United Methodism in Alabama
The United Methodist Church (UMC) in Alabama was ultimately a product of the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUBC) on April 23, 1968. The merger had the practical effect of ending segregation nationally within the denomination, as Alabama faced the challenge of merging historically black congregations with historically white ones. More recently, the denomination, both nationally and in Alabama, has seen a rise in very large church buildings and congregations known as “megachurches” while at the same time confronting a decline in overall membership. The denomination is deeply involved in education and supports two institutions with historic ties to Methodism: Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Jefferson County, and Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Montgomery County.
Highlands United Methodist Church Although Methodism first came to Alabama in 1803, not until April 23, 1968, did the Methodist Church, across the United States, merge with the EUBC, resulting in what is now known as the United Methodist Church. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church had split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South over the issue of slavery. In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited to form the Methodist Church. And it was then the Methodist Church that merged with the EUBC in 1968. The EUBC was itself the product of an earlier merger between two denominations with German historical roots; the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (CUBC) and the Evangelical Association (EA), which had strong ties to Methodism. In fact, the founder of the CUBC, Philip William Otterbein, was present at Methodism’s founding conference in December 1784, in Baltimore, Maryland. The decision to unite the Methodist Church and the EUBC was formally adopted by the Methodist General Conference in 1960. At the time of merger in 1968, approximately 10 million Americans were members of the Methodist Church, which would subsequently include the approximately 800,000 members of the Evangelical United Brethren.
For Methodists in the southern United States, in general, and for Alabama in particular, the decision to form the United Methodist Church signaled an end to segregation in the life of the institution. In fact, a condition of the merger was the end of all forms of segregation within the denomination across the country. One could argue that this was perhaps the defining issue of merger in Alabama, especially because there were no EUBC congregations within the state. That is, decisions about how to combine the differing organizational structures of Methodism and the EUBC were absent in Alabama because there were no EUBC congregations. The birth of United Methodism in Alabama depended almost entirely on the ability of the Methodist Church in Alabama to unite with the predominantly black congregations of Methodism within the same geographical area.
Maplesville United Methodist Church In 1939, the separate Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church joined to form what was then known as the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church was then subdivided into jurisdictions that were further subdivided into conferences. Known officially as Annual Conferences, they were simply the annual gathering of all the congregations within their respective geographical area. The Methodist Church in Alabama was located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and further subdivided into three annual conferences: the North Alabama Conference (covering the northern portion of the state), the Alabama-West Florida Conference (covering the southern portion of Alabama and the panhandle of Florida), and the Central Alabama Conference. The Central Alabama Conference was unique in that it had no geographical territory, whereas the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences did, respective to their names. The name, Central Alabama Conference, simply referred to predominately black congregations located in the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences. As a result, what was to become the United Methodist Church in Alabama found itself in numerous debates about whether and how to incorporate the Central Alabama Conference into the existing North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences.
Important to these debates was earlier church legislation, included in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Books of Discipline of the Methodist Church, that called for an end to segregation in the denomination by eliminating the national Central Jurisdiction (in Alabama a jurisdiction of no geographical area, serving only to separate white congregations from black congregations in the Methodist Church of the United States). This early legislation called for an end to racial structures in the church at large, although it went largely ignored in Alabama. With the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church with the EUBC, however, Alabama Methodists had to face the potential end of segregation in the Methodist Churches. If the national Central Jurisdiction were eliminated, Alabama Methodists would have to do likewise with the Central Alabama Conference if they intended to remain with the national denomination. Though other significant issues were present in the national merger, Alabama’s pressing concerns centered on the future of race relations within the denomination.
The Tri-Conference Committee, consisting of the North Alabama, Alabama-West Florida, and the Central conferences, was formed in 1968 to guide the merger within Alabama. The committee was chaired by then-reverend and future bishop Paul A. Duffey. The committee successfully led the emerging denomination into a new era of racial integration with few difficulties. Although individuals on both sides opposed the merger, the majority favored remaining with the national church and ending segregation. In 1972, the Central Alabama Conference ceased to exist and merged with the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida Conferences. Practically speaking, churches of the former Central Alabama Conference merged with the appropriate conference by geographical location.
