What were the similarities and differences between John Wesley and his Conferences and Francis Asbury and the earliest Conferences (ca. 1784-1796) of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America? The graphic below gives a simplified representation of the relationship of the two leaders to their conferences of preachers and the relative powers and responsibilities of the leaders and their assemblies.
For John Wesley, the Conference was a consultative body. He called it together, presided over it, and guided its discussions. He was an active participant in the sharing of ideas. Ultimately, although he recorded the decisions as those of the Conference, he was the authority in decision-making. Conference, during John Wesley’s lifetime, held and exercised no power of its own.
It is interesting to note the parallel between John Wesley and his Conference and the English monarchs and their early Parliaments. These early assemblies were made up of invited local nobility of the realm who were summoned to talk (parley) about matters of importance to the governance of the kingdom. The earliest parliaments were consultative bodies that advised the monarch (who made the final decisions on matters of state). Over time the privilege of being summoned to parley with the monarch was replaced with a sense of right; and the consultative nature of the assembly gave way to a constitutional notion of shared power between the monarch and Parliament. We can see an analogous development in the evolution of the Methodist Conference in Britain — although it took the death of John Wesley to bestow true powers of governance upon that assembly.
In the United States of America, there is a similar analogy between the development of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s leader, Francis Asbury, and the earliest Conferences and the development of political structures in American society. Asbury, who refused to be ordained and assume to the role of General Superintendent (later changed to ‘Bishop’) until and unless he was elected by the so-called ‘Christmas Conference’ of 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland, echoed the sentiments of republicanism in the newly minted United States. The right to govern would not be conferred by John Wesley upon a delegated subordinate in the former English colonies. Rather, the authority to govern would be granted by those who would be governed.
Interestingly, Francis Asbury assumed for himself (upon his election) the same basic set of powers and responsibilities John Wesley had delegated to him. But, he transferred to Conference those powers John Wesley might well have ultimately retained for himself (even if he may have permitted their exercise in his name by his designated superintendents). The empowerment of the Conferences in the Methodist Episcopal Church was a de facto coup that stripped John Wesley of any claim to be in charge of the Methodists in the United States. That coup set in motion a presbyterian system of church government in the new Methodist Episcopal Church that was supplemented by an episcopacy with limited powers exercised in the name and under the authority of Conference.