By Heidi Heller
Methodism in Minnesota dates back to 1837 when the first Methodist missionaries arrived to serve the early pioneers and Native Americans in the territory that would later become Minnesota and Wisconsin. Over the last 185 years, the Minnesota Methodist church has experienced changes from congregations that served specific ethnic groups to various splits and mergers. The one constant that remains is the tradition of the yearly Annual Conference and the creation of the Annual Conference Journal. The Journal serves as the official record of the Conference and in many cases is the only remaining historical document that reflects what has happened from year to year in the Church. Until recently the journals were only accessible by visiting the Minnesota Conference office, but now thanks to a grant received through the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants, the journals have been digitized to ensure their permanent preservation in the Conference Archives.
The journals in the archive collection date back to 1850, when Minnesota was still part of the Wisconsin Conference. They include the minutes from every Annual Conference, including the abbreviated sessions held in 1862 and 1864 due to the Civil War. The journals also reflect some interesting stories about the Conference that might have been lost to history had the journals not been completed. A prime example is from the 1856 journal, which indicated that the Conference was called to order by Rev. Chauncey Hobart and not Bishop Simpson. According to the journal, the bishop arrived one hour late “from the opening of the Conference, having been delayed on the river on account of the low stage of water.”
The journals also reflect how the Conference has grown and changed over the years. As the number of Methodist Episcopal grew in Minnesota, the state split into two conferences—the Northern Minnesota Episcopal Conference and Minnesota Episcopal Conference—from 1900 to 1947. When they remerged in 1947, they became the Methodist Church. The journal collection also includes the journals for Evangelical Church, United Brethren Church, and Evangelical United Brethren Church. All of these groups were the antecedent bodies of today's United Methodist Church and an important part of Minnesota Methodist history.
For Conference staff, churches, and others, the journals provide information on churches, clergy, and the conference legislation that cannot be found anywhere else. The archive frequently receives requests from individuals working on family history and wondering if we can provide the churches where their relative served while a clergy or clergy spouse. Churches and clergy will use the specific data from the journals’ statistical table to understand how a congregation has changed over time. And Conference staff will access various pieces of information including clergy contact information, dates of legislation, or clergy service records. The information within the journals is valuable in so many ways.
The decision to get the journals digitized was an easy one. Many of the books are in a fragile condition due to their age and the ongoing handling by staff and others. By having them digitized, the physical books can be preserved long-term, and the information can be made more accessible. Additionally, the journals are one of the most used items in the archive collection, and this project provides wider access to everyone no matter where they are in the world. Thanks to the grant fund, all the journals of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist, Evangelical Church, the United Brethren Church, Evangelical United Brethren, and United Methodist have been digitized. The actual journals will now be removed from everyday use and individuals will be directed to digitized journals. If you are interested in exploring the digitized Annual Conference Journals, please check them out.
Heidi Heller is the archivist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church