Wednesday, June 2, 2021

How to Navigate Church Records in Genealogy: Methodism

By Jane Wilkerson 

(Editor’s note: This is a three part series dedicated to reviewing the different denominations, structures and histories of churches in Arkansas and how their records contribute to family research.) 


Church records are among most the difficult and confusing genealogical sources to navigateOne’s ancestors’ religious affiliation may be different from the family’s current practice; the institution or denomination itself may have gone through “revisions” such as merging, separating or renaming, which makes research challenging.  

The Methodist denomination officially organized in the United States in 1784 at Baltimore.1  The denomination consists of several conferences; each distinguishes between the official and business meetings for the church. They are as followsthe General (legislative body)the Annual (the regional body that consists of preacher and lay ministers from the district); and the District, the Quarterly and the Church. The Methodist Church has in modern times, added the Jurisdictional Conferencesituated between the Annual and District conferences. Below (or, perhaps, parallel to) the individual church-level conferences, the denomination long relied on traveling clergy, who were known as “circuit riders” and who would travel sparsely settled areas on horseback. The traveling clergy  sometimes took more than a month to cover their routes and held services in homes, fields and yes, even taverns. In between visits from the circuit rider, the congregations would rely on classes for spiritual fulfillment.  

The Methodist Church (or, as it was known until 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church) in Arkansas dates back to the 1810s, when Arkansas was part of the Louisiana Territorywhich was under the Western Conference. In 1812, the conference split leaving the state under the Tennessee Conference, and three years later, the first circuit, Spring River, was established. Around 1817, the first church, Mount Moriah, was built at Ozan (Hempstead County). One year later, the first district, Black River, was formed. It consisted of four circuitsSpring River, Hot Springs, Mound Prairie and Pecan Point. The denomination continued to grow, which led to the development of its first Conference in 1833 in Arkansas Territory at Spring RiverAt the conference, Little Rock was named the first station church in the territory.2  

Knowing church history is important because the more a researcher knows about the structure and history of the recordkeepers, i.e. churches, the easier it is to rummage through and collect the correct documents. Even if one grew up in a particular denomination, it is all too easy to make assumptions in one’s research based on what the church is now and not based on what or how it existed in the period in which one is trying to trace one’s ancestorA argument within a church can cause a split that creates two parallel organizations researchers will need to investigate.3  This issue is not a beginner’s tendency alone: Almost any family historian can fall into the trap of not knowing enough church history to find the needed documents.4  

Like many other churches, Methodism has experienced divisions and mergers and even reunions. Today, for instance the “mainstream” Methodist denomination is known as the United Methodist Church, but this has only existed since 1968Division within the denomination came early, one of the first being in 1813, when the Union Church of Africans formed. Three years later, 16 representatives, from African Wesleyan churches in Philadelphia; Baltimore; Wilmington, Delaware; Attleboro, Pennsylvania; and Salem, New Jersey, met to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which remains a discrete denomination that is part of the Wesleyan tradition. By the late 20th century, over 46 denominations could show connection to Methodism and John Wesley’s teachings.  

The moral of the story is simple: Before one dives into doing genealogy into church records, one should educate himself or herself about the history of the churches in the areaHopefully, this will make research easier and more successful.  

There are three excellent books written on the subject of Methodism in Arkansas: Methodism in Arkansas, 1816-1976, by Walter N. Vernon; Two Centuries of Methodism in Arkansas, 1800-2000by Nancy Britton; and History of Methodism in Arkansas, by Horace Jewell. One of the most helpful features in Vernon’s book is he lists all Methodist minister up to 1976 and indicates when they started and left the ministry in Arkansas.  

Next monththe Arkansas State Archives will look at what branches of the Methodist Church were here in the state and where resources can be found. 


1 The Methodist confession emerged as an evangelical revival movement within the Church of England, part of the “Great Awakening” of the mid-18th Century. By the 1760s, Methodism spread to the Thirteen ColoniesMethodist societies were formed under the oversight of the Reverend John Wesley. For some time, American Methodists, like their English coreligionists, remained affiliated with the Church of England, but this changed after the American Revolution: John Wesley himself ordained the first Methodist elders for America in 1784. 

2 Vernon, Walter N. Vernon, Methodism in Arkansas, 1816-1976, Little Rock: Joint Committee for the History of Arkansas Methodism, 1976.Nancy BrittonTwo Centuries of Methodism in Arkansas, 1800-2000Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc., 2000; Horace Jewell, History of Methodism in Arkansas. Little Rock: Press Printing Company, 1892. A current Methodist glossary defines a “station church” as “a pastoral charge comprising only one local church. This is in contrast to a circuit, which contains two or more local churches. 

3 The Methodist Episcopal Church South was the result of the M.E. church’s division on the issue of slavery; in 1844, a quarrel at the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held in Louisville, Kentucky, led to schism and the organization of the M.E. Church, South. This parallel denomination rejoined the older Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939, the unified denomination renaming itself simply the Methodist Church. In 1968, it merged with the Evangelical United Brethren, forming the United Methodist Church. Also worth mentioning in this context are the Southern Methodist Church (dissenters from the 1939 merger), as well as the Methodist Protestant Church (more dissenters, theologically conservative). The latter denomination makes its headquarters in Mississippi. 

4 Early in my own genealogical research, my mom and I decided to try to look for her Cole family in Methodist Church records. My mother’s family has been active in the Methodist church since the 1700s in Baltimore the “point of origin” for the denomination in English-speaking America.  Moreover, she was a “cradle Methodist,” raised in the denomination, so it was not something unfamiliar to us. We knew that her Cole forbears lived in Beebe; my great-great Grandfather Cole was postmaster there and had a farm in the area. One day, we were down at the Beebe City Hall checking for cemetery records, so we popped in the First United Methodist Church. We knew that the church the Coles attended went to was in town and that FUMC Beebe was the oldest church in the area, and the church secretary was more than willing to let us look at their ledgers. But…after looking through church records, we discovered that the Coles had NOT been members of the church. But we knew they had been “church people,” so where were they? Later, when reading Nancy Britton’s book, The First 100 Years: First United Methodist Church Batesville, Arkansas 1836-1936, and my great grandfather’s diary, my mistake became crystal clear: The Coles were Methodist Episcopal or, as my family would say, Methodist Episcopal North. The First United Methodist Church of Beebe had its roots in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a denomination that emerged in the years preceding the Civil War.