The earliest Methodist preachers employed by John Wesley were itinerant in a double sense: (a) because he moved them from one area to another at frequent intervals (in the early days at least annually), and in the Deed of Declaration restricted their stationing in any one circuit to three years and (b) because he insisted that they travel round their circuit on a regular basis, spending only a limited time in the 'circuit town'. In the early days there were also a few cases of 'half-itinerants'.

Wesley was constrained to enlist laymen from an early period because the growth of Methodism outpaced the support he found among his fellow clergy. They varied widely in their natural abilities, educational background and loyalty to the Church of England which Wesley looked for. It was Charles Wesley who in the 1750s undertook with his brother's reluctant consent the task of examining the itinerant preachers and purging their ranks.

By the mid-1750s some itinerants were pressing for authority to administer the Sacraments, though even after his first ordinations, Wesley in his 'Korah sermon' (on Hebrews 5:4) of 1789 continued to insist on the distinction between the 'prophetic' and the 'priestly' ministry. The first really detailed study of the men who served as itinerant preachers under Wesley himself is that of John H. Lenton (2009).

The itinerant system made for flexible deployment at the expense of continuity of ministry and strengthened the 'connexional' element. It survived, both in Wesleyanism and in other branches, though in increasingly modified form and with exceptions such as appointments to connexional office or to the urban missions of the Forward Movement. Dinsdale T. Young claimed that his five year ministry in the Manchester, Gravel Lane Circuit from 1893, was the first occasion in which an appointment to a circuit chapel, as distinct from a Mission, was extended beyond the normal three years (though this seems to overlook Frank Ballard's four years in the Brighton (Norfolk Road) Circuit, 1892-1896). Hugh Price Hughes argued strongly against the three-year limit laid down in the Deed of Declaration, but not until the Conference of 1910 was it finally lifted.

Preachers are still stationed by the Conference through the Stationing Committee and the circuit preaching plan reflects the fact that, at least in theory, they are appointed to a circuit rather than to an individual pastorate.

The effect of thr itinerancy on the wives of the earliest generations of preachers is explored by Janet Kelly.

Women preachers: See under Women.

  • New History of Methodism, (1909) 1, pp.294-8
  • Henry Bett, 'The Alleged Illiteracy of the Early Methodist Preachers', in WHS Proceedings, 15 pp.85-92
  • W.L. Doughty, John Wesley, his Conferences and his Preachers (1944)
  • History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain 1 (1965) pp. 232-4
  • H. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the rise of Methodism (1989) pp.243-5
  • Adrian Burdon, Authority and Order: John Wesley and his Preachers (Aldershot, 2005)
  • John M. Haley and Leslie J. Francis, British Methodism: What Circuit Ministers Really Think (2006), pp.217-23
  • John Lenton, John Wesley's Preachers; A Social and Statistical Analysis of the British and Irish Preachers Who Entered the Methodist Itinerancy before 1791 (2009)
  • Dennis M. Campbell, 'Ministry and Itinerancy in Methodism', in Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies ed. W.J. Abraham and J.E. Kirby (2009) pp.262-79
  • Russell E. Richey, Methodist Connectionalism: Historical Perspectives (2009), pp.65-82
  • Janet Kelly, 'Memorials of Motherhood: the Travels and Travails of Preachers' Wives', in David J. Hart and David J. Jeremy (eds.), Brands Plucked from the Burning: Essays on Methodist Memorialisation and Remembering (2013) pp.219-37