of insubordination of Negroes...."

Rev. Spriddle was the first pastor of John Mann Church able to preach independently of the white ministers in 1864. Kern notes that the colored church of Winchester, John Mann, was given the authority to conduct its own worship services without the required white leadership presence in 1864. This was a provision of the General Conference. The John Mann Methodist Episcopal Church subsequently "became a congregation under the Washington Conference and had [its] own preachers."

Here ends my contribution to an understanding of antebellum Methodism's transition to the post-Civil War era. No one who has followed these developments can question God's divine hand working toward the emancipation and liberation of the oppressed. It was a time when the Church struggled with its theology and God's people wrestled, hurt, and killed one another for lack of understanding, selfishness, and pride. And yet the Church remained faithful to its call. Whether it was right or wrong the Church sought to provide refuge and rest for spent souls and wounded bodies. Most engraved in my mind are the sounds of joyous singing, shouting, and the clanging of picks and shovels as the people of the John Mann Methodist Episcopal Church worked into the cool November night to install their new gas line. For they had a hope in the Gospel and a vision of freedom which only the God of the Exodus could bring forth.

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