Bishop Turner Opposes Fifth Year Term in the AME Church: September 22, 1898

Bishop Turner Opposes Fifth Year Term in the AME Church
Christian Recorder: September 22, 1898

DEAR BRETHREN­—Prompted by a sense of duty and propelled by the consciousness that silence would be a crime when the Church has placed us upon its watch-towers to give needed alarms, is our only excuse for addressing you this epistle.

Our last General Conference did more discreet legislation than possibility any two General Conferences in the history of the Church, Indeed it did more actual business, including the good and the bad, than any other General Conference ever approached. How much credit is due to the ruling of the Bishops, for this result, we leave for others to determine; but without any reflection upon the sainted Episcopal fathers, who have fallen asleep, we venture to say there never was a time when the Episcopal bench was so united upon measures which they believed to be for the interest of the church and so determined to exercise the controlling powers vested in them, for the good repute of the Church and race, as at the last General Conference. Every Bishop appeared to comprehend his prerogative under the law and dared to maintain them. Bishop Payne and Bishop John M. Brown were the only two Bishops, in our recollection, who had the courage and manhood to defy the General Conference when the fundamental law was encroached upon.

We are told, however, that Bishop Nazrey had the valor to face the General Conference and tell it that he was the guardian of the Constitution of the Church, at the General Conference, as much as he was the curator of the legislative laws at the Annual Conferences. This we cannot personally vouch for, as we never met Bishop Nazrey in but one General Conference, where we could only spend a few days, witnessing its deliberations, as we were a chaplain the United States Army and had to return to our post of duty. But at the last General Conference, for the first time in our recollection, every Bishop, without a single exception, realized the duty, the power and the responsibility of the Episcopacy, and neither hesitated, doubted or faltered in the discharge of what devolved upon his honest conviction. For just as there is no church without a minister, there cannot be a Conference without a Bishop, be that Conference General, Annual, District or Quarterly. While the Bishops, however, are not always present at the District and Quarterly Conferences, by reason of the vast multitude of responsibilities and demands upon their time and attention, yet they are present in the Presiding Elders, who are sub or Vicar Bishops, without Episcopal ordinations, as ordinations are not usually in demand at District and Quarterly Conferences. So, for example, when Bishop Tanner, Handy or Arnett is not at a District or Quarterly Conference, the Presiding Elder is there with power to preside, keep order, interpret law, give directions, try cases, license or suspend preachers, assign ministers to preach and do such things as a regular Bishop would do if present, for the Bishop is present in power.

At our last General Conference a resolution appears to have been adopted, or the report of the committee, which extended the term of a Presiding Elder or Pastor to five years in one district or to one church, unless the Bishop wishes to “lay violent hand upon him” and change him sooner, to use the language of a very prominent D.D. in our church. Listen, will you “Lay violent hands upon him.” Or in the language of others, “I have the right to remain five years in one charge.” See where this five year is leading to, will you? “I have the right to remain five years.”

According to that sentence, any removal, change, or invasion made by any Bishop, upon the five-year term, would, sure enough, make the hands of a Bishop, who would write another appointment “violent hands” and the Bishop a “violent” man, when the minister did not want to be moved.

