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Church," referring to this important change says: “A little uneasiness had been manifested at times by some of the Local Preachers, because they thought they had been abridged of some of their rights in not being permitted to be examined, licensed, and tried by their peers exclusively. To remove the cause of their dissatisfaction by granting them the privilege of transacting the business which related to themselves exclusively, this General Conference (1820) created a ‘District Conference,' to be composed of all the Local Preachers in the Presiding Elder's district who shall have been licensed two years."
A special committee, comprising the late Dr. Martin Ruter, Bishop Capers, and three others, framed a plan of a District Conference, and it passed May 18, 1820; the features of which may be gathered from the following condensation : The Presiding Elder of the district, or, in his absence, such person as the District Meeting might elect for the purpose, was to be President. The Conference was authorized to grant licenses to proper persons to preach as Local Preachers, to renew their licenses, to recommend to Annual Conferences suitable persons for Deacon's and Elder's orders in the local ministry, for admission on trial in an Annual Conference, to try, suspend, expel, or acquit such Local Preachers as might be accused; but it could not license any man to preach unless he was recommended by a Quarterly Conference. In fact, all the powers formerly belonging to the Quarterly Conference which related to Local Preachers, except simply the privilege of recommending candidates for the office of the local ministry, were transferred to this District Conference. At the session of the General Conference in Baltimore, May, 1824, the seat of the “Radical” controversy, on May 12 a resolution was offered to do away with District Conferences, and make all ordained Local Preachers members of Annual Conferences, which was lost. Dr. W. Winans, of the Mississippi Conference, subsequently reported on behalf of the Committee on Local Preachers, that petitions had been considered for and against District Conferences, and that the request to allow a delegation of Local Preachers to the General Conference was inexpedient; and the report then recommended amendments to the chapter in the Discipline that when District Conferences were not held, or failed to transact all the business necessary, the Quarterly Conference was authorized to transact it. Also licenses were ordered to be renewed annually, and a clause inserted making it necessary for admission into the traveling connection to be first recommended by the Quarterly Conference. When the General Conference assembled in Pittsburgh, Pa., May, 1828, while the “Radical” controversy was at hightide, under the lead of M’Caine, Jennings, Snethen, Shinn, Brown, and others, the organization existed more in letter than in practice. This General Conference provided that a majority of the members of a District Conference should be a
quorum to do business.” Action was taken by inserting a clause, “ Provided, that no person shall be licensed to preach without the recommendation of the Society of which he is a member, or of a Leaders' Meeting.” By the time the General Conference convened in Philadelphia, in May, 1832, the organization seemed to exist more in name than in fact, and its deathknell was virtually secured, without seriously affecting the condition or relation of Local Preachers, as the Quarterly Conference was fully competent to perform any or all functions neglected by the District Conference. When the General Conference assembled in Cincinnati, O., May, 1836, it was found that causes had grown up, almost wholly outside of the organization itself, that had antagonized its design, and rendered it inoperative. Its abandonment was but a mere formal action, and every thing relating to Local Preachers was relegated back again to the Quarterly Conference, to the same condition in which they were previous to 1820.
A wide-spread feeling, gathering momentum for years, existed, that an intermediate Conference, so useful among the English Wesleyans, and so potent as an arm of denominational power in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, was absolutely necessary. The culmination of the lay sentiment in the Church by the introduction of laymen into the General Conference made the necessity still more imperative that a mixed body should exist, and possibly the two progressive steps would help to make the solution of the introduction of laymen into all bodies to “confer” on the interests of Methodism. Under this condition of sentiment in the Church the Bishops, in their Address to the General Conference of 1872, wisely recommended attention to the subject of District Conferences: “We deem this (District Conferences) a matter of considerable practical
FOURTH SERIES, VOL. XXXII.-19
importance, and think if such Conferences were carefully constituted, and their duties and prerogatives strictly defined, they might be rendered highly useful. In our opinion there should be two sessions held annually; the first near the commencement, and the second near the close, of the Conference year.”
In the distribution of the portions of this able address to the standing committees, the question of District Conferences fell to the jurisdiction of the Committee on the Itinerancy; but the exciting discussions on the Presiding Elder and other live questions overshadowed every other subject; and it is evident the same unfortunate misapprehension of the character, place, and work of District Conferences possessed the minds of the majority of its members then, as has clouded so many minds since it became a law; and on May 29 the Committee reported adversely to the organization of District Conferences. Subsequently, in debate in the General Conference, it was stated that a minority reported in favor of the measure.
