Notes Concerning the Author
Christopher H. Owen is a Professor of History at Northeastern State University located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Professor Owen is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians.
The Sacred Flame of Love is a social history of southern religion. It details the evolution of Methodism over the entire nineteenth-century, spanning the Civil War. In a society without an established church, many religious variants flourished, and in the nineteenth-century United States many groups were linked to the Wesleyan religious tradition established by John and Charles Wesley. Both Wesley brothers had lived briefly in Georgia during the colonial period, as had evangelist George Whitefield, who was a Methodist but not a Wesleyan. However, Methodists, most of whom belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, really only entered Georgia in force in the 1780s and 1790s chiefly with immigration from Virginia. These early Methodists believed in the born-again experience and in a strictly disciplined church, in which members could be expelled for any number of behavioral infractions. Most church members were women.
Methodism developed along with the new state. Fairly early in the new century, Georgia Methodists abandoned, but did not forget, their early anti-slavery position. Boosted in number by revivals after 1800, white Methodists gradually became better educated and more prosperous, in time establishing both male and female colleges. Meanwhile, class divisions were reflected in various denominational splits leading to the establishment of such groups as the Congregational Methodist Church. By 1830 Methodists began to win large numbers of black converts with their Missions to the Slaves. Yet a dispute over slave ownership by Georgia Bishop James Osgood Andrew split the national denomination between northern and southern branches in 1844.
Still, Methodism continued to thrive in Georgia. Methodist membership was not associated with any particular political party. Yet even those church members most reluctant about secession would serve the Confederacy loyally. The Methodist cause, church leaders argued after the war, was not dependent on political success and so had not been lost with Confederate defeat. Church membership growth remained strong as many sought solace from political woe in religious belief. Yet, fairly soon after Confederate defeat, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South would lose most of its black members to various black Methodist denominations, the largest of which was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, led in Georgia by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. Often the black denominations inherited church buildings owned by the M.E. Church, South. Both black and white Methodists were able to practice their principles relatively freely in their churches even during hostile political times.
By the end of the century, serious divisions began to appear among Methodists. Some urban Methodists adopted a southern version of the social gospel. Church buildings became ever larger and more elaborate. Meanwhile, the Holiness movement attracted devout believers who believed that the church was becoming too worldly and undisciplined. Evangelists such as Sam P. Jones also attacked the perceived laxity of mainstream Methodism. Thus by 1900 Methodists were beginning to splinter socially and theologically and to fall behind the Baptists in church growth. Still, well into the twentieth century, the Methodist church tradition would remain one of the most important vehicles for southern religious expression.
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