Organized officially in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church flourished in the early 1800s, as small societies and full churches emerged, even among black U.S. populations. Black local preachers were recruited to serve their congregations, supervised by white elders and annual conferences. Eventually, an ongoing Conference of Colored Local Preachers was organized at Zoar M.E. Church in Philadelphia in 1857 under Bishop Levi Scott. They met annually until 1863, drawing growing numbers of African American clergy members from New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the northern tip of Virginia.1
Among their annual concerns was advocating to have their own annual conference where they could enjoy some measure of dignity and self-determination, apart from the predominantly white, controlling Philadelphia and New Jersey annual conferences. They also voiced the strong desire, on behalf of black churches, to have black local preachers ordained as full deacons and elders and appointed to serve those churches. However, their petitions to the General Conference every four years were constantly denied, as increasing numbers of black members left the denomination to join and become leaders in the two independent African Methodist Episcopal denominations.
But in 1864, as the Civil War and the brutal institution of slavery were coming to an end, General Conference finally authorized the organization of the first two conferences comprising only African American churches and clergy. The Delaware Annual Conference formed first in July and the Washington Conference in October, although both were initially considered mission conferences. At Philadelphia’s John Wesley Chapel–which came out of Zoar and would later grow into today’s Tindley Temple Church–Bishop Edmund Janes gathered and examined 27 itinerant black local preachers. He deemed 10 of them to be eligible as the first full members of the new annual conference.2
Seeking education for self-improvement
Among the first resolutions these new elders required of themselves were to seek education for self-improvement as clergy leaders and to engage in mission, offering services and the hope of salvation to their poor, illiterate brothers and sisters struggling to survive in cities and rural areas. Indeed, black Methodists promoted education as crucial to the survival and success of their people, especially those newly emancipated. They persuaded the Church and their states to build and support schools and recruit teachers to educate black students. Trained Delaware Conference preachers became teachers themselves, and many teachers became preachers, “an indication that the spiritual and intellectual needs of the people were closely related,” according to William C. Jason, Jr., chronicler of Delaware Conference history.
While many initial Delaware Conference preachers were untrained former slaves and Union soldiers, others were educated at Philadelphia’s Institute of Colored Youth, which became Cheyney State Teachers College (Cheyney University today) and later, Baltimore’s Centenary Bible Institute, now Morgan State University. There was also the Delaware Conference–or later, Princess Anne–Academy, which today is the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Lincoln University, founded by the Presbyterians; and Drew Theological Seminary, now part of Drew University.
At the dawn of the 20th century the Delaware Conference began a Course of Study for men who wished to become local preachers, an essential role for supplying pulpits and providing church and community servant-leaders. Many would go on to become traveling or itinerant preachers and pastors. In fact, 178 of nearly 2,000 local preachers moved into those ranks in the conference’s 101-year history. Also during its century of existence, the conference had 72 presiding elders and district superintendents. (The latter title replaced the former after 1902, as presiding elders’ supervisory duties became more administrative with the growth of churches and districts.)
Offering spiritual and social support
America’s entry into World War I (1914-1918) and later the Great Depression of the 1930s greatly impacted black churches, including those in the Delaware Conference, which suffered losses in membership, finances and property. The early 1900s Great Migration brought black migrants from the economically depressed and racially oppressive South to northern cities like Philadelphia, seeking better lives but often finding poverty, more racism and exploitation. Many joined northern churches seeking spiritual and social support; but most were drawn to lively, welcoming Pentecostal and Baptist storefront churches in the cities, rather than mainstream congregations.
Meanwhile, the iconic Rev. Charles A. Tindley (right) led the church that would come to bear his name in providing refuge for hungry and homeless neighbors and rescuing a burgeoning population with dire needs. In his 33 years there the church grew from 400 members when he arrived in 1900 to 10,000, half of them active, full members. Yet, when new members joined many black churches, they lacked the funds to adequately support those churches’ ministries.
In 1939, the northern Methodist Episcopal Church and its Dixie counterpart, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, (along with the Methodist Protestant Church) agreed to merge, nearly a century after the southerners had split away over the divisive issue of slavery. However, the cost of that merger was to placate white southerners by organizing the U.S. church into regional jurisdictions but creating a segregated, all-black Central Jurisdiction for African American churches and their all-black conferences. In 1937, the Delaware Conference had voted 218 to 19 against the dubious plan of a divided union. But it prevailed, and two years later the new Methodist Church was formed.
Black Methodists determined to acquire concessions of leadership training, ministry funding, institutional development, representative positions on agency boards and staffs, and other qualified advantages. Some insisted they would prepare themselves for leadership and influence in the hoped-for future Methodist Church when the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction would one day be abolished.
Election of black bishops
In the meantime, Delaware Conference members did benefit from the long-overdue removal of another Methodist Church barrier to racial justice and equality: the unprecedented election in 1920 of two black bishops to serve in the U.S. (Delaware Conference member and Philadelphia pastor Alexander Camphor was one of several African Americans elected earlier as Missionary Bishops to serve in Liberia. He was elected in 1916.) The election of black bishops to serve in the U.S. was made possible by the understanding that they would only be assigned to lead black annual conferences and episcopal areas.
