RESEARCHING YOUR UNITED METHODIST ANCESTORS: A BRIEF GUIDE
START WITH THREE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
1. Was my ancestor an ordained minister? Many families have the tradition that "great-grandpa was a circuit rider." Such family history may or may not be accurate. All circuit riders were not ordained clergy! If great-grandpa was not ordained, then most annual conference journals will not have any record of him.
2. Where did my ancestor perform his or her ministry? Did your ancestor pr(mch in Illinois? Where in Illinois? (There are three distinct annual conferences in Illinois, each with its own records!) Find out the specific geographical location of your ancestor's ministry.
3. What denomination did my ancestor belong to? Today's United Methodist Church is the descendent of several predecessors, each of which kept its own records. These denominations are: Methodist Episcopal Church (1784-1939), Methodist Episcopal Church South (1845- 1939), Methodist Protestant Church (1828-1939), Methodist Church (1939-1968), United Brethren in Christ (1800-1946), Evangelical Association (1803-1922), United Evangelical Church (1894-1922), Evangelical Church (1922-1946), Evangelical United Brethren (1946-1968), United Methodist Church (1968-present).
Family records may give you the answers to these questions, but don't give up if you can't answer them all. The important thing to remember when you write for information is to include all the pertinent information you have about the person. The more information you can share, the better chance the researcher has to discover the information you want. Additionally, many libraries and archives keep query letters and use them to cross-check details and other information. You may know something that will help someone else.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
1. The General Commission on Archives and History
P.O. Box 127, Madison, NJ 07940
201-408-3189 (general number); 201-408-3590 (library)
The GCAU maintains a card file index of obituaries for ordained clergy in The United Methodist Church and its predecessors. The index is extensive, but not complete, and there are other sources available in the library. There are fees for research and copies; please contact the library for information and the proper forms. The GCAH does not collect local church records, and has very few personal papers of clergy.
2. Annual Conference Connuissions on Archives and History
Every annual conference has an archives which does collect local records and maintains its own genealogical sources. The GCAH staff can help you locate the appropriate name and address for any given annual conference. A complete list in loose-leaf form is available: The Archives and History Directory, $3.00 plus $1.50 postage. Order from the GCAH; prepayment is appreciated.
3. County and local libraries and historical societies
These often have church records, histories, and newspapers that can be very helpful. They also know about area genealogical societies and independent researchers who may be able to help you.
Annual Conference An organizational unit of The United Methodist Church (and all predecessor churches), consisting of churches in a given geographical area. There are currently nearly 70 annual conferences in the United States. Clergy and lay delegates attend a business session each year, usually in the early summer, at which time Clergy receive their preaching appointments for the coming year. Financial business and other matters are also addressed at this yearly meeting.
Annual Conference Journal Published every year, the journal contains detailed information about clergy, churches, and ministries of an annual conference.
Appointment The preacher's assignment by the bishop of the annual conference where the preacher holds his/her membership.
Charge The church or churches to which a pastor is appointed.
Circuit A pastoral charge of two or more churches or preaching places.
Deacon An ordained minister who is a probationary or associate member of an annual conference.
Disciplinary Questions Questions asked at every annual conference session which describe the complete business of the annual conference. In early annual conference journals, the questions and responses were printed in full.
District A sub-unit of an annual conference, consisting of a number of churches whose clergy are supervised by a District Superintendent (formerly Presiding Elder).
Elder An ordained minister who is a full member ("a member in full connection") of an annual conference.
Exhorter A person who was licensed annually to hold meetings for prayer.
Itineracy A characteristic of United Methodism; the practice of sending clergy each year to serve where the bishop assigns them.
Local Preacher/Pastor In the 19th century, often the first step to full ordination. In annual conference journals, local preachers were assigned to 'classes" designated Ist year, 2nd year, etc. This process often led to ordination first as deacon, then as elder. Today, a local pastor is approved annually to perform pastoral duties in a specific charge. Local pastors are not ordained, do not itinerate, and are not required to have a seminary degree.
