Closing Service of the 38th General Conference of The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Fourth from left, Bishop James Walker, Seventh Episcopal District, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church during the Closing Service of the 38th General Conference of The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. From left to right are Bishops Godwin Umoette, Teresa Snorton, Sylvester Williams, Sr., James Walker, Kenneth Carter and Thomas Brown, Sr. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / July 3, 2014)

One day in 1870, 41 newly freed slaves got together in Jackson, Miss., to establish a new branch of mainstream Methodism called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

Hundreds of members of that denomination, now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, gathered at the Baltimore Convention Center Friday to consecrate the 61st, 62nd and 63rd bishops in its history.

A two-hour service marked the end of the historically black denomination's week-long general conference, a convention members hold every four years to choose new leaders and weigh doctrinal changes.

More than 5,000 attended this week, including 3,000 delegates from all 50 states, Haiti and several African nations.

This was the first time it was held in Baltimore.

"I think it has been awesome," said Diana Duncan of Charlotte, N.C., as a gospel choir warmed up behind her Friday morning. "It's like being at a political convention. This is where you see the business side of [the church] in operation. You may not agree with everything that happens, but that's democracy."

On Tuesday, delegates did elect Bobby R. Best of Texas, Marvin F. Thomas, Sr., of Georgia and Charles F. King, Jr., of Kentucky, all ordained elders, to the position of bishop, leaving each in charge of one of the church's 11 geographical districts.

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, the denomination's top official, and a battery of other bishops clad in black robes with bright red sashes, welcomed them to the fold Friday morning.

"As a shepherd, feed the flock … committed to your charge," Reddick told them during the ceremony.

Earlier in the week, delegates had also voted to move a California-based bishop, the Rev. Dr. James B. Walker, east to take over as leader of the Seventh Episcopal District, a region that stretches from New York to North Carolina and includes Baltimore.

The church often relocates its bishops and pastors. The tradition is part of a legacy of itinerant ministry created by John and Charles Wesley, the clerics who founded Methodism in the 1700s, often traveling and preaching on horseback.

No major shifts in doctrine were proposed during the week.

"This was not a general conference of drastic change," Reddick said.

For many, though, the seven days were a time to greet old friends and reaffirm the principles of their faith. Everyone seemed to know at least something about its history.

Rev. Lynwood H. Leverette, for instance, recounted how the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was born in the aftermath of the Civil War.

At the time, said Leverette, the pastor of Mt. Pisgah CME Church in West Baltimore, the Methodist Episcopal Church was wrestling with how to embrace newly liberated slaves.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South, which had more slaves as members than any other Christian denomination, decided in 1866 to authorize its bishops to organize those members into a "separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction," one that could run its own congregations.

Unlike the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which had formed for similar reasons earlier in the century, this group came to life within the formal embrace of mainstream Methodism.

"We're the only [denomination] that is actually set apart by Methodists for a black constituency," said Leverette, whose 300-member congregation is the only CME church in Baltimore.

The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church changed its name to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.

Both denominations still stick closely to the scripturally conservative teachings of the Wesleys, feature a clearly defined hierarchy, and have experienced exponential growth.

Today, the CME Church has 1.2 million members, most of whom can be found in its nine geographical districts in the United States and its two in Africa. The AME church claims 2.5 million members worldwide.

CME members such as Reddick have a special appreciation for what they call the strong Christian education the church has offered through the generations.

In his sermon Friday, he mentioned the four colleges the church sponsors, including Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., and Texas College in Tyler, Texas.

"From early on, [the church] has educated and uplifted," Reddick said, urging the new bishops to rely on the same kind of vision the church's pioneers did.

Planning for the convention began five years ago, when Jaquetta King, meeting director for the Seventh Episcopal Bishop, and some associates began their search for a host city.

It came down to three, King said — Baltimore, Charlotte and Greenville, S.C. — but they chose Baltimore because the senior bishop at the time, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Hoyt, who was nearing retirement, wanted it near his home base of Washington, D.C.

Hoyt, who was also the bishop of the Seventh District, died last November.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com