This Week in Texas Methodist History July 27
Your TWITMH editor often receives genealogical inquires concerning Methodist ancestors. Many families have traditions about some Methodist preacher in the family tree. Finding information about fully ordained conference members is easy. Those records are available in Journals and General Minutes.
Research becomes much more difficult when the family tradition stems from one of the other categories of leadership available to early century Methodists, local preacher, exhorter, and class leader.
The difficulty is compounded because the categories were not mutually exclusive. In many cases these offices were stepping stones to full ordination. In many cases a fully ordained preacher would decline an appointment and become a local preacher.
The key element to keep in mind when researching 19th century Methodist leaders is to determine which body authorized the person to exercise the office.
The Annual Conference admitted applicants on trial (O.T.) as deacons for a probationary period that usually lasted two years. At the end of that probationary period the deacon was ordained an elder. Membership in the annual conference took the place of membership in a local church. By joining the annual conference, the preacher agreed to submit to the appointment process in which the bishop assigned him to a particular station (one church) or circuit (group of churches).
Class leaders, exhorters, and local preachers all related to the church through the quarterly conference rather than the annual conference. The closest modern equivalent to the quarterly conference is the charge conference. In 19th century Methodism each station and circuit had four conferences per year. The main duty of presiding elders, equivalent to the modern office of district superintendent, was to preside at these conferences. All three of these offices required annual re-licensing
CLASS LEADER 19th century Methodists were organized into classes. Class members met regularly to help one another pursue the Christian life. One of the members was designated “leader”. One should remember that most Methodist lived on circuits where the circuit rider might hold services only once per month—or even less frequently--. Class leaders held the church together in the interim.
EXHORTER An exhorter functioned as sort of assistant preacher. A primary task of exhorters occurred at revivals. The main purpose of revivals was to bring people to a sense of their own sin and then accept God’s forgiveness. A feature of revivals was a “mourner’s bench” at the front of the assembly. Unconverted persons who wished to experience conversion would sit or kneel –often for hours- hoping to receive the Holy Spirit. The preacher needed to be in the pulpit to deliver the sermon. Exhorters mingled with those persons, prayed with them, and helped them in their agony.
LOCAL PREACHER Local preachers were either fully ordained conference members who declined to take an appointment or men who were authorized to serve as preachers only in the particular church that licensed them.
These three categories of leaders are underrepresented in the historical literature of 19th century Methodism. They performed invaluable service by keeping the churches together during the long intervals between circuit rider visits. That service was neither as dramatic nor as well documented as that of the bishops and circuit riders. It is understandable that it is often remembered only in family tradition.