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ART. IV.-DISTRICT CONFERENCES.
EVIDENTLY the problem of District Conferences is unsolved, and they have failed to be utilized as an arm of service in the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church. An organization of this character was an imperative necessity, to develop a deeper popular interest in the affairs of the Church, and to strengthen the connectional bonds of the District. There ever has been a want of unity in our Conference system for the lack of a suitable body between the Quarterly and Annual Conferences, and the friction has increased with the growth of time. There are departments of Church work that are now almost obsolete and stagnant for the lack of using proper means to convert into practical use the vast power going to waste under the existing condition of things.
With the introduction of the District Conference, the regular gradation of Conferences seemed perfected; but the legislation establishing them was defective, and the usefulness of this new department was crippled at the outset, and it has since been imperfect in its operations, and is singularly weighted with objectionable conditions. First, in the gradation, is the Quarterly Conference, having supervision of a single Circuit or Station. Second, the District Conference, comprising all the charges in a Presiding Elder's District. The members of both bodies are the same, with the exception that only one Steward and one Superintendent of the Sunday-school are admitted as representatives in the District Conference, and Trustees have no standing in the body. In the Quarterly Conference all the Stewards, Trustees, and Superintendents of Sunday-schools in each are members. Third, the Annual Conference is composed exclusively of ministers, who are wholly under the control of the appointing power. Fourth, the Judicial Conference is composed of ministers elected as Triers of Appeals from the action of the Annual Conferences, comprising members of three different Conferences to secure impartiality of review in appeal cases. Fifth, the General Conference, which has supreme supervision as the highest ecclesiastical legislature, overshadowing all other departments of the Church ; and, being purely representative by ministerial and lay delegates, it
is the highest exponent of the will of the Church in all vital interests. This gradation of Conferences gives a unity and completeness to our system of government that has established harmony in every part. Take out the District Conference, and the unity and harmony of the system are disturbed, and the gap between the Quarterly and the Annual Conferences is too wide; and the consequence is, the connectional interests of the Church are neglected and must suffer. While the former Conference is almost exclusively comprised of the lay element, the latter is wholly ministerial, and the need of the blending of the clerical and lay elements in the District Conference, or some other intermediate body that will fuse the interests of both for the general good of the Church, is obviously necessary.
Legislation that provided for District Conferences, purely for Local Preachers, in 1820, and of a general character in 1872, was forced, unnatural, and the outgrowth of a pressure, wholly diverse from the natural causes that were recognized in organizing other forms of Conferences. When Mr. Wesley instituted class-meetings, the necessity for “leaders' meetings” was imperative; and, with the advance of the Church, the Annual Conference was a creation of the Founder of Methodism. What we need, as an intermediate feature, called the District Conference, is represented in the English Wesleyan body by the District Meeting and Local Preachers' Meeting; the first being organized at the first Conference after Mr. Wesley's death, while the other was instituted in 1796, by the Wesleyan Conference, which directed the Superintendents of Districts regularly to meet the Local Preachers once a quarter; none to be admitted but those who are proposed and approved at this meeting.” What has been accomplished by the Wesleyans through these channels, enforced by method, system and rigid authority worthy of the followers of John Wesley, we have imperfectly attempted by the District Conference. The incomplete working of the General Conference at first arose because it was not a delegated body, which made it necessary to perfect the organization as it is now constituted, and its authority ever since is sustained by all the law-power inherent in the Church. So the constituting of the Judicial Conference was the outcome of a necessity, and its requirements are rigidly observed But the District Conference presents the strange anomaly of being optional in its organization. It is to be created by the consent of the parties concerned, and may be dissolved by the action of the same constituency. The seeds of its death were sown when it was ushered into being; and its sickly existence and dissolution on every hand are the natural results of imperfect legislation. How long would the Quarterly and Annual Conferences exist if option were allowed, or, indeed, any other institution of Methodist economy as it relates to Conferences?
Efforts were made by those in charge of the measure and action of the General Conference of 1872 to blend the most popular features, by combining in one body certain functions of the Quarterly Conference, a Ministerial Association for biblical and theological literary exercises, and a Sunday-school Institute, with just enough religious and literary exercises at each session to increase its popularity. Had these features been pressed more, the District Conference would now have a stronger hold upon the Church. Instead of the movement in some quarters for its extirpation from the Discipline, it would have steadily grown into favor. History amply demonstrates that the completeness and unity of Methodist economy require some kind of intermediate body between the Quarterly and Annual Conferences, by which the lay power of the Church should be employed, and that Local Preachers could be vested with some form of recognition which is not now accorded them.
