By Patrick Scriven
In a drama that played itself out in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1895, conflicting values of late 19th century Methodism – namely its social witness and missional ambitions – came to a head in the frontier town of Puyallup, Washington.
In the 1880’s, as Puyallup was just formally coming into being, Methodists had what might be described as a friendly relationship with the town’s first mayor and founder, Ezra Meeker. At the time, Meeker was one of the richest men in the Washington territory, described by the Puyallup Historical Society “as a prime mover, galvanizing the citizens of Puyallup into action on such vital problems as the building of streets, roads, homes, schools, and businesses.”
In 1883, Meeker was serving a second term as mayor, so it’s not hard to imagine that Methodists might apprise him of plans to build a church in the emerging frontier town. It is recorded that the Rev. John E. Leach, appointed to the Puyallup circuit that year, approached Meeker while sharing a meal saying, “We need a church here that is creditable to us and to this place and we must have it. Will you be kind enough to suggest some way by which we can secure it, and how we had best proceed in the matter?”
Despite the direct manner of the request, Meeker responded affirmatively, offering a choice lot of land, significant financial support, and the offer to “encourage others to contribute” as well. His only request was that a clergyman friend from Tacoma (J. F. Devore) “take charge of the work.” Completed in early 1884, Puyallup’s “neat and attractive place of worship” was one of many examples of the bold, energetic push to establish a Methodist presence across the territory.
Roughly 10 years later, the Seattle Post-Intelligencerwas covering the 12thAnnual Session of the Puget Sound Conference (held in Seattle that year) when it shared news on September 6th, 1895 of a report delivered by Rev. A. J. Hanson the previous day.
When A. J. Hanson, of Puyallup, arose to present his report, he said he had some good news to report from that great hop country. The hop crop, the main support of the people, was a failure; the crop had been cursed by God.
Bishop Bowman: The hops have not grown?
Dr. Hanson: They have grown, but have been cursed by the hop louse.
Bishop Bowman: Good.
And from all over the room voices could be heard giving utterance to the fervent ejaculation: “Thank God.”
The reaction of Conference members to Hanson’s news wasn’t surprising. The temperance movement was in full swing and it found a zealous partner in Methodism. A standing committee on temperance reported to the Puget Sound Conference that year of efforts to “bring about the prohibition of the manufacture, sale and use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage.” Responding to the report, the conference approved participation in a “Annual Temperance Sunday” organized by the state’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Enter again Ezra Meeker, previous benefactor, a name nearly synonymous with Puyallup – also known at the time as “Hop King of the World.” Meeker’s notable generosity was largely due to the one enterprise he had found success in; the farming and production of hops, a major ingredient in beer. The published words of his hometown preacher did not slip by unnoticed and he was not timid in offering a response. While Meeker wasn’t the only person who fired off a letter to the editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencerregarding “A Curse on the Hops”, his letter published on September 7this the most notable. His concluding paragraph is quite pointed:
I want to recall to the memory of the Rev. Mr. Hanson that the church in which he has been preaching for a year past was built in great part by money contributed from gains of this business “cursed by God.” For myself I can inform him that, as a citizen of Puyallup, I contributed $400, to buy the ground upon which that church edifice is built, every cent of which came from this same hop business “cursed by God.” I would “thank God” if they would return the money and thus ease their guilty consciences.
The response from Meeker and others clearly put Methodists on their heels. The same day Meeker’s letter was published, Rev. Hanson sought to amend his words saying that the curse came from the hop louse and not from God. The editor added the comment: “Quite the difference.” Two letters on September 8th suggest the correction was too little, too late, with the authors accusing those assembled of “ignoble narrow mindedness and warped faculty” with too little sympathy for the “good people of Puyallup whose crops had been blasted in their fields.”
Hanson’s new appointment to Snohomish had the misfortune of being announced on September 9thand was reported in the paper the following day. On September 12th, two final pieces on the matter were published. The first, written by Hanson himself, sought to clarify the record regarding what was said at the Conference, denying that his report was framed in any way as “good news.” Even as he presents a more detailed explanation of the Methodist position on the matter, he undercuts this claim in writing that “every Methodist preacher…would rejoice if every saloon, brewery, distillery, groggery and every other accessory of the liquor business the world over should meet with overwhelming and permanent disaster”.
The very next and final article was submitted by Hanson’s new Presiding Elder, T. J. Massey, though the title, “Transfer of “Hops” Hanson”, is an obvious dig from the editorial staff. Clearly responding to rumors that Rev. Hanson’s words at Conference had something to do with his reassignment, Rev. Massey offers that the church in Puyallup had requested his return. He added that “his position on the hop question was not considered when he was recommended for Snohomish” and that the new appointment was considered a promotion by Hanson’s friends. Rev. Hanson served Puyallup for two years.
While there is some dispute over what it was that Rev. Hanson actually said to initiate this drama, it seems likely that an unguarded moment in front of a like-minded audience was the cause. Beliefs held firmly by the clergy, but perhaps not as much by members, and even less so by the general public, provided an opportunity for a reporter to sell some papers.
It’s not hard to be sympathetic to the critics who found the Methodists guilty of hypocrisy. Meeker’s direct shaming clearly found an audience. Still, it isn’t necessary to question the sincerity of the Methodist commitment to the cause of prohibition to understand the situation. As zealous as they were for tolerance, Methodists were also in an expansion phase, caught up in a larger moment where mission and other values were often in conflict.
This conflict of social witness and missional ambition is one we might be familiar with, even so many years removed. While some compromise is a necessary building block of community, negotiating the tension between conflicting values is a difficult task for any church leader.
- Can a church provide a safe place for children while offering redemption for those who did others harm in the past?
- Who do we choose to exclude, however unintentionally, as we nurture the affinity church growth often depends upon?
- How do you appoint diverse clergy to churches who want white males, breaking down the isms without doing harm to those God has called forth to lead?
I’m sure you could offer similar questions, several you may have needed to walk carefully though. Difficult scenarios, with conflicting values, are more common than we’d like to imagine in life and ministry.
In our quest for purity, we sometimes underestimate people’s ability to see a bigger picture. In his autobiography, Ezra Meeker notes that he never did get his $400 dollars back from the Methodists. He continues, admitting that he didn’t really want it and wrote his letter to the editor in what he described as a “pettish mood.” Simply put, he moved on.
Thankfully, the Methodist Episcopal Church continued to flourish in the Puyallup Valley despite this momentary conflict. Unfortunately for Mr. Meeker, his hop crops never really did the same again.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.