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A Concise History of the Louisiana Conference

The history of the United Methodist Church in Louisiana was chronicled in the book, Becoming One People, by Walter N. Vernon (1987). Many churches around the state have a copy. The Conference office in Baton Rouge may still have a few copies available.

Also, I wrote a book on the history of Methodism in the Terrebonne Parish area, which has some additional information on early Louisiana Methodism. This book, Methodism Along the Bayou, is on-line.

I'm also working on pages for some of our historic Methodists. 
   • Richmond Nolley, pioneer of Louisiana Methodism
Below is a copy of a history written for an upcoming book on Methodism by Abingdon Press.

A Concise History of the Louisiana Conference

by Tim Hebert

Methodists were anxious to carry the Gospel to Louisiana.  Early Methodist circuit riders, such as Lorenzo Dow, ventured across the Mississippi River to preach in Louisiana at the beginning of the 19th century.  Louisiana was primitive territory when the United States purchased it in 1803.  Most of its occupants were of French and Spanish descent.  Catholicism, which had been the state religion for over a century, still held quite a grip on much of the populace ... especially in south Louisiana.  The Methodist Church recognized the need to reach out to its people.  Ministers were sent to the bayou, hills, and towns of Louisiana even before it was granted statehood in 1812. 

In 1804, Elisha Bowman was assigned to the Louisiana Territory by Learner Blackman, who was in charge of the Natchez District. After a short stop in New Orleans, where his preaching was not well received, he proceeded westward. By the end of his first year (1806), he had started a Methodist Society at Opelousas which boasted 17 members.  The Opelousas church has sometimes been called the “Mother Church” of Louisiana Methodism.  Rev. Bowman’s ministry reached from the Acadiana area up to central and northern Louisiana.1 

Over the next four decades, dozens of societies and churches were formed around Louisiana.  Typically, circuit riders would venture into new communities and hold services.  Camp meetings and revivals were popular events that preachers used to reach the people.  Hopefully, the people would respond and form a society.  Eventually, roots would be planted and a church built.   Some of the early buildings were Axley Chapel (1808),  Plaquemine Brulee (1820), New Orleans (1825), and Boeuf Prairie (1837).2    Larger congregations had their own pastors, while circuit riders often took care of several charges.  These early Methodist pioneers planted roots which exist in our churches and in our people to this day. 

Many places found themselves without a preacher at some time. For example, it was often hard to get a minister to serve in the Acadiana area of Louisiana.  The population spoke a different language (French) and was steeped in the Catholic religion.  Several French missionaries held services in Louisiana in the 19th century, including Charles Clark, Ebenezer Brown, and William Picot.  Asbury himself had noted that the Church needed to reach out to the French; but French would not be reached effectively by Methodism until the French Mission work led by Martin Hebert at the turn of the century.3 

Some of the early Methodist ministers in these first decades of Louisiana Methodism were William Winans, Thomas Lasley, James Axley, Benjamin Drake, William Stevenson, and Daniel DeVinne.  Each minister had his own approach.  Bishop McTyeire once said that Richmond Nolley persuaded sinners, Lewis Hobbs wept over them, and Thomas Griffin made them quail and shrink.4 

Rev. Nolley may have been the first pastor to die in service in Louisiana.  After courageously bringing the Gospel message to the people of Louisiana, he fell into a river one cold November day in 1814.  Though he made it to shore, the struggle and cold weather took its toll, and he was found dead the next morning.  His knee prints were found on the ground, indicating that he spent some of his final minutes in prayer.5 

From the beginning, Methodism reached out to the African-American population, both free and in slavery.  At many early charges, the “black” membership outnumbered the “white”.  Though the different races often attended the same services, sometimes there were different seating areas.  “Colored” missions were conducted at plantations around Louisiana, such as LaFourche, Bayou Black, Baton Rouge, Caddo, Monroe, and Bastrop.6  

In 1830, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed by Methodists who wanted more lay representation in the Church. Methodist Protestant ministers started arriving in Louisiana soon afterwards.  Though the denomination was never very large in Louisiana, congregations were formed across the state.  By the 1840s, Methodist Protestant churches had formed at Natchitoches, Greenwood, Bayou Mason, and Marion.7   They were led by pastors such as J. W. Jones, James Ford, and Elisha Lott.8 

Methodist preaching to the German population took hold in the 1840s.  People such as Peter Schmucker and Carl Bremer led the way in New Orleans, and several congregations were formed.9 

Education has always been a part of Methodism.  In 1845, Centenary College (founded in 1825) moved into the campus of the former College of Louisiana near Jackson, Louisiana.  This put a qualified Methodist college within the state of Louisiana.  Later, in 1854, Mansfield Female College was established and affirmed the importance of education for women. 