We would not dare to question the authenticity or geniuses of the records of the last General Conference, for Dr. Reynolds was possibly the ablest secretary in every particular, that any of our General Conferences have had in forty years, and we doubt not in the history of the church. But when this five-year term came up in the House of Bishops, not one had any recollection or knowledge of when the five-year law passed the General Conference, including Bishop Armstrong and Emory, now deceased, Bishop Tanner was the only one absent. It is very likely, however, that it was slipped through the General Conference on the last day, when forty and fifty men at times were standing on the floor, clamoring for recognition in stentorian tones, scarcely exceed by peals of thunder, for the two last days of our General Conference session was pandemonium, if clangor, hubbub, whoops and lung roar can produce it. When the House of Bishops met to pass upon the Discipline, before it went to press, we tried to persuade them to overrule it, as they did some other things of far minor importance, and which they had the right to do, under the genius of our Ecclesiastical Polity, and a special act which passed the General Conference in 1872. And if we must be frank, which they did do, and left the four-year law still existing. But after they had adjourned, a majority of them wrote to Bishop Lee; the editor of the New Discipline, to let the five-year term go in and let the General Conference take the responsibility, and thus it appears in our present book of Discipline. We, however, were not one of the Bishops who so wrote to Bishop Lee, for we were not willing to take such a risk, as we knew then, and as we know now, it is destined to stagnate and seriously injure our church…..Much is being said about the unrest, the discontent and unsettled condition of our ministry, which we are very sorry to say is too true. We are bold to admit that there are more grumbling and croaking among the preachers than at any previous period since we had an existence. It began in 1860, when the General Conference at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, passed a law extending the old two two-year term so as to allow a Bishop to return a minister the third year when he was building a new church or remodeling an old one. But a certain brother who was made a compiler of the book of Discipline some years afterward, left out the provision of the building condition and made the law read three years, without any additional legislation on the part of the General Conference authorizing him to do so. No one raised any opposition, however, and in 1880 the General Conference modified the three year provision, which never was the law, and allowed the Bishops to return a pastor the fourth year, upon the condition only, that he was building a new church, and his building a new church, and his return should be adjudged indispensable.

But when the Discipline came out in print, though some strange manipulation or transmogrification, the four-year term was found the same, minus conditions. Of course no one is to blame, we presume it just happened so, possibility it was a typographical error, but we assert, upon whatever reputation we have for veracity, that neither the three years or four year term for a minister to remain the Pastor of one church ever passed, at any General Conference, without the modification referred to. We mean, that in both instances, the obligation of the minister in connection with the building was the proviso, upon which he might remain for a longer time. Now, by some mysterious legerdemain, some political jugglery the fifth year for Pastors and Presiding Elders both, becomes a right, for every Presiding Elder and Pastor in the A.M.E. Church the world over. And for a Bishop to make any change under that time is to “lay on violent hands.” The A.M.E. Church is quadrennialized to all intents and purposes. Bishops four years, publishers four years, editors four years, Secretaries of our Missionary, Sabbath school, education, church extension, and indeed all the general officers of our respective departments, as well as our financial systems are all limited to four years. But when we reach the exalted status, of Pastors and Presiding Elders they must not be touched under five years, for they have certain “rights” that “violent hands” must not cross or invade.

A Bishop is appointed by the General Conference to an Episcopal District, and may find Presiding Elders and Pastors, all settled in their districts, stations, and circuits; and he remains there four years, and goes up to the next General Conference, and the General Conference sends him elsewhere, and leaves the Presiding Elders and Pastors right where he found them four years ago, unless some of the congregations, should accidentally, make it too hot for some of them to remain. For, if the Bishop attempts to change any of them, who do not wish to be changed, he is “laying violent hands upon them.” Bishops and General Officers are, therefore, of secondary consideration. True, Bishop Salter and, we believe, some others, interpret this new law to mean when a Presiding Elder serves a district five consecutive years he cannot be reappointed Presiding Elder anywhere till he has pastored a church for a length of time. And we are further told that the meaning of the new law is that when a new Pastor has served a large city for five years, he must go out in the woods and take charge of a mission or a small circuit. We believe that is right; that is really Methodism. The great Dr. Punshon, before whom all England, Scotland, Wales and America bowed, and nobility and even royalty itself hung upon his jeweled lips with wonder and amazement, left the great Mammothian churches of London and took appointments to circuits, and rode them without a sigh, and drew thousands and tens of thousands wherever he preached, and ended his earthly career as a circuit rider. Bishop Ward took us from a church of fifteen hundred members and sent us to a mission, where there was only one member, and in seven months we had a spacious new church up, with three hundred and fifty members, while it is now one of the finest brick churches in the connection; with over a thousand in attendance.

