CHAPTER XXXI. General Conference in Indianapolis
In October, 1854, our Illinois Annual Conference was held in Springfield, the seat of government, and I was reappointed to the Pleasant Plains District. This was a year of general peace, and some prosperity to the Church. I think we numbered about four hundred conversions in the district this year; and nearly that number of accessions in the membership of the Church. In October, 1855, our annual conference was held in Paris, on the eastern side of the state, and I was returned for the third year on the Pleasant Plains District, which was now enlarged from seven to ten circuits and stations. Our districts in all the Western world are very different from down East and Northeast. There they have from thirty to forty appointments in one presiding elder's district; most of their quarterly meetings are held on weekdays or evenings, not embracing a Sabbath. The presiding elder goes round mostly to preside in trials of complaints or appeals, and as a kind of fiscal agent. Thus, no matter how talented he may be, his labors and usefulness as a preacher are thrown into the shade of comparative obscurity: and by the anti-Methodistic usages of these large districts the presiding elder's office is not appreciated, nor can it be on this plan: hence the hue and cry against the office. In the vast West there is a Sabbath embraced in every quarterly meeting appointment, and a presiding elder's services are properly appreciated; and if these Northern innovators would go back to the old landmarks of itinerancy, and not make so many little pop-gun, forty-dollar stations, the usefulness of presiding elders would now be as it was in the palmy, prosperous days of olden times. No wonder preachers and people complain under the circumstances; the regular work is cut up into so many little and comparatively unimportant stations, and so poor withal, that the support of the ministry is fast becoming burdensome. Go back to old Methodist preacher usage; let every quarterly meeting embrace a Sabbath, and then the old itinerant missionary will work well; but persist in cutting up the work, and making little stations, then appeal to the cupidity of these small fields of labor, and you may expect the table of the General Conference to groan under the petitions of the oppressed, to change the office of presiding elder, till congregationalism is the order of the day.
This annual conference was the fiftieth that I was entitled to a seat in, and during a half century I had never missed attending but one of our annual sessions, and I missed this one by sickness. At this conference we elected our delegates to attend the twelfth delegated General Conference, which sat in Indianapolis, May 1st, 1856. I was elected, among five other delegates, and this made the eleventh time I was elected to represent the interests of the Methodist Episcopal Church in that body.
There were over two hundred and twenty delegates in this General Conference, from California and Oregon, and all parts of the United States and territories. We had also delegates from the Wesleyan Methodists in England, and from Canada; also from Ireland; Brother Jacoby, from Germany, was also present.
From the unhappy political agitations of our country, we had anticipated troublous times in the General Conference, especially on the subject of American slavery. Many of our preachers who were strongly opposed to slavery, had suffered themselves to become too much excited by designing demagogues. Now it ought to be distinctly understood by all the people, and especially by Methodist preachers, that these demagogues care very little about human liberty, or the freedom of the poor down-trodden African. No; they are after the loaves and fishes, or the spoils of office; and while they are riveting the chains of the poor negro ten times tighter than ever before, and threatening to rupture this Union, what do they care, if they can ride triumphantly into office and suck the public pap? Just nothing at all. But on this, and almost all other long-tried and prosperous regulations of our beloved rules and disciplinary regulations, there were found aboard the old ship ministers enough to keep the old, well-tried vessel well trimmed, and leaving in the distance these innovators and spoilers of ancient Methodism. So may it ever be.
Just so sure as a leaden ball tends to the earth in obedience to the laws of gravity, so sure the multiplying of our stations tends to locality and congregationalism. Better, far better, for the Methodist Church this day that we never had a station. Put all the work in circuits, and put on as many preachers as the people need, and are able to support, and let the Church be blessed with the spice of variety and a constant interchange of preachers. There were several changes in the vital economy of the itinerant system of the Methodist Episcopal Church by which we have successfully spread the Gospel without a parallel in the history of any branch of the Christian Church since the apostolic day. I hope to be borne with while I make a few remarks on these matters.
At our late General Conference there were some of the preachers who wanted a change in the time a preacher might remain in a station or on a circuit, namely: from two to three years. They urged the propriety of this change; First: Because it would drive him to reading and study in order to keep up a variety for his hearers. Secondly: That two years was too short a time to become acquainted with his flock, so as to become a profitable pastor. Thirdly: They urged that the Canadian Methodist Church, our own child or the daughter of Episcopal Methodism in these United States, had lengthened out the time that a preacher might remain in the same charge from one to five years, and that the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England, who is the grandmother of the Canadian Methodist Church, had changed the term of service, and that it worked well; therefore it would work well among us.
To this I reply, First: That from fifty years' experience, I find that the return of a preacher, even the second year, to an appointment is not as profitable as the first. Secondly: If a preacher from sheer necessity is to be driven to his books, and study in order to keep up an interesting and profitable variety, there will be but little pastoral duty performed, and but little spirituality in these forced sermons, and a great deal of his preaching will be mere lecturing, and but little real spiritual sermonizing. Thirdly: The Canadian Methodist Church, our child or daughter, when she requested to be set off as a separate Church from us, on account of the civil disabilities under which she labored, instead of following the illustrious footsteps of her mother, the Methodist Episcopal Church in these United States, in relation to the time that her preachers might remain in a charge for consecutive years, flung herself into the arms of her grandmother, the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England, and as the grandmother is generally supposed to be somewhat in dotage, and seldom, if ever, qualified to raise grandchildren aright, it is reasonable to suppose that these Canadians borrowed this radical innovation on the itinerant plan of the Methodist Episcopal Church from a dotard grandmother; and however well it may work in Canada or old England, it can have no other effect in these United States but to localize our preachers, and finally destroy our itinerant system; and whenever this is done, farewell to the triumphant success of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
There was another regulation introduced into our late General Conference on which I wish to remark; I mean the admitting into membership and ordaining preachers who are appointed to presidencies and professorships in our universities, colleges, and various institutions of learning, without having traveled a single day, or having a pastoral charge as a traveling preacher; these men, without undergoing any of the privations or sacrifices of an itinerant life, are settled down with large salaries. Our colleges are rapidly multiplying, and I hope they will continue to do so, but who does not see that in a few years our local agents, presidents, and professors may form even a majority of our annual conferences, and then the itinerant system will be very much like a man riding a race with the reins of his horse's bridle tied to a stump. It is wrong, fundamentally wrong. The itinerant should be kept pure and unencumbered and we should look out men to serve tables, or education if you please, but our itinerant men should give themselves wholly to the ministry of the word. These are politically and religiously perilous times, and there is a solemn crisis on the Church, but I hope God will guide the ship of State and Church. But surely this is no time to abandon old and long-tried usages for novel experiments.