SMITH V. SWORMSTEDT, 57 U. S. 288 (1853)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Smith v. Swormstedt, 57 U.S. 16 How. 288 288 (1853)

Smith v. Swormstedt

57 U.S. (16 How.) 288


In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States, at a General Conference, passed sundry resolutions providing for a distinct, ecclesiastical organization in the slave-holding states, in case the annual conferences of those states should deem the measure expedient.

In 1845, these conferences did deem it expedient and organized a separate ecclesiastical community, under the appellation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.

At this time there existed property, known as the Book Concern, belonging to the General Church, which was the result of the labors and accumulation of all the ministers.

Commissioners appointed by the Methodist Episcopal Church South may file a bill in chancery in behalf of themselves and those whom they represent, against the trustees of the Book Concern, for a division of the property.

The rule is well established that where the parties interested are numerous, and the suit is for an object common to them all, some of the body may maintain a bill on behalf of themselves and of the others, and a bill may also be maintained against a portion of a numerous body of defendants, representing a common interest.

The Methodist Church was divided. It was not a case of the secession of apart from the main body. Neither division lost its interest in the common property.

The General Conference, of 1844, had the legitimate power thus to divide the church. In 1808, the General Conference was made a representative body, with six restrictive articles upon its powers. But none of these articles deprived it of the power of dividing the church.

The sixth restrictive article provided that the General Conference should not appropriate the profits of the Book Concern to any other purpose than for the benefit of the traveling ministers, their widows &c., and one of the resolutions of 1844 recommended to all the annual conferences to authorize a change in the sixth restrictive article. This was not imposed as a condition of separation, but merely a plan to enable the General Conference itself to carry, out its purposes.

The separation of the church into two parts being legally accomplished, a division of the joint property by a court of equity follows, as a matter of course.

The bill was originally filed in the names of Henry B. Bascom,

Page 57 U. S. 289

a citizen of Lexington, in the State of Kentucky; Alexander L. P. Green, a citizen of Nashville, in the State of Tennessee; Charles B. Parsons, a citizen of Louisville, in the State of Kentucky; John Kelly, a citizen of Wilson County, in the State of Tennessee; James W. Allen a citizen of Limestone County, in the State of Alabama; and John Tevis, a citizen of Shelby County, in the State of Kentucky:

Against Leroy Swormstedt and John H. Power, agents of the "Book Concern" at Cincinnati, and James B. Finley, all of whom are citizens of the State of Ohio; and George Peck and Nathan Bangs, who are citizens of the State of New York, who are made defendants to this bill.

Bascom, Green, and Parsons were commissioners appointed by the Methodist Episcopal Church South, to demand and sue for the proportion belonging to it of certain property, and especially of a fund called the "Book Concern." Bascom having died whilst the suit was pending, William A. Smith, a citizen of Virginia, was substituted in his place. The other plaintiffs were supernumerary and superannuated preachers, belonging to the traveling connection of the said church south; and all the plaintiffs were citizens of other states than Ohio, and sued not only for themselves but also in behalf of all the preachers in the traveling connection of the church south, amounting to about fifteen hundred.

The defendants were Swormstedt and Power, agents of the Book Concern at Cincinnati, and Findley, all traveling preachers of the Methodist Episcopal Church and citizens of Ohio, and the Methodist Book Concern a body politic, incorporated by an act of the General Assembly of Ohio, and having its principal office at Cincinnati, in that state.

The nature of the dispute and the circumstances of the case are set forth in the opinion of the Court.

Page 57 U. S. 298

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