Why are there two United Methodist Churches in Ocean City?
Have you ever thought about this question? Or have you just taken it for granted that there is a predominantly Anglo congregation, which is St. Peter’s, and a predominantly African American congregation, Macedonia? There is important history in the broader context of racial segregation in The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations than just what we experience in Ocean City.
St. Peter’s was organized on October 13, 1880 and at that time was part of the New Jersey Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Conference is the regional organization for all Methodist churches and is currently named the Greater New Jersey Conference. The name of the denomination was the Methodist Episcopal Church when organized in 1784, changed to the Methodist Church in 1939, and changed again to The United Methodist Church in 1968.
Macedonia was organized in June 1899. The Historical Museum of Ocean City has a fine display about the history of all the churches in Ocean City and I am drawing on the information contained in the panel on Macedonia Church. Between 1893 and 1897, the Macedonia Mission met in Steelman’s Hall for part of the year and in Gillett’s Barber Shop, 740 West Avenue in the off-season. Finally in 1902 a lot was acquired at 10th and Simpson from the Ocean City Association for $1 with the support of the Lake brothers. In September 1903, it was incorporated as the Macedonia Methodist Episcopal Church.
When Macedonia was organized it was not a part of the New Jersey Conference like St. Peter’s (by this time known as First Church, reclaiming the name of St. Peter’s in 1980). Instead Macedonia was part of the Delaware Conference, which consisted of churches of African American membership. The denomination was racially segregated both in local churches and in conference affiliation. The Delaware Conference territory included Delaware, New Jersey, the eastern shore of Maryland, Accomack and Northampton Counties in Virginia, eastern Pennsylvania, and the region to the north. It was organized July 29, 1864. Up until this time, African Americans were not permitted to be ordained and received into an annual conference as a traveling preacher. By separating these churches and pastors into a segregated conference, those serving as pastors could be ordained and be a member of an annual conference. Thus by the time Macedonia was organized, its conference affiliation would be in the Delaware Conference.
There arose a strong movement to eliminate racial segregation in the structures of the Methodist Church in the 20th Century. Through a very complex series of steps, which I cannot go into here, the conferences of African American churches were dissolved and those churches were brought into the geographical conferences. The Delaware Conference churches in New Jersey were brought into the two conferences that were in New Jersey in 1964. Macedonia became part of the Southern New Jersey Conference (as the New Jersey Conference was renamed that year) and its delegates were seated at the Conference when it met in Ocean City in September of that year. Bishop Prince A. Taylor, Jr., presided at that conference session which was the first time in the history of American Methodism that an African American bishop presided over a predominately white annual conference.
Since that time St. Peter’s and Macedonia have developed a closer relationship, but I don’t have information about contacts between the two churches prior to 1964. They were in different conferences, with different bishops and different district superintendents. That is research for another day. For the moment, I am grateful that some of the structural divisions of the past have been eliminated and hope that relationships among God’s people grow ever richer.