In response to the social ferment of the 1960s, the United Methodist Church (UMC) sought to bridge the racial and ethnic divides within American Protestantism and make American religion part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, for African Americans and others seeking civil rights. In 1968, the same year in which the UMC was established, the Uniting Conference of that body provided for the creation of a General Commission on Religion and Race (GCRR). The commission's goal was to guarantee that UMC assistance and membership were open to persons of any race, color, ethnicity, or class. In 1970, the Uniting Conference, or General Conference, established the Minority Group Self-Determination Fund to support projects designed and administered by members of racial and ethnic minorities within and outside the church. The conference envisioned the fund as a tool of empowerment for minorities and entrusted its management to the GCRR. In addition to managing the fund, the GCRR has sponsored encounter sessions, racial workshops, and organizational counseling to alert people to the ways in which racism-subtle and overt-manifests itself in the church as well as in the larger society.
The creation of the UMC, and the GCRR within that body, was another in a series of efforts to remove racial and regional divisions among Methodists. The Methodists, like most other American Protestant denominations, had divided along sectional and racial lines over the issue of slavery in the mid-1840s. At the time of the schism, the northern Methodist Episcopal Church was a largely white organization with only 145,000 members of African descent; however, it was committed to anti-slavery. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was originally home to both whites and blacks but gradually succeeded in pushing black members into separate religious organizations, most notably the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AME Zion). Before and during the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, defended slaveholding and the Confederacy. After the war, it was committed to advancing the welfare of white southerners at the expense of social reform generally and of millions of ex-slaves in particular.
In 1939, the northern and southern Methodist branches came together but maintained racial separation within the newly united body. White congregations were divided into five regional jurisdictions, while all black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church-whether from Maine or California-became part of a single “central jurisdiction.” Some church members, notably white southerners who resented emancipation and resisted interaction with African Americans, argued that these separate governing bodies for blacks and whites permitted blacks a larger measure of power than they would have had in a racially integrated church. In reality, however, the church was acceding to, if not promoting, Jim Crowism.
Responding to the fervor of the civil rights movement, the Methodist Episcopal and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches combined in 1968 to establish the UMC. The five regional jurisdictions were maintained, but the central jurisdiction to which black congregants had been relegated was eliminated. The GCRR supplanted the old Commission on Inter-Jurisdictional Relations and took as its mission advocacy for African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities within the church. From the beginning, the membership and leadership of the GCRR was inter-racial and inter-ethnic. But it took longer to trans-
General Commission on Religion and Race, United Methodist Church
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Publication information: Book title: Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. Contributors: Nina Mjagkij - Editor. Publisher: Garland. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 241.
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