First Methodist Church of Union Springs, Alabama, et al v. Haywood Lynn Scott, et al. was a historic civil rights-era case decided by the Alabama Supreme Court. The court case, which drew widespread national attention, was the result of the November 1963 split among the congregants of the all-white Union Springs First Methodist Church (present-day Union Springs First United Methodist Church) in Bullock County. The schism occurred over fundamental disagreements concerning Methodist theology, politics, and civil rights. A majority of the congregation voted to renounce the Methodist Church primarily for its support of the goals of the civil rights movement and assume control of the local building and parsonage. In early 1964, the Alabama-West Florida Conference (AWFC) of the Methodist Church, which oversaw south Alabama, filed suit against this faction for seizing the church property. In 1969, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the AWFC and ordered the majority faction to turn the church property back to the local group of Methodists who had remained with the parent church. (A merger between the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968 resulted in the formation of the present-day United Methodist Church.)
The majority group of Union Springs First Methodist ultimately left the congregation and created their own. The case and the issue of civil rights would leave congregants and other local Methodist churches divided for years and lead some to join the more conservative Southern Methodist Church. Another outcome of the case was the state Supreme Court declaring invalid the Dumas Act, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1959. It allowed local Protestant congregations to sever ties with the parent church and maintain control of local property if at least 65 percent of the congregation agreed that it could not abide by the parent church’s governing laws. The law was introduced by state senator Larry Dumas in anticipation that some local congregations might “secede” over opposition to the civil rights movement. It was supported by the Methodist Layman’s Union and others trying to resist the Church’s embrace of integration.
The Church Split of 1963
Alabama had seen a sharp rise in civil rights activism and opposition largely beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and into the period of the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Birmingham Campaign in 1963. In May 1963, at the annual meeting of the AWFC held at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Montgomery County, a resolution to repudiate racism and violence was approved, but not without dissent. A November 13, 1963, statement by the Council of Bishops supporting racial integration was met with disapproval by many pro-segregation Methodists. Although it was cited as a justification for withdrawal, it is uncertain to what extent this statement influenced Minister Haywood Lynn Scott and the all-white Union Springs congregation. He had planned to hold a secret meeting to vote on leaving the Methodist Church, but the news soon made its way to Troy District Superintendent Torrence H. Maxey and AWFC Bishop Paul Hardin Jr., who tried multiple times to dissuade Scott from holding the meeting.
Following the November 24, 1963, morning service, however, Scott argued that the local congregation should withdraw from the Methodist Church and affiliate itself with the Southern Methodist Church. The members then held a vote, with most agreeing to the withdrawal, 97 to 12. The official board of the church, meeting the previous day, was unanimous, 21-0. Instead of starting a new congregation at a different location, however, the majority faction assumed control of the local church building and parsonage. Maxey had planned to read a prepared statement to the congregation but was expelled after the service, thereby denying him the opportunity to address all the present members directly.
Only a small group of approximately 25 to 30 members chose to remain members of the Methodist Church. With a majority of the congregation in control of the church building and parsonage, the minority faction had to find a new place to worship. This small group initially met at the local Masonic lodge for several weeks but soon began renting the basement of the Union Springs Public Library and worshiped there for the duration of the controversy.
The majority faction voted to leave the Methodist Church for a variety of reasons, but the primary motivating factor in the split was the congregation’s perception that the parent church was fully supportive of the national push for integration and civil rights for African Americans. It noted specifically in a statement that national leaders had condoned the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr. Members of this group also argued that the parent church was focused on promoting a “liberal” or even socialist/communist political agenda while neglecting traditional Methodist theology.
Scott, who often spoke at various local White Citizens Council meetings, used racist rhetoric and appealed to the prejudices of his audiences when explaining why he led the Union Springs congregation to sever ties with the Methodist Church. Although Scott cited differences on theology, politics, and race as the basis for his actions, sources from the period, including internal church documents, also indicate that he was driven by personal reasons, particularly his frustration at the AWFC leadership for relocating him against his wishes from St. Mark’s in Montgomery to Union Springs.
