Holston Conference

The Holston Conference is the organization of nearly one thousand United Methodist churches in thirty-three East Tennessee counties, seventeen southwest Virginia counties, a county and portions of two others in northwest Georgia, and one church each in Alabama and West Virginia. There are nearly one thousand pastors, chaplains, and other clergy, and nearly 175,000 lay members. The conference took its name from the three forks of the Holston River, which rises in southwest Virginia and flows into the Tennessee River.

The first official Methodist pastor, Jeremiah Lambert, came to the Holston country in 1783. Initially one “circuit” covered nearly half the present territory. The conference organized in 1824, with Robert Richford Roberts as its first bishop. Until the 1880s Holston Conference encompassed several counties in western North Carolina and two or more West Virginia counties until 1939. Almost all the land in the Cherokee Nation once fell within the Holston Conference, including parts of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, as well as southeast Tennessee.

From 1865 to 1939 two Holston Conferences covered essentially the same territory–Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (ME, sometimes called the “Northern” Church) and Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MES, sometimes called the “Southern” Church). The Methodist denomination split in 1844, partly over the issue of slavery. There were no “northern” churches within Holston between 1844 and 1865, but some members left the “southern” church, and many congregations were unsettled. During the Civil War, some congregations lost their buildings as a result of military occupation.

From 1830 until 1939 the Virginia District of the Methodist Protestant Church covered some of the same territory as the ME and MES Holston Conferences. In 1939 the three came together in the Methodist Church. In 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB), what had been in some years the East Tennessee Conference of the United Brethren Church (UB), comprising much of the same geographical area, became part of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).

Through approximately 175 years, the bodies that today make up the Holston Conference have placed a great deal of emphasis on education and social service, as well as on preaching, worship, and salvation. Today, the conference owns two senior colleges and a junior college; at various times there were at least four other colleges and several high schools and elementary schools.

The conference also operates a hospital, a children's home (started by Methodist women) with several branches, six retirement homes, and six camps. Many local congregations operate daycare centers and a wide variety of community services; many provide meeting places for secular and ecumenical endeavors. Some are biracial, and a few are bilingual. In 1824 there were three districts with twenty-four circuits. Today, there are eleven districts. Twenty percent of the churches are still on circuits in which a pastor serves more than one church. Many of these pastors are bi-vocational.

An uncounted number of missionaries, both lay and clergy, have gone from the Holston Conference to other parts of the United States and around the world in the name of Christ. In addition, the churches and the conference together support many other religious, medical, and social ministries and missions.

Suggested Reading

Robert L. Hilten, Pillar of Fire: The Drama of Holston United Methodism in a Changing World (1994); R. N. Price, Holston Methodism From Its Origin to the Present Time, 5 vols. (1912)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Holston Conference
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018