But this law does not so read, and if the Bishops were to proceed on that line there would be a flood of confusion in the church, sure enough, for our big preachers would kick like donkeys, and the howl of “violent hands” and an evil heart combined would be vociferated with double intensity. Moreover, how many preachers are there in the A.M.E. church who are able to give their congregations a new sermon twice every Sabbath, to say nothing of afternoons, which is required in many churches, and should be required by all; and on Wednesday or Thursday nights, when every pastor, who is not too lazy, will deliver a short sermon or religious lecture to his people? Rev. Dr. Hinton, one of the ablest white ministers in the country says, “That most of the white pastors preach out all they know in one year.” And all we know that many of our ministers preach out all they know in six months, and some, we apprehend, can get through in three months, for different texts do not imply a different sermon, in scores of instances, as we all know. So that after six months, or a year at most, the preaching of hundreds are more repetitions or rehashes. Our people are so constituted that at the end of two years they are generally tired of one man, whatever may be his pulpit ability. There are exceptions, we grant. A few may last three years when they have congregations who will be satisfied with the preacher’s imaginations and fancy, and the story of the long white robe, golden slippers, and starry crowns. But we ask in all fairness and candor, is that preaching the gospel? Does that elevate and enlighten the people? Does not our intellectual status demand instructive sermons? Sermons that take in every phase and duty of life, comprehending hygienic instruction and the whole circle of pantology. We grant that religious sauce is very enjoyable, especially when it comes from an honest and conscientious illiterate preacher, and in some instances an ignorant preacher. But how long do we enjoy it from a man of reputed learning? Everybody knows that the marvelous growth of Methodism had been due to a rapid change of pastors. In the language of Bishop McTyeire of the M.E. Church South, “Stationary Pastors have blighted the growth of their denominations.” According to the five-year term, it will take twenty years for a minister to get to four churches, and to change him often is to “Lay violent hands upon him.” When the two year term was the law of our Church, the ministries who were on country circuits, missions and small charges could hope to get to the cities at an early date, and they would study as hard if they had work in the woods as anywhere else, because there was a prospect of larger appointments. But now, since they see that a few bug men can monopolize all the first-class appointments and remain at one church a quarter of a lifetime, when we have so few first-class appointments, compared to the number of our intelligent ministers here is but little incentive for the “common preacher” to try to be anything. And it will kill the aspiration and hope of the men on smaller charges. This five year term means the aggrandizement of a few and the degradation of the many (stultification to say the least) and we wish to say to what is called the mediocre preacher, if you love your church and have a concern for yourself, your wife and children, you will not vote for any man to go as a delegate to the next General Conference who will not openly pledge himself to vote to limit the time to two years, three years, at most. There may be pressing contingencies when the fourth year might appear to be an indispensable necessity, but where that necessity for the fourth year is in demand once, an earlier change will be in demand fifty times, if not a hundred times. Moreover, should it happen that the fifth year term is so indispensable now and then, that the connection would suffer by a change of Pastors, let the entire House of Bishops be required by law to give their unanimous consent, then every minister will believe that such a necessity was absolute?

We know that the advocates of the fifth year term are ever ready to proclaim that no one has attempted to limit or curtail the appointing powers of the Bishops, their godly judgment is still implacable and inexorable, they can change the ministers every year if they wish, and other like expressions. And thus they try to pimp and pander to the vanity of the Bishops on the one hand, and beguile and deceive, through an oily tongue sophistry, the “common preacher” and the laity upon the other, when they know such an argument is a species of selfish hypocrisy, so glaringly deceptive that they giggle over it in private among themselves.

