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200 Years of Methodism in Louisiana
Note: for a comprehensive history of Methodism in Louisiana, see Walter N. Vernon’s book “Becoming One People: A History of Louisiana Methodism” (La: History Task Group, Commission on Archives and History, Louisiana Conference, United Methodist Church, 1987).
2006 marked the bicentennial of Methodism in Louisiana. Let's go back and take a look at 200 years of mission and ministry across our state.
As soon as the Louisiana territory was purchased in 1803, Methodist Episcopal circuit riders arrived to hold services.
In 1804, Elisha Bowman was assigned to the Louisiana Territory of the Mississippi Conference. By 1806, he had started a Methodist Society with 17 members at Opelousas. Rev. Bowman's ministry reached from Acadiana up to central and northern Louisiana.
Over the next four decades, dozens of societies and churches were formed around the state. Circuit riders would venture over miles of rough terrain to hold camp meetings and revivals to reach the people.
The Methodist Protestant Church, formed by Methodists who wanted more lay representation, sent pastors such as James Ford and Elisha Lott who were planting churches at places like Natchitoches, Greenwood, and Marion by the 1840s. Over four dozen Methodist Protestant churches would eventually be founded in Louisiana.
When the Methodist Episcopal Church divided into northern and southern branches in 1844, the Louisiana and Mississippi churches become part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. At the 1846 General Conference, the formation of a separate Louisiana Conference was approved … though churches in the Florida parishes remained in the Mississippi Conference until 1894.
Those founding pastors, such as Richmond Nolley, William Winans, and Robert Harp, planted over one hundred Methodist churches around the state … almost 40% of all Louisiana churches at that time.
Bishop Joshua Soule presided over the first Louisiana Annual Conference in January of 1847 at Opelousas.
Annual Conferences would be held in various places around the state until 1956, when they began meeting regularly at Centenary College of Louisiana located in Shreveport.
The history of Centenary in Louisiana began when it moved to Jackson in 1845. It later moved to Shreveport in 1908, where it has become one of the outstanding small colleges in the nation.
From the beginning, Methodism reached out to the African-American population. At many early charges, the “black” membership outnumbered the “white.”
In December of 1866 - the northern branch of the Methodist Episcopal Church met in New Orleans to form the Mississippi Mission Conference. The Louisiana churches formed their own conference in 1869. They founded dozens of churches across the state, most with African-American congregations. Some of the early pastors were Scott Chinn, Pierre Landry, and Emperor Williams.
The northern branch founded the Union Normal School in 1869. It merged with Straight College in 1930 to form Dillard University, located in New Orleans.
They also founded the LaTeche Orphanage. Later called the Gilbert Academy, it became the Sager-Brown Home in 1919. After serving as a local school for years, Sager-Brown continues to serve the area today as a United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) depot.
Methodism also reached out to other nationalities in Louisiana. Led by pastors such as Peter Schmucker and Carl Bremer, churches to reach the German population began in the 1840s.
The United Brethren Church made its way to Louisiana in the 1880s. Though the denomination had sixteen churches at one time, most of them were discontinued or united with other congregations.
Attempts to reach the French population of southern Louisiana didn't succeed until the 20th century. Led by Rev. Martin Hebert and local pastors, the work of the French Mission resulted in the formation of many churches serving both French and English-speaking people. More recently, churches aimed at reaching the Hispanic and Asian populations have been formed.
In those early days, we introduced our children to the church by enrolling them in the Cradle Roll. Specialized ministries for children began when a children's orphanage was established in Ruston in 1909, after being housed at Bunkie for three years. The home has since changed from an orphanage into a home for children from troubled families. Another children’s home was later opened in New Orleans.
The church began its first youth-focused ministry when the Epworth League was organized in the 1890s. Eighteen chapters were formed in Louisiana in the first year. It later developed into the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) and then the United Methodist Youth (UMY) as the church changed names.
Youth, children, and adults have also enjoyed camping ministries across the state at retreats such as Uskichitto, Istrouma, and Caney Lake.
The Woman's Foreign Missionary Society, begun in 1879, was joined by Woman's Home Missionary Society in 1882. The women's groups have been combined with the church mergers to form today's United Methodist Women. Over the years, women's ministries have played a vital role in the ministry of the Louisiana Conference ... especially in the field of missions.
Women have also served in full-time ministry as deaconesses since the 1800s. Deaconess Ella Hooper's work, for example, led to the formation of the MacDonell School and to the Native American ministry in Dulac.
The first female clergy members came from the Methodist Protestants in the early 1900s. It wasn't until 1956 that the Methodist Church allowed women full clergy rights.
After decades of discussion, the north and south branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Protestant Church joined to form the Methodist Church. The uniting service in Louisiana was held at Trinity Methodist Church in Ruston on November 16, 1939.
We still were not truly united, however. The African-American churches, which comprised most of the Methodist Episcopal Church congregations, were placed in a separate Central Jurisdiction and were absent from the proceedings. Annual Conferences would be held separately for over thirty years.
The local church organization for Methodist men was formed in the 1940s. Within ten years, there were 100 chapters of Methodist Men in Louisiana. They are still actively working to foster the ministry of men across the state.
When the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church merged in 1968, EUB churches at Roanoke and Trinity of Jennings joined with the Methodist Churches to form the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church.
However, it wasn't until 3 years later that we were truly united. "White" churches were known as Louisiana Conference A and the "black" churches were in Louisiana Conference B until the 1971 merger.
Hurricanes are a fact of life in Louisiana. Over the years, hurricanes such as Audrey, Betsy, and Andrew have devastated parts of the state. The most crushing blow came in 2005 when dozens of our churches were damaged or destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As it has done for hurricanes past, The United Methodist Church has stepped forward to work on rebuilding the affected communities and churches … both physically and spiritually.
Mission work, at home and abroad, has always been a vital part of The United Methodist Church. The Louisiana Conference supports the efforts of United Methodist outreach throughout the world. The Volunteers in Mission program has led thousands of people in service to others.
After discussing a conference center for years, the concept became a reality in the 1990s. Operations began in November, 1996. A chapel, funded by the Cursillo community, was built soon after. In 2005 the Conference Center was renamed the Wesley Center.
In addition to over 500 churches, the conference supports ministries within the state such as the Peoples, St. Mark's, and Dulac Community Centers, the Children's Home and the Methodist Home, the MacDonell Methodist Center, Hope Ministries, Sager Brown, camps at Caney Lake, Uskichitto, and Istrouma, Dillard University and Centenary College and over a dozen campus ministries across Louisiana.
The Louisiana Conference continues to be blessed by the faithful service of our clergy and their spouses. Hundreds of elders, deacons, and local pastors help to guide the spiritual life of the conference. We owe much of our success to the spiritual leaders of yesterday and today.
The clergy have been aided in ministry by thousands of lay members through the years. Many have their names in conference 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.
This conference has been blessed in so many ways. The Lord has inspired, uplifted, comforted, encouraged, and loved us through good times and
We will build on our heritage as we strive to make disciples of Jesus Christ in Louisiana and around the world.
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