Organizational terminology within the Methodist faith varies based on time period, location, and specific denomination, but in general the Annual Conference is the cornerstone of church business and, consequently, its records. Each Conference consists of churches within a specific geographical locale, and holds an annual meeting to conduct financial business, report new member numbers, make preaching appointments, and handle other business matters. An Annual Conference Journal is published each year with detailed information about the clergy, churches, and other business matters addressed at the annual conference.
Predecessor Denominations of the Methodist ChurchThe present-day United Methodist Church in America, formed in 1968, is the result of denominational splits and mergers over the past 200+ years. Records of these predecessor denominations will generally be found in the care of United Methodist congregations and conference archives in the areas where the people lived. Predecessor denominations encompassed by the United Methodist Church include:
- 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 / Church (1803-1946)
- United Evangelical Church (1894-1922)
- Evangelical United Brethren Church (1946-1968)
Baptismal & Membership RecordsMethodist church records, including baptismal and membership records, are generally kept at the local Methodist church. If the church in question no longer exists or has merged with another church, then the records will usually be held by the new church. If a church has closed and you can't identify a successor church, then the records may have been transferred to the annual conference archives. Historians at the conference archives which serves the area in question can often help you learn more about the status of a particular church and its records.
Grandpa Was a PreacherMany family traditions point to an ancestor being a Methodist preacher, but this may or may not indicate that this individual was an ordained minister. The use of specific terminology may be important here, as the title of "preacher" or even "minister" could refer to either an ordained minister or a lay person who fulfilled many of the duties of an ordained minister within a specific church or circuit. A layperson serving the church in this capacity was often called a local preacher, especially during the nineteenth century. Titles such as reverend, deacon or deaconess, or elder often indicate ordination or at least licensure or special training for work with the church, however you can't put too much weight on a title, especially during the nineteenth century. It's not uncommon, for example, to find a member of the laity identified as "reverend" or "local elder."
If an individual was an ordained minister or other member of the clergy, then an official obituary can often be found in the Minutes of Conference of the Wesleyan or Methodist denomination in which they served. The Annual Conference Archives for the specific congregation will likely hold reports from the Annual Meetings, which include appointments to local congregations.
How & Where to Find Methodist RecordsIn the United States, the online directory of the Annual Conference Commissions on Archives and History hosted by the United Methodist General Commission on Archives & History can help you locate contact information and websites for individual conference archives. Many of these Conference Archives sites offer online finding aids to their collections, along with information on how to request research by mail. The online United Methodist Archives Collection Catalog can also help you to identify and locate conference and church records across various United Methodist Annual Conference Archives. In England, the records of many closed churches may be found deposited in the County Record Office.
Sites with large collections of digitized books, such as Google Books, Internet Archive, and Hathi Digital Trust, can be a good source for locating older editions of Conference Minutes. Try a search such as minutes "conference name (ie "north ohio conference") to locate such volumes. Links to online collections of Methodist records can also be found in this listing of Online Records for Researching Methodist Ancestors.