When the Methodist Church divided into northern and southern branches in 1844, the Louisiana and Mississippi churches voted to become part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  At the 1846 General Conference, the formation of the Louisiana Conference was approved.  It consisted of the state of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, the Baton Rouge area, and the New Orleans area.  Churches in the Florida parishes remained in the Mississippi Conference until 1894. 

The first Annual Conference of the Louisiana Conference was held in January of 1847 in Opelousas.  It was presided over by Bishop Joshua Soule.  The new conference reported 4,715 white members and 3,329 “colored” (as they were listed then) members.  Some of the pastors at that first conference were Philip Dieffenwierth, Stephen Davies, John Powell, Uriah Whatley, Lewis Read, and Philo Goodwyn.10 

Robert Harp exemplified the Louisiana Methodist pastor of the 19th century.  Soon after feeling the call to preach at the age of fourteen, he transferred to the Louisiana Conference in 1846.  He served appointments across the state in a ministry that lasted seventy-one years. An intelligent, unselfish, and gentle man, it was said that he lived the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians. His memoir stated that if Methodist ministers could ascend to sainthood, Rev. Harp would be placed at the head of the line.11  

Annual Conferences were held in various places around the state for the rest of the century.  From 1956 to the present (except for 1963), Annual Conference has been held each year at Centenary College in Shreveport. 

The 1850 census shows that of the 306 churches in Louisiana, 125 of them were Methodist.12 

In 1850, a M.E. Church, South publication (The New Orleans Christian Advocate) began to print the news from the Louisiana Conference (and neighboring areas).  It was published until 1946 under the leadership of editors such as Linus Parker, Charles Galloway, Robert Harper, and W. L. Duren.  

The M.E. Church began publication of The New Orleans Advocate (later called The Southwestern Christian Advocate) in 1866.  It was edited by ministers such as Joseph Hartzell and Isaac Scott. The Methodist Protestant paper was known as The Western Protestant. 

Methodism reached out to everyone in Louisiana, regardless of their race, culture, income, or social status.  By 1860, there were several churches that ministered to German congregations.  By 1875, German camp meetings were being held at Waldheim.13 

When the Civil War came along, Methodist laity and clergy participated.  There were over two dozen Methodist chaplains from Louisiana who served in the Confederacy.  Some of these were Holland McTyeire, John Hearne, A.D. McVoy, Clayton Gillespie, J.C. Keener, James Wright.and William Wingfield.   Many churches were without pastors, and bishops couldn’t attend conferences from 1861 to 1866.  When pastors could not be present, laity (such as James Parker and Jacob Ueber in New Orleans) stepped up to hold the church together.14 

Sometimes, a Methodist Episcopal Church, South pastor was replaced by someone from the northern branch. In Baton Rouge, the pastor at the First Methodist Church (N.A. Cravens) was taken prisoner and replaced by a pastor from the northern branch, though the congregation didn't accept him.  Once the war was over, the churches were returned to the M.E. Church, South.15 

Visit the 1861 Diary of Rev. Robert Trevathan Parish to see what it was like for Methodist pastors in that day. 

After the war, the Methodist Episcopal Church (northern branch) formed the Mississippi Mission Conference in a December, 1866, meeting in New Orleans.  A number of churches were founded in Louisiana soon afterwards. The Louisiana Conference of the M. E. Church was formed in 1869.  Most of these congregations were made up of primarily African-American members. Most of the members and pastors came out of the M.E. Church, South.  Some of the leading pastors were Scott Chinn, William Murrell, Anthony Ross, Pierre Landry, and Emperor Williams.16  

The M. E. Church, South educational institutions, which had been forced to close during the war, were reopened.  The M. P. Church soon established the Mount Zion Male and Female College.  As the M. E. Church moved into the state, they also started educational institutions.  The Union Normal School, begun in 1869, developed into New Orleans University.  The LaTeche orphanage developed into LaTeche Seminary, later called Gilbert Academy.  

