A Short History of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference

Organized Christianity began in the Oregon Territory in 1834 when Jason Lee, a Methodist minister from New England, responded to a call seeking a preacher to fulfill a request by Native Americans who had visited St. Louis. The exact reason for their visit is uncertain, but it was widely reported in church circles at the time that these Indians were seeking religious instruction for their people about “the white man’s Book of Heaven” they had heard about from white fur traders and trappers.

The report of their visit fired the imagination of many people in the churches. The Methodist Board of Missions was the first to react by sending Lee over the Oregon Trail as head of a party consisting of his nephew and three lay persons. Their purpose was to establish a missionary effort aimed at converting the indigenous Native Americans and teaching them the arts of civilization.

On the way to Oregon, near the present town of Blackfoot, Idaho, Lee preached to a gathering of trappers in a service that is regarded as the first formal Protestant sermon in the West. The party reached Fort Vancouver, according to Lee, “after a long and fatiguing journey, replete with mercies, deprivations, toil, and prosperity” and received a warm welcome by John McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Co. McLoughlin advised Lee to establish his mission in the Willamette Valley. The first station was about ten miles north of the present Salem where Lee organized a Class, the normal 19th century way for Methodism to begin a local church. Almost immediately they began caring for several orphaned Indian children. They moved later to a place they called by an Indian name, Chemeketa, on a site which is now Willamette University. They wasted no time in putting up buildings and establishing gardens for food.

Soon Lee saw the need for more personnel. In 1837 a physician, a blacksmith, a carpenter, four unmarried female teachers and two more ordained ministers arrived to reinforce the mission. Then in 1838 Jason Lee set out on the long journey east to recruit more missionaries and to raise money for the Oregon Mission. On this same trip he also delivered a petition to Congress urging them to make Oregon a territory of the United States.

Lee and his associates were not notably successful at converting Indians, although they believed they were preaching the pure Gospel. One of the early reinforcements of clergy to the mission, Gustavus Hines, described their preaching in this way: “We preached to them the Gospel as well as we could... giving them an account of the creation of the world, the fall of man, the advent, sufferings, death, and resurrection, ascension and intercession of Christ to save mankind from sin, death, and hell.” The lack of response by the Indians was due in part to the heavy losses among the Indian people to various whiteborn diseases for which they had no immunities.

By 1840 there were stations fixed at Nisqually, Clatsop, Umpqua (Wilbur), Wascopam (The Dalles), Willamette (Chemeketa—now Salem), and Willamette Falls (Oregon City). (The Nisqually mission at the southern end of Puget Sound, was the first U.S. settlement north of the Columbia River and West of the Cascades.)

What started out as a foreign mission to the Indians in the Oregon Territory, soon became a ministry to the increasing number of white American settlers coming by wagon train over the Oregon Trail and by ship around the Horn. To meet this unexpected need, Lee helped found the white-settler oriented churches in Salem and Oregon City. Lee’s tenure as head of the mission ended, however, when the Methodist Episcopal Board of Missions judged (from unclear evidence) that the mission operations were becoming a secular rather than a spiritual mission. Taking action unknown to Lee at the time, they recalled him and appointed George Gary to de-secularize the Oregon Mission. Gary followed orders but soon resigned to be replaced in 1847 by William Roberts, a friend of Lee’s who shared Lee’s missionary zeal to both Indians and whites.
In 1849 William Roberts formally organized the Oregon and California Mission Conference that included the present states of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and part of Montana! Though this vast territory included many Methodist “preaching places” most of the churches were in the Willamette Valley — Salem Circuit, Oregon City, Portland, Yamhill Circuit, Marys River Circuit and Astoria and Clatsop, a few in northern California, and one in Santa Fe. The gold rush to California soon changed everything as more preaching places arose in California than in all the rest of the Conference combined. It also caused a huge migration of men out of the Willamette Valley.
In 1852 the Oregon and California Mission Conference was divided; the northern part became The Oregon Conference. At its first session in 1853 there were twenty-one traveling preachers who along with Superintendent William Roberts and Bishop Edward Ames organized the conference.

Gold was discovered in the Boise Basin in 1860, swelling the population to nearly 15,000 persons, most of whom rushed from one “strike” to another. These soldiers of fortune seemed like a “different breed” from the pioneer farmers of the Willamette Valley; they were much harder to evangelize, as ministers sent by the Oregon Conference soon realized. C. S. Kingsley, a retired Methodist preacher living in Idaho City, comments on this in a letter he wrote to a friend: “It is a hard soil to cultivate. People forget God up here, except to profane his name. You can hardly appreciate our difficulties, if you have never been in a mining camp.”

