Picture a church with the front doors firmly locked, and the keys kept away from the congregation. Then picture a part of the congregation illegally entering to change these locks, causing another crowd of members to rush in through a back window “with force and deadly weapons among some of the persons so entering” to expel the churchgoers already inside. The Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church of Alexandria found itself facing this exact scene of violent and chaotic confrontation in 1849. Afterwards, the church was closed to all parishioners for almost a year, and it was left to the courts to decide who would have the right to return in what would become Arlington County Chancery Cause 1850-008: Benoni Wheat Trst etc. vs Phineas Janney Trst etc.
And what could have divided a religious society that had operated peacefully in the city since 1774, and close a meeting house where they had worshipped together since 1804? What else but the issue that had divided the national Methodist Episcopal Church five years earlier, and that would divide the nation as a whole twelve years later—the issue of slavery.
The Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1800s had found it increasingly difficult to reconcile its religious beliefs with the brutal realities of the enslavement of Black Americans, perpetrated by many of its members. This tension came to a head at the 1844 Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. After a six-week-long debate over the status of a Southern bishop who was also an enslaver, southern Methodists passed the Plan of Separation, dividing the national church into the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
This national divide often spilled out into even greater divides on the local level, especially in border areas such as northern Virginia. Although the Plan technically allowed congregations to vote on whether to remain with the North or split with the South, there was no way to account for the reality that both sides of a divided congregation would still need a physical church building for services. The resulting property disputes over previously shared meeting houses were frequent and fierce. Local Records Archivist MaryAnn Mason discussed one such debate that took place in Leesburg in her blog post, “Church Divided Cannot Stand: A Loudoun County Chancery Cause.”
In Alexandria, representatives of the Methodist Episcopal South believed that they had the advantage of numbers, a legal loophole, and the wording of the original deed when they voted to break from the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Following what they viewed as “the unwise course of our ministers upon the subject of slavery, without consulting the Laity,” over 200 churchgoers met together and determined that “we, the Laity, being Southern in position, feelings, institutions, and interests” should have “our ecclesiastical relations be in unison with this position, these feelings, these institutions, and these interests.”
The attendees of the meeting voted unanimously in favor of this Southern position. The group passed a resolution to replace their current minister, who had been chosen by the General Conference at Baltimore, with one chosen by the Virginia Conference of the Church South. They also used the meeting as an opportunity to fill vacancies in the Board of Trustees for the church’s property, which had been left after many of the original members had died or moved out of state. These appointments were then sent to be officially verified by a Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery.
This new Board of Trustees was, unsurprisingly, sympathetic to the Southern division’s requests in regards to the Methodist Episcopal Church meeting house—that they have “the use of the said property for our congregation”—although they said they would “cheerfully accept an equal participation with our friends on the other side.” These new Trustees ordered that use of the main building be split between the Northern and Southern division on a weekly basis. They installed locks on the doors and kept possession of the keys, barring use of the property for any members at any time other than what they had officially mandated.
There were several issues with this arrangement. To begin with, although the votes were “unanimous,” the attendees of this meeting were only a small portion of the entire congregation. The many dissenting members were much less cheerful in their reaction to the idea of sharing use of the meeting house, and refused to accept anything less than exclusive use of the property. More importantly, a replacement Board of Trustees had already been elected by the Methodist Episcopal Church as a whole and had been serving in these positions for years. Church leadership had simply not been aware of an 1842 Virginia Act that required successors of Trustees to have their appointments made official by a Judge of the Superior Court, a fact that the Southern meeting members had happily taken advantage of when they overrode these appointments in favor of their own choices.
These problems reached their breaking point the day that both sides allegedly broke into the locked Methodist Episcopal Church—the North through the front door and the South through the back window—causing the Trustees to close the property permanently and leave all future decisions in the hands of the courts.
Both sides pointed to the original 1803 deed. As the Methodist Episcopal Church North argued, it explicitly granted use of the property to “the part of the said church which should adhere to the Rules and Discipline” agreed upon by the General Conference of the United States, a conference that was now definitively Northern and anti-slavery. But the Methodist Episcopal Church South reasoned that by voting to leave in response to these changes and remain with the Southern division as part of the Plan of Separation, their part of the congregation was the one fully following the agreed-upon Rules and Discipline, giving them the right to the property.
Ultimately, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the Methodist Episcopal Church North. This was partly because of the wording that specifically gave use of the property to the part of the church following the General Conference, but also partly because of that fateful decision to lock the doors. To the judge, the South’s Board of Trustees’ decision to close the church to any part of the congregation was a total failure of duty on their part, and their already dubious appointment needed to be undone immediately.
The Methodist Episcopal Church South would go on to build the Washington Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The site would see its own conflict and closure several years later, when its Southern position would lead to the building’s occupation by the Union Army throughout the Civil War as alternately a stable and a hospital for the wounded. The building is still in active use today. As for that original, much-debated property, the Methodist Episcopal Church North and its subsequent parishioners would continue to use the site until 1941, when the Trinity United Methodist Church decided to move to a site outside of downtown Alexandria. They did, however, bring much of the original structure with them, keeping alive a part of a church that was once so dramatically and divisively left vacant.