Definitions of official Methodist doctrine go back to the 1763 Model Deed. The 1806 Conference authorised the drawing up of a 'Digest of Methodist Doctrine' by Adam Clarke (as President), Joseph Benson and Thomas Coke, a copy to be sent to each District Chairman by the following May. The Minutes of the 1807 Conference include the following Question and Answer:
'Q.23. What additional resolution can be passed, in order to preserve our Societies from heresies and erroneous doctrines? A. No person shall, on any account, be permitted to retain any official situation in our Societies, who holds opinions contrary to the total Depravity of human Nature, the Divinity and Atonement of Christ, the Influence and Witness of the Holy Spirit, and Christian Holiness, as believed by the Methodists.'
The letter to the Irish Conference that year declared: 'Our doctrines, which we have derived from God's eternal word, have also once more engaged our attention. These we consider as immutable as the Rock from which they all proceed.'
The 1932 Deed of Union contains clauses defining Methodism's doctrinal standards, carefully phrased to avoid their becoming a theological strait-jacket. Hence they refer to the doctrines 'contained' in the historic creeds, without fixing their formulation for all time. In particular, they stress that Wesley's '44 sermons' and Explanatory Notes upon the NT are not intended rigidly to prescribe thought. The 1976 Methodist Church Act permits the Conference to alter the doctrinal clause and the Conference has made two minor alterations to the wording since that date.
From John Wesley's time Methodism has distinguished between fundamental doctrines (e.g. the atonement and the Trinity), which all Methodists should accept, and what Wesley called 'opinions', over which Christians might reasonably differ. At the same time, ministers and local preachers have always been expected to 'believe and preach our doctrines', including such emphases as assurance and Christian perfection. The range of doctrinal diversity now permitted has become much wider in the twentieth century. (See under: Beet, J.A.; Hell.)