Bishop Alexander P. Shaw was elected in 1936, and in 1940 he became the Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Episcopal Area, which comprised the Delaware, East Tennessee, North Carolina, and Washington (D.C.) Conferences of the Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Edgar A. Love succeeded him in 1952 and served until 1964. Each administered the episcopal area for twelve years, reportedly providing what many considered strong, capable, visionary, sympathetic leadership, while convincing clergy and churches to loyally support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Love also advocated for improvement in church properties and the establishment of more equitable pensions for black clergy.
One more bishop came out of the Delaware Conference. The beloved Noah W. Moore, Jr., was elected in 1960 and assigned to lead the New Orleans, Texas and Nebraska areas during his 12-year tenure.
In the burgeoning economy and emerging social change of post-World War II America, clergy and laity of the Delaware Conference built and renovated churches, modernized worship with gospel music and other innovations, nurtured Sunday schools and Methodist Youth Fellowship groups, assumed leadership roles in the denomination, and served their communities through numerous outreach ministries and civic participation, especially in the growing Civil Rights movement.
Merger and dissolution of the Delaware Conference
That involvement and the changing times, along with encouragement from the general church, prompted Delaware Conference leaders to engage in negotiations, beginning in 1961, with leaders of predominantly white conferences across the Northeastern Jurisdiction. They explored merger and the dissolution of the all-black Delaware Conference.3 Negotiations took four years and included division of leadership roles and assurances of cross-racial appointments, along with fair, equitable handling of financial, property and personnel concerns. Five majority-white conferences–Peninsula, Philadelphia, New York, Northern New Jersey and Southern New Jersey–received most Delaware Conference ministers and churches.* A few others transferred eventually to the North Carolina-Virginia Conference of the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
Since its inception the Delaware Annual Conference held 103 conference sessions, including special sessions, in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. From 1928 on, most of them took place in the sprawling sanctuary of Tindley Temple. But other Philadelphia area churches also hosted conference sessions, including: Zoar; Bainbridge Street, Calvary and East Calvary (all three were Tindley Temple predecessor churches); Janes Memorial, Haven Memorial, Camphor and St. Daniels in Chester.
The Delaware Annual Conference convened for the last time on April 28, 1965, at Tindley Temple. At the close of the session Resident Bishop John Wesley Lord declared the conference officially dissolved.
“We are restoring that which is broken,” said Lord. “This is a return to the way The Methodist Church began. It was our sin which brought division.”
The Rev. Marion Ballard of Philadelphia offered a prophetic benediction in his closing sermon on that historic occasion. “There may be some disappointments and some trials ahead for us,” he said, “but the presence of God will give us strength. We will find a better life because He is with us.”4
Looking back, in 1864 the new Delaware Conference began with about 5,000 church members and 34 churches, valued at approximately $38,000. A century later it had about 45,000 members and 265 churches worth $13,080,037. In 1964, the Delaware Conference also had 109 ministers, 154 local preachers and nearly 24,000 church school pupils.
The relative vitality of these numbers and other success indicators may be arguable; and former Delaware Conference churches and leaders have surely faced challenges as well as opportunities before and since merger. Many promises and expectations did not come to pass, and the futile debate over advantages versus disadvantages of merger continues to be heard among some voices. But William C. Jason Jr.’s sober assessment of the Delaware Conference offers an apt conclusion to this qualified historical account:
In terms of money raised, size of membership and scholarship on the part of its preachers, the Delaware Conference was not great. But for stirring up those for whom no one cared; in teaching Christ as the door to salvation, decency and dignity; in living on little; in improving themselves from generation to generation; in affording opportunities to the willing and able; and in remaining loyal to the mainstream of Methodism through good and evil days, the Delaware Conference was great. Its record is void of shame. Wrong in principle, the creation of the conference was right in practice, for in addition to baptizing the children and burying the dead of a confused and troubled people, it ever pointed them individually and collectively to the more excellent way of faith wedded to good works.
John Wesley Coleman, Jr.
Communications Director, Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, The United Methodist Church
Prepared for the Delaware Annual Conference Anniversary Celebration, May 30, 2015
* Delaware Conference churches that transferred into the Philadelphia Conference (later the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference) include: Bethsaida, Camphor, Christ, Devereux, East Germantown, Emmanuel, Frankford (St. Thomas), Germantown, Haven Memorial, Janes Memorial, Mt. Zion, Peniel, St. Barnabas, St. Matthew’s in Trevose, Tindley Temple, Zoar (now Mother African Zoar), and three Chester churches: Grace, Siloam and St. Daniels.
The main information source for this brief history essay is Commemorative Booklet: Delaware Annual Conference, 1864-1965, published by the Peninsula-Delaware Conference Commission on Archives & History, Delaware Conference History Committee (1990).
1 From “The Convention of Colored Local Preachers: Forerunner of the Delaware Annual Conference, 1852-1863” by Lewis Baldwin, Ph.D.
2 “The Delaware Annual Conference of the Methodist Church,” (1965) by William C. Jason, Jr., is the source of much of the information and some perspectives in this essay. A pastor’s son born in 1898 and a longtime secretary and chronicler of the former Delaware Annual Conference, Jason knew many of its leaders, events and ministries. His long-awaited, two-volume book, A Methodist Trail, was posthumously published in 2015 and offers a richly detailed history of the former Delaware Annual Conference.
3From “A Brief History of the Merger of the Delaware and Peninsular Annual Conferences,” by Richard Stazesky
4Both quotes are from Edwin Ellis’ essay “Reflections for Years Following Merger.”