The District Meeting in Great Britain, to a considerable extent, represents the District Conference in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Its functions, however, are somewhat different, but it supplies the intermediate benefits; being always convened at a stated period by absolute authority, and without being held at the pleasure of a district. In the English Wesleyan system, which has no quadrennial General Conference, the Annual Conference being the highest ecclesiastical court, the District Meeting is ordered to be held in May, between certain dates, and is the second court in English Methodism. It was instituted, as stated at the first Conference after Mr. Wesley's death, " for the preservation of our whole economy.” It is an important body in matters ministerial and financial, and is composed of all the ministers of the district, including supernumeraries and preachers on trial. That portion of business relating to ministerial functions is first transacted, and on the second day the laymen appear for the purpose of considering certain connectional and financial interests.
The Methodist Church of Canada, in its recently organized form, comprised chiefly of the Wesleyans, and a dependency of the parent Conference in England, was modeled after the latter in its District Meetings, with somewhat enlarged powers and combining important functions. It is composed of all members of Conferences and probationers for the ministry, the Recording Stewards of the several circuits and missions, and one other lay representative for each minister and probationer for the ministry. The first day is devoted exclusively to ministerial affairs. The lay members of the District Meeting immediately preceding the General Conference are elected by ballot at the previous quarterly official meeting. Its business is to recommend candidates for the ministry, examine and recommend probationers, persons to be received into full connection and ordained; receive reports of trials and make regulations in reference to married men. On the second day it receives the reports from the Stewards of the circuits, recommends special grants to cases of affliction, inquires into the financial ability of probationers, elects members of the Conference committees, hears appeals of Local Preachers, recommends alterations in charges, and elects lay delegates to General Conference. There is also a Financial District Meeting required to be held in each district in September, composed of the Superintendent and a Steward from each circuit and mission, which is wholly occupied with financial matters.
In the Methodist Protestant Church each Conference is anthorized to fix the number of sub-districts, and associating as many charges together as may be deemed best, composed of the pastors and such a ratio of lay representatives from each charge as it may decide necessary. The work of this District Meeting is to promote all the local and general interests of the Churches, such as missions, education, Sabbath-schools, finance, pastoral work, etc. This is the only body between the Quarterly and Annual Conferences.
The District Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, is a great agency in promoting its polity, and performs important functions not delegated to the Quarterly Conference, relieving the Annual Conference of the minute details of certain departments of the Church. The Conference is cherished and heartily sustained by the Bishops, Presiding Elders, and preachers generally. It is composed of all the preachers in the district, traveling and local, including superannuated preachers, and of laymen to the number of the above; and their mode of appointment each Annual Conference may determine for itself. The business of the body is to consider the condition of each charge, as to their spiritual state and attendance upon the means of grace, missions, Sunday-schools, financial systems, and electing lay delegates to Annual Conferences. Prominence is given to religious exercises. It will be seen that its functions are more restricted than our District Conference in some respects. The Bishops frequently preside and vitalize every department. Through this body an interest is incited to provide for the Episcopal Fund.
The term “ District Conference” in our Church was first employed in 1792, but it was originally applied to the Annual Conference, as will be seen by the following: 1792.: "Ques. 4. Who are the members of the District Conferences ? Ans. All the traveling preachers of the district or districts respectively who are in full connection. Ques. 5. How often are the District Conferences to be held? Ans. Annually.” In 1796 the word “Yearly” was substituted for “ District." In 1800 "Annual” took the place of “Yearly” Conference, and it has remained the same from that time to the present. According to a record examined, a “District Conference” was held in 1805, at Leesburgh, Va., in the bounds of the old Baltimore Conference, by William M’Kendree, President; Nicholas Snethen, Secretary. The only act recorded was defining rules on "Slavery," and here the record of its proceedings abruptly ceases.
Petitions had been presented from Local Preachers to the General Conference which met at Baltimore, Md., in 1820, asking for the organization of District Conferences, to enable them to enjoy certain rights, which they alleged were denied them; and the demand was intensified by the controversy which was then agitating the Church, called the “Reform” movement, which culminated in a secession and the organization of the Methodist Protestant Church.
The Bishops had called attention to the desirability of some action on the subject. Dr. Bangs’ “History of the Methodist Episcopal