The Army Engineer Who Changed Methodist Conferences

Henry_Martyn_RobertNumerous United Methodist conferences and agencies use Robert’s Rules of Order, or rules derived from them, to conduct their business. Many other civic and religious groups do as well. One might assume that the rules have been around forever. They were actually published in 1876 by U.S. Army Colonel Henry Martyn Robert, an engineer officer. The original title was, Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, but the words on the cover were “Robert’s Rules of Order,” and thus they have been known ever since.

Roberts saw the need for the rules when he was asked to preside over a meeting at the First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1863. The meeting devolved into open conflict over the issue of abolition and the chaotic experience and lack of order troubled Robert. He determined that he would teach himself parliamentary procedure before he ever put himself in that kind of leadership postion again. He then put the same organizational and analytic skills to work that served him so well in the Army. He adapted rules and procedures from the U.S. House of Representatives, leaving out the parts that didn’t fit and adjusting others to better suit ordinary “societies.”

When he came to serve in several other organizations, he found that people from different parts of the country or different backgrounds had very different views on how meetings should be run. The groups spent too much time figuring out how to resolve procedural disagreements, which kept them from working on the presenting issue and coming to a decision. A standard set of rules of order, he believed, would help organizations deliberate more effectively and the country apparently agreed. He published his work in 1876 and Robert’s Rules of Order soon became the parliamentary standard for the vast majority of organizations throughout the last century.

Roberts had a long and distinguished career with the Corps of Engineers. During the Civil War, he worked on the defenses of Washington, Philadelphia and New England sea ports. Between the war and his retirement in 1901, he improved inland waterway navigation, harbors and ports throughout the country, from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys to the shores of Long Island. He rose to serve in some of the most senior positions in the Corps of Engineers and just before his retirement the Army promoted him to Major General. He was appointed as Chief of Engineers, a post he held for three days, from April 30 until his retirement on May 2, 1901. (In that era, this kind of promotion was known as a “tombstone promotion,” because the only difference it made was that you could carve the rank on your grave marker.)

The next time that you are sitting in Annual Conference and someone says, “I move the previous question,” you can thank – or curse – an Army engineer.

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