This Week in Texas Methodist History August 24
Answers to Most Common Questions About Methodism
The visibility of weekly columns of This Week in Texas Methodist History results in a great many requests for research assistance and/or explanation of Methodist terminology. Most of the requests are from genealogists and begin something like “Great-great grandfather was a Methodist preacher in ______. Can you help me find church records about him?” I feel blessed to be of service to these descendants of Methodist clergy and do my best to answer their questions.
I often find myself explaining and answering two questions: What is a conference? What is a Methodist preacher?
Those of us who learned Methodism as children think nothing of such questions, but they can be confusing to others who were not so blessed.
What is a conference? --That’s harder than it looks since it is and has been one of our favorite words. How many can you name? Quarterly Conference, Charge Conference, General Conference, Church Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, District Conference, Sub-district Conference—the list goes on. The confusion continues with several definitions of Annual Conference, the basic organizational unit.
An annual conference is a geographic area but not a fixed geographic area. For example Jefferson was in the Texas Conference, then the Eastern Texas Conference, then the East Texas Conference, then the Trinity Conference, then the North Texas Conference, then the East Texas Conference, and finally back in the Texas Conference. During that same time span, it was in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, the Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church. After emancipation it also a church in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In addition to a geographic area, an annual conference is also an event. For example, Houston has hosted more sessions of the Texas Annual Conference than any other city. As the name implies, the event is usually held once per year, but special sessions can and have been called.
An annual conference is also a legal entity with the ability to hire employees, hold real property, sue and be sued, and enjoy the other privileges of corporations.
An annual conference is also a membership organization with criteria for obtaining and retaining membership.
It is this last definition of conference that leads us to the second most popular question. What is a Methodist preacher? A great many terms were used in the 19th century to describe Methodist officials. Some were preachers and some were not. One finds the terms exhorter, class leader, local preacher, travelling preacher, elder, deacon, presiding elder, bishop, in the 19th century documents. The term “local preacher” is particularly confusing to the naïve researcher. Sometimes “local preacher” was a step on the path to becoming a travelling preacher. Sometimes a local preacher intended to retain that status permanently. Equally confusing is the fact that a travelling preacher could “locate,” but still retain the honors of full ordination.
I have had to explain the distinction between these offices many times. I sometimes use Sprague’s Annals of the American Pulpit (1856 and later editions) In my opinion, it offers the simplest explanation of both church offices and conferences as they existed in mid-19th century Methodism.
The Government of the Church is Episcopal, The Society includes
all the members
of the Church in any particular place. The Class, which
of about twelve persons, but is now often much
larger, holds weekly meetings for devotional exercises and m
The Class leader who is appointed by the Preacher, has charge
of the class,
and it devolves on him to have a personal interview with
each member of his class once a week in regard to his spiritual
and to receive whatever he may be able and willing to contribute
support of the Church and of the poor. The Stewards, who are
chosen by the
Quarterly Meeting Conference, on the nomination of the
Ruling Preacher, have charge of all the money collected for the
of the ministry, the poor, and for Sacramental services, and
as the Discipline directs. The Trustees have charge of all the
to hold it for the use of the members of the body.
\These are elected by the people, in those States where the Law
so provides —
other States, according to the direction of the Discipline.
The Exhorters receive their license from the Quarterly Meeting
and have the privilege of holding meetings for exhortation and
A Preacher is one who is licensed to preach, but is not
administer the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
A Local Preacher
generally follows some secular calling for a livelihood,
and preaches on
the Sabbath, and occasionally at other times, without any
except when he supplies the place of a Travelling Preacher.
A Travelling Preacher
devotes himself entirely to the work of the ministry, and is
supported by the
people among whom he labours. A Supernumerary Preacher is
one who is disabled
for full effective service, but still has an appointment and
to his ability. A Superannuated or worn out Preacher is one
who, on account
of enfeebled health or old age, is compelled to retire from
altogether. A Deacon is ordained by the Bishop, and besides
a Preacher, he may solemnize the rite of marriage, bury the
and assist the Elder in administering the Lord's Supper. It
is his duty also
to look after the sick and poor, and administer to their comfort.
receives ordination from a Bishop, assisted by several Elders,
and has full
authority to administer all the ordinances
of God's house. A Presiding Elder, though of no higher order
than an Elder,
has charge of several circuits and stations, called collectively
and is appointed to his charge by the Bishop. It is his duty
to visit each
circuit or station once a quarter, to preach, to administer the
to call together the Travelling and Local Preachers, Exhorters,
and Class-leaders of the circuit or station for the Quarterly
and, in the absence of a Bishop, to receive, try, suspend,
or expel Preachers,
according to the Discipline.
A Bishop is elected by the General Conference, and is
consecrated to his
office by the imposition of the hands of three Bishops;
or by a Bishop and
several Elders; or, if there be no Bishop living, by any
three of the Elders
who may be designated to that service by the General
Conference. It is his
duty to travel through the work at large; to superintend
the temporal and
spiritual affairs of the Church; to preside in the Annual
and General Conferences; to ordain such as may be elected
by the Annual
Conferences to the order of Deacons or Elders, and to
appoint the Preachers
to their several circuits or stations. The Bishop is
responsible for his
official conduct to the General Conference. A Leader’s
Meeting is composed
of the Class-leaders and Stewards, in any one circuit or
station, in which
the preacher in charge presides. Here the weekly class
collections are paid
into the hands of the Stewards, inquiry is made into the
state of the classes,
delinquents are reported,
and the sick and poor inquired after. A Quarterly Meeting
Conference is composed
of all the Travelling and Local Preachers, Exhorters, Stewards,
belonging to any particular circuit or station in
which the Presiding Elder presides, or in his absence the
Preacher in charge.
Here Exhorters and Preachers are licensed; Preachers are
recommended to an
Annual Conference to be received into the travelling
ministry; Local Preachers are recommended to the Annual
Conference as suitable
persons to be ordained Deacons or Elders; and appeals
are heard from any member
of the Church who may be dissatisfied with the
decision of a Committee by whom he may have been tried for
An Annual Conference is composed of all the Travelling
Preachers, Deacons and
Elders, within certain territorial limits. By this body the
character and conduct
of all the Travelling Preachers are examined once a year;
admission into the travelling ministry are admitted, continued o
n trial, or,
as the case may be, dropped; appeals of Local Preachers are
heard and decided;
and those who are eligible to Deacon's or Elder's orders are
elected. An Annual
Conference possesses an original jurisdiction over all its
members, and may
therefore try, acquit, suspend, expel or locate any of them,
as the Discipline i
n such cases provides. The General Conference is composed
of a certain number of
delegates elected by the Annual Conferences, and has
power to revise any part of the Discipline, or to introduce
any new regulation
within certain prescribed limits. It is the highest judicatory
of the Church,
and meets once in four years.