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Bishop Thomas Asbury Morris

A Bishop is Born | Bishop Comes To Wisconsin | Not a Boilerplate Bishop
A Voice of Moderation |
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Bishop Tomas Asbury Morris

 

Bishop Morris presided over the first Wisconsin Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church which met in Southport (Kenosha) on July 12, 1848.

The Earth Shakes and a Bishop is Born

In many ways, Bishop Morris does not fit the stereotype of the nineteenth century Methodist Bishop. The story of how he came to serve Christ is a case in point, for it involves not only the workings of the Church, but also the very movement of the earth itself. Morris was born in the wilderness of western Virginia in 1794 to parents who were devout members of the Baptist Church and gave as much attention to the religious training of their children as was possible on the frontier. They were not, however, very strict with their children and allowed them to "select their own company and amusements". Like many in their adolescence, the young Morris gradually fell away from the church and "leaned many evil practices while yet a youth". Under the influence of older friends, he became a "bewildered skeptic" and there his faith would have remained if not for the intercession of God and his instrument, the Methodist Church. In Morris's eighteenth year, God literally shook the earth under his feet which "aroused his guilty conscience" and caused him to "become greatly troubled about the future". The terrestrial tremblers that awoke Morris from his religious slumber became known as the New Madrid earthquake and contained the largest release of seismic energy in the history of the United States. During the winter of 1811-1812, a series of more than 2000 shocks, centered in the "boot" of the state of Missouri, were felt for five months throughout the Midwest. The initial shocks are estimated to have been greater than 10.0 and at least five of the aftershocks are estimated to be at 8.0 or more in magnitude. Whole islands in the Mississippi River disappeared while others were formed. The opening and closing of great fissures under the river gave the illusion that the Mississippi was, for a time, flowing backwards. A dozen of the shocks rang church bells on the Eastern coast of the United States and damage was reported as far away as Charleston, South Carolina. While all of this impressed the young Morris, it would have gone for nothing had not, shortly after these "terrible concussions of the earth" begun, a "Methodist revival" commenced in his neighborhood. The Methodist Church was but in it's infancy, a small feeble denomination, whose members were often persecuted, but still, the troubled Morris was drawn to these meetings. The result was that he "began to take the general subject of religion under more serious consideration". Unlike many of his generation, he does not described his conversion as sudden and complete. In fact, his convictions swung back and forth for more than a year until in August of 1813 he "offered himself to the society for admission on trial, a seeker of religion". Still his faith wavered and periods of "strange emotion of love in his heart" would be followed by " a season of doubts and darkness". One day, Rev. John Cord appointed Morris class-leader and handed him the class-book which he received with "much fear and trembling". The faith that a quake had awakened would continue to grow and God would continue to call on Morris; first to the itineracy, then to church leadership and eventually to the "Big Circuit".

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A Bishop Comes to Wisconsin

The map shows the route taken by Bishop Morris as he traveled to oversee the first gathering of the Wisconsin Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He spent two weeks in his journey and his mode of travel may surprise some. Although as a Tom Morris' route to Wisconsinyoung itinerant he had spent many hours on horseback and endured severe hardships bringing Christ to the frontier of Ohio and Kentucky, as a Bishop, he took advantage of all the comforts of the steam age. From Cincinnati, he and his wife took a train North to Springfield, OH and the terminus of the railroad line. They then hired a coach to take them the short distance to Urbana, OH where another train took them to Sandusky, on the shores of Lake Erie. A small steam packet brought them to Detroit where they visited with friends through a long July 4th weekend. In Detroit, they boarded the steamboat Niagara which was on its regular route between Buffalo and Chicago with its cargo of emigrants. This was the Bishop’s first experience traveling out of sight of land in the Great Lakes and as the Niagara entered the “broad bosom of Lake Huron grave thoughts intruded themselves - three hundred souls aboard, with only a few inches of timber between them and a sheet of water two hundred and twenty miles long and one hundred and seventy-five broad, with the ordinary risk of collision, explosion, and fire.” The Bishop's fears turned out to be very prophetic. On September 24, 1856, the Niagara caught fire and burned to the water'sSteamship Niagra edge five miles off Port Washington, WI, with the loss of 180 souls. This still stands as the deadliest maritine disaster in Wisconsin waters. Fortunately, the Bishop's journey was without serious incident although after a brief stop at Mackinaw Island, the Niagara headed south, into Lake Michigan where they were greeted with a storm. “For the next twelve hours the boat was rolling and pitching, till many of the passengers got half seas over, and the lake appeared in general commotion, which corresponded exactly with our internal feelings. When the breakfast bell rang, most of us had no occasion to appear at table, till we landed at Sheboygan, about nine o’clock, and the motion which had destroyed our appetites ceased, then we revived feeling, and the second table was well filled, and all lost time made up. Soon after this the wind shifted its course, met the rolling billows, and in a few minutes laid the entire surface as smooth as a level prairie.” The Niagara continued on to Milwaukee where the Bishop again visited friends for a couple of days. With Conference beginning Wednesday morning, the Bishop left Milwaukee by boat Monday evening and arrived “at Southport where we were put ashore at two o’clock in the morning, amidst darkness that could be felt, because of a dense fog, and were conveyed to the Temperance House; but when daylight came to our relief, we found ourselves in a beautiful village of some two thousand five hundred inhabitants.” The rest of Tuesday was spent in council with Conference leadership preparing for the following morning when Bishop Morris rose from behind a table placed at the front of the Methodist Church, greeted the assembled preachers with prayer, and declared the Conference opened.

