Itinerancy a word which Methodism has adopted in its ecclesiastical terminology as expressing one of the most characteristic features of that religious denomination. Wesley's plans for the revival of Christian life throughout the United Kingdom rendered it necessary that he should travel from town to town. He did so quite systematically through his long life. Very early, a few talented laymen were commissioned by him to preach in the societies which he had organized during his own absence, for he usually staid but a day or two in any one place. These lay preachers, or "helpers," as he called them, soon multiplied to scores, at last to hundreds; but the societies demanding their labors in the intervals of the great preacher's visits multiplied still faster. As early as his third Conference (May, 1746), he saw the necessity of extending and methodizing the labors of his "helpers" on some plan of "itinerancy." He appointed them, therefore, to definitive "circuits" this year. The word "circuit" has ever since been an important technical term in Methodism. The "Minutes," or journal of this Conference, show that the whole country was mapped into seven of these "itinerant" districts. Wales and Cornwall each constituted one: Newcastle and its neighboring towns another. That of Yorkshire comprised seven counties. London, Bristol, and Evesham were the headquarters of others. By 1749 there were twenty of these "rounds" in England, two in Wales, two in Scotland, and seven in Ireland; and at Wesley's death there were seventy-two in England, three in Wales, seven in Scotland, and twenty- eight in Ireland. The circuits were long, comprising at least thirty "appointments" for each month, or about one a day. The preachers were changed at first from one circuit to another, usually every year, and invariably every two years; sometimes from England to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and back again.
The "circuit system" has been retained in England down to our day; even the churches of the large cities are combined under a "circuit" pastorate. In "America," the societies in cities, and also the large societies in the country, are generally "stations," each being supplied by its own pastor. The "circuit system," however, is maintained among the feebler churches, and quite generally in the Far West, and nearly everywhere along the frontier settlements of the country.
Two other characteristic features of Wesley's system rendered the "itinerancy" not only possibly, but notably effective. The "local" ministry, consisting of gifted laymen in secular business-supplied the pulpits in the absence of the "regular" or itinerant preachers as the latter could appear in any given place on their long circuits but once a fortnight, in most cases but once a month, and in others but once in six weeks. Thus public ministrations were kept up every Sunday. The class meeting, comprising twelve "members," under an experienced "leader," met weekly, and thus a sort of pastoral supervision of the whole membership was maintained in the absence of the authorized pastor or itinerant. SEE LAY MINISTRY.
In these facts, so co-ordinate and co-operative, we have the chief explanation of the remarkable success of Wesley's ministerial system. Some of the circuits, in our own country especially, were five or six hundred miles in extent, including scores or hundreds of societies or "appointments," each of which was regularly visited, at intervals of four or six weeks, by the "circuit preacher," and meanwhile the "local preachers" and "class-leaders" kept each fully supplied with Sabbath, and, indeed, almost daily religious services. In nothing, perhaps, does the legislative genius of Wesley, so highly estimated by Southey, Macaulay, and Buckle, more strikingly appear than in this combination of pastoral provisions.
If its adaptation to England was eminent, it was preeminent in America, where the customary local pastorate of other denominations seemed to afford no adequate provision for the prodigiously advancing population and settlement of the country. "Methodism, with its 'lay ministry' and its 'itinerancy,' could alone afford the ministrations of religion to this overflowing population; it was to lay the moral foundations of many of the great states of the West. The older churches of the colonies could never have supplied them with 'regular' or educated pastors in any proportion to their rapid settlement. Methodism met this necessity in a manner that should command the national gratitude. It was to become at last the dominant popular faith of the country, with its standard planted in every city, town, and almost every village of the land. Moving in the van of emigration. it was to supply with the means of religion the frontiers, from the Canada's to the Gulf of Mexico, from Puget's Sound to the Gulf of California. It was to do this indispensable work by means peculiar to itself; by districting the land into circuits which, from one hundred to five hundred miles in extent, could each be statedly supplied with religious instruction by one or two traveling evangelist, who, preaching daily, could thus have charge of parishes comprising hundreds of miles and tens of thousands of souls. It was to raise up, without delay for preparatory training, and thrust out upon these circuits, thousands of such itinerants, tens of thousands of 'local' or lay preachers and 'exhorters,' as auxiliary and unpaid laborers, with many thousands of class-leaders, who could maintain pastoral supervision over the infant societies in the absence of the itinerant preachers, the latter not having time to delay in any locality for much more than the public services of the pulpit. Over all these circuits it was to maintain the watchful jurisdiction of traveling presiding elders, and over the whole system the superintendence of traveling bishops, to whom the entire nation was to be a common diocese" (Stevens,. Story of Methodisms). "Without