RESPONSE: September 2018 ISSUE

Celebrating Foremothers of the Central Jurisdiction

African American women gather at Assembly 2018 to honor the women leaders of the former segregated Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

Celebrating Foremothers of the Central Jurisdiction
Former United Methodist Women President Yvette Kim Richards addresses a gathering of African-American women during Assembly 2018.

More than 900 African American United Methodist Women members honored the women of the segregated Central Jurisdiction at a special gathering May 19 at The Power of Bold Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Yvette Kim Richards, United Methodist Women president from 2012 to 2016, presided over the event that included thanksgiving for foremothers, greetings from national leaders and updates of current programs and mission emphases. The event also included the brief history of Methodist African American women who organized for mission prior to the forming of The United Methodist Church in 1968, especially the women who served in the segregated Central Jurisdiction. Gail Douglas-Boykin, a member of the United Methodist Women Board of Directors, presented this history at the special gathering.

The presentation, shared here, is taken from To a Higher Glory: The Growth and Development of Black Women Organized for Mission in The Methodist Church, published by United Methodist Women’s national office in 1978.

From the beginning

The contributions of black women in organized mission did not begin with the birth of the Central Jurisdiction in 1940. They are woven into the religious tapestry of the nation from the very beginning. Long before the church affirmed “the souls of black folks,” black women, caught in the tentacles of slavery, organized for mission the only way they could—cautiously.

Millions of African Americans in America were to come under the influence of Christianity through the Methodist Episcopal Church. The denomination’s anti-slavery stand undoubtedly drew slaves and free Negroes toward the Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1790, 20 percent of the 57,631 American Methodists were black.

Nothing is more regrettable in the annals of American Methodism than the erosion of the church’s initial opposition to slavery and its vision of a racially inclusive fellowship. Rather quickly, white Methodists bowed to racial status quo. Segregation set in. The church became more American than it was Methodist.

After debating slavery for years, the North-South regional factions in the Methodist Episcopal Church reached an impasse at the 1844 General Conference. Provision was made for the Southern conferences to form a separate denomination, which in 1845 became the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Woman’s Home Missionary Society

After the Civil War in 1866, the Methodist Episcopal Church launched the Freedmen’s Aid Society, a massive, never-to-be-forgotten venture to elevate the dignity of black people and provide educational, social and spiritual assistance to former slaves. Still, it was the Freedmen’s Aid Society, and women were automatically excluded from the board of directors. In 1880 the Woman’s Home Missionary Society was chartered.

A scattering of black women, including Hester Williams of Baton Rouge, were named to committees of the various WHMS bureaus at an early date, but it was after 1900 before African Americans were invited to join the national staff. The first black staff member of the society was Bessie Garrison, who in 1907 became a kind of field worker for the black conferences.

The Central Jurisdiction

By 1920, plans to reunite the church were discussed. The 1939 Plan of Union was a North-South compromise branded with regionalism and segregation. The new denomination was organized into six jurisdictions: five geographically drawn, and the sixth, based on race and called the Central Jurisdiction, covered all of the Southeast, the South-Central states and most black churches in the North. A majority of Negro annual conferences would vote against the plan.

Although the Central Jurisdiction was a foregone conclusion if union were to be consummated, the Committee on Woman’s Work of the Methodist Episcopal Church was determined that organized women in the Methodist Church would be unified across jurisdiction lines. In other words, there would be a Central Jurisdiction Woman’s Society of Christian Service and Wesleyan Service Guild, but not in isolation. Black women organized for mission would take their rightful place in a single, national Methodist women’s movement.

The First Meeting of Central Jurisdiction Women was in June 1940. Women from the 19 black conferences convened in St. Louis concurrent with the first meeting of the Central Jurisdiction. Delegates, three from each conference, were called to order by Elizabeth Jones, who presided as head of the Provisional Committee. Ruth Carter of New Orleans, Louisiana, was elected secretary.

Speakers that evening were Mrs. W. H. C. Goode of Sidney, Ohio, the last national president of the WHMS, and Mary McLeod Bethune, president of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach Florida, a Methodist school with roots in the Freedman’s Aid Society, and a WHMS advisor to the White House. Bethune was one of the spiritual mothers of the WSCS. She was to serve on the Woman’s Division Committee on Minority Groups and Interracial Cooperation.

Finances posed a problem for the Central Jurisdiction WSCS from the start, a fact reflecting the economic situation of most black women in the 1940s. It was not so much that the women had no money; they simply had little beyond that required for the necessities of life. The WSCS emerged in a day when the United States offered limited opportunities for gainful employment to women or African Americans. Equal employment laws were far in the future. Educational opportunities for black women were scarce.

But sacrificial giving in Christ’s name was nothing new to black women. Before the division closed the books on 1941, all conferences had met their assessments in full.

Given their meager incomes, women of the Central Jurisdiction made significant contributions to mission. By 1945, the total Central Jurisdiction pledge to mission had climbed to $24,548, more than doubled that figure by 1955 and reached a high of $93,219 in 1963-1964, the last year before the number of conferences was reduced by merger of white and black conferences in the Northeast.

Bethune spoke words of congratulation and challenge at the Central Jurisdiction WSCS’s first meeting that have stood the test of time and speaks to us anew: “Women have blazed the way so that doors of opportunity and fellowship might be open to all. … In our hearts there is something of gratitude—a spiritual thing we cannot express—when we think [about it]. I am here because many women wanted me here. I am here because my church wanted it. I am here in God’s strength to say to you that God of yesterday is the God of today. Years have passed and now we are here to see your growth. How you heartened me! You fine younger women with years before you—with this new day, this new world, these new problems to face … a new task has come to the womanhood of the world. … As Christian women you want to stand with your feet pointing the way to a better world. These are your moments now, your vision extends—your creative ability is getting into action. … May we go on trusting, loving, serving, understanding, putting arms around those who need us; Go out. They are waiting for you—for me. You have been filled here to go out in God’s name to minister unto those who need you. God give unto you the knowledge of your responsibility that you may go out to make this beautiful world all God would have it to be!”

Thanks be to God!

Posted or updated: 9/10/2018 12:00:00 AM

Buy the current issue

Link opens in a new window. Digital: $2.50   Link opens in a new window. Print: $2.75 + Shipping

Listen Online: