The collection consists of 79 letters, 78 of which were sent to Robert Paine by 22 different senders, all dated after his ordination as bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Among these senders are the four prominent bishops involved in the church’s separation at the 1844 General Conference: James Andrew, William Capers, George Pierce, and Joshua Soule. There is one letter written by Joshua Soule, three letters written by George Pierce, four letters written by Bishop James Andrew (whose ownership of two slaves sparked the controversy over slave ownership that had been building within the church for decades), and seven letters within the collection written by William Capers (one of which contains Paine’s own annotations correcting a misunderstanding within the letter). Furthermore, one letter within the collection was sent by Robert Paine to Bishop William McKendree in 1828, prior to the split of the church. After McKendree’s death in 1835, Paine undertook the task of writing a biography on McKendree (Life and Times of William McKendree, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1869). Thus, the collection contains a substantial amount of letters written to Paine by John Early, a publisher for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and an important figure in the formation of the southern denomination. Also within the collection are several letters written by Jesse Boring, a reverend within the church. Boring wrote often to Paine about the tensions he witnessed during his travels between the northern and southern Methodist episcopacies. Other notable figures in the formation of the Methodist Escapable Church, South present within the collection include; N. G. Berryman, Stringfield, and W. M. Wightman. Finally, there is one folder marked anonymous, containing two undated letters, written in different hands, and one empty envelope.
Robert Paine, a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born in Person County, North Carolina on November 12, 1799 to James and Nancy Paine. At the age of fifteen, he and his family moved to Giles County, Tennessee, where Paine was admitted to the itinerant ministry on October 1, 1818 at the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville. In 1821 he was ordained a deacon by Bishop William McKendree in Salem, Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, in 1823, Paine was ordained an elder in Huntsville, Alabama. He remained in Alabama, serving as the president of La Grange College from 1829-1846.
Paine is most notably known for his role as a founding member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church was divided over the issue of slavery. Paine, who owned slaves (including properties in Davidson County, Tennessee and Franklin County, Alabama), became a primary leader for the slaveholding faction of the church. When it became evident that the church would be unable to reach a consensus over the issue of slavery, Robert Paine, supported by the pro-slavery faction, drafted a “Plan of Separation” which allowed the annual conferences in slave holding states to separate from the remaining conferences. Thus, in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formed. Following this split, Paine was ordained a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (alongside William Capers) in 1846. He moved to Aberdeen, Mississippi and served the Methodist Episcopal Church, South until his death on October 19, 1882.