Presiding Elder is the name given in the Methodist Episcopal Church to an officer whose functions are those of a superintendent within limited jurisdiction. These elders serve under the bishops, and, together with them, constitute in their respective conferences a cabinet, in which resides the appointing power over the membership of itinerant preachers. The office is one of very great responsibility and far-reaching influence. Within the territory over which such an elder presides every minister is amenable to this officer, who visits the different charges three or four times during the year, usually at what is called the holding of the Quarterly Conference (q.v.), over which he presides, and by which all the business of the charge is disposed of. He also presides at the District Conferences, where literary and ecclesiastical culture is aimed at, and the licensing of candidates for the ministry takes place. Usually the territory is confined to an eighth or sixth of the Conference boundaries, and corresponds somewhat in extent to the average county in an Eastern state.
The office of presiding elder was created in the early history of Methodist economy in this country, and appears to have had its origin in the assistants whom John Wesley employed as helps. He had what we might call junior preachers at the circuits or districts into which he divided his work, and an assistant in charge of the whole. These assistants were then invested with nearly the same authority over the helps which the great founder of Methodism himself exercised, and hence they had an authority akin more to the bishopric of American Methodism. When, in 1784, Mr. Wesley caused the election of Asbury and Coke as superintendents or bishops, there were several assistants in office thus made subject to these two general superintendents. The question has arisen whether the twelve elders who were elected at the Christmas Conference of 1784 were simply traveling elders or assistants of the superintendents. SEE METHODISM.
As the presiding elders are now episcopal appointees, the answer to this query becomes important. There are two opinions. One party, advocating the elective eldership, insist that these twelve men were then elected by the Conference for the assistants work, and base their decision on Dr. Emory's interpretation. He says, in his History of the Discipline, p. 125, "All elders were at first presiding elders," and the distinction between presiding elders and "traveling elders" was not made until 1792. Section 5, of 1789, it would seem, proves the correctness of Dr. Emory's statement. The following is a part of the section on elders:
"Ques. 2. What is the duty of an elder?
"Ans. 1. To travel through his appointed district.
"2. To administer baptism land the Lord's Supper, and perform all parts of divine service.
"3. In the absence of a bishop to take charge of all the deacons, traveling and local preachers, and exhorters.
"4. To change, receive, or suspend preachers.
"5. To direct in the transaction of the spiritual business of his circuit. "6. To take care that every part of our discipline be enforced. "7. To aid in public collections.
"8. To attend his bishop when present, and give him, when absent, all necessary information by letter of the state of his district." That every elder, in the absence of the bishop, was equal in point of supervisory office and duty is evident also from the fact that the third duty in this section gives an elder no authority to take charge of elders, but simply of deacons traveling, and local preachers, etc., seeing they were equal in authority. It was not until 1792 that a distinction was made between presiding elders and traveling elders, and these were then put under the charge of presiding elders. It was at this date that presiding elders were chosen by the bishop from the body of elders, and those elders not chosen by the bishops were disrobed of office as presiding elders, and placed for the first time under the care of presiding elders (see p. 126, 1792).
"Ques. By whom are the presiding elders to be chosen?
"Ans: By the bishop. Among the duties of the presiding elder, one is to take charge of all the elders, deacons, etc., of his district." At this date, then, there was made a distinction between presiding elders and traveling elders, and not before. All the elders previous to 1792, therefore, were elected and appointed to the office and duties of presiding elder by the Conference, and each had equal authority in charge in the absence of the bishop.
Against this position, those who approve of the existing practice of the appointing of presiding elders by the bishop urge, first, that from 1785 to 1792 there were each year more elders than presiding elders; secondly, that the presiding elders were appointed to their districts, and that the appointment was by the bishop; and, thirdly, that if the bishops did appoint elders to preside over other elders, the Conferences not calling the bishops to account consented to the change, and thereby made it valid; and that it was the practice of the Church from 1784 to 1792, notwithstanding the disciplines required otherwise (see letter by Dr. D. Sherman in Zion's
Herald, March, 1876); and that Dr. Emory and others interpreted falsely the action of the early Methodist Church in America (comp. Stevens. Hist. of the M. E. Church, 2, 222, 224). The presiding duties which made of an elder a presiding elder did not, in the practice of the Church, belong to this new order in the ministry as soon as it was constituted. They belonged to the assistants, and were gradually transferred to the elders; and when, after the practice of nearly two years, they were actually transferred, the custom was legalized, the office of assistant was abolished, and the word disappeared from the minutes (see the Minutes and Discipline, A.D. 1786). The idea of this transfer originated in the mind of bishop Asbury, who found, after the eldership was instituted, as he says in his Notes on the Discipline, "that this order was so necessary" that he would make them rulers. Even his idea of the presiding eldership was not contemporaneous with the instituting of the order of elders, but came, as he says, when he "afterwards found that" they would be useful in ruling (see Notes on the Discipline, by Coke and Asbury). His idea was not put in practice until the Annual Conferences of 1785, when, as Lee (History, p. 120) states, the presiding eldership originated, but only in an inchoate form. This was months after the order of elders had been instituted. When, in 1786, the first law was made relative to the presiding eldership, it was made possible by the Discipline for every elder to become a presiding elder, so far as the duties were concerned, and here is where Emory and others have been misled. But as the bishop always appointed the ruling or presiding elders from the order of elders (Lee, History, p. 150), the practice was never to make all the elders ruling or presiding elders. Hence, from 1786 to 1792, the law of the Discipline never entirely agreed with the practice in the appointments, for there were hosts of elders who were never presiding elders. In the Conference of 1702, however, the law was made to harmonize with the practice. In the ancient Church the chorepiscopi (περιοδευταί) filled an office which must have given Mr.Wesley the suggestion for the assistant he called into office. See Emory, Hist. of the Discipline, p. 136 sq.; Sherman, Hist. of the Discipline, p. 153; Bingham, Ecclesiastes Antiquities, 1, 56, 69; Porter, Compendium of Methodism; Jeth. Quar. Rev. Jan. 1875, art. 4; April, 1876, art. 4; National Repository, May, 1876, Editor's Study. See also Rural Deans, in the article DEAN SEE DEAN of this Cyclopaedia, 2, 711.