By Alfred Palmer
My first introduction of laymen involvement in the life of the church in 1937 under Bishop Adna Wright Leonard [was] in a church at East Liberty in Pittsburgh, Pa. His plan was different than the one we are working with 1986. What he proposed would be operative only in our late Bishop’s Pittsburgh area.
Then in 1938, the three denominations known as Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and the Methodist Protestant came together and united in the new “Methodist Church.”
By September 1939, all the churches of those three branches within the state of West Virginia came together in Fairmont to unite into one conference. Bishop Leonard was the chief uniting officer from the Methodist Episcopal Church and stayed for the new united sessions.
Bishops Straughn and Broomfield closed out the affairs of the former Methodist Protestants. The decision of the uniting committee was that the Methodist Protestants were to elect two bishops who would function in the new church. This they did by electing Bishops Straughn and Broomfield. Bishop Straughn then became the new bishop in the Pittsburgh area which was made up of the Erie, Pittsburgh and West Virginia conferences.
Bishop Leonard was transferred to the Washington, D.C. Conference and Bishop Broomfield was assigned to New Jersey. I think Bishop Peale of the M.E. South remained in the Baltimore area.
The M.E. South branch was the only one that had a complete program of lay activities. As a result, the new church adopted that setup and proceeded with it. George Bright of Beckley was the first Conference Lay Leader with Foss Curtis of Moundsville as one of his associates and Judge Harry Shaw was the second associate. Each district had a District Lay Leader and two associates District Lay Leaders.
Georg W. Bright held the leader title until September 1942 when he resigned the position because of ill health. Election by ballot put Foss Curtis in the leader’s chair. In the fall of 1939, after the churches had united, Albert Rohrer, the Beckley District Lay Leader, and George W. Bright appointed me, Alfred I. Palmer, as one to the Beckley District Associate Lay Leaders.
Soon after my appointment, I called Mr. Bright in his office in the Raleigh County Bank Building in Beckley. I have lived in Beckley since May 1, 1938. I recommended that we should have a “conference wide” meeting of the men of the church once a year. At first he was not in favor of it. I told him that Bishop Leonard had called a meeting of the M.E. men in 1937 in Parkersburg with 1200 men in attendance. Later, Brother Bright then called and presided over a meeting in August of 1940 at St. Mark’s Church in Charleston. Among the various decisions arrived at in that meeting was the one that set up the first retreat at Jackson’s Mill on May 23-24-25, 1941. W. Foss Curtis chaired the planning group.
The Discussion Leader at the first retreat was Dr. Georg L. Morelock, Executive Secretary of the General Board of Lay Activities from Chicago. The theme was “Layman’s Part in the Mission of Methodism.” Our first institute drew 30 men. Among them was Bishop James H. Straughn and 8 or 9 district superintendents. A good time was had by all.
Our second retreat was held at WV Wesleyan College in May 1942. We were then at war with Germany and Japan as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Because of the interference of the war, we had no more institutes until May 1946. Since that time we have had one every year. In the fifties the planners experimented with having a retreat in August at WV Wesleyan College. The attendance proved to be very small, so that idea was abandoned.
W. Foss Curtis died very suddenly of a heart attack in the late 1940’s. At that time Bishop Wicke was our presiding bishop and he preached Brother Curtis’ funeral. Chester Fannin was one of the associates at that time, so he filled in as the leader until Tom Campbell was elected to the post. Brother Campbell died in 1956 at the age of 67. I believe the next conference lay leader was T. Sterling Evans, Sr. He served 4 years and was followed by W. A. “Bill” Byus who also served 4 years. Then came Lowell Sebert of Lewisburg.
Harry Blethen of Huntington served as Conference Lay Leader somewhere in the 50’s, but I am not sure of the dates. He may have succeeded Tom Campbell. Brother Guy Snowden of Parkersburg served as dining room chairman for many years until his health failed.
Somewhere in the 60’s a change came along in the church structure. [The merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church occurred in 1968 [but was being planned before that]. The Board of Lay Activities had its title changed to the Board of Laity. Later that was done away with and the United Methodist Men was put in its place. Since then, we have had Conference Presidents of UM Men. Some of them have been Jim Phipps of Huntington, Hal Burke of Cross Lanes, Art Hahn of Morgantown, Calvin Saunders of Princeton, David Blackwood of Milton and now, 1986, and Charles Price of Charleston.
My original reason for holding these meetings was to have a forum in which the “run of church” laymen could have an opportunity to discuss and advance ideas that would be relative to the life of the church. The customs and procedures of the annual conference did not give leeway for this sort of action. Sad to say — the planners of the Jackson’s Mill meetings have not grasped that idea very well either.
One of the strengths of the United States government has been an effective loyal opposition. Someone has always come along with a “better idea.” The constant interplay of ideas has been of great help to teach the body politic how things ought to be. The same needs to be done in our church government.