Perhaps no other church in this study was as disrupted by the debate over the institution of secession or slavery as was the Methodists. In fact, differing views over the slave trade would pit members against one another resulting in a full-blown split of the congregation. This denomination was established at a revival event recorded as the "Christmas conference of 1784," at the Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland.

The result was the official christening of the Methodist Church of America. Almost immediately upon its formation, the ordained superintendents of Methodism began an intensive campaign to spread their new theology across the landscape. Immediately a controversy erupted as the anti-slavery views of some of the church's first preachers did not sit well with many of the South's citizens.

Just a few decades into its existence, the issue of slavery ignited a feud within the congregation itself. The results were drastic to say the least. D.M. Conway published an essay titled: “Fredericksburg First and Last” in the June 1887 issue of the Magazine of American History that explained the results of the conflict. It stated:

While Young Virginia was hastening to the new standard, Old Virginia never tired of its conservatism. But events conspired to make Fredericksburg an especial battle-field of the contending principles. The division of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1844), caused by the suspension of a slave-holding bishop (Andrews), brought conflict into the large congregation at Fredericksburg.

The town was on the border between the Virginia and Baltimore Conferences, while belonging to the latter. The antislavery traditions of Methodism had been once strong enough to suspend from his local ministry the founder of the society, Rev. John Kobler, because he had married a wife (the widow Early) who refused to part with her slaves.

The old Wesleyan testimony now held at Fredericksburg its southmost stronghold, which was defended by powerful preachers (notably the Rev. Norval Wilson) against eloquent champions of the pro-slavery principle, of whom was Rev. Dr. William Smith, sometime President of Randolph Macon College. The pro-slavery elements at length seceded and built a church of their own; and, indeed, it was not until 1865 that the two societies were finally consolidated under the Methodist Church South.

Still, the arguments over slavery in the Old Dominion had been a long-standing debate for almost one hundred years before the Methodists split over it. According to an article printed in an 1887 issue of American History Magazine, “In 1790, Virginia claimed 293,427 registered slaves, which was more than seven times the number in the Northern states combined.” Ironically, it also stated that the Reverend Morgan Godwin of the early English Church was reported to be one of the first clergymen “who ever lifted up his voice against the African slave trade.”

This sentiment most likely came as a great surprise, due to the fact that the proslavery sentiment of many transplanted Englishmen prevented the freeing of Negroes upon the victory of independence. Emancipation continued to be a hotly contested topic among Christians for decades and Virginia remained in the center of the controversy. Many antislavery proponents in Fredericksburg were drawn into a moral dilemma following secession over protecting their land or defending slavery.

Prior to the Civil War, the building housing the Methodist Episcopal church stood as a charming, two-story brick structure located on the south side of Hanover Street, between Prince Edward and Princess Anne Streets. The congregation consisted of approximately 115 white members and 53 black members. In 1848, a large portion of the membership began an exodus, due to the acrimonious debate over slavery. In 1852 they constructed their own meetinghouse (Methodist Episcopal Church South), which was located one block from the parent church. In 1861, the original church rolls listed 164 members, while the new branch boasted 290 followers. Both sites would see significant action during the War Between the States and provide a gruesome service as field hospitals for the occupying Federal forces.

Like all of the neighboring congregations, Fredericksburg Methodist Episcopal Church and its sister parish at Fredericksburg Methodist Episcopal Church South emerged from the Civil War battered, scarred and traumatized. Both the buildings and believers were damaged, physically, mentally and spiritually.

Eventually the George Street branch was absorbed into the Hanover Street Church and the Methodist family of Fredericksburg was finally together again. The reunited church of over two hundred members became part of the Washington District and the Baltimore Conference. Members returned to worship together at the George Street sanctuary and leased the Hanover site to a branch of Episcopalians who had left St. George’s in order to form the Trinity Episcopal Church.

Understandably, the tragedies and triumphs of the Civil War stuck in the hearts and minds of these church's members. To the white residents who had supported or served in the Confederate cause, the South's loss left them with a bitter feeling of defeat. To the Unionist citizens who had voiced their loyalty in a risky and unpopular arena, the North's victory gave them a sense of bittersweet validation.

Certainly no one appreciated the struggle for independence more than the now-freed African-American citizens. Unfortunately their struggles were far from over. As time passed, wounds were healed, yet there were battles that were still yet to come. Nearly a century later America still struggled over equality and was divided again. In the 1960's efforts to end segregation in the South formed a new civil rights movement that reinvigorated the public in the fight to establish equal rights for blacks. Once again, Fredericksburg weathered the storm and emerged a stronger community.

Today, the city remains a popular tourist attraction. And we residents are so very fortunate to live in a town that others travel across oceans to visit. Ultimately Fredericksburg is also now a unique place memorializing Confederate, Union, and African-American pride. Like Manassas, millions of tourists visit the town whose legacy has been cast in the story of a nation divided. However, after completing my research into the churches of Fredericksburg, I am thoroughly convinced that the real story of Fredericksburg, perhaps even the real story of the nation, is more importantly that of a town reunited.

Race relations have once again come to the forefront of our collective consciousness following the election of our country's first African-American president. This rejuvenation in the examination of race and the relationship between blacks and whites has ignited a new interest in American history.

History remains our area's most valuable commodity and its churches are an important part of this precious heritage. Their steadfast faith demonstrated an enduring legacy of mercy over mayhem and compassion over conflict. Each one stands today as a testament to the human spirit, teaching us through their triumphant stories about the worst and, more importantly, the best of mankind.

Thank You.