Civil Rights Leader Bishop Thomas Dies

October 13, 2010

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

James Samuel Thomas, the United Methodist bishop who broke racial barriers when he was assigned to an all-white annual (regional) conference in 1964, died Oct. 10. His funeral will be Oct. 15 at Cascade United Methodist Church, Atlanta. He was 91.
 
"In the loss of Bishop James Samuel Thomas, the church has lost a truly great leader. He was a leader and a bishop without peer," said Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference.
 
"For me he was the perfect integration of dignity, grace and passion for the gospel that anyone would want to aspire to be no matter how they were serving Jesus Christ.… He will be missed dearly but there will not be a moment in the next days or weeks that will go by that his memory and his teaching will not be evoked. I am grateful for who he was and who he will continue to be as he lives in our hearts."
 
Bishop Sally Dyck, Minnesota area, said she was one of many clergy that benefited from Thomas' "gracious way." She received a doctor of ministry from United Theological School, Dayton, Ohio, in Black Church Studies as a Bishop James S. Thomas fellow.
 
"I am one of a gazillion … one of many clergy that he saw something in along the way and set up opportunities all along the way that were appropriate for stretching my skills and experience and vision of the church … and just allowed doors to be open for me. I am just deeply grateful," she said.
 
Retired Bishop Woodie W. White said he first met Thomas when he came to his college as a chapel speaker.
 
"He has been in my life for a long time," he said. The two became close while White was the top executive of the Commission on Religion and Race and Thomas was the president.
 
"Thomas was just one of a kind, he was a prince, a statesman, a gentleman.… He was just an outstanding person who always expected the best of everyone and always gave the best of himself."
 
When White was in the process of being considered for episcopacy, he remembers being asked who his episcopal role model was. "I said, that's easy, Bishop James Thomas. If there is any episcopal leader who could serve as a model for an aspiring bishop or a new bishop it was him. He was my model."
 
Segregated church
 
The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History honored Thomas for his contributions in working to eliminate the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. Of his life's work, Thomas said, "I didn't come to be a black bishop. I've always been black. I have come to be the best bishop I can be."
 
The United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, created the Central Jurisdiction in 1939 so black leadership could only serve black congregations. It was a decision that many regard as a shameful chapter of church history.
 
In 1952, a pronouncement was made that "there is no place in the Methodist Church for racial discrimination or racial segregation." It would be another 20 years before the final annual conferences within the Central Jurisdiction would be dissolved. The Central Jurisdiction's fate was sealed by another church merger, this time one that combined the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations. The union created The United Methodist Church.
 
In 1967, the Central Jurisdiction held its final session.
 
"It was the wave of national changes that finally persuaded the church that something had to be done," Thomas said. And, in 1968, less than a month after the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the church saw an end to the segregated system.
 
Lifetime of service
 
Thomas was born into a Methodist parsonage family in Orangeburg, S.C., on April 8, 1919. He went to Claflin College and then was a rural school principal in Florence County in South Carolina for a year. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Lorenzo H. King and elder by Bishop Willis J. King. While serving the Orangeburg Circuit he attended Gammon Theological Seminary and later earned a master's degree from Drew University.
 
He served as a chaplain at South Carolina State College, a pastor in York, S.C., and then a professor Gammon Theological Seminary. During this time, he earned his doctorate degree from Cornell University.
 
Thomas became associate general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Education in charge of the black colleges. He was in this position when elected to the episcopacy by the Central Jurisdictional Conference in 1964. He served on the staff at Perkins School of Theology, was Bishop in Residence at both Candler School of Theology at Emory University (1992-1996) and Clark Atlanta University (1993-1998).
 
Thomas spent 12 years in Iowa and another 12 in the East Ohio Conference before retiring in 1988.
 
Thomas presented the Episcopal Address at the 1976 United Methodist General Conference. He had been president of the General Council on Finance and Administration and president of the Council of Bishops, as well as president of the General Council on Ministries and of the Commission on Religion and Race.
 
He married Ruth N. Wilson on July 7, 1945.
 
"He was a role model in so many ways including the way he lived his life in family," Palmer said. "He had a covenanted Christian marriage to Mrs. Thomas for 60-plus years. It was always a delight to be in their presence."
 
* Gilbert is a multimedia writer for United Methodist Communications.