Annual Conferences and General Conference (MEC)

Francis Asbury
Francis Asbury

We’re getting close to the end of our story of the formation of the forerunners of The United Methodist church. We’ve explored the beginnings of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Brethren in Christ, and the Evangelical Association, all of whom came together in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church (technically, the United Brethren in Christ and Evangelical Association had already merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren, or EUB, which is what merged with The Methodist Church.) But there is a little way to go in our story yet. So let’s get back to it.

As the 18th century came to a close and the 19th opened, people were moving west – and this included Methodists — adherents, members, “mothers in Israel,” class leaders, exhorters, local preachers, and of course, circuit riders. These Methodists often found one another in a new settlement and began the organizing process for a new Methodist society. Such spontaneous starts nevertheless ran by the book— the Book of Discipline — under the guidance of a class leader and the nearest local preacher.

Other class-forming patterns began as a traveling preacher (e.g., circuit rider) heard of settlements beyond his present itinerant rounds and appointed preaching for himself and his junior “yokefellow” wherever he could find a willing household.

Thus the boundary of Methodism moved with western settlements and often as the very first phase of sociopolitical community formation. New classes and preaching places, stressing a circuit’s capacity, demanded additional preachers and circuits and eventually new conferences. So after reducing the number of conferences in the interest of communication, efficiency, and fraternal authority, the preachers in General Conference authorized their increase as the church exploded west, north, and south.

By 1804, having drawn these geographical and demographic boundaries, the MEC came to understand that a preacher actually belonged to a specific conference. Individual conferences, once convened primarily as instruments of mission and ministry, thereafter became social and political units, within which preachers increasingly lived out their itinerant careers.

Joshua Soule
Joshua Soule

Joshua Soule, who would eventually be elected a bishop in 1824, proposed a delegated conference and explicitly limited General Conference’s legislative power in several crucial areas, among them any alteration of the plan of an “itinerant general superintendency” or modification of “our present existing and established standards of doctrine.” Soule’s draft, with this set of “Restrictive Rules” at its heart, came eventually to be regarded as the constitution of the church, but it passed only after considerable debate and testing of alternatives. The Restrictive Rules are still in place today.

From their introduction the Restrictive Rules were recognized as a critical turn in the denomination’s history. Soule’s effort at precision unfortunately left several matters ambiguous for later historians to debate… What were the standards of doctrine? While Soule’s Restrictive Rules said General Conference cannot change our doctrine, what defines our doctrine? Were the Articles of Religion the intended reference as the manuscript minutes of General Conference seem to indicate or the fuller array of Wesleyan transmissions, Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament in particular? Who would judge the constitutionality of General Conference actions? Was it the arbiter of its own decisions? Did plenary authority lodge now in General Conference in its “full powers to make rules and regulations” or remain in the whole body of preachers? And by making bishops presiding officers and no longer members of General Conference, had the church subjected the former to the latter? How would the bishops provide guidance on a connectional level?

Today, the United Methodist Church has agreed that the doctrine of our church is defined by the Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament, and his standard Sermons. This is why when you read the Articles of Religion in the Book of Discipline today, they still sound like they were written in the 18th century. They were! And they cannot be changed thanks to Joshua Soule’s Restrictive Rules. However, an interesting wrinkle was introduced when the EUB merged with The Methodist Church in 1968. The EUB Confession of Faith had been modernized along the way. So today’s Book of Discipline contains BOTH The Methodist’s Articles of Religion AND the EUB’s Confession of Faith. BOTH constitute our doctrine today, though the latter is much easier to understand.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Methodist spirituality in the home and in camp meetings.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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