History of the NE Conference

 

History of The New England Conference of The United Methodist Church, 1796-1995

---- by Faith Richardson, 1992, updated

 

For more information, go to the Boston University School of Theology site for the New England Conference Commission on Archives and History -- a wealth of information.


The Beginnings - 1789

Of some fifty preachers who attended the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784, recognized as the founding of American Methodism, not one represented New England. No Methodist society existed here at that time, although Samuel Meacham had organized a Methodist class meeting in Canaan, New Hampshire as early as 1768. The lack of organized Methodist societies was in spite of the fact that a number of Wesleyan preachers visited here, several to report their encounters with New England's strange mixture of Calvinist resistance and religious openness: Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Philip Embury, Richard Boardman, William Black, Cornelius Cook, Freeborn Garrettson.

It was Freeborn Garrettson who saw the potential for the establishment of Methodism in New England. He encouraged Bishop Francis Asbury to appoint someone to this new mission field, hoping that he would be chosen. However, Garrettson was sent to upper New York State, and it was Jesse Lee, a pastor in Baltimore, who was asked in 1789 to introduce Methodism to New England. A year later, Jesse Lee asked Bishop Asbury for assistance in New England and young George Roberts was appointed to begin work in Connecticut. "There were more preachers than classes and scarcely more than two members to each preacher." This soon changed. By 1794, Lee and Roberts were superintendents of seventeen thriving Methodist circuits.

 

Creation of the (first) New England Conference - 1796

It was at the 1796 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church that all of Methodism was divided into six Annual Conferences: Baltimore, New England, Philadelphia, Virginia, South Carolina, and Western. Methodism's first bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, record in the minutes of that conference: "The New England Conference-under direction of which shall be the affairs of our church in New England, and in that part of the State of New York which lies on the east side of Hudson's River; Provided, that if the bishops see it necessary, a conference may be held in the Province of Maine."

The first New England Conference annual session was held September 19, 1797, at the Meeting House in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. This building, erected in 1793, is still in use and is a United Methodist Historic Site. Bishop Francis Asbury intended to preside, but was prevented by illness. Thus Jesse Lee was appointed to organize the first New England Conference. The total membership was 6,563, about 4% of the Methodists in the young American republic.

Over the next four decades, New England Conference annual sessions were held six times in New Hampshire: 1806 (Canaan), 1810 (Winchester), 1815 (Unity), 1817 (Concord), 1827 (Lisbon), and 1829 (Portsmouth) ; seven times in Maine: 1798 (Readf ield) , 1802 and 1809 (Monmouth), 1804 (Buxton), 1814 (Durham), (Hallowell), 1822 (Bath); two times in eastern Connecticut: 1808 and 1813 (New London); three times in Rhode Island: 1816 (Bristol), 1823 and 1832 (Providence). Other years, the sessions were held in Vermont: 1811 and 1824 (Barnard), 1821 (Barre); or in various parts of Massachusetts: Boston, Cambridge, Granville, Lowell, Lynn, Nantucket, New Bedford, Springfield, Webster, Wilbraham.

 

The First Split - 1800

Hardly had the New England Conference been organized within the designated borders, than the first in a series of splits began. In May, 1800, the General Conference voted "that the bounds of the New England Conference be fixed and divided into two conferences; and that the one be called the New York Conference and the other the New England Conference." The New York Conference was to include all the state of Connecticut and all parts of the states of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire that were already included in the New York and New London Districts, together with that part of New York State east of the Hudson River. This meant that the New England Conference was reduced to the area east and north of the New York Conference plus Maine.

Four years later, upon Jesse Lee's recommendation, the large Vermont and New London Districts were moved back to the New England Conference. The conference had two other districts: Boston and Maine.

 

Lower Canada Included - 1816

Each General Conference seemed to change the boundaries of the New England Conference to some degree. It is in the Journal of the 1816 General Conference that one finds that the New England Conference boundaries include a portion of Canada: "that part of Lower Canada east of Lake Magog, or that part of Quebec immediately north of eastern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

This arrangement seems to have lasted four years. On May 17, 1820, a resolution was passed at the General Conference "that it is the duty of the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church to continue their episcopal charge over our societies in the Canadas, except Quebec" and approval was given for the bishops "to negotiate with the British [Methodist] Conference respecting Lower Canada."

Four years later the Canada Conference was established to include Methodist work in present-day Ontario. This conference very soon became the Methodist Church, Canada. It was this denomination that in 1925 joined with the congregational Union of Canada, the Council of Local Union Churches, and 70% of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, to become the United Church of Canada. Other Wesleyan bodies now belong, and it is Canada's largest Protestant denomination, with headquarters in Toronto.

 

Maine Annual Conference - 1824

The boundaries of American Methodism continued to be an issue. Seemingly it was Joseph A. Merrill, the presiding elder/superintendent of the New London District, who presented a petition from the New England Conference delegation to the 1824 General Conference that the Maine District become a separate annual conference. Historian James Mudge records that annual conference. Historian James Mudge records that "perhaps (the recommendation] emphasized the feeling on the part of its people that it should be separated from Massachusetts ecclesiastically also," now that Maine had become a state.

