From its earliest years, the Methodist movement held an annual Conference. These volumes, published between 1862 and 1864, collect the minutes from the conferences held from 1744 to 1824.
In 1803, one of the questions for debate was whether women should continue being allowed to preach – something that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had sanctioned in 1761. This had always been a controversial issue, and after Wesley’s death in 1791 it caused increasing problems and disagreement in the movement. As these minutes show, the 1803 conference ruled that women should no longer preach, because so many people opposed it and because it was felt that there were already enough male preachers. In keeping with Methodist doctrine that believers should attend to God’s individual plan for them, it was decided that if a woman was sure that she had an ‘extraordinary call’ to preach, she could do so before other women only, and even then only under certain conditions.
George Eliot's Adam Bede opens in 1799, and most of the novel’s action takes place in that and the following year. We first meet Dinah Morris, the young Methodist, as she is on her way to preach on the village green. Eliot emphasises the power and sincerity and femininity of her preaching: she speaks ‘directly from her own emotions and under the inspiration of her own simple faith’, and her words have a profound effect on her listeners. There is no doubt that Dinah has a ‘vocation’ to preach (Ch. 2).
However, by the close of the novel Dinah has ‘“given it [preaching] up, all but talking to the people a bit in their houses”’ (Epilogue). The epilogue of Adam Bede is set in 1807, several years after the decree that women should no longer preach. Adam’s brother, Seth, suggests that Dinah should have defied the decree; Adam disagrees, saying that most women preachers did more harm than good, and Dinah ‘thought it right to set th’example o’ submitting’. Many readers have struggled with this ending: Dinah, once determined to stay unmarried and devote herself to religious work, has retreated from the public sphere and been absorbed into the traditional female roles of wife and mother.