by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”
John and Mary Smith participated in a class meeting that transformed their lives. They were poor factory workers who, like most, had heard about the class meetings by word of mouth. They received permission to attend two times before making a decision to join. They loved the free flow of ideas, transparent sharing, and most of all, they felt closer to God.
That night in May 1747, they attended the class meeting at George’s home, who was also the leader. George opened the meeting with prayer. John and Mary, a newly married couple, felt comfortable with the wide mixture of singles and married couples. That night, like always, they passionately sang the two songs, and afterwards they knew exactly what George would ask: “How does your soul prosper?” They had been anticipating George’s words all week. They shared honestly to the eleven people gathered in George’s house. Mary said that she enjoyed her prayer time and was growing. John confessed that on two mornings he had rushed off to the factory without even opening his Bible. He asked the group to pray for him. Both needed prayer to be better witnesses at the local Bristol shirt factory. George moved on to others in the group and asked them the same question. He had a way of asking the question differently to make sure each person answered honestly and transparently.
Some squirmed and were less than transparent, but others confidently shared God’s holy work in their lives. Everyone felt like they were part of something greater than themselves, a quest to spread holiness throughout the land. John and Mary felt they were part of an army that would cleanse England, convert lost souls, and change the nation
The Priority of Small Groups
Wesley viewed preaching as the preamble of what would take place in the small groups. Discipleship took place in the lay-led class meetings through mutual ministry. Henderson writes, “The class meeting was the most influential instructional unit in Methodism and probably Wesley’s greatest contribution to the technology of group experience” (note 1). Although amazingly simple, it had a long-lasting impact that educators and religious leaders alike praised. A biography by Adam Clarke (who was a Methodist preacher during Wesley’s lifetime) recounted Wesley’s insistence about the priority of class meetings,
From long experience I know the propriety of Mr. Wesley’s advice: “Establish class-meetings and form societies wherever you preach and have attentive hearers; for, wherever we have preached without doing so, the word has been like seed by the way-side” . . . Mr. Whitefield, when he separated from Mr. Wesley, did not follow it. What was the consequence? The fruit of Mr. Whitefield’s labor died with himself. Mr. Wesley’s remains and multiplies (note 2)
The class meetings were Wesley’s strategy for making disciples, rather than hearers of sermons. Henry Ward Beecher said, “The greatest thing John Wesley ever gave to the world is the Methodist class meeting.” Dwight L. Moody, nineteenth-century revivalist, said, “The class-meetings are the best institutions for training converts the world ever saw” (note 3).
The Interlocking System: Bands, Classes, Societies
Wesley called his three interlocking groups bands, classes, and societies. In modern terms Wesley’s groups are similar to accountability groups (bands), cells (classes), and large group worship (societies).
The bands were started in 1738, before the classes, and followed the Moravian pattern of promoting the spiritual renewal of each member (note 4). The bands were organized according to sex, age, and marital status and usually had about six people (note 5). They were homogeneous groups that met together for more intimate fellowship with the goal of transformation (note 6). Unlike the classes, attendance was not required and only about twenty percent of those in the Methodist movement ever joined a band (note 7).
In each band meeting, the members asked each other about the sins they had committed since the last meeting, the temptations they had to deal with, and how they were delivered from those temptations. The questions they would ask each other were:
- What known sins have you committed since the last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done which may or may not be sin?
Because attendance was not required, the bands failed to multiply like the classes (note 8). Doyle sums up the purpose of the bands,
. . . these were small groups of around six members, men and women in separate groups, who met weekly for confession of sin and pastoral care. Only people assured of salvation could join and only those who desired a deeper, more intimate fellowship (note 9).
The class meeting was the focal point among the Methodists, although the bands had their place and were important. Even as the classes became the basic unit of Methodist organization, the bands were not neglected.
After developing the bands and societies, Wesley was still frustrated with the lack of close pastoral oversight, especially for those who had been recently converted. The classes came into being as a way to make sure every member was held accountable. Actually, the initial classes developed for a different reason: to raise money.
In 1742, a group of Methodists were trying to figure out how to pay off a building debt in Bristol, England. Captain Foy suggested that the Bristol society be divided up into groups of twelve people. One person in each group would be designated the leader and would be responsible for visiting everyone in the group every week in order to collect one penny from each of them. By this means, Foy believed the building debt could be paid off. Someone expressed the concern that this would prevent the poorest Methodists from being involved. Captain Foy responded by volunteering to take the eleven poorest members of the Bristol society into his group. He would visit them each week and ask them if they could contribute. If they were not able to do so, he would personally pay their pennies for them. Then, he challenged the other people at the meeting to do the same thing.