The following bit of history is in place. At the sixth annual session of the National Local Preachers' Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, a deputation was appointed to visit the General Conference at Philadelphia, May, 1864. A similar deputation waited upon the General Conference in May, 1868, at which time some conference was “held on the subject of District Conferences for Local Preachers.” Assurances were given by the Committee on Local Preachers that any well-matured and defined memorial to the General Conference on the subject would receive respectful attention and be granted. The deputation reported back these friendly assurances to their constituents at the annual session in October, 1868; also, the report of the committee of the General Conference in response to the memorial presented in May previous. Considerable discussion took place on the subject of District Conferences, and the outline of a plan was adopted. Brief action followed at each annual session succeeding, and at the annual meeting in October; 1871, a memorial was ordered to be carried and presented by a deputation of ten to the General Conference at Brooklyn, N. Y., May, 1872.
Dr. Daniel Curry was intrusted with the duty of presenting the memorial and accompanying fraternal papers of the deputaition, which he did by special permission on the thirteenth day of the session, and they were referred to the Committee on the State of the Church, of which he was the chairman. The memorial was as follows:
Resolved, That we memorialize the General Conference, as follows :
1. To organize in each Presiding Elder's district a District Conference, to be composed of all the Traveling and Local Preachers in the district, and to be presided over by the Presiding Elder, and meet semi-annually.
2. To give this District Conference authority to receive, license, try, and expel Local Preachers, and also to recommend suitable persons to the Annual Conference, to be received into the traveling connection and for ordination as Local Deacons and Elders.
3. To authorize the District Conference to assign to each Local Preacher a field of labor, and hold him strictly responsible for an efficient performance of his work.
Through the indomitable will and ability of the chairman, a friendly committee, and the faithful members of the deputations, the chapter on District Conferences was reported on the twenty-ninth day, and after a short but incisive debate, at the waning hours of the quadrennial session, it was passed and incorporated in the Discipline. It is evident from the discussion that ensued when it was reported to the Conference, that some sturdy blows in favor of the measure had been dealt in the Committee of the Itinerancy; and the point raised in the discussion in its favor, and ably sustained, was, that the measure deserved at least a trial, and that it was intensifying the recent action in favor of the laity, as laymen were constituted members of that body.
The chapter opens with reference to the action being in response to the memorial of the National Local Preachers' Association on the subject, and that portions of it and other suitable features were adopted. The full text of the chapter on District Conferences is as follows:
The District Conferences shall be composed of the Traveling and Local Preachers, the Exhorters, the District Stewards, and the Sunday-school Superintendents in the District. But if there shall be more than one Sunday-school Superintendent in any Circuit or Station, then the Quarterly Conference shall designate one of them for this service.
The District Conference shall meet twice each year, at such time and place as the Presiding Elder shall designate for the first meeting after the adoption of this plan by any district ; but the District Conference shall, at each meeting, determine the place for its next meeting, the time to be fixed by the Presiding Elder. The first District Conference for the year shall be held in the early part of it; the second, near the close.
The Presiding Elder shall preside in the District Conferences. In his absence the District Conference shall choose their own President by ballot from among the Traveling Elders.
The Minutes of the District Conference shall be kept by a Secretary chosen by the Conference. The Minutes shall be carefully recorded in a book provided for the purpose, and kept by the Secretary for future use or reference.
The regular business of the District Conference shall be,
1. To take the general oversight of all the temporal and spiritual affairs of the district, subject to the provisions of the Discipline.
2. To take cognizance of all the Local Preachers and Exhorters in the district, and to inquire respecting the gifts, labors, and usefulness of each by name, and to arrange a plan of appointments for each for the ensuing half year.
3. To hear complaints against Local Preachers; to try, suspend, deprive of ministerial office and credentials, expel or acquit any Local Preacher against whom charges may be preferred.
4. To license Local Preachers, and to recommend to the Annual Conference Local Preachers as suitable candidates for Deacons or Elders' Orders, and for admission on trial in the Traveling Connection ; provided, That no person shall be licensed to preach, nor recommended for orders, nor for admission in the Traveling Connection, without the recommendation of the Quarterly Conference, or of the Stewards and Leaders' meeting of the Circuit or Station of which he is a member; and in all cases the candidates shall first pass a satisfactory examination in doctrine and discipline.
5. To inquire whether all the collections for the benevolent institutions of the Church, as recognized by the Discipline, are properly attended to in all the Circuits and Stations, and to adopt suitable measures for promoting their success.
6. To inquire into the condition of the Sunday-schools in the district, and to adopt suitable measures for insuring their success.
7. To inquire respecting opportunities for Missionary and Church Extension enterprises within the district, and take measures for the occupation of any neglected portions of its territories by mission Sunday-schools and appointments for public worship.
8. To provide for appropriate religious and literary exercises during its sessions for the mutual benefit of those attending upon them.
9. The District Stewards shall, at the place, and at or near the time, of the first District Conference for the year, make their estimate for the support of the Presiding Elder, as provided for in section 478.