Training for those becoming itinerants was considered as early at 1744, when the first Conference considered the question 'Can we have a seminary for labourers?' John Wesley's answer was, 'Not yet'. During his lifetime he directed the preachers' studies, drew up reading lists and provided them with the Christian Library. But there was a preference for practical piety over lettered learning and resistance to proposals by John Fletcher, Adam Clarke and others to establish a college. At the turn of the century, Methodist itinerants were looked down on by the better-educated Nonconformist ministers. In the 1830s the growing WM denomination determined, though with considerable dissension, to provide residential training for its ministers. A Literary and Theological Institution was set up at Hoxton, with a preparatory branch at Abney House. The opposition to this move led by Dr. Samuel Warren resulted in the Wesleyan Methodist Association. Replies were published by Jonathan Crowther jun. and George Cubitt, the principle of ministerial training was accepted and in 1842 two Branches, North and South, were established at Didsbury and Richmond. During the rest of the century provision for theological education increased dramatically, until all ministers received three or four years of residential training. New colleges were opened at Headingley (1868) and Handsworth (1881); and in 1921 what became Wesley House, Cambridge received its first students.
From the outset, while encouraging their itinerants to be studious as well as committed, the PMs were strongly suspicious of theological colleges, fearing that they might encourage 'soft and sedentary habits' and foster clerical ambition to the detriment of the essentially lay character of the Connexion. So their theological education was for many years dependent on individual and local initiatives. At the suggestion of the Tunstall Circuit, 'Advice to Travelling Preachers' was drawn up, largely by Nathaniel West, and published in the PM Magazine in 1822-23. Ministerial Associations sprang up in some Districts in the 1850s and led to the appointment of District theological tutors on the recommendation of the 1860 Conference. Two Scottish itinerants, C.C. McKechnie and James Macphearson, supported by the new journal, the Christian Ambassador (forerunner of the Holborn Review), were leading advocates of a theological institution. From 1865 provision for ministerial training at Elmfield College, York and then at Sunderland predated the establishment of Hartley College, Manchester in 1881. Among the other branches of Methodism, the MNC and UMFC had Ranmoor College, Sheffield (1864) and Victoria Park College, Manchester (1876) respectively.
In the twentieth century many of these colleges were attached to university departments of Theology in London, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. More recently, new centres linked to Church colleges developed at Durham, York, Sheffield and Oxford and there was a growing emphasis on ecumenical provision. The closure of the deaconess college at Ilkley and the development of the Methodist Diaconal Order have brought together the training of deacons and presbyters. The fierce controversy of the late 1960s and early 70s over the closure of colleges because of fewer ministerial candidates persisted. Non-residential courses and in-service training brought ministerial training and lay theological education into closer relationship. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century there have been moves to integrate the traditional academic subjects (OT, NT, Church History and Systematic Theology) with preparation for the practice of ministry and to relate initial training more closely to on-going education.
In 2007 the various courses and colleges were grouped in six regional training networks in which only three institutions in Birmingham, Cambridge and Durham would offer full-time pre-ordination training. In 2010 as a consequence of financial and other pressures Wesley College Bristol, successor to Didsbury, was closed. In 2011 a connexional Ministries Committee was established to oversee all policy aspects of selection, training and deployment of ordained and lay ministries. In 2012 the Conference adopted the recommendation of the 'Fruitful Field' report that a comprehensive network for initial and further training should be established for both ordained and lay, and that residential training should be limited to Cliff College and The Queen's Foundation.