Guide to the Conference collectiion
In this page:
- The role and structure of the Methodist Conference
- Historical background
- Major categories of Conference record deposited in the Methodist Archives and Research Centre
- Other Conference records
- Select Bibliography
The Methodist Archives and Research Centre (MARC), held at the Deansgate Building of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (JRULM), is the official archive repository of the British Methodist Church. It contains the largest collection of Methodist printed books and manuscripts in Europe, and is regarded as one of the world's most important collections of source material relating to evangelical studies.
The books and records contained in the MARC document the activities of the Church on a national level from the early eighteenth century to the present day. Local records such as circuit minutes and accounts are not held at the MARC but are kept locally. Similarly, records of Methodist overseas missions are not kept here, but are on deposit at the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
This guide, while not comprehensive, aims to introduce researchers to the specific Conference Collection which is part of the MARC.
The role and structure of the Methodist Conference
The Conference is the national policymaking body of the Methodist Church of England, Wales and Scotland. The Irish Church has had a separate Conference since the eighteenth century but maintains close fraternal links with its British counterpart. The British Conference meets every summer in a venue which changes annually. It consists of two sessions, each meeting over several days.
The Representative Session is composed of an approximately equal number of ministers and lay people while the Ministerial Session, as the term suggests, is restricted to ordained ministers.
The Representative Session transacts a wide variety of business, which includes hearing the reports of the several standing committees and administrative departments, considering and drafting legislation and passing resolutions on matters of national or international concern.
The Ministerial Session is responsible for admitting candidates into the ministry, authorizing retirements and handling disciplinary cases. The stationing of ministers is considered by both sessions.
From the ranks of the ministers is elected a President, who is the effective head of the Church during his or her twelve months in office. A lay VicePresident is also elected.
The first Conference sat in 1744 and initially existed to advise John Wesley, in whom all legislative authority was vested. During the last years of Wesley's life, the Conference began to assume a more prominent role and, by the Deed of Declaration of 1784, Wesley made provision for the Conference to assume supervision of Methodism after his death. The offices of President and Conference Secretary were created at the same time.
The Conference as defined by the Deed of Declaration had no lay representation. Decisionmaking was in the hands of one hundred senior preachers (most of whom were ordained ministers within a few years of Wesley's death), the socalled 'Legal Hundred'. The struggle to break this ministerial monopoly was a major feature of Methodism during the nineteenth century and led to the creation of several secessionist Churches. All the Methodist denominations tended to have the same structure, but the breakaway groups gave the laity a greater say in Church affairs and tended to impose restrictions on the power of Conference to the advantage of local Districts and Circuits. It was not until 1877 that the concept of lay representation in the Conference was universally accepted and this helped to pave the way towards union in the twentieth century, culminating in the coming together of the three largest Methodist denominations in 1932 to create the Methodist Church of Great Britain.
The Conference of the unified Church adopted the Wesleyan Methodist practice of having ministerial and representative sessions as opposed to the one session composed of lay and ordained representatives which had been favoured by the other Methodist denominations. The Wesleyan 'Legal Hundred' was, however, abolished, and the right to select Conference representatives, both lay and ordained, was given to the local Districts.
Major categories of Conference record deposited in the Methodist Archives Research Centre
All Conference and related material is covered under the thirty years rule, except for documents concerning disciplinary cases which are closed for seventy-five years.
This is the definitive record of the Conference and is the most complete account of decisions and deliberations. The Journal is not intended for publication and contains much sensitive information which is not covered elsewhere. It exists in manuscript rather than printed form and is closed for seventy-five years.
2. Daily Record
A record of daily Conference proceedings, printed at the end of each day for distribution among the representatives the next morning. As a published document intended for wide distribution, the Daily Record, unlike the Journal, does not constitute a complete record of Conference business.
This printed document is prepared by the Conference Secretary and circulated to the representatives several weeks prior to the opening session. It contains a complete list of representatives and detailed information concerning the matters which will be tabled for discussion. The annual reports and summary accounts of the several Conference committees and administrative departments form an important part of the agenda.
The earliest published agenda were produced by the Wesleyan Church from 1881. Even though agenda were also promulgated by the other Methodist denominations, these do not appear to have survived.
The Minutes are the published record of Conference decisions, but do not include detailed discussions. The information contained within the Minutes has varied greatly since the early Conferences, the deliberations of which consisted of a series of questions and answers. Significant information which began to be included in the minutes at several points during the eighteenth century included a list of those attending the Conference, preachers' stations for the coming year and preachers' obituaries from 1777. A valuable inclusion for modern researchers was a list of Circuit membership figures from 1766 and details of financial support for preachers' families from 1770.