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Not a Boilerplate Bishop

The Methodist Bishops of the nineteenth century have been stereotyped as men of commanding personal appearance with booming patriarchal voices whose lips “seemed touched almost with celestial fire.” They prided themselves on the volume and length of their sermons, but not necessarily on the logic or reason of their rhetoric. Dignified to a fault, many where thought to have let the power of the episcopacy go to their heads and presided over annual conferences with a temper that earned more fear than respect. While this caricature may have held true for some, Bishop Morris was, perhaps, the exception that proved the rule. He was the last of the pioneer bishops and was always known to belong to that ”class of men who were content to be known by their fruits - whose lives are made up of deeds not words”. While he was certainly not a scholar, he was by no means an unlearned man. Like many who grew up on the frontier with little formal education he was always a student. His sermons were characterized as “epigrammatic, clear and forceful” with a “simplicity of style, pith, directness and lucid arrangement” that critics claimed more resembled those of John Wesley than any other minister of the Church. His “manner in the pulpit” was “quiet, earnest and conversational,” and yet with an eloquence that could raise an audience to “highest pitch of religious fervor.” Unlike many of his generation, especially in the South, he was never tempted to employ “flights of fancy, flowers of rhetoric or startling and sensational declamation”. His preaching was ”terse, with short, simple and pointed sentences” and he had the unusual habit of “closing when he was done” which struck many audiences as very peculiar for a Methodist Bishop. Although he lived though a time of great conflict within the Church, he was remembered as a man free from offensive self-assertion and mere dogmatism. He entered the work of the ministry with “extreme deference and shrinking modesty.” His work in the episcopacy was universally admired, for as his biographer remembered, “as president of a conference, he was not in the habit of flaunting his authority in the faces of his brethren. He affected no superiority, and was never concerned about his official dignity. He put on no prelatical airs, for he never felt that his office lifted him above the fellowship and sympathy of his brethren.

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A Voice of Moderation Lost in the Winds of Passion

The conference in Wisconsin that Bishop Morris presided over was his first following the General Conference of 1848. At this General Conference the separation of the M.E. church into North and South was caudified, a division that was felt as a deep loss by Bishop Morris. Bishop Morris was a product of the Border States and spent most of his ecclesiastical life laboring in Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. He came to the subject of slavery as an agonist and found that in the whirlwind of this controversy he spent all his energy at the thankless task of “promoting harmony, allaying sectional feeling and trying to do something, if possible, to prevent a division of the Church”. He accomplished little accept to arouse suspicions on both sides of the schism. In the North, he was falsely accused of marrying a women who owned slaves and in the South, while on tour, he was labeled an abolitionist and threatened with bodily harm. In the end, Morris remarked that “party prejudice proves often too strong for logics or facts. You may reason with a man’s judgment, but not with his passions, either in the North or South.” The sectional turmoil laid heavily on his mind when he wrote the following sermon notes in the months before Conference. They are a testimony for all who believe that the path to any worthy goal lies in the middle of the road. “1. I am this day, April 28th, 1848, fifty-four years old. Millions born after have died before me, while my life and health are still perpetuated, a subject of distinguished mercy. 2. All I have and all I am, except sin and misery, I owe to the Methodist Episcopal Church, under God. May I never prove recreant to her, nor ungrateful. 3. Having been a member nearly thirty-five years, and a traveling preacher more than thirty-two years, though much of the time unfaithful and unprofitable, I am fully satisfied there is no Church which affords more help to piety in this world, or a better prospect of gaining heaven in the end, than the Methodist Episcopal Church. 4. Since the separation of the Southern conferences, the peace of the Church has been much disturbed by angry controversy on both sides of the line. Many difficult questions remain unsettled; much trouble may be expected during and after the General conference of 1848. O, for heavenly wisdom and Christian forbearance! Help, Lord! For vain is the help of man without thy blessing. 5. The doings of the approaching General Conference will exert a powerful influence for weal or woe upon the interest of Protestant Christianity in general, and especially upon those of Methodism in the United States. To this crisis I have long looked as the day of conflict and trial, from which none but God can deliver us. May he deliver! 6. To this end may we all confess our sins to him, and forsake them, and consecrate ourselves anew to the service and cause of Christ, that we may build up and not destroy the household of faith! 7. It is a time that calls for firmness and moderation. United we stand, divided we fall. No difference of opinion respecting Church polity should divide us, unless it be such as to involve conscience or a sacrifice of moral principle. Here I take my stand. The brethren may do what they will, provided they do not require me, against my conscience and principles, to participate in measures ruinous to the peace of the Church and dangerous to the country, and I am with them. Beyond this point, how could I go? May I not be put to the trial!”

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