Ordination The rite during which a bishop confers Holy Orders upon a person who has received appropriate training and education for the ministry.
Presiding Elder A 19th century term for the superintendent of a district within an annual conference. The position is now termed " District Superintendent."
Superannuated An archaic term for ordained clergy who through age, illness, or impairment, were permanently unable to perform any ministerial service, although they remained members of the annual conference.
Supernumerary An archaic term for clergy who, by reason of impaired health, were unable to perform ministry. The term signified a minister who could not preach regularly, but was willing to serve as health permitted. In the earliest annual conference journals, supernumerary clergy were not listed as 'withdrawn."
They simply disappeared from the clergy record.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Conference journals Annual conference journals are the primary source of information about your clergy ancestor. Since the middle of the 19th century, they have been published every year and contain detailed statistical information about preachers and churches in the annual conference. First turn to the section titled "Disciplinary Questions.' If you find nothing there, turn to the obituary section of the journal. This contains obituaries for all ordained clergy who died in the previous year as well as a list of all ordained clergy who have died since the founding of the annual conference.
If you can't find any help in the obituaries, turn to the 'List of Appointments," usually found toward the front of the journal. All the preachers' places of service will be listed there. Still no luck? Many conference journals contained the names of local preachers, either in a summary list or scattered through the journal.
Other possible sources of information are the reports of presiding elders/district superintendents. Until recent years, these reports were often chatty and filled with names of churches and lay persons. (Some journals do not include these reports.)
Don't give up if you draw a blank. In centennial years or other conference anniversaries, some journals contain special sections listing complete pastoral records for every minister who ever served in that annual conference. Some annual conferences listed the names of every exhorter or local preacher in their journals. You will need to speak to a knowledgeable person in the annual conference to discover if such information exists.
General Minutes The Minutes consist of summaries of the statistical information in all of the denomination's annual conference journals. All ordained clergy for every annual conference are listed in the General Minutes each year. Each church is listed as well; the General Minutes can help you determine to which annual conference a local church belonged.
Conference histories Many annual conferences have written histories (published and unpublished), and some have biographical dictionaries. Those written in the late 19th century are usually very detailed. Unpublished histories are found in the archives of the annual conference; published histories should be in the archives, in the annual conference library, and in local college libraries.
Local church histories Many churches have published histories which are filled with names and events important to the life of the congregation. They can be difficult to locate, especially if the church no longer exists, but copies should be available in the annual conference archives.
Encyclopedia of World Methodism This two-volume publication, printed in 1974 in limited edition, contains many biographical entries.
County histories In the 1880s, many U.S. counties published histories which include detailed information about agriculture, business, education, and personalities. Church histories were often included.
"Vanity" books Vanity books are printed by individuals. Many clergy have published their reminiscences or sermons in this way. In the 19th century, many memorial volumes for active church women were also published. Check with the annual conference archives or local library/historical society to see if your ancestor published anything.
Newspapers 19th century newspapers (published by both secular and church presses) printed marriage notices and obituaries. Check with the local library and the annual conference archives to see if the newspapers for your area have been indexed.
COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. Where do I write to find the names of people who can help me? See above under "Where to go for help."
2. I can't find my ancestor listed in any annual conference journal. What do I do? Make sure your ancestor really was an ordained clergy person. If your forebear was not ordained, it will be hard to find information.
3. I'm trying to find information about a church that's been closed for fifty years. Whom should I talk to? Try searching county histories and local history resources at a local library. Also check the annual conference Board of Trustees' reports in annual conference journals.
4. Do you have any information on my ancestor? Researchers cringe at this question! Please try to be specific with names, dates, etc.
5. Can you send me all the information you have on Rev.____ ? Historians and chairpersons of annual conference Commissions on Archives and History are usually not in the genealogy business. An honorarium is appreciated if the research is detailed and complex. Appropriate charges for photocopying should be expected if you want in-depth research.
The General Commission has photocopying and genealogical research fees. Write or call for information.
written by Dr. John E. Sims, Historian, North Central Jurisdiction Member, General Commission on Archives and History, 1988-1996