any disparagement of other churches, we may easily see that they were not in a state to meet the pressing wants of the country. The Episcopal Church was much shattered and enfeebled, was destitute of the episcopal order, had to wait long, and urge her plea ardently upon the attention of the bishops of England before they could procure consecration for any of her ministers (and, as is well known, the non-existence of a bishop involves amongst the Episcopalians the non- existence of the Church), so that this community was not in a position to undertake to any great extent an aggressive service. The principles of the Independents, which subordinate the call of a minister to the voice of the Church. placed a bar in the way of their seeking the outlying population, inasmuch as there were no Churches to address this call; and, though the Presbyterian system is not necessarily so stringent in these matters as Independent churches acting on their theories, yet, as they cannot move without the action of their synodical bodies, there was little prospect of their doing much missionary work. Thus this work fell very much into the hands of the Methodist itinerancy. The men were admirably fitted for their task. Rich in religious enjoyment, full of faith and love, zealous and energetic, trained to labor and exertion, actuated by one single motive — that of glorifying God, they thought not of privation, but unhesitatingly followed the emigrants and 'squatters' in their peregrinations wherever they went. American society was thus imbued with Christian truth and principle, as well as accustomed to religious ordinances, in its normal state" (London Quarterly Ret Review, October, 1854, p. 125).
Wesley started with no "theory" of ministerial itinerancy. The expediency of the plan alone led to its adoption; but he died believing in it as a theory, as, indeed, the apostolic plan of evangelization. In his estimation, it not only had a salutary effect on the evangelists, by keeping them energetic and chivalrous, but it had the capital advantage of enabling one preacher to minister the truth to many places, and it made small abilities available on a large scale. He says that he believes he should himself preach even his congregation "asleep" were he to stay in one place an entire year. Nor could he "believe that it was ever the Lord's will that any congregation should have one teacher only." "We have found," he writes, "by long and constant experience, that a frequent exchange of teachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another. No one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation." (A. S.)
There can be no question that an itinerant ministry has the sanction of the highest scriptural examples. Christ was an itinerant. His ministry in the flesh was not a settled pastorate; he went about doing good. The twelve disciples were itinerants, both before and after the crucifixion and resurrection. They went from city to city preaching the Gospel of the kingdom. And the prophets before them were itinerants. Samuel had his circle of appointments; Elijah, and, after him, Elisha, had no settled abode even, but moved about from place to place. These were all itinerants. If in the early Christian Church, even while the apostles were yet at work, there are evidences that a stationary ministry was occasionally introduced, it does not appear to have entered into the original plan of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Is there one word," says Beauchamp (Letters on the Call and Qualifications of Ministers of the Gospel [Charleston, S. C., 1849, 18mo], page 97), perhaps too strongly, "in the New Testament from which anything can be inferred in favor of a settled ministry? The whole of this sacred book breathes the spirit of itinerancy; and all the transactions recorded in it, in reference to the ministry, agree with this spirit." Nay, it is unquestionably true that in the early Christian Church, though many were in favor of a settled ministry, and numerous the efforts to bring it about, most of the Christian preachers were "itinerants." In the Latin Church, itinerant preachers have ever been employed: they form a special religious order-a class of preaching monks (comp. D'Aubigni, Histoire de la Reformation, 5, 102). Thus Berenger, in France. employed itinerant ministers to spread his objections to the doctrine of transubstantiation; Wycliffe, in England, introduced the system of itinerant preaching, and the Swiss historian goes so far even as to assert that the reformatory movements among the Christians of England have all been marled by an effort to introduce the system of itinerant preaching. "This kind of preaching always reappears in England in the grand epochs of the Church" (ibid. p. 103). But if Wycliffe and the Reformers were first in their efforts to introduce itinerant preaching, it is to Wesley, nevertheless, that alone is due the credit of organizing "itinerancy" as a permanent and universal scheme of ministerial labor throughout a large denomination.
The itinerancy has always been a feature cherished with jealous care by the Methodist bodies, and with respect to bishops it is hedged about by one of the restrictive rules in the Meth. Epis. Church (see their Discipline, Powers of the General Conference). The length of time for which the traveling preachers may remain on the same "charge" (whether a circuit or station) has varied at different times in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and is now limited to three years. "Presiding elders" can remain only four years on the same "district." As to the advantages and disadvantages of the itinerant system, no one has given a more unbiased account of the objections that have thus far been presented against the continuation of "itinerancy" than Dr. Crane (Method. Quart. Rev., Jan. 1866, p. 73 sq.), and we follow him in the main, supplementing it only with what comes from other churches.
