Saturday, December 20, 2008

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 21

Texas Conference Convenes With Most Members Absent Dec. 22, 1852

The thirteenth session of the Texas Conference convened at Bastrop on December 22, 1852. In a strange reversal of common practice of the era, the presiding bishop was present, but most of the conference members were not.

Most modern Methodists would not recognize the current system of episcopal oversight of annual conferences. Today the usual pattern is for each annual conference to have its own resident bishop whose main job is administering that conference.

In the 19th century bishops itinerated (as did preachers and presiding elders). Each year the bishops would meet and announce their visitation schedule. That schedule showed which bishop would preside over which annual conference and the dates the annual conferences would convene. Over the course of time, each bishop would preside over each annual conference. For example, the first twenty sessions of the Texas Annual Conference were presided over by ten different bishops. Robert Alexander, a member of the conference, presided over two of those sessions because the bishop did not arrive.

The advantages of an itinerating episcopacy are obvious. Each bishop learned about the preachers, laity, and churches throughout the denomination. Each preacher had the opportunity to have personal contact with each bishop. One result was that denominational loyalties were strengthened.

There were also disadvantages. One disadvantage that plagued the denomination until railroad construction made transportation easy was that bishops would often arrive late to annual conference.

Before the Civil War all the MECS bishops lived far away from Texas, and getting here to preside over annual conference was often problematic. Bishop Andrew’s 1843 trip to Robinson’s Settlement to hold conference is particularly noteworthy.

Since the Texas and East Texas Conferences usually met in November or December, the travelling bishops often encountered winter storms and muddy roads which delayed their travel. Accounts of annual conferences convening, electing one of their own as temporary chair, and conducting business while awaiting the arrival of the bishop are common.

That is what made the December, 1852 session in Bastrop so odd. Bishop Robert Paine was there, but the preachers were not! The Texas Wesleyan Banner had had erred in announcing the date as Friday the 24th rather than Wednesday the 22nd. The first order of business was a sad one. Chauncey Richardson, who had served as secretary for the previous seven sessions had died. The conference elected Homer Thrall to take his place.


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