James Andrew was licensed to preach in 1812 in Eliam Methodist Episcopal Church in the South Carolina Annual Conference of the M.E. Church. The first twenty years of his ministry included appointments to the Salt Ketcher Circuit in South Carolina, the Bladen Circuit in North Carolina, and the Augusta and Savannah circuits in Georgia.
In 1824 Andrew was appointed Presiding Elder of the Edisto District, which included Charleston, South Carolina. He was elected a Delegate to quadrennial M.E. General Conferences from 1820 through 1832.
Andrew was elected as a Bishop by the 1832 General Conference. He moved from Augusta to Newton County, Georgia to be near the Methodist Manual Labor School, of which he was a Trustee. This institution later developed as Emory College at Oxford, Georgia. His Episcopal assignments also took him to Annual Conferences throughout the south and the west.
Bishop Andrew bought a female slave to save her from a less kind master. He let her hire out her labor and keep her earnings. When he married, his wife brought her personal slave into their household. The bishop's ownership of slaves generated controversy within the M.E. Church, as the national organization had long opposed slavery. He was criticized by the 1844 General Convention and suspended from office. Disputing the authority of the Convention to discipline the bishop, southern members seceded and set up the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Andrew became the symbol of the slavery issue for the M.E. Church. But the details surrounding his ownership of slaves, and how he acquired them, has been disputed.
According to most published accounts, Andrew never bought or sold a slave. Rather, he became a slave owner through his wives. In 1816 Andrew married Ann Amelia MacFarlane, with whom he had six children. Upon her death in 1842, she bequeathed him a slave. Andrew's second wife, Leonora Greenwood, whom he married in 1844, was also a slave owner. When she died in 1854, he married Emily Sims Childers.
Evidence exists to suggest Andrew may have first acquired slaves earlier than 1842. A James Osgood Andrew is listed as a resident of Athens, Georgia in the 1830 U.S. Census. This Andrew is listed as the owner of two slaves; historians disagree as to whether this was the man who was elected bishop. The 1840 Census lists Bishop Andrew as a resident of Newton County, Georgia and the owner of 13 slaves.
A grave marker placed in the Oxford City Cemetery in 1938 by H.Y. McCord tells a different tale. (Locals call it "Kitty's Stone.") McCord claims that Kitty was a slave girl bequeathed to Bishop Andrew when she was 12 years old by a Mrs. Powers of Augusta Georgia. She stipulated that at 19 years of age, Kitty was to be given her freedom and sent to Liberia, which had been established by the American Colonization Society as a colony for free blacks. When Kitty was 19, Bishop Andrews had Dr. A. B. Longstreet, who was then President of Emory College, and Professor George W. Lane interview her about her wishes. Kitty declined to go to Liberia, saying that she preferred to remain with the Andrews. Under the laws of Georgia at that time, if Bishop Andrew freed Kitty she would have to leave the state. He built a cottage for her in his backyard and told her “You are as free as I am.” Kitty lived in that cottage as a free woman until she married Nathan Shell.
M.E. custom (especially among clergy of the North) was that clergy should not own slaves, no matter how acquired. A growing abolitionist movement was evident within Methodism. At the 1844 General Conference some delegates thought the larger issue was whether the M.E. Church would finally rule on the acceptance of slavery. Founded in opposition, its missionaries in the South had first encouraged slaveholders to free their slaves. By this time, ministers had come to accommodations in order to influence southern planters, and argued for paternal protection and improved treatment of slaves.
Northern delegates to the 1844 General Conference sponsored a resolution asking Bishop Andrew to "desist" from exercising the Episcopal office so long as he owned slaves. Southern delegates countered that the Church would be destroyed in the many southern states that prohibited emancipation. The resolution passed by a vote of 110 to 69.
This resulted in a Plan of Separation between northern and southern Methodists. The next year representatives of the Southern Annual Conferences met in Louisville, Kentucky to organize their own denomination. The first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South met in Petersburg, Virginia in 1846, and Andrew was invited to preside.
Bishop Andrew presided as the Senior Bishop of his denomination from 1846 until his death. He led the Southern ministers of the church in dividing from the main church over the issue of slavery in 1846, and became the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. During the American Civil War (1861–65), he resided in Summerfield, Alabama.
After his retirement in 1866, he continued to conduct church conferences as his health permitted. He died in 1871 at the home of a daughter and son-in-law, the Rev. and Mrs. J.W. Rush, in Mobile, Alabama. He was buried in Oxford. Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia is named for him.Family Government, 1846.
He also contributed to religious periodicals.
Smith, George G., The Life and Letters of James Osgood Andrew, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Nashville, Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1882.