Idaho City was one of the richest gold camps and rife with corruption and lawless behavior (“sheriffs were bandits, bankers were thieves, and drifters, gamblers, whores, pimps, and other social leaches pretty well ran the city”). In 1863 a miner who had been converted to Methodism in the gold fields of California arrived in Idaho City before any Methodist circuit riders. Within a week of his arrival, he canvassed the town and discovered four Methodists. He organized them into a Class. Three months later C. S. Kingsley organized a Society and within a year a building was built.

In 1864 the General Conference designated the Boundaries of the Oregon Annual Conference to include only the State of Oregon and the Washington Territory. Idaho was not included, though in 1865 William Roberts, then Presiding Elder of the Willamette District, was appointed by the Missionary Society as the superintendent of Methodist work in Idaho with the expectation that a new Conference would soon be organized.
It was not until 1873, however, that the Oregon Annual Conference was divided along the crest of the Cascades, creating two conferences, one of which included eastern Oregon, eastern Washington Territory, and Idaho Territory. Then in 1884 a Conference was formed that included only eastern Oregon and Idaho Territory. Two of the new conference’s most famous pioneer preachers were “Brother Van” Orsdell from Montana, and Thomas Iliff from Utah.

The United Brethren Church had a number of members who migrated to Oregon. In 1849 a German American farmer, George Bethers, who lived on a land claim near Corvallis, wrote a letter to a United Brethren periodical asking for a preacher to be sent to Oregon. It took four years to raise enough money to send Rev. Thomas Jefferson Connor who established the first Class at the Union School house in Benton County in 1854. In 1867, Rev. Connor organized Philomath College with a starting enrollment of 100 students.

In addition to the United Brethren, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began work in Oregon in 1858, establishing their first Class at the McFarland School House (between present day Corvallis and Monroe). The Class established in Corvallis later on bought the buildings and grounds of a bankrupt school called Corvallis College. The church made it a very successful school that ultimately was designated as the Agricultural College of Oregon. The Methodist Church, South, however, in a few years gave up its part of the school, which then became Oregon Agricultural College (later, Oregon State University).

The work of these early pastors and circuit riders was not for the faint of heart. One early preacher records that “we [he and his wife] have slept many times in barns with the horses and cattle, sometimes in the wagon, or on the ground under the trees of the forest: in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst.” He adds, “But we are richer today for these experiences, and would gladly spend another life in the same way.”

Camp Meetings were the primary tool for recruiting church members in Methodism up until about 1900. In 1843 Jason Lee conducted the first camp meeting for white people ever held in Oregon. A pioneer describes a camp meeting held in the Willamette Valley about 1855: “Perhaps a thousand people were gathered. They had come in their ox wagons...many had traveled fifty miles...to renew here the experiences and rekindle the emotions of the old life beyond the Rocky Mountains...One of the older missionaries preached at 8 o’clock...At 11:00 the Presiding Elder of the Willamette District ascended the stand and delivered one of his great religious orations. At 2:00 p.m. one of the younger men who had entered the work...was the preacher. At night a still younger man...was put on the stand.” Camp Meetings gradually declined as preachers moved toward large revival meetings sponsored by local churches in their communities. Both provided a working model for the Sunday morning worship services in early northwest Methodist churches.

One of the most urgent concerns of the Oregon Mission was to establish schools, at first for Indians and later for white children. This task was originally delegated to Cyrus Shepherd, a trained teacher with experience in New England schools. Lee was proud of what Shepherd was doing in what became known as the Indian Mission Manual Labor School. The school didn’t survive Lee’s replacement who sold the building to the Oregon Mission, which had formed a school for white children, The Oregon Institute, of which Willamette University was the direct outgrowth and successor.

During the early years of the Mission, there were no public schools, but there was intense interest in children receiving an education. Methodist clergy often led moves to develop facilities and instruction either sponsored by the church or the community. From 1858 to 1865 there were five Methodist preachers who were county superintendents of common schools. In addition, the church started several schools of its own: The Portland Academy, Santiam Academy, Umpqua (or Wilbur) Academy, Oregon City Academy and Female Seminary, Sheridan Academy, Ashland College, Drain Academy and the aforementioned Corvallis College of the M.E. Church, South.

