By 1746 John Wesley had divided his growing societies into seven circuits or regional preaching 'rounds', each with an itinerant preacher or 'Assistant' to look after it in his absence. The circuits grew in number and decreased in size year by year. Most had two or more itinerants stationed in them. Membership figures for each society were reported each year. The itinerants travelled a monthly or six-weekly circuit round all the societies, with only an occasional return to the circuit town. By about 1753 Quarterly Meetings, consisting of all the circuit and society stewards and preachers, local and itinerant, were being held. The Circuit Stewards kept the accounts and paid the preachers. At the 1791 Conference circuits were grouped in Districts under a Chairman to provide the oversight Wesley had given. The circuit system enabled strong societies to support the weak and preachers to mission new areas as opportunities or invitations occurred. The Superintendent minister in each circuit was responsible for making the preaching plan, for chairing circuit committees, including the Quarterly Meeting, and for the exercise of pastoral discipline. Ministers were appointed to (and later invited by) and paid by the circuit, not by individual societies or churches.
All the Methodist denominations adopted the circuit system. PM circuits often had 'Branches' and 'Missions' as stages towards full circuit independence during the period of rapid proliferation. By the end of the nineteenth century many of them were single-man stations. In the twentieth century circuits have been divided for administrative purposes into sections, each group of churches being in the pastoral care of one minister. Outside the Central Missions pastorates, such as have become commonplace in American Methodism, are almost unknown. Circuit funds are raised mainly by an assessment on local churches, which pays ministerial stipends, travel costs and the provision of manses. A circuit may also have reserve funds to finance future building or other projects.
In the 21st century circuits are tending to become larger again, sometimes covering whole cities e.g. Bristol and Birmingham, or large areas of counties such as Gloucestershire. In Wales this has meant Synod Cymru becoming one circuit covering the whole country for the Welsh-speaking work. It has led to different smaller administrative units within the circuit, for instance called areas in the Shropshire and Marches Circuit stretching from Chirk to the Golden Valley. Separately there has been a growth of 'clusters' where two, three or more local churches may come together for some administrative purposes. Such developments reflect the thinking of the Faith and Order Committees 2008 report on the 'Missional Nature of the Circuit', saying the circuit was the primary church unit, and the primary unit of mission in British Methodism and 'makes possible the deployment of resources in an area wider than that of the local church'. The developments have largely been initiated by the process known as 'Regrouping for Mission: Mapping a Way Forward' whereby the Church as a whole has been reviewing its circuits and where appropriate encouraging the smaller ones to unite with their neighbours in units better fitted to enable mission.
The development of these reconfigured circuits has in turn required changes to the constitution of the Circuit Meeting, and has led also to a review (under the title Larger than Circuit) of the rôle and functions of the District.
See also Preaching plans.
'A Branch is that part of a circuit which has its distinctive preachers' plan and quarterly accounts, its Branch Committee and Branch Steward, and its preparatory Quarterly Meetings; and besides these , it has its distinct religious services, institutions, anniversaries, and official meetings as those of a circuit, with this difference, that those affairs are, within each quarter, liable to the supervision of its Circuit Committee; and at the end of each quarter, these affairs are subject to its Circuit Quarterly Meeting.
General Consolidated Minutes of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, 1849, p. 103