United Methodist Bishop James Samuel Thomas died October 10, 2010, at the age of 91. Upon being elected to the episcopacy in 1964, his first responsibility was a historic cross-racial assignment to the predominantly white Iowa Area. Reflecting on his pioneering leadership in racially charged times, Thomas observed, “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.” In an era when few areas of the church were open to African-American leadership, Thomas served for 12 years as bishop of the Iowa Area following their request that he be assigned there. He subsequently served 12 years as bishop in the East Ohio Conference.
Bishop Thomas was one of the last bishops elected by the “Central Jurisdiction,” a segment of the then segregated denomination that housed all of the African-American churches and African-American Conferences in The Methodist Church. Created in 1939, the Central Jurisdiction remained in existence until 1968 when the merger of the Methodist denomination with the Evangelical United Brethren to form The United Methodist Church brought an end to structural segregation. Bishop Thomas’ leadership was crucial in the restructuring of The United Methodist Church following the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction.
Six years before his election to the episcopacy, Bishop Thomas taught in the 1958 summer session of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. “It is important to recall the context,” notes William B. Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology and professor of American Church History. “Barely six years earlier, SMU had been desegregated by the enrollment of the first five African-American students ever to be admitted to degree programs at the University. Yet, at that time, The Methodist Church was still formally a segregated institution.”
In 1988, after his retirement from active service, Bishop Thomas came to Perkins and SMU for a year as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Practical Theology. “He was an extraordinarily fine man,” Dean Lawrence recalls. “His leadership in Methodism took many forms, not least of them chairing a commission that first began to study the church’s attitude toward and perspective upon homosexuality. He was a great and important figure.”
At the time of his election as bishop, Thomas was associate general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Education in charge of the black colleges. He subsequently served as 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. Bishop Thomas delivered the Episcopal Address at the United Methodist General Conference in 1976. In the years following his service at Perkins School of Theology, Thomas was Bishop-in-Residence at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and at Clark Atlanta University.