The petition was approved. Thus the Maine Annual Conference was authorized by the 1824 General Conference. Its boundaries were to include "that part of New Hampshire lying east of the White Hills and north of the waters of the ossipee Lake." A split developed in 1848 when the East Maine Annual Conference was formed with the Kennebunk River as the boundary line. This division existed until 1922. With the establishment of The United Methodist Church in 1968, one former Evangelical United Brethren local church was added to the conference rolls.

 

New Hampshire Annual Conference - 1829

A resolution coming from a committee chaired by Willbur Fisk, prominent New England Methodist, was adopted by the 1828 General Conference and referred to the New York Annual Conference. The proposal stated that it was "expedient" that a new conference be formed on the north, out of the New England and New York Annual Conferences. One may assume that this recommendation had the approval of the New England Conference delegation. However, Charles W. Kern, author of "God, Grace, and Granite," says that "no record exists of the reasoning behind this" and "New York's role in the development has not been explained."

When the New England Annual Conference met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in June 1829, a New Hampshire and Vermont Conference was created. The boundaries began at the mouth of the Merrimack River, followed that stream to the New Hampshire line, then followed the state line to the Connecticut River, and finally on the Vermont line to the "height of the Green Mountains."

On June 30, 1830, the new conference held its initial session at Barre, Vermont, with Bishop Elijah Hedding presiding. There were four districts: Vermont with 13 Charges; Danville with 12 Charges; New Hampshire with 16 Charges; and Plymouth with 12 Charges.

The 1832 General Conference shortened the name to the New Hampshire Conference without revising its boundaries. The churches in the State of Vermont remained in the New Hampshire Conference until 1844.

 

Providence Annual Conference - 1840

Recognizing the notable Methodist work done in the southern part of New England, the 1840 General Conference authorized and created the Providence Conference by again splitting the New England Conference. The Providence Conference was to include Connecticut east of the Connecticut River, Rhode Island, and that part of Massachusetts "south of a line drawn from the northeast corner of the state of Rhode Island to the mouth of the Neponset River, which line shall so run as to leave the Walpole station within the bounds of the Providence Conference."

The first session of the new conference was convened by Bishop Elijah Hedding on June 9, 1841, in Providence, Rhode Island. In that year there were 10,664 Methodists in the Providence Conference which had three districts: Providence, New London and Sandwich. Most of the local churches were along "the largest seacoast of any Annual Conference except for California and New York East."

 

New England Southern Conference - 1881

On April 13, 1881, the Providence Conference met in Fall River, Massachusetts, with Bishop Jesse T. Peck presiding, and reorganized itself as the New England Southern Conference. It still had three districts: Providence, New Bedford and Connecticut. There were 186 local churches with 22,564 members.

 

Western Massachusetts Returned - 1964

In 1964 the churches in Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River were transferred back to the New England Conference where they had been between 1796 and 1800. As we saw earlier, when the New England Conference was split in 1800 to form the New York Conference, the Connecticut River was used as the boundary. Later the churches in western Massachusetts became a part of the Troy Conference, after it was organized in 1832.

 

Southern New England Annual Conference - 1970

After a decade of study and planning, the New England and the New England Southern Conferences voted to merge at a special session held in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Saturday, January 31, 1970. Bishop James K. Mathews presided over the joint session, assisted by Bishop W. Ralph Ward, Jr. Conference members indicated a desire to initiate a trend toward denominational structural unity in New England that had been broken by various divisions begun one hundred and forty-five years earlier. Bishop Mathews also noted: "The rapid growth of our church in those days of slow communication and travel warranted the division which then took place. Today, in a period of rapid travel and easy communication, the possibility of our becoming one again presents itself to us."

The first session of the new Southern New England Annual Conference was held in Providence, Rhode Island, on Saturday, June 13, 1970, with Bishop Mathews presiding. By this time there was full participation of members of the three former Evangelical United Brethren congregations in Massachusetts that had become part of the conference when The United Methodist Church was established in 1968.

 

New England Conference Again - 1994

Since 1972 there have been extensive discussions as to whether the Maine, New Hampshire, and Southern New England Conferences should be merged into one or two conferences. On July 16, 1992, after years of ambivalence on the part of New England Methodists, it was voted at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference that the three conferences merge not later than January 1, 1994. When this is accomplished, Methodists living in the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and the state of Connecticut east of the Connecticut River, will again be together! New England Methodism is coming full circle! May the years ahead prove the wisdom of this unified ministry and mission.

 

- C. Faith Richardson August 1992

Note: The New New England Conference was formed when the three former conferences voted to finalize a merger in June of 1994. The merger then took effect. The New England Conference again came together as one conference in May/June 1995.