Further information was added in the nineteenth century as the Conference administration grew in complexity and range of function. This included financial details relating to the various Connexional funds, alterations to Standing Orders, detailed breakdowns of circuit finance, and names and addresses of ministers, both in the home work and overseas.
The Minutes have evolved into an annually produced directory of information concerning the British Church and therefore form an invaluable and easily accessible resource.
Other Conference records
In addition to the major types of record described above, which are produced by every Conference, there are others which either were the result of Conference deliberations or were created to serve the Conference itself. These may not therefore have been created in unbroken chronological sequence or for every preunion Methodist denomination, but may nevertheless contain important information. Such records include the following.
Conference Letter Books
These consist essentially of copy letters sent by the Conference to individuals or organizations.
Papers of Connexional committees
Since the early nineteenth century, the Conference has regularly delegated responsibility for particular aspects of business to committees. Some of these, such as the Book Committee which supervised Methodist publishing, had a permanent existence, while others were established in response to a temporary issue. There has been an extremely wide range of these bodies, to the extent that it is impossible to list them all here. It is important to note that not all of them were common to every Methodist denomination, and that the names and specific roles of committees may have varied from one denomination to another.
The most important included Home Missions, Sunday Schools, Education, Worn out Ministers' and Widows' Fund, Book Room, Committee of Privileges and the Connexional Fund. Surviving records typically consist of the minutes and associated papers.
In some cases a Connexional Committee evolved into an administrative department or division such as Property and Education. Such divisions tend to have their own deposited records in the Methodist Archives, but it is important to remember that their origins lay within Conference and that early records can frequently be found within the Conference Collection.
Of particular interest to the genealogist are the papers of the several funds relating to the support of ministers and their families. These often contain specific personal details such as names and ages of children which are difficult to find elsewhere.
Ministerial Candidates Registers and associated papers
These are an invaluable resource for the study of ministers. The information contained within them varies, but at the very least includes age, place or circuit of residence and a testimony regarding potential for ministerial work. Other information might also include previous trade, offices held within the Church, education, marital status, preference for home or overseas work and in some cases a physical description.
The registers of the Wesleyan Methodist Church are particularly extensive, covering the period from 1803 to 1922 albeit with some considerable gaps. Unfortunately, very little candidates' material has survived from the other Methodist denominations.
Other papers within the Collection of potential research significance include Methodist New Connexion preachers' certificates, a register of enrolled Wesleyan chapel deeds, and papers regarding the Primitive Methodist mission to Philadelphia in the United States.
The Conference Collection contains an extremely wide range of material which touches on virtually every aspect of Methodist Church life from 1744 to the present. While it has been possible in this introductory guide to give only an indication of the contents of the Collection, it is hoped that this Collection will in the future be more accessible to genealogists and academic researchers alike.
E. Askew, Free Methodist manual. (London, 1899) [ref. MAB M1679]
William Baggaly, A digest of the minutes, institutions, polity, doctrines...of the Methodist New Connexion. (London, 1862)[ref. MAB M1763]
Frank Baker, A charge to keep: an introduction to the people called Methodists. (Epworth Press, 1957) [ref. MAW Jf]
George Thompson Brake, Policy and politics in British Methodism 19321982. (B. Edsall & Co., 1984) [ref. MAC 1g]
Catalogue of Conference archives. (Methodist Archives and Research Centre, JRULM, 1998)
[ref. Methodist catalogue shelf]
A digest of the rules, regulations and usages of the people denominated Bible Christians... (Bible Christian Book Room, c. 1882) [ref. MAR 218 D.106]
W.L. Doughty, John Wesley: his conferences and his preachers. (Wesley Historical Society Lecture 10, Epworth, 1944) [ref. MAW Jf]
R.P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the people called Methodists. (Abingdon, 1995) [ref. MARC 127]
H.B. Kendall, History of Primitive Methodist Church principles, history and polity... (Holborn Publishing House, 1928) [ref. MAB M1823]
Henry Smith, John Swallow and William Treffrey (eds.), The story of the United Methodist Church. (London, 1932) [ref. MAW Kf]
C.E. Wansborough, Handbook and index to the minutes of [the Wesleyan] Conference...17441890. (Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1890)
[ref. MAW M1364]
Henry W. Williams, revised and enlarged by David J. Waller, The constitution and polity of Wesleyan Methodism; being a digest of its laws and institution. (Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1900) [ref. MAW WM 319]
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