At that time, the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences shared the Birmingham Episcopal Area and were led by one bishop. In 1988, the two conferences became separate areas, each receiving its own bishop. Currently, the North Alabama Conference is led by Bishop William H. Willimon and the Alabama-West Florida Conference by Bishop Paul L. Leeland. Further, each conference continues to be subdivided into districts, each typically led by a district superintendent who is a pastor from the conference appointed by the bishop to pastor a number of other pastors within the specified district, as well as to oversee various administrative tasks. Currently, there are eight districts in the North Alabama Conference and eight districts in the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
Frazer United Methodist Church Among various developments within United Methodism, the rise of the so-called “megachurch” has had a significant impact on United Methodist self-understanding. Although Methodism throughout its history has placed a strong emphasis on the nurture of persons in small groups, the mega church has posed new challenges to this historic understanding. In fact, one of Alabama’s United Methodist Churches was instrumental in pioneering the development of the megachurch phenomenon. In 1990, Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church, located in Montgomery, had the largest worship and Sunday School attendance of any other United Methodist congregation in North America. Frazer Memorial routinely trained pastors from across the country in their methods of worship, outreach, and spiritual development. As the denomination continues to see the rise of large, urban churches, the small church model is increasingly under pressure to find its place in this denominational shift, just as the megachurch is challenged to find new ways to remain faithful to the historic small-group model of Methodism founder John Wesley.
Even as the megachurch concept has seen rapid growth in the denomination, United Methodism in Alabama and the nation also faces the tremendous challenge of overall decline, as does almost every other mainline, Christian denomination in the country. Membership in the United Methodist Church in 1968 was roughly 10 million persons and has since fallen to roughly 8 million, and the trend seems to be increasing. Some observers speculate that perhaps some individuals in societies of affluence don’t find the truth claims of Christianity appealing or the Christian church in America has become too closely tied to the cultural norms and expectations of the United States than to its historic roots in the New Testament.
The decline in membership within Alabama United Methodism, especially in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, has been nowhere as severe as in other parts of the country. However, leaders of Alabama’s United Methodist Churches understand that they are not immune to the problem and are grappling with the challenges and opportunities this difficulty brings with it. In an effort to address decline, Alabama Methodists are increasingly involved in outreach programs that center less on bringing persons to traditional church buildings in favor of programs that take church members into society at large and serve the needs of those outside the church.
Currently, there are approximately 700 congregations and 147,000 individuals in the North Alabama Conference and approximately 600 congregations and 148,000 individuals in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The larger congregations are located in the metropolitan areas of Alabama as well as the panhandle of Florida.
Celebrating 200 Years of Methodism in Alabama. Saturday, March 29, 2008. St. James United Methodist Church, Montgomery, Alabama (Bicentennial of Alabama Methodism, 1808-2008). MC595-2009 #9. Methodist Archives Center, Huntingdon College Library, Montgomery, Alabama.
Collins, Kenneth J. John Wesley: A Theological Journey. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Henderson, D. Michael. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Publishing House, 1997.
Kinghorn, Kenneth Cain. The Heritage of American Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
Norwood, Frederick A. The Story of American Methodism: A History of the United Methodists and Their Relations. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974.
“Report of Tri-Conference Advisory Committee on Merger of Alabama-West Florida, Central Alabama, and North Alabama Annual Conferences.” 1969. MC:50:80/C:22:6. Methodist Archives Center, Huntingdon College Library, Montgomery, Alabama.
“The Issues Before Us: A Report and Recommendation Regarding the Central Jurisdiction and the Proposed EUB Merger.” The Advisory Committee on Interconference Relations, AWC, 1967. MC:50:80/C:22:6. Methodist Archives Center, Huntingdon College Library, Montgomery, Alabama.