The Court Battle
Bishop Hardin relieved Scott of his duties in a November 29th telegram and hired legal counsel to prepare for court against the former members occupying the church property at Union Springs. An AWFC committee subsequently determined that Scott had violated Church policy and in mid-December barred him from preaching in any Methodist Church. He was succeeded by Wallace R. Terry.
On February 24, 1964, the AWFC filed for a temporary restraining order against the majority faction to deny them control and use of the Union Springs property. Third Judicial Circuit Court judge Jack W. Wallace, brother of Gov. George C. Wallace, denied the request but ordered a hearing for March 4th. AWFC’s lawyers appealed Wallace’s decision to the Alabama Supreme Court. On March 11th, that court upheld Wallace’s ruling, citing that additional hearings and evidence provided in a lower court were needed before it could render a decision.
First Methodist Church of Union Springs, Alabama, et al v. Haywood Lynn Scott, et al. was initially tried in the Third Judicial Circuit Court under Wallace. The majority faction based its legal defense on the Dumas Act, a law passed by the state legislature in 1959. (This was the first case challenging the Dumas Act in court.) The AWFC, taking the lead role with the financial backing of the parent Methodist Church, argued that the Dumas Act contradicted church law and tradition, particularly the denomination’s Trust Clause. The Trust Clause states that property used for worship or other related activities belongs to the parent church and was required in every deed of property used by Methodist Church members for worship. Thus, the AWFC argued that the Dumas Act was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment freedom of religion clause.
On June 20, 1966, Wallace ruled in favor of the majority faction and upheld the Dumas Act, allowing the property to remain in the hands of the congregants of the new Southern Methodist Church. The AWFC appealed the ruling. In 1969, the case was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which struck down the Dumas Act on September 4 of that year as “unconstitutional and invalid” for violating the Trust Clause. The high court remanded the case back to the Third Judicial Circuit, where Wallace was forced to reverse his earlier ruling. On December 18, 1969, he ordered the church property and parsonage returned to the local United Methodist Church (UMC). The congregants began worshiping in their historic church the following month. That occasion marked the first time that the minority group had worshiped in their traditional building since the split in 1963. After the majority faction turned the property back over to the UMC, the members built their own facility nearby in 1971 and organized as the Faith Independent Methodist Church.
Impact and Legacy
This schism and the resulting court battle deeply divided the local population of Methodists and the Union Springs community for decades. But the impact of the case went beyond the boundaries of Bullock County. Newspapers throughout Alabama reported on the split and court proceedings, including the Montgomery Advertiser, the Birmingham News, and the Mobile Register. Bishop Hardin received many letters from throughout the state, written by both supporters of the Methodist Church and Scott sympathizers, many of whom supported his message opposing integration.
Prior to the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, the AWFC leadership was concerned that they potentially faced a mass exodus of congregations from the conference if the Dumas Act was upheld. As litigation moved slowly, the conference’s legal team expressed concern that other churches and congregations throughout the Black Belt would also leave. Indeed, Minister David Jones of Trinity Methodist Church in Prichard, Mobile County, and his followers assumed control of the local property and reorganized as the Northside Bible Church in June 1965 and were taken to court by the AWFC as well. In November 1966, U.S. District Judge Daniel H. Thomas ruled against the Northside Bible Church, stating that the Dumas Act was unconstitutional and that the property had to be returned to the Methodist Church. In December 1967, the Fifth District Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the Thomas ruling. Coupled with these federal court decisions, the Alabama Supreme Court ruling in the Union Springs case effectively ended the legal debate over ownership of local Methodist property.
Over the course of the Union Springs case, the Methodist Church experienced considerable disruption and departures from the AWFC over racial beliefs. Many Methodists left their local churches and established Southern Methodist congregations. By August 1965, 13 Southern Methodist congregations had been founded in Alabama. Still others formed independent Methodist churches in communities throughout the state.