Bishops are nothing but men, they were once laymen then local preachers, then Deacons, and then Elders, and finally they were ordained Bishops by other Bishops of like pedigree and lineage; because they got votes enough to elect them, and are no more personally, than other Christian gentlemen, while they are sacerdotal, we believe, and in many instances yield to what their better judgment disapproves of, for the sake of temporary peace and quiet, when bored and beleaguefed by contumacious preachers and enthusiastic devotees, when the whole thing is a masquerade of self and any man who has entered the Christian Ministry to serve self, and not God and his church, is certainly out of his place. A few years ago, after a minister in our District had served a wealthy church for three years, we sent him to another very excellent charge and appointed his predecessor Pastor of that church, and when the former came to us to enter his protest against being thus appointed, he gave as a chief reason that he could not live here. We told him in reply that the other brother had lived there with his wife and six times as many children as he had. He replied by saying, “Yes, but it does not take as much money to run him as it does me, he is a commoner and I am a gentleman, and I need twice as much to live on as he does.” This is a fine conception of the Christian Ministry, which calls for perpetual sacrifices and self-denials. Does anyone believe that this brother was ever called by God to preach? We do not, and he will have doubt about it himself, before he reads this article, for he will read all we are writing now. Distinction in our ministerial circles does not consist largely of being great preachers, able lecturers, learned authors, reputable poets, profundity in history or familiarity with science and philosophy, but distinction among us, usually means to get to be the Pastor of a large church or to be appointed a Presiding Elder or get some ecclesiastical office by a majority vote, and this, according to our latter-day conception, entitles us to exalted rank the balance of life. And in many instances if a Bishop takes what he presumes to be a strong man, and sends him to a weak charge, to give strength to that weakness and double and quadruple the membership, the Bishop is to be saluted with insulting letters all the year, while the question propounded to every passerby will be, “Do you know what the Bishop has got against me?” “Have you any idea why I have been so miserably treated?” “Can you tell why the Bishop is trying to starve me to death?” when possibly the very minister had been getting large salaries for several years, and if he fails to save a little for a rainy day, it was his own folly, for the itinerant ministry itself implies change of locality and mutation in support. We will not speak for the other Bishops, but we do say for yourself, that nearly every time we take a man from what is called a good appointment (a misnomer) and send him where he can draw the people, build up a church and make other good appointments, we are charged with having something personal against him; such as the ungodly and wicked spirit of selfishness, that has taken possession of our latter-day ministry.

If the Bishop had the courage when a strong minister has served three and four years in a first-class appointment, to send him a few years to build up weak points, and give chance, we would have more first-class appointments and more strong ministers. But the policy that has prevailed in our church for the last twenty years, especially since the four-year term has come into existence, is building up ministerial aristocracy on the one hand, and ministerial scullionism on the other. The genius of the Methodist church is, that we are all equals, but our practice for many years has just been the reverse, and the only way for the so-called little men to get to the front, is for the big men to die or get killed. And if the little men are going to send delegates to the General Conference that will perpetuate the five year term, they must expect to remain little, and as one of the Bishops we protest against being bothered and besieged about firstclass appointments, pleading as a reason that you are graduates, or have had school advantages, that you are the equals and superiors to this big man and that big man, who are forever kept in large appointments; that you have built one, and would never build one if he lived a hundred years; and all that other big man ever did was to ruin churches and plunge them into debt thousands of dollars and never paid a cent, while you swept this debt off and that debt off, etc. etc.

If the common ministers or the average preachers are going to vote delegates to the next General Conference who will legislate against them, they must take the consequences and grumble at themselves, and not be grumbling at us, as one of the Bishops. A number of ministers will read this letter, know what impudent and scurrilous letters they have written to us, both in this District and others, because we could not give them a larger charge who we had none to give. If changing the big men is to be regarded as “laying violent hands upon them,” or degrading them through personal animosity, if we dare to send them to smaller appointments, for the purpose of building up more large appointments, then we need old Methodist legislation.

All this unrest, discontent, grumbling and fault is due to the long terms, which for a Bishop to interfere with (unless a riot breaks out in the church) is to class him as a personal enemy. And no Bishop wishes to be placed in that category if he can avoid it. And as we said before, Bishops are only men and are as susceptible of prejudices pro and con as the Elders are, and may desire at times to show extra favors to a brother, as much as Elders, and as the voters are lawmaking powers they should have sense enough to protect themselves by the law, even against the prejudices of a Bishop, and if they do not, when the power is in their hands, they should stop grumbling and fault finding.

Furthermore, if the five-year term must stand, then decency, respect, common courtesy and reason, require that you send delegates to the next General Conference that will extend the term of a Bishop over the same district for ten years. We mean to give him twice five years, so he can exercise a little judgement, once or twice, while he is in charge of a district without being reproached, otherwise, we are bold to say, we can do all we can to induce the House of Bishops to take the assignments away from the General Conference, which the Bishops can do it at any moment they are ready and will be foolish if they fail to do it. The General Conference has no power to make out the appointments for the Bishops anyway, and those who are dead knew it, and everyone living knows it; they submitted to it, because most of them thought it was a good expedient and rather liked it. We favored it before we were a Bishop, and have favored it ever since, and will continue to favor it, unless we are to be made the inglorious victims of humiliation, on account of selfish ambition.

