Following the suggestions made in the Halifax Circular, the WM Connexion was first divided into Districts in 1791 as a basis for administration between the annual Conferences: initially, 19 in England, 2 in Scotland and 7 in Ireland. Each District appointed one preacher to represent it and its circuits when preachers were stationed by the next Conference.
Districts, with their boundaries defined by Conference, remained an essential part of the Methodist structure, though there has been little attempt to relate their boundaries to those of secular or other ecclesiastical bodies. During the nineteenth century they proliferated and by 1932 there were 35 British Districts in WM (increased to 46 as a result of Methodist Union), with 7 in Ireland.
Similar patterns developed in the other branches of Methodism. In PM, despite the predominance of circuit initiatives, circuits were grouped into four Districts as early as the 1820s and Conference representation was transferred to them from the circuits. BC Districts were first organized in 1824, each under a 'Superintendent' who had the right to preside at the Circuit Quarterly Meetings if he so chose. The UMFC had District Meetings from the outset, but their powers and functions were limited.
As the Church's missionary work developed, overseas Districts were formed and continued until each in turn became an autonomous Conference (or part of one). The last overseas Districts to attain autonomy were Togo in 2000 and The Gambia in 2009. (Until 2006 Gibraltar and Malta were part of the London South West and London South East Districts respectively. With the creation of a single London District they both became part of the new South East District.) By 2013, there were 31 Districts, of which all but four had separated Chairs (see District Chairman); three of those four Districts operate as single Circuit Districts.
The purpose of the District has been set out in CPD as (1) to advance the mission of the Church by enabling circuits to work together and support each other, and together to engage in mission to the wider society of the region in which they are set and (2) to link the Connexion and circuits, especially in training, and also by approving applications for grant aid to circuits. Its role has been significantly enlarged in recent years in two respects. First, by the creation of District Advance Funds, made up of mandatory contributions from circuit funds, Districts are enabled to direct resources across circuit boundaries to areas of priority within the District. Secondly, responsibility for the approval of most projects for works to be done on local church or circuit property has been devolved to the District from the connexional level (see Chapel Affairs).
There has been continuing debate about the rôle and functions of the District in the life of the Connexion, stimulated in part in recent years by the “Regrouping for Mission: Mapping a Way Forward” process, which has resulted in a growing number of circuit amalgamations, creating fewer, larger Circuits. A report brought to the Conference in 2013, “Larger than Circuit”, reviewed the history and present position, and set in motion of period of consultation within and between Districts about future patterns and structures.