The first Book of Discipline was adopted in 1784 at the historic Christmas Conference, which established the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, to serve as the governing document for the new church.
It was originally titled “Minutes of Several Conversations Between The Rev. Thomas Coke, The Rev. Francis Asbury and Others … Composing a Form of Discipline for the Ministers, Preachers and other Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.”
The 1784 edition contained 81 questions and answers, following the format John Wesley modeled in the "Large Minutes" of the conferences in England.
Among other things, this first Discipline explained the roles, duties and expectations of clergy and members, specified rules for administering the sacraments, set a common salary for pastors, and called for pastors to attend carefully to their diet as well as their spiritual practices.
The Discipline declared that American Methodists would continue Wesley’s mission to spread scriptural holiness across the land.
Question 4 asked, "What may we reasonably believe to be God's Design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?" Answer: "To reform the Continent and to spread scriptural Holiness over these Lands."
The volume also included the Articles of Religion, The Sunday Service, and the Collection of Psalms and Hymns sent by Wesley to the American Methodists. Today, we find these resources in three different volumes: The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Book of Worship, and The United Methodist Hymnal.
In 1786, a revised edition was published, the last to include the Sunday Service. Each year through 1792, the Discipline was revised and published in a new edition because the General Conference met annually. Since 1792, General Conference began to meet and revise the Discipline once every four years. These revisions addressed the specific circumstances and current realities the church experienced at that time.
The latter part of the 19th century saw a sea change in the format of The Book of Discipline in both The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It shifted from being a document of questions with answers, toward more of a legal manual with directives and mandated structures. This reflected the reality that the two denominations had become vast in size both geographically and numerically, and more complicated in structure. Their guiding documents needed to be more specific and less open to interpretation so Methodists across the entire continent could function as one coordinated body.
Today, we continue the practice of amending, clarifying and perfecting The Book of Discipline in light of our various missional settings around the world. The Discipline remains “the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together and ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’” (2016 Book of Discipline, Episcopal Greetings)
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.