As Black History Month 2011 concludes, Bishop James Swanson wants Holston Conference to ponder its meaningful role in the history of The United Methodist Church.
“I know I am the proverbial turtle on the fence post,” said Swanson, Holston’s resident bishop since 2004. “I know I didn’t get here by myself.”
Swanson, age 61, is Holston’s second African-American bishop. The first was Lineunt Scott Allen, assigned to Holston in 1968 at the age of 58.
Allen was the first black bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
It was a transitional time in the church and in the nation. In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Also in April 1968, the Methodist Central Jurisdiction was eliminated as a condition for union between the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches.
The Central Jurisdiction was a racially constituted entity created in the predominantly white church in 1939 before it was dissolved almost 30 years later upon the formation of the United Methodist Church. The last bishop to be elected in the Central Jurisdiction was L. Scott Allen.
At the time, Holston Conference was contained in the same Episcopal area with the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences. Charles Hutchins remembers that some of Holston’s delegation to the 1968 General Conference wanted to ask Allen to become Holston’s next bishop.
“It was the first time we had ever met as a delegation – at the Morristown Holiday Inn,” says Hutchins. “We made a statement that we should invite Scott Allen to come to Holston.”
'Act like Christians'
According to the Holston United Methodist (the conference newspaper predecessor to The Call), Holston may have separated from the other two Tennessee-based conferences in order to accommodate a black bishop. But Hutchins and others remember that the push for Allen was driven by a desire to set an example.
“Tom Chilcote said we were going to be Christian about this – we were going to demonstrate to the world that we could act like Christians,” said the Rev. Spurgeon McCartt, a retired clergy member in Kingsport, Tenn.
The Rev. Chilcote, a ’68 General Conference delegate, died in January 2009. Also deceased – but remembered as supporters of Allen – are the Rev. Ed Eldridge and Holiday Smith.
“Ed Eldridge was the clergy leader of the delegation and Holiday Smith was the leader of the lay delegation,” said the Rev. Grady Winegar, retired clergy member in Knoxville, Tenn. “I remember several conversations with both of them in which they asserted that the delegation asked the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy to assign Bishop Allen to Holston. They both stated that Holston wanted to be a pioneer and lead the way for the SEJ in race relations.”
Not all delegates were in agreement about taking the bold step. “There was a strong conference leader who was opposed to it,” said Hutchins, now vice president of development at Holston Home for Children. The opposing delegate pulled Hutchins aside and said Holston should step back and let another conference struggle with conflicts that would surely arise under a black leader.
Hutchins and other Allen proponents didn’t back down. “Holston had the ability to do it,” Hutchins said. “We weren’t part of the deep south, and Holston Home was already inclusive. We already had African-American children and had hired the first African-American house mother.”
The Holston region was seen as “historically atypical of the south,” since East Tennessee voted overwhelmingly against secession and was deeply divided between the Union and Confederate during the Civil War, according to Winegar.
“We wanted to make it work, and it did work,” Winegar said, referring to the delegation’s ultimate decision to request Allen as their Episcopal leader.
In August 1968, Allen was cordially welcomed to Holston Conference with a reception, although many would continue to resent his presence.
“He had a lot of warm friends who stood by him through whatever,” said the Rev. Paul Marchbanks, retired clergy member in Knoxville, Tenn. “I’m sure they lost a lot of friends because of it.”
Allen served eight productive years in Holston Conference, leading the establishment of full-time counseling for pastors and families in 1972 and a funded pension program for retirees in 1973. During the 1970s, Holston led all 76 United Methodist annual conferences in giving to higher education. Of the 19 cabinet members he appointed in his eight years, three were black: Marchbanks in Morristown District, the Rev. Raymon White in Johnson City District, and the Rev. Walter Willis in Maryville District.
A graduate of Gammon Theological Seminary, Allen was known for his command of the language (“You had to get a Merriam-Webster dictionary just to understand his sermons,” says Hutchins), but also for his command, period. The man from Meridian, Miss., singularly impressed, intimidated, and infuriated his flock with what the Rev. Stan McCready called “his tendencies toward autocratic leadership.”
“The Black church is said to obey bishops and pastors more readily than the white tradition,” the editor of the Holston United Methodist wrote in an editorial dated Aug. 27, 1976. “Thus, Bishop Allen had a major transition from a black to a white conference.”
Still, “a Black bishop in Holston worked!” McCready wrote. “Much credit is due the Bishop and the conference for proving that possibility to southern United Methodists, sister denominations, non-church people, and ourselves.”
In 1976, Allen was assigned to the Western North Carolina Conference. He requested the move, after the Holston Annual Conference invited him back for a third term, but only with the closest of margins (288-284). McCartt and others remember it as a disappointing conclusion to a progressive period in history.
“It was sad, but he sat there and endured it,” McCartt said of the vote that led to Allen’s departure from Holston.
McCready encouraged his readers to focus on progress made. “I take honor and pride that a black man was able to lead for eight years in a geographic section which is more racist that we may be willing to admit,” he wrote.
Twenty-eight years later, on July 14, 2004, an African-American man named James Edward Swanson, Sr., was elected bishop of the United Methodist Church by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
He was the Holston delegation’s first choice to be their next bishop.
- "Bishop James Swanson assigned to Holston area," (The Call, 7/30/04)
- "African Americans gather to remember Central Jurisdiction," (UMNS, 9/1/04)
- "United Methodist Bishop L. Scott Allen dies at age 86," (UMNS, 9/20/04)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.