The five-year advocates present the plea that the A.M.E. Church recently enacted a law which permits a Bishop to return a pastor in six years. They forget that the A.M.E. Church and the M.E. Church are dissimilar in a variety of respects. Their Bishops alternate and a different Bishop goes to annual Conference each consecutive year, and this in the language of one of the M.E. Bishops to us: “Is an antidote to the evil of such legislation,” for the M.E. Bishops, or a majority of them, are as much opposed to that provision as the writer is, so one told us, and have an understanding not to respect it. Unless it interferes with some great revival or wonderful ingathering of souls, an idea that never floated through the brains of the authors of the fifth year law, which was slipped, if not stolen, through our last General Conference. Besides, the conditions of our ministry greatly differ, and on this point, we could say more than we will risk, as we shall not furnish fuel to burn our own toes. We will simply say, the analogy is so variant that a comparison would be ridiculous. But the M.E. Church has Bishops who come around every few years, and break up all these long terms, and in many instances take the big city preachers and send them out on circuits, and very often on missions, so that the aristocratic minister in the M.E. Church is a man, whose wonderful powers as a preacher, author, and worker bring him into great demand, and the preacher himself is not the judge, as they have got to be in our Church.

The Bishops pass in judgement upon them, when they meet in council, and determine upon what shall be done with those of extraordinary gifts and learning, possibly to an extent that we do not; while the Bishops of the A.M.E. Church are searching in their deliberations, and we are pleased to say, endeavor to take in every want, every need and project, every measure that will enlarge our Zion.

We grant that the old Bishops were practically compelled to keep the few scholarly, eloquent and successful ministers they had in the large churches most all the time, because men of learning were so scarce, and thus they were compelled to send them from one large church to another, to satisfy the demands of the large and intelligent congregations and hold our members, from running around to other churches where, in many instances, they could possibly find scholarly preachers, but such a necessity no longer exists, as we have educated men and doctors of divinity in great abundances some of our ablest pulpit powers are on circuits and missions. Men, in many instances, who can preach some of our aristocratic ministers blind, and take more members in the church in one year than many of our “stuck-ups” can in four years. And when you come down to talk about rights, we assert that these men who are to be kept in small charges by reason of the five-year term, have a right to expect a large charge a few times during life, to say the least, and as some of our brethren wish to appeal to the white Methodists for examples, we appeal to them for examples also. Everyone who knows anything about the white Conferences, know that they are regularly taking their ministers from large churches and sending them out on small circuits and missions. We saw Bishop Galloway less than a year ago make one of the big ministers of Georgia cry and beg ten thousand pardons upon his knees in open Conference for neglecting to stay upon a poor mission, upon the plea that he could not support his wife and children as they had been customarily supported, and even then, had Bishop Galloway not plead for him, the Conference would have expelled him, for the ordinary ministers of the Conference appeared to be anxious to vote him out; for some said that he had as much right to be sent to a small charge as they had. Moreover, how under heaven is the Bishop to give all of his aristocratic ministers' large appointments forever and give others who have studied for years and equipped themselves with any responsibility, large appointments too? No Bishop can do it. Christ himself could not do it. Hence the discontent, the grumble, the fault finding, and in some instances the rebellion. We expelled thirteen of the Conference members in the Sixth Episcopal District last fall or rebellion and rebellious attempts. For as long as we are a Bishop, rebels against the A.M.E. Church must be, and will be expelled, nor will they ever re-enter the ministry under us, and no other A.M.E. Bishop if we can prevent it. For in our opinion it is the gravest crime in creation. If we understand the scriptures there would have been no devil but for “rebellion” and rebellionism and devilism is one and the same in heaven, earth or hell. All the wars, carnage, death and eternal damnation is the product of rebellion, and while we should justly hate rebellion for its curses and blight, we should not legislate laws that will make rebellion a temptation. And the fifth-year term will certainly do it as our stage of development.

