John Wesley called together the first Conference as a consultation with friends and supporters. During his lifetime he always presided, except in 1780, when Christopher Hopper was elected in his absence. The Deed of Declaration established its legality in 1784. In the event of Wesley's death a President was to be elected by the Legal Hundred. In March 1791 the Halifax Circular proposed that there should be 'no more kings in Israel', which led to William Thompson being elected the first President after Wesley's death.
The Conference of 1792 laid down that the same person was not to be elected President more than once in eight years. Jabez Bunting and Robert Newton each held the office four times. The first son of the manse to be elected President was Theophilus Lessey jr., in 1839. The first father and son to hold the office of President were Joseph Taylor senior and junior.
The other Methodist bodies all adopted the Presidency. The UMFC elected two laymen to the office - Henry T. Mawson (1883) andSir James Duckworth (1894). PM had two lay Presidents - Thomas Bateman (1857 and 1867) and SirWilliam P. Hartley (1909). It also instituted the office of Vice-President.
The office owes not a little historically to the Church of Scotland; Bunting, indeed, preferred the title of Moderator. The President has some disciplinary powers between Conferences; he or she has normally presided at the reception of preachers into full connexion and, after 1836, at ordinations, and until recently over connexional committees and boards. But the custom of the President touring the Districts (and World Methodism) began with the railway age and is not of the essence of the office. If a President should die in office (e.g. DrArchibald W. Harrison in 1946) his or her predecessor resumes office. The annual election by ballot has opened the office to people of distinctive gifts and emphases.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century there were many calls for the introduction of a longer period of office in order to secure more continuity in leadership and for the sake of the media. This would have meant the Presidency becoming a more executive office akin to that of the Secretary of the Conference. In 2003 however the office of General Secretary was introduced, meeting some of the need expressed, and in 2011 a proposal to extend the office beyond the traditional one year was rejected by the Conference. At the same time modifications to the Deed of Union and Standing Orders were adopted to enable most of the President’s powers and duties to be shared with the Vice-President. These came into effect in 2012.
The President of the British Conference was also President of the Irish Conference, the annually elected Irish minister being known as ‘President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and Vice-President of the Conference’. This arrangement came to an end with the election of the first Irish President of that Conference in 2010.
* Wesley and his Successors (1895) * Conference Agenda, 2002 pp.165-87 * Constitutional Practice and Discipline, various editions * History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain,1 (1965) pp.246, 280