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Annual Conferences of a century ago

Written By: Phillip Stone - Jun• 13•13

This was my column in the Advocate for June.  We just concluded the South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference this week.

As we gather for Annual Conference, it’s worth remembering that we Methodists have been conferencing since the days of John Wesley.  South Carolina Methodists have been gathering annually since around 1785.  Now we meet in the late spring or early summer in a large convention center and stay in nearby hotels.  That hasn’t always been the case.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Conference met in the late fall – probably reflecting our days as a primarily agricultural society.  It generally met in local churches, and members would stay not in hotels, but in the homes of members of the community.  The week before Conference, the Advocate published a directory telling everyone in whose home each clergy and lay member of the conference would be staying.

St. John’s UMC, Rock Hill, the site of the 1913 South Carolina Conference.

The annual conferences that met a century ago, in 1913, were a lot smaller than we are today.  The historically white conference – known as the 1785 Conference – met that year at St. John’s Methodist Church in Rock Hill from November 26 to December 1.  Bishop Alpheus W. Wilson presided.  Bishops Collins Denny and John W. Kilgo were in attendance, and 215 clergy were joined by 37 lay members at the conference.

Among the actions taken by the conference, they supported the idea of building a South Carolina headquarters at the new Southern Assembly grounds at Lake Junaluska, they proposed appointing a commissioner of education to help raise funds to support the state’s Methodist colleges, they adopted the Textile Industrial Institute as a conference institution, and they voted to split the conference into two Annual Conferences, one for the upcountry and one for the lowcountry, pending approval by the General Conference.

A week later, the Advocate noted that 47% of the ministers in the conference were moving to new appointments.  Moving day came very quickly after conference, and that churches would have new ministers just in time for Christmas.  The Advocate also noted that churches should pay their new ministers quickly, because the expense of moving would make it tough on them financially right before Christmas.

The Advocate also expressed gratitude to St. John’s Church and the people of Rock Hill for hosting them very graciously and to Winthrop College for hosting a reception for the conference.

Of course, a second Annual Conference of South Carolina Methodism met that fall.  The historically African-American conference, colloquially called the 1866 conference, met in Orangeburg on Wednesday, November 19, 1913, with Bishop Frederick D. Leete presiding.  That conference, which lasted for five days, met at Trinity Methodist Church in Orangeburg, with 162 members of the conference in attendance.

Claflin University President L. M. Dunton invited the members of the conference to dinner at Claflin University on the first day of the conference, and they were also invited to participate in the dedication of a women’s residence hall.  Considering the close relationship between Claflin and the members of the Conference, this must have been something like a homecoming.

Although the two conferences met less than a week apart, there’s not much evidence that they took official notice of each other.  The Rev. Watson B. Duncan of the 1785 conference did bring greetings to the conference meeting in Orangeburg, which they acknowledged, but that act isn’t recorded in the 1785 conference minutes the next week.

So, for those of us who will be going to Annual Conference this year, remember that you are part of something that has a long history and a deep connection to South Carolinians and Methodists who have long since joined the church triumphant.  I know that’s what I’ll be thinking about when we’re singing “And Are We Yet Alive.”

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