The M. E. Church, South recognized that many black members wanted their own churches.  The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was formed as an outgrowth of the M. E. Church, South in 1870.  By and large, most blacks who had been served by the M. E. Church, South before the war now turned to either the M. E. Church or the C. M. E. Church.17 

A Southern German Conference was organized in 1874 by the Methodist Episcopal church and soon incorporated the New Orleans area.  Since Germans opposed slavery, some members moved to the northern branch of Methodism.  German was spoken in these churches until about 1900.  

The United Brethren Church made its way to Louisiana in the 1880s.  Though the denomination had sixteen churches in Louisiana at one time, most of the congregations were discontinued or united with other congregations as the years went by.  

When the Epworth League for youth was organized in the 1890s, Franklin Parker, Fitzgerald Parker, and C. W. Carter made resolutions for its formation in the Louisiana Conference.  Eighteen chapters were formed in that first year.  It would develop into MYF and then UMYF as the Church changed names. 

The women of the Louisiana Conference, M. E., South organized their Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1879.  Beginning in 1882, Bishop Hartzell’s wife was instrumental in organizing chapters of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society in the M. E. churches.18   In 1893, the Mary Werlein Mission was started in New Orleans to assist women.  It wasn’t until about 1920 that the Methodist Protestant women becan organizing chapters of the M. P. Woman’s Missionary Society in their churches.  Since the United Methodist Church was formed, the woman’s organization has been known as United Methodist Women.  Over the years, UMW has played a vital role in the ministry of the Louisiana Conference ... especially in the field of missions. 

The ministry to the rural French population of south Louisiana finally took hold at the turn of the century.  Led by Martin Hebert, the French Mission led to the formation of many churches serving both French and English-speaking people.  The Church learned that it had to reach out to people in their own language.  For example, the Methodist Church in Houma was the first church in the parish in 1845; but due to its lack of outreach to the local French, the church dissolved in the 1880s and wasn’t revived until Rev. Hebert’s success with the French Mission.19 

Centenary College relocated to Shreveport in 1908 and had four professors and sixty-nine freshman and sophomores that first year.  It has grown in size and quality since then to become one of the outstanding colleges in the nation. 

A children’s orphanage was established in Ruston in 1909, after temporarily being housed at Bunkie for three years.  As the years have gone by, the home has gradually changed from an orphanage into a Children’s Home for children from disturbed homes. 

Louisiana has been served well by deaconesses through the years.  Two sisters, Ella and Wilhelmina Hooper, provided years of service to the French and Indian natives of the Terrebonne-Lafourche area.  Ella Hooper began a Wesley House in 1917 that soon developed into the MacDonell School.  Wilhelmina joined her sister to briefly help out, and she ended up teaching at the Dulac Indian Mission for several decades.  Both institutions, though altered in purpose, still serve their communities to this day.20 

In 1919, the Gilbert Academy merged with New Orleans College and the property in Baldwin was converted into the Sager-Brown Home ... named after two women in New York who had been instrumental in Louisiana mission work.  For years, it served as a local school.  Sager-Brown continues to serve the area as an important resource for mission work.21 

In 1930, financial difficulties prompted New Orleans University into a merger with Straight College (founded by the Congregational Church in 1869).  The “new” college, Dillard University,  was named after a longtime proponent for the education of blacks, James Dillard   At the other end of the state, financial problems proved insurmountable for the Mansfield Female College, and it closed its doors.22 

For decades, there had been talk of merging the branches of Methodism.  Finally, in the 1930s, three Methodist bodies voted to join together. The north and south branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church joined to form the Methodist Church. The uniting service for the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Church, South Central Jurisdiction, was held at Trinity Methodist Church in Ruston on November 16, 1939.23 

We still were not truly united, however. The “black” churches, which comprised most of the M.E. congregations, were to be placed in a separate Central Jurisdiction and were absent from the proceedings.  The Louisiana Methodist churches in the Central Jurisdiction tried to view the separation as an administrative arrangement that would be corrected as soon as possible.  It would take a while, as Annual Conferences would be held separately for over thirty years.24 

Once again, when faced with war, Methodist laity and clergy did their part.  By the middle of World War II, twenty-two pastors (such as Oakley Lee, Howard Ellzey, George Pearce, Jr.) of the Louisiana Conference were serving as chaplains in the army and navy.  Some of the chaplains who served in hospitals were Lea Joyner, B.D. Watson, and Rex Squyres.  Laity and clergy did their best to support the efforts of our men and women in service.25 

Although the local church organization for Methodist men was authorized by the Discipline in 1944, it took a number of years before chapters became commonplace.  Forty years later, there were about 100 chapters of United Methodist Men. 