1. "The people are restricted in the choice of their pastors." If this be true, no other system so soon remedies the difficulty as the itinerancy, for it secures at the same time with the pastor a further change within a short period, without inflicting dishonor or injustice.
2. "At certain fixed intervals it removes the pastor with whom the people have become acquainted, and substitutes a stranger in his place." In return, it affords each church the benefit of the varied endowments of many ministers, and, moreover keeps ministers and people in vigorous action.
3. "Societies and congregations have less cohesive force than their own good demands." This, of all objections, has been the one most frequently urged, and is, perhaps, the only one that it is hard to deny. It is with a view to obviate this evil that many have advocated an extension of the term of service to five or more years.
4. "The change sometimes comes inopportunely." If this happen in some instances, and they can, after all, be but few, much greater are the advantages which arise from this system, as it never leaves a church without a pastor, and at the same time also secures to the minister a pastorate, so long as he is able to work effectively in the Gospel field. The greatest problem for other denominations to solve is "unemployed ministers." Thus a writer in the Intelligencer, speaking of the trials resulting from a want of an itinerant ministry in the Reformed (Dutch) Church, says of Methodism: "No man who can work, and wants to work, need be idle, with fields appointed and the Church's benedictions upon those who strive to till them, and no man is laid upon the shelf till age, infirmity, or misconduct places him there; while, when age and infirmity come, that Church still supports and cherishes those who have worn life out in her and the Master's work. That a Church thus served with the whole life-long energies other ministry should thrive and grow under the divine blessing, need surprise no one who properly weighs the bearings of cause and effect. The ruling out by our churches of half the aggregate effective force of the ministry, which a growing fastidiousness in the matter of choosing and settling preachers causes to be practically lost to the Church, has a gloomy look for her future prosperity. The prospect of such a life-voyage is not apt to be specially attractive to youth pondering whether or not to embark; for, once embarked, unless it be a Methodist vessel that bears them, they may find themselves stranded high and dry, and that from no fault of theirs, ere the voyage is half run."
5. "The brief pastorates are liable to create an unwise love of novelty and excitement." This, if somewhat true, is not a very formidable objection; while, on the other hand, the evil of indifference and dissatisfaction, so liable to be produced by a long pastoral term, is far greater. The brief pastorates afford the minister time and mental force for the preparation of a comparatively small number of sermons, and are therefore favorable to thorough preparation for the pulpit. Says Dr. Isaac Taylor (Wesley and Methodism, Lond. 1851), "Any one who, endowed with some natural faculty arid fluency of utterance, has made the experiment, will have found it far from difficult to acquire the power of continuous and pertinent speaking upon familiar topics, especially upon religious topics, and so to hold out for thirty or forty minutes or more; and if this habit of speaking be well husbanded, and kept always within the safe enclosures of conventional phrases, and of authenticated modes of thinking, this preacher may be always ready to ascend the pulpit, in season and out of season. His sermon, or his set of discourses, is, in fact, the glib run of the mental associations upon worn tracks, this way or that, as the mind may chance to take its start from a given text. This sort of mindless facility of speaking proves a sore temptation to many a located minister, and its consequence is to leave many a congregation sitting from year to year deep in a quagmire. Better than this, undoubtedly, would be itinerancy-far better is a frequent shifting of monotonies than a fixedness of the same." But also to the "itinerant" himself the system affords many advantages, though, it is true, it also subjects him to some disadvantages. The pros and cons of this part of the question are these:
1. "It restricts him in the choice of his field of labor." But if this be a disadvantage, it is fully atoned for by the fact that, however restricted, the field is certain. — '
2. "It tends in some cases to lessen the amount paid for the support of the pastor." If this be true, it can be so only measurably, for of late, at least, the Methodist pastor is remunerated as well as his brethren in the sister churches, while the itinerancy affords him a greater degree of independence, enabling him to "speak boldly, as he ought to speak."
3. "It deprives the minister and his family of a permanent place of residence." This the more prolonged stay has measurably remedied, but it is a question whether a still longer term would not deprive the itinerant of one of the greatest blessings, health. It is held by competent judges, and the point is also made by Dr. Crane, that the itinerancy is conducive to health and long life, as the vital forces of a pastor settled over a congregation for many years in succession are necessarily subjected to a fearful strain, and thus what appears at first a family deprivation turns out really to be a great blessing to the entire household. See, besides the articles and books already referred to, Hodgson, Eccles. Polity of Methodism defended, especially p. 95-118; Porter, Compendium of Methodism.