Local preachers are voluntary, part-time lay persons who from the earliest days have served Methodism as evangelists and in conducting services, largely within the circuits in which they reside and alongside the full-time paid itinerants ('ministers'). Thomas Westell and Thomas Maxfield were two of the earliest Methodist lay preachers, though working in circumstances very different from the settled patterns of later years. About the time of John Wesley's death there were an estimated 2,000 local and 300 itinerant preachers. Virtually all local preachers at that time were male, though Wesley did admit a few women preachers who had an 'extraordinary call'. With no formal training demanded, the only requirement was that they should exhibit the necessary 'gifts, grace and fruits'. Their appointments came to be arranged by the Superintendent minister and set out on a quarterly preaching plan.
Matters relating to the status and discipline of local preachers came to a head after 1791, as many became restive under the controls increasingly imposed by their circuit ministers and the all-ministerial Conference. Predictably, they were active in the secessions from WM from 1797 on and many found greater scope and freedom in the new non-Wesleyan connexions. This included the use of women as local preachers. WM did not give women preachers equal status with men until 1918.
There has been little formal organization of local preachers. Quarterly preachers' meetings in each circuit began in 1796 and continue today, together with committees at District level. The first connexional Local Preachers' Committee was set up by the Conference of 1893. A connexional Local Preachers Department (now Office) was established in 1932. All but the first of its full-time secretaries have been ministers. The LPMAA, began to care for local preachers in need in 1849.
By 1900 there were some 40,000 local preachers, compared with 5,000 ministers, in the Methodist denominations as a whole. Yet, while being essential to the continued existence of Methodism, little was done formally to equip them for their work. A shortage of local preachers after World War I led to the appointment of a WM commission. It reported that in the 261 circuits surveyed, out of 7,370 preachers listed only 4,343 were active and only 1,885 were considered 'fit to preach' in all churches. Only 44 of the circuits had training classes. As a result of the survey, a WM Local Preachers Department was set up in 1923. Voluntary training programmes had been offered since the late nineteenth century, but it was not until 1937 that a compulsory written examination was introduced for all new preachers. The current training scheme, based on units integrating biblical study, theology and liturgical practice and supervised by local tutors, was introduced in 1990. More recently, a programme for the 'continuing development' of all local preachers was introduced. It is intended that, as a result of the 'Fruitful Field' report adopted by the Conference in 2012, the current training scheme will be replaced by one provided by the comprehensive network being established for ordained and lay training.
Local preachers have always been drawn from all walks of life and are accorded much freedom with regard to dress in the pulpit and their mode of leading worship. Some of the non-Wesleyan connexions allowed them to celebrate the Lord's Supper, but since the 1932 Methodist Union such authorisations are granted to lay people (not limited to Local Preachers) by the Conference according to strictly defined criteria (see under Lord's Supper). There are at present c. 12,500 local preachers in British Methodism, some 10,000 of them active.
Among those who were at one time local preachers and who have distinguished themselves in other spheres, are David Blunkett MP, the entertainer Paul Daniels (who gave his first performance when in the youth club of Normanby Road [PM] church, South Bank, near Redcar) and Sir David Frost.
Charles Wesley's Journal:
Wednesday, May 16 : 'At Fetter Lane a dispute arose about lay preaching. Many, particularly Bray and Fish, were very zelous for it. Mr. Whitefield and I declared against it.'
William Myles to Jabez Bunting, Halifax, Aug.18th, 1820:
'I have some fears respecting the Local Preachers. They well know we cannot do without them. Some of therm appear to be jealous and envious of us… I fear it would not be good policy to get at present an exact number of our Chapels with the debts on each. It would give us to see how dependent we are on the Local Preachers, and the whole of the debts would frighten us. Some of our Local Preachers are still urging the people to build Chapels in country places where we cannot visit them on the Lord's day.'
A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, 4 (1988) p.373