Membership in the Oregon Conference showed both periods of growth and periods of decline beginning from the 1850s. By 1970 the membership was 67,215. However, this figure is the result of the 1969 merger of the Oregon and Idaho Conferences and does not reflect the time when membership in both conferences was declining. This decline continued down to 1997 when the membership was reported as 39,129.

A number of mergers have enriched and pluralized Methodism in Oregon since 1900. Oregon members of the Pacific German Conference (which was organized in 1905) were merged with the Oregon Conference in 1928. Nationally, three Methodist bodies—Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church—in 1939 agreed, as one church historian wrote, “to kiss and make peace.” This merger created The Methodist Church and involved the merger of several Oregon congregations and conferences. A Japanese Provisional Conference had been established in 1940 on the west coast but then the members in Oregon merged with the Oregon Conference in 1964.

In 1968 the Evangelical United Brethren Church nationally merged with the Methodist Church, creating The United Methodist Church. Most EUB churches in Oregon chose to form a new denomination, though a few congregations merged with the Oregon Conference. In 1969 negotiations were completed for the merger of the Idaho Conference with the Oregon Conference to form the present Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.
Currently, in Oregon Methodism the fastest growing ethnic group has been the establishment and growth of Korean Methodist congregations. Two new Korean congregations have been established within the bounds of the conference.

Women preachers have been an important part of Oregon and Idaho Methodism. Some revivalist preachers were women and over the years the conference (and its predecessors) have had many women who were “supply” pastors serving local congregations, some of whom had what was termed a “local ordination.” The Idaho conference received its first woman, Grace Weaver, into full connection in 1956.

The Oregon conference received its first woman, Ernestine Hitchcock, into full connection in 1960. In 1997 the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference was among the top 11 conferences with the highest percentage of women clergy (21.3% compared with the national average of 15.2%.).
The style and content of preaching in Methodist churches in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference has evolved in many forms. The circuit riders and itinerant preachers preached a message aimed at the sinner to repent and be converted. Thomas Pearne, the longtime editor of the Pacific Christian Advocate wrote in his memoirs that Methodist preaching in Oregon stressed the guilt and danger of sinners. Humor and sentiment were common in preaching. It was said that a Methodist preacher judged his (there were no ordained women among the circuit riders) sermon by the number of people weeping and thus ready to seek a new life. It took the pragmatism of an Oregon preacher, however, to remind his readers that it is not best to keep penitent people kneeling too long because they might “forget the sorrow of a broken heart by feeling the tortures of painful knees.”

The style and content of Methodist preaching gradually evolved from preaching for a conversion and preaching the moral and good life, to preaching toward problems and issues facing the lives of people. Many preachers today use the Revised Common Lectionary as the basis for sermons.

Issues that the Oregon-Idaho Conference has dealt with have varied from how to keep the many schools and academies afloat financially, how to increase membership in the conference, how to increase the life of the Spirit among Methodists, and how best to organize themselves for effective ministry. Over the years, the Conference recognized the importance of camping experiences for young people. A camping program using several camp and retreat sites in both states has been developed that is currently one of the finest in United Methodism.

Many social issues have concerned the conference through the years. The internment of Americans on the west coast at the outset of World War II was denounced by several Methodist clergy who brought the issue to the conference. A couple of them paid a severe price for their advocacy of justice for the Japanese-American people. Various forms of pacifism were advocated in conference debates during World War II, culminating in official censure of Willamette University for its acceptance of an Air R.O.T.C. training program on the campus. At the end of the twentieth century, the liveliest debates were on issues surrounding homosexuality.

Two preachers from this Annual Conference have been elected to the episcopacy. The first was Bruce R. Baxter, who was president of Willamette University when he was elected in 1940. The second person was Minerva Carcaño, who was serving as the superintendent of the Metropolitan District when she was elected by the Jurisdictional Conference in 2004.

What of the future? According to Shakespeare, “the past is prologue.” But prologue to what? It is not given to us to know. Perhaps what we can be most sure of was summed up by an historian of Oregon Methodism, Robert Peters (a retired member of the Conference):
This conference has had to think of the plodding task, the often disappointed task of seeing that we’re not living in the glory days. Our glory, as a matter of fact, is not in spectacular achievement. It is rather in being faithful to the witness, to the word of hope. ... God called us to this place when it was a rustic frontier to remind each Indian, each settler, that God cared what happened here, how we live with our lives and how we built our society. And that God does not leave us alone ever, wherever we may be in seeking to be faithful. That’s our task. It’s ever been our task, and it shall be our task on into our future.

© Raymond E. Balcomb and Robert W. Burtner. Used with permission.