After the Advocate ceased publication, the Louisiana Methodist newspaper began a few years later.  Though it has gone through changes over the years, it is still publishing the news of the Louisiana Conference. 

After years of discussion, the Evangelical and United Brethren Churches merged in 1946.  The two surviving United Brethren Churches in Louisiana, Trinity and Roanoke, became the only two Evangelical United Brethren churches in Louisiana.  They were both founded under the leadership of Rev. E. J. Church in the 1890s.  

Over the years, finding money to pay the pastor an adequate salary was a constant problem.  By 1945, the annual salary for a minister in the Louisiana Conference, South Central Jurisdiction was $1,800 if you were married and $1,500 if single.26 

In 1952, a group of laypersons from First Church, Shreveport started the 1000 Club.  Led by Bob Lay, the goal was to enlist 1000 people who would give ten dollars three times a year.  The money was used to help new churches get started.  Over the years, The Bob Lay Memorial 1000 Club has contributed over two million dollars and has helped over 100 churches.27  

Although the Evangelical United Brethren churches had shared the same religious ideals as the Methodists, they were rooted in the German language. Now that English had become everyone's major language, and owing to the similarity in doctrine, the denominations sought to join together. The resulting 1968 merger between the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church formed the United Methodist Church.  In Louisiana, all of the churches were Methodist save for two Evangelical United Brethren churches ... Trinity and Roanake.  Trinity merged with 
Jennings First United Methodist Church in 1998, leaving Roanoke as the last Louisiana church founded as an Evangelical United Brethren congregation. 

Even though the Louisiana Conference was called the United Methodist Church, things weren't entirely united. Though all of the Louisiana churches were now in the South Central Jurisdiction, from 1968 to 1971 the "white" churches were in what was known as Louisiana Conference A (since it was organized in 1847) while the "black" churches were in Louisiana Conference B (which was organized in 1869).  After years of separation, talks had progressed to the point that the two Louisiana Conferences were ready to merge. 

On May 31, 1971, over 2,800 members of Conferences A and B met at the Gold Dome at Centenary College in Shreveport.  They were led by Bishop Aubrey Walton, who had been working towards this union for over a decade.  Separate conference sessions were held at first.  On the evening of June 1, both conferences met to complete the merger.  Louisiana United Methodist churches were finally united.28 

The episcopal residence was moved to the more central location of Baton Rouge in the 1970s.  A Conference headquarters was completed on North Blvd. in Baton Rouge in 1982.  

For a number of years, the idea of a Conference Center in Louisiana was discussed.  Finally, under the leadership of Bishop William Oden, the dream became a reality.  In May of 1991, after having approved the concept at the 1990 Annual Conference, 400 acres of land were purchased six miles south of Alexandria.  A six million dollar pledge drive was completed, and the Center and two lodges were constructed. The Center began operations in November of 1996.  A chapel, funded by the Cursillo community, was built soon afterwards.29 

With the 1990s came VISION 2000.  Local churches were called upon to set goals for the upcoming year 2000.  A four year process emphasizing various aspects of ministry was initiated.  Our VISION 2000 model has been used by at least seven other conferences. 

When hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana in 1992, a number of United Methodist churches were included in the list of damaged buildings.  Due to its location, Louisiana has always been subject to this harmful side of nature.  Thoughout the years, churches have been damaged; but United Methodists have stood their ground and have rebuilt numerous church buildings through the years. 

The Louisiana Conference made its first attempt at joining the internet community with a website in early 1997.  When the company responsible for the site went out of business, the site disappeared although the email address was retained.  In September of 1997, a conference call was led by Rev. Leslie Akin, and it was decided to start a new website.  The new site was constructed on a volunteer basis by Tim Hebert.  

