The United Methodist Church of Oklahoma traces its roots to various Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren in Christ denominations active in the territories that would later become the state of Oklahoma. Early denominational missions to the Indians eventually grew into the Oklahoma and Indian Missionary Conferences of today. Maturation from mission to conference was not easy, especially considering the difficulties experienced nationally by the Methodist Church. In 1844 the question of abolition and slavery split it into the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Episcopal Church (North). Although the northern branch ministered to abolitionist states, and the southern to slave states, both would find footholds in the Indian nations. A third denomination, the Methodist Protestant Church (which had broken from the parent church in 1828) also nurtured congregations in the area.
For ninety-five years the northern and southern churches worked both independently and together, laying the foundation for union that materialized in 1939. That year, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, the Methodist Episcopal Church (North), and the Methodist Protestant Church put aside their differences and united into the Methodist Church. For the next twenty-nine years the church blossomed in Oklahoma and in 1968 joined with the Evangelical United Brethren in Christ to form the United Methodist Church.
The church's structure is hierarchal. Local churches are part of a district. Several districts make up a conference, which in turn comprise a larger geographic jurisdiction. All conferences and jurisdictions fall under the auspices of the General Conference. Today Oklahoma has two conferences, the Oklahoma Conference and the Indian Missionary Conference, both within the South Central Jurisdiction.
In the early 1800s Methodists began ministering to the whites and indigenous peoples of the present Oklahoma region. The first Protestant sermon here, delivered in 1818 at Pecan Point near the Red River, was preached by Rev. William Stevenson, the pioneer of Methodism in Arkansas. The surrounding Pecan Springs area was a part of the Hot Springs Circuit of the Missouri Conference, which began forays into Arkansas Territory, then including the southeast portion of present Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee and Mississippi Conferences ministered to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Indians in their eastern homelands. After the tribes' forced migration to the Indian Territory, the Methodists followed them to their new western homes. Various conferences took part, with the Missouri Conference continuing their work around Pecan Springs, followed by the Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee conferences. In October 1844 the General Conference authorized a new unit for the Indian Territory, the Indian Mission Conference, which organized at Riley's Chapel near Tahlequah. With the formation of this mission, activities quickly expanded, only briefly interrupted by the Civil War. Indian Missions were not, however, confined to the Southern church.
The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) had long had a mission to the Wyandotte Indians. When they moved to the Indian Territory in 1871, the Northern Methodists followed, naming Rev. J. M. Iliff the first superintendent over the new area. In 1880 the General Conference established an Indian Mission for the territory and by 1889 had elevated the mission to a full conference. Due to the foresight of Bishop J. M. Walden, by the 1889 Land Run several preaching points had already been established, and on the first Sunday after the opening Reverend Iliff delivered the first sermon by a Methodist Episcopal Church (North) preacher, at Oklahoma Station.
The Methodist Protestant Church also actively ministered to the Indians. In 1828 this branch had broken away from the main Methodist denomination over the question of lay representation, organizing under the name Associated Methodist Churches. Approving a constitution two years later, the group formally adopted the name of Methodist Protestant Church. Ministers first converted Cherokee Indians along the "Choctaw Line" between Arkansas and the Indian Territory. A church was organized at Paw Paw in Sequoyah County, and others sprang up in Haskell, Pittsburg, and McCurtain counties. The ministers limited themselves to rural work, holding revivals in brush arbors and schoolhouses. When congregation members moved into larger towns, they often joined other denominations, as the Methodist Protestants declined to organize in the towns.
In 1887 the Methodist Protestants organized an Indian Mission Conference. It shared the work in the Twin Territories with the Southern Oklahoma and the Chickasaw and Choctaw Mission Conferences. In 1908 these four merged into one, the Oklahoma Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1916 it merged with the Fort Smith Conference to form the Fort Smith–Oklahoma Conference. That body stayed intact until the Methodist Protestant Church merged with the Northern and Southern Methodist branches to form the Methodist Church in 1939.
Thus, each of the three Methodist denominations that formed the Methodist Church had an "Indian Mission" in the region that became Oklahoma. By far the best known was the mission organized by the southern branch at Riley's Chapel in 1844. Indian preachers, with the assistance of a few white missionaries, comprised most of membership, with Cherokees making up the majority of the congregations, followed in numerical order by Choctaws and Creeks. This annual conference functioned as such for the next sixty-two years. In 1906 at Tulsa, Indian Territory, the Indian Mission Conference ceased to exist, becoming a part of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.
However, with an increase in white membership, the General Conference authorized the reestablishment of the Indian Mission in 1918 to serve "distinctly Indian congregations" in Oklahoma. This mission was still known as the Indian Mission of Oklahoma (guided by the white Oklahoma Conference) even after the merger of the three denominations in 1939. It remained so until the General Conference of 1972 made it possible for it to become a Missionary Conference. Thereafter, the Indian Conference licensed and ordained its own ministers and officially became a conference. Today the Indian Missionary Conference includes distinctly Indian congregations in Oklahoma, extending into parts of Kansas and Texas.
Methodist work with African Americans in Oklahoma did not experience the unity the whites and Indians enjoyed after the 1939 unification. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (organized in Philadelphia in 1816) had an Annual Conference, but its ministry was limited to the larger cities, except for smaller towns that were predominantly black. The Colored Methodist Church (which later became the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) organized in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1870. The two hundred thousand black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, transferred membership to this denomination. By 1911 an Annual Conference formed that would later split into the Muskogee Conference and the Oklahoma Conference. Even with the newly organized African American denominations, many blacks opted to remain members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished, the churches moving under the care of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.
The final denomination that contributed to the present United Methodist Church was the United Brethren Church. That denomination moved into the area in 1889 at time of the opening of Indian lands to settlement. The work began near Hennessey, Moore, Clifton, and Wanette under the guidance of the Arkansas Valley Conference. In 1897 the first Oklahoma Mission Conference of the United Brethren formed. This body worked in Oklahoma until 1946 when the Evangelical United Brethren united with the United Brethren to form the Evangelical United Brethren. The new denomination granted the mission full autonomy as a self-supporting conference. This Oklahoma Annual Conference later merged with the Texas Conference and operated as the Oklahoma Texas Conference until the unification in 1968.
Today the Methodist Church has a strong presence in Oklahoma with both the Oklahoma Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Nearly six hundred churches and more than a quarter of a million members comprise these conferences.
Sidney Henry Babcock and John Y. Bryce, History of Methodism in Oklahoma: Story of the Indian Mission Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Vol. 1 (N.p.: N.p., 1935).
"A Brief History of the Methodist Church in Oklahoma," Vertical File, Oklahoma Methodist Archives, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City. H. E. Brill, comp., Story of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Oklahoma, Authorized by the Oklahoma Annual Conference, October 22, 1938 (Oklahoma City: University Press [Oklahoma City University], 1939).
Leland Clegg and William B. Oden, Oklahoma Methodism in the Twentieth Century (Nashville, Tenn.: Parthenon Press, 1968).
Paul L. Davis and Marvin M. Polson et al., 80 Years in Oklahoma and Texas: A History of the Oklahoma-Texas Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (Shawnee, Okla.: American Printing Co., 1968).
Minutes of Methodist Conferences, 1844–2003, Oklahoma Methodist Archives, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City.
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Christina Wolf, “Methodists,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=ME020.
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