Bishops in the Methodist tradition: 1784 through today
Each time The United Methodist Church elects bishops, the church adds a new chapter to its history.
Let's start with 1784 and the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. What happened there set a precedent for election that continues today.
John Wesley had granted to Thomas Coke ordaining power as a general superintendent in September of that year and authorized him to go to America to ordain Francis Asbury as a deacon, elder and bishop on successive days.
Asbury refused the office of general superintendent unless the conference elected him. Appointment by Wesley seemed contrary, Asbury thought, to the democratic impulses of a newly independent country.
Asbury was elected by the gathered preachers, and thus began the practice of bishops being elected by conference.
The United Brethren in Christ selected Phillip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm bishops in 1800 and the Evangelical Association chose Jacob Albright as bishop in 1807. As these churches developed, they also elected bishops in their conferences.
How was the title "bishop" selected?
The use of the title bishop began three years after Asbury's election. The conference of 1787 adopted that title for the general superintendents.
Wesley was horrified and in his letter to Asbury of Sept. 20, 1788, wrote, "(Others) may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me Bishop!"
While Methodism in Great Britain and the Methodist Protestants in America after 1830 did not use the title, it has remained in the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist traditions.
Measures to block changes to the episcopacy
Another milestone occurred in 1808 with the adoption of the Restrictive Rule that would not allow the General Conference to "do away episcopacy or to destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency." That rule continues in the church's constitution today.
Yet, in spite of that rule, changes have come to the episcopacy.
"Missionary bishops" created
In 1856, the Methodist Episcopal Church authorized the election of "missionary bishops" whose area of responsibility would be limited to the mission field to which they were assigned.
Francis Burns was elected to serve in Liberia in 1858. Through the latter half of the 19th century, the travel of bishops became more limited, and even though each bishop presided over numerous conferences in a year, a bishop was assigned residency in a particular city.
The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1912 began assigning bishops the responsibilities for particular conferences, initiating the system still in practice today. After traveling through the connection as a whole, bishops now focused on their assigned conferences.
Two African Americans were elected bishops in 1920 without the restrictions of "missionary bishops," but the conferences to which they were assigned were conferences of churches with only African-American members.
Voting switches to jurisdictional conferences
The last major change was the shifting of the election of bishops from the General Conference, which persisted in all the predecessor churches, to the jurisdictional conferences in the United States in 1939.
This change was instituted as part of the merger bringing together the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestants, which had to select two bishops because it had functioned with conference presidents and not bishops.
When the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged with the Methodist Church in 1968, the practice of bishops elected for life prevailed. This had been the Methodist practice, while the Evangelical United Brethren Church had term episcopacy with bishops elected again after a four-year term.
In United Methodist conferences outside the United States, bishops are elected in their respective central conferences but with varying practices around the need for bishops to be elected more than once to continue in the office.
The last quarter of the 20th century was marked finally by having the roster of bishops reflect the diversity of the church as a whole. The first woman to be elected was in 1980, and those of several racial/ethnic groups have been elected with one exception - Native Americans.
Episcopacy in the church has changed over these more than 200 years and will continue to do so as those elected this week join those who followed Asbury, Otterbein, Albright and so many others.
*Editors Note: This story was first published on July 24, 2012. An excellent history to consult is The Episcopacy in American Methodism by James E. Kirby, Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2000. - The Rev. Robert J. Williams
All photos courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. Photos of Francis Burns, Jacob Albright and Martin Boehm are located at Drew University.
*Williams is the top executive of the Commission on Archives and History.
News media contact: Maggie Hilllery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 740-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.