Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, United Methodist leader who was a tireless proponent of racial and LGBTQ justice, was born in Clinton, Louisiana, one of seven children to sharecropper parents, Florence George and Nettles Talbert. Talbert’s leadership abilities were evident at an early age as he was elected superintendent of the Sunday school of Union Chapel, his home church, when he was 12 years old. Following primary and secondary education in public schools, he received a B.A. degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1959. He was elected president of the Methodist Student Fellowship at Southern.
He entered seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC)/Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. A life-changing moment in Talbert’s early life was meeting and spending three days and nights in a jail cell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960. Talbert had joined with other students in protesting Jim Crow segregation laws with a sit-in demonstration at lunch counters. They were arrested and put in the same cell with King who was also arrested for leading protests. Talbert recalled in a 2003 interview:
I was very radical at that time. I know what it means to go into a lunch counter where it says “White Only,” “Black Only.” And so, some of us had said, we aren’t going to continue to accept this. We’re going to bring about change. So Dr. King, of course, was about the same kind of thing. And being with Dr. King gave us a chance to express our views and to get his views because he was talking about something a little different than what we were talking about. We were talking about change. He was talking about nonviolent revolution. It was in those experiences that I said, you know, there is another way and the other way is the way of love, the way of justice.
Talbert was elected president of the student body during his second year at ITC. He became a candidate for ordained ministry in 1958 and was ordained as a deacon in 1960 in the Louisiana Conference by Bishop Willis J. King. He served as pastor of a two-point charge in Tennessee while a seminarian. While at ITC he married Ethelou Douglas with whom he had a daughter, Evangeline Violet.
The Methodist Episcopal Church was racially segregated at the time with most Black congregations and clergy separated into the Central Jurisdiction. While Talbert was ordained deacon in the Central Jurisdiction, after seminary he decided to move west and transferred to the Southern California-Arizona Conference. In Los Angeles, he served as interim pastor of St. John's UMC in the Watts, then as pastor of Wesley UMC and Hamilton UMC. He was ordained elder in full connection in 1963 by Bishop Gerald H. Kennedy. After only a few years of pastoring, he moved into conference leadership as the associate council director. One year later, he was appointed district superintendent for the Long Beach District.
Talbert was a delegate to the 1968 General Conference when the Central Jurisdiction was abolished with the formation of The United Methodist Church through the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Talbert subsequently joined with other Black leaders to form Black Methodists for Church Renewal to advocate for racial justice in the new denomination. He also served on the commission that wrote the Social Principles that were presented to the 1972 General Conference, where controversy erupted over the statement on human sexuality.
Talbert’s meteoric rise to national and international leadership continued in 1973 when he was elected General Secretary for the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tennessee. He was not yet 40 years old. Then in 1980, he was elected to the episcopacy and served in the Pacific Northwest Conference. In 1988, he was moved to the California-Nevada Conference where he served until his retirement in 2000. He served as secretary of the Council of Bishops from 1988-1996. His extensive UMC leadership portfolio included being a member of the General Commission on Religion and Race from 1980–1988 (as president from 1983–88) and then a member of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns 1988–1996 and 2000–2004. He was a director of the National Council of Churches from the mid-1970s to 2004 and served as its president from 1996–1999. He was a member of the World Methodist Council Executive Committee and the World Council of Churches Central Committee.
Throughout these decades as an ecclesiastical administrator, Talbert remained on the frontlines of activism for social justice. In the 1980s, he helped launch the World Council of Churches International Ecumenical Monitoring Program in South Africa. In 1985, he was one of a group of religious leaders arrested for an Ash Wednesday demonstration against apartheid. Talbert traveled to the Middle East as part of a peace mission in 1990. He was chair of the committee that produced the Persian Gulf resolution sent to President George H.W. Bush and Congress asking them to pursue every peaceful means for a solution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As one of 40 presidential guests, Talbert accompanied U.S. President Bill Clinton on his peace pilgrimage to Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1995. He visited the White House on several occasions representing the National Council of Churches and the Council of Bishops.
Talbert’s advocacy over the years for inclusion and social justice included LGBTQ equality, however, this became more prominent in his retirement. He understood that discrimination against LGBTQ persons had become the crucible for testing the church’s faithfulness in this time. When the General Conference in 2012 reaffirmed discrimination against LGBTQ persons and banned same-sex weddings, Talbert protested publicly. He spoke outside the General Conference session saying, “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience. Thus the time has come for those of us who are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to do what is required of us…the time has come to join in an act of biblical obedience." Talbert pointed to Micah 6:6-8 in which the prophet Micah said God requires justice, mercy and to walk humbly with God and Jesus’s words in Mark 12:28-31 that say the greatest of all commandments is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. In Talbert’s words, “I take those two passages and say all other laws that tend to restrict people in church are not supported by the Bible in Jesus' message of love and grace."
Talbert affirmed his support for 1,100 clergy who had signed pledges to officiate at same-sex unions, despite of the church’s ban. Subsequently he acted on his words when he officiated at a wedding for Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince on October 23, 2013, in Birmingham, Alabama. The resident bishop of Alabama and the executive committee of the UMC Council of Bishops asked that he not officiate at this wedding. Talbert spoke to the press saying, “I've had to say to both I regret that I cannot honor their request.” The Council of Bishops requested that a formal complaint be filed against him. The case was resolved two years later and Talbert did not face a church trial or loss of his clergy credentials.
Talbert served on the board of directors of the Reconciling Ministries Network. He rejoiced when Karen Oliveto, openly lesbian, was elected bishop in 1996, stating: “This means our church—at least part of our church—has finally come to the realization that there is no longer any place for exclusion. We are all children of God regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or abilities. We would be blessed to invite all God’s people to their rightful place at the table.”
Talbert was in poor health in his final years, living in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Marilyn Magee, whom he married in 2000 following the death of his first wife. Talbert died there on August 3, 2023 at the age of 89.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from the United Methodist News Service obituary below and other online services.)
Biography Date: August 2023
United Methodist News Service published this obituary: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishop-talbert-advocate-for-justice-dies
Methodist (UMC, United Methodist Church) | Clergy Activist | Marriage Equality | Racism | Black | Ally | Tennessee | Reconciling Ministries Network (formerly Reconciling Congregation Program) | Nashville | Civil Rights Movement
“Bishop Melvin G. Talbert | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 27, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/melvin-g-talbert.