At the 1997 Annual Conference, the decision was made to switch from District and Conference Council on Ministries to Ministry Teams.  These teams would be designed to be more hands-on and interactive with the local churches.  Each District Ministry Team is led by the District Superintendent and a District Missioner. 

The United Methodist Church in Louisiana is reaching out more than ever.  It supports ministries within the state such as Dillard University, Centenary College, the People’s and St. Mark’s Community Centers in New Orleans, the Methodist Home in New Orleans, Glenwood Hospital in West Monroe, the Dulac Community Center, the Lafon Home in New Orleans, the MacDonell Methodist Center in Houma, Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital in New Orleans, the Sager Brown Center in Baldwin, and over a dozen campus ministries around the state.  The Louisiana Conference is also supporting the efforts of United Methodist outreach throughout the world.  

Under the leadership of Bishop Dan Solomon, over 34,000 tennis shoes were gathered in Louisiana in 1997 to be sent to the children of Africa.  At the 1998 Annual Conference, over 12,000 pairs of jeans were collected for youth in need.  When a need arises,  Louisiana United Methodists faithfully respond with help, prayer, financial support, and love. 

The Louisiana Conference has played an active role in assisting in the establishment of the First United Methodist Church of Ekaterinburg in Russia.  The conference has given over $100,000 to help fund its construction, which is scheduled for completion in 1998. 

As the 20th century draws to a close, the Louisiana Conference continues to be blessed by the faithful service of our clergy and their spouses.  The clergy listed in this brief history are but the tip of the iceberg.  We owe much of the success of our Conference to the spiritual leaders of yesterday and today. 

Another factor in the success of the Louisiana Conference has been the laity.  It has proved impossible to list the thousands of lay persons who have been instrumental in guiding our Church over the years.  Many have their names in journal records and on church plaques; but many more have faithfully filled the pews each Sunday and have provided the backbone that has held this Church together. 

The final factor in the success of the Louisiana Conference is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He has blessed this state in so many ways.  He has inspired, uplifted, comforted, encouraged, and loved us through good times and bad.  Through it all, we know that we can do all things through Him who strengthens us ... our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

NOTES: 

  1. Robert H. Harper, Louisiana Methodism (Washington, D.C.: Kaufmann Press, 1949), 6-8 
  2. Harper, Louisiana Methodism, 56-57 
  3. Letter from Francis Asbury to Joseph Benson, 1816 
  4. Holland N. McTyeire, A History of Methodism (Nashville, Tenn.: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1884), 544-545 
  5. McTyeire, Methodism, 558-559 
  6. Walter N. Vernon, Becoming One People (Bossier City, La.: Everette Publishing Co., 1987), 46 
  7. William Lee Hamrick, The Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church (Jackson, Miss.: Hawkins Foundation, 1957), 33 
  8. Vernon, Becoming One People, 38 
  9. O.E. Kriege, A Century of Service (New Orleans: Chalmers Printing House, 1942), 14-19 
  10. Harper, Louisiana Methodism, 84 
  11. 1915 Louisiana Annual Conference Journal 
  12. Raleigh O. Suarex, “Religion in Rural Louisiana, 1850-1860,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 38, no. 1 (1955): 55-63 
  13. The First Century, 1875-1975: Waldheim UMC 
  14. Vernon, Becoming One People, 25-76 
  15. Gilbert Highet, History of First United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 
  16. Vernon, Becoming One People, 89 
  17. Othal H. Lakey, The History of the C.M.E. Church {Memphis: The CME Publishing House, 1985), 452-454 
  18. Typescript of Diamond Jubilee Program of Louisiana Conference Woman’s Society of Christian Service in New Orleans, on March 25, 1954 
  19. Timothy Hebert, Methodism Along the Bayou (Utica, Ky.: McDowell Publ., 1994), 39 
  20. Hebert, Methodism Along the Bayou, 58-69 
  21. Vernon, Becoming One People, 203 
  22. Vernon, Becoming One People, 219-220 
  23. Harper, Louisiana Methodism, 130 
  24. Vernon, Becoming One People, 234, 242 
  25. Vernon, Becoming One People, 245 
  26. Vernon, Becoming One People, 246 
  27. Vernon, Becoming One People, 280 
  28. 1971 Louisiana Annual Conference Journal 
  29. 1991& 1997 Louisiana Annual Conference Journals