Evangelicals in the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal traditions shared a great deal in common by the mid-nineteenth century, but their church polities remained distinctive. This brief note on ecclesiology is not meant as a theological exposition of the various models of church governance practiced by these four denominations. Its aims are much more modest: to introduce the reader to the institutional frameworks in which Virginia’s evangelicals operated. The brief organizational charts below neither cover every layer of church governance nor track every schism from each denomination nor bring the church polities up to the present. They nonetheless provide a solid foundation for understanding the relationship between the organizational units discussed in this book.1
The fundamental unit of governance for Baptists is the congregation, which theoretically exercises final authority in all decisions affecting the local body of believers. In practice, the regional associations played an important role in governance by resolving difficult doctrinal issues, standardizing Baptist faith and practice, and representing the local congregations at state and national meetings. The Southern Baptist Convention brought more centralized control to the denomination than had the weak Triennial Convention.
The Methodist Church balanced the intimacy of congregational governance with the maintenance of episcopal authority. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, itinerant ministers traveled a circuit, and they or their delegated assistants ran class meetings for small groups within congregations throughout the circuit. These same itinerants also met in conference at least quarterly to oversee the business of the church. Itinerant members of each conference, which was itself made up of several