We judge that a large number of ministers and lay delegates who were members of the last General Conference will say, Bishop Turner, is fighting our possible re-election to the next General Conference. We deny it, unless you are going to support the fifth year term and tie that rule upon our Church to please a few dignitaries, and degrade the thirty ministers who vote for every delegate but if you are going to tie chains and forge fetters to prevent the other brethren from rising to the top, unless the Bishops do it in defiance of your wrath, criticism, abuse, and calumniation, then we are bold to say we are against you, and, if we had our way, we would tell your constituents to leave you at home until the blast of the resurrection trump. We love our Church better than we do any layman, any minister and any Bishop in it, or will ever be in it, and, discovering that wire-pulling has already set in by certain Presiding Elders and prominent ministers, we write this communication at this early date, before too many of the voters commit themselves before God and man, as delegates, they will vote to do away with that fifth year provision.

Before the two-year law was abolished, petitions to the Annual Conferences were few and rare, but every time the term limit is extended for Pastors, petitions on the one hand and protestations on the other, have been increased.

Till now, not a barrel in the country will hold the communications sent to the Bishop at some of the Annual Conferences some commending the Pastor in the highest terms, and others painting him in colors so stigmatic that anyone would wonder why he was not in the penitentiary. These communications, if preserved as they should be, will make the future historian of our church stand against at the generosity of our day, and tempt them to believe that we were all participants in the crimes charged, when in fact nine-tenths of the allegations are false. We are just as proud of our big ministers as any man on earth, we love the ground they walk upon, but when it involves a monopoly of the leading churches, to the exclusion of the aggregate quantum, then we are for the underdog. However, if the voters are satisfied, and are willing to retard the growth of our great Church, they can go on, we will soon be dead and then you can wrangle it out among yourselves, but we deprecate the selfish spirit, that would hectocotylize our ministry, and degrade the appointment system by making it a grab game, which is sure to result in the Lions getting the first choice and the jackals getting what is left.

Just as we were about to close this epistle, if we may so call it; the following letter was brought from the office. This brother, to say the least, merits favorable consideration, and thousands belong to the same class if they do have to beg for recognition. We will not give his name at present, but the letter is here for inspection;

RT, REV, BISHOP TURNER, DD.;

My Dear Father—I have been in the Conference twenty years and have built twelve churches and have bought two for the A. M. E. Church, which makes fourteen churches I have added to the connection. Not a link in my ministerial life has been broken. I have always obeyed the laws of the church and no Bishop will say I ever grumbled about an appointment, poor as most of them have been. Now I want to ask you at our next Conference please give me an appointment among the good class of churches. In twenty years I have never asked for an appointment before. Should you make me a Presiding Elder I will see and help to build churches which most of our Presiding Elders give no thought to. I have built a good church on my circuit this year. Please, Bishop, consider my request. Your son in ministry. P.C.

It is to give this class of minister among other things even-handed justice, that makes us condemn the five-year term with such virulence. We notice that it is ‘no uncommon thing to hear the A.M.E. Church called of late, the Apostolic Church. All right, we endorse the name for we believe our church is that to all intents and purposes. But if we are going to be apostolic we must emulate the apostles in deed as well as in word. The apostles fired the world by a change of location, they remained nowhere long enough to become rusty, stagnant, common and useless. And the reason Methodism has outgrown all other churches since apostolic times is because it pursued the same evangelic policy. Paul remained at no point over two years, nor does history record an instance in our recollection where any Apostle, Prophet, see or evangelist ever did.

In conclusion, if the time limit were brought back to two years, there would not be one-fifth part of the suspicion and scandal that our Church has been afflicted with in recent years. Hundreds of men cannot behave themselves and command the respect and confidence of the people over two years. The third and fourth year is stagnation, retrogression and a blighting apathy is a sequence.

The sooner such men, and there is a host of them, deliver their message and pass on, the better for our name, our church and for our God.

While this appeal to the voters for delegates is long and has no systematic arrangement, we will conclude it nevertheless, as we shall have much more to say on the same subject.

H. M. Turner.