As this plan was put into practice, it became apparent that many Methodists were not keeping the “General Rules,” which every Methodist was expected to keep. The General Rules were: do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God (note 10). Wesley realized that the class leaders could help Methodists practice the General Rules and collect the weekly offering (note 11). He also understood that the classes would help each person grow spiritually and care for one another.
The classes became a vital part of the Methodist movement and from 1742 onward, it was no longer possible to be a member of the larger society unless the person was part of a class (note 12). Wesley summed up his attitude about the classes, saying, “Those who will not meet in a class cannot stay with us” (note 13). To put it another way, in Methodism, you weren’t allowed to join the large group (society) before joining the small group (class) (note 14).
The class meetings were heterogeneous mixed groups in terms of sex, age, social standing, and spiritual readiness. Wesley visualized the class meeting as the point of entry for most initiates into Methodism, and he wanted the entry groups to be a warm fellowship of fellow strugglers, representing a cross-section of Methodism (note 15). The size of most classes was five to twenty. One class member of that time period wrote, “A class-meeting, at present, consists of an indefinite number of persons, generally from twelve to twenty; though sometimes fewer even than twelve” (note 16).
The societies became the sum total of the classes and bands. To attend the society meeting, a person had to have a ticket that showed he or she was a faithful member of a class meeting. These tickets were the entrance permits to the society meetings. They were renewable quarterly and lack of attendance at class meetings excluded the person from entering the next quarter’s society meetings. The goal was for the person who faltered in attendance to repent and turn more fully to Christ (note 17).
The societies did not meet weekly, like the class meetings. Rather, they met each quarter, and the main focus was teaching God’s Word and worshipping together. People who remained committed to Jesus and attended the class each week were automatically made part of the society after three months (note 18). Hunter makes an important comparison,
A Methodist Society was composed of the sum total of classes attached to it. As one’s membership in early Christianity was primarily to a house church and somewhat secondarily to the whole church within the city, so in early Methodism one’s primary membership was in the class and somewhat secondarily in the society (note 19).
The society meetings were carefully scheduled to not conflict with any of the services of the Church of England (note 20). Wesley wanted his movement to be submissive to the Anglican Church and covey the message, “we are loyal Anglicans and not in competition or opposition to the Church of England” (note 21). Throughout his life, Wesley remained within the established Anglican Church of England and insisted that his movement stay within Anglicanism.
Wesley didn’t have to deal with major church polity issues because those were already established in the Church of England. He was more concerned about transforming those members who were part of the Anglican Church and reaching those without a relationship with Jesus. Some have compared the Wesley movement to a religious order, or a movement within a movement.
Back to Primitive Christianity
Wesley desired to base everything he did on the Bible. Even though the classes started as a way to raise money, Wesley didn’t want to continue them unless he could see their basis in Scripture. He wrote, “I could not but observe, this is the very thing which was from the beginning of Christianity. . . . The first preachers met in these catechumens, as they were called, apart from the great congregation, that they might instruct, rebuke, exhort, and pray with them, according to their several necessities.” (note 22).
Wesley was a student of the primitive church and believed that the Church of England was a fallen church that needed revival. He wanted to help it come back to the primitive ideal (note 23). He felt that long term transformation required an effective organizational structure, and he worked hard to build an extensive small group network. Hunter notes,
Wesley also observed that certain normative behaviors were characteristic of life in the primitive church. They met together “to stir up one another to love and good works . . . encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). They seemed to have taught, admonished, exhorted, and prayed for one another. They rejoiced with those who rejoiced, and wept with those who wept (Rom. 12:15). Their behaviors toward one another ranged from telling one’s sins to another (Matt. 18:15-18) to building one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). And Wesley believed the earliest churches followed the script of James (5:16): “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” With regret, Wesley did not see such behavior in his Anglican Church. One of the causes of this, he believed, was the lack of small groups, a deficiency not present in the early church’s house churches (note 24).
Wesley realized that as he drew people together in classes to challenge and encourage each other, the contagion and power of the apostolic church would move in human history once again (note 25). He wrote,
Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community (note 26).
Weakening the class structure, according to Wesley, would strike at the root of Methodism (note 27).Like the early church, the Methodist groups mainly met in homes, but they also gathered in shops, schoolrooms, attics, even coal-bins—wherever there was room for ten or twelve people to assemble. Some pious followers would walk long distances, endure hardship, and put up with bizarre settings in order to attend their class (note 28).
The class meeting was never an end in itself; rather it was a means to make disciples. Some wonder why more literature wasn’t written about the Methodist class meetings during the time of Wesley. David Lowe Watson believes that those in Wesley’s day were more concerned about why they were meeting and what they planned on accomplishing, rather than the specifics of the meeting itself (note 28). They met to become stronger followers of Jesus, increase in holiness, and ultimately transform England. People were supposed to work out their salvation gradually over time and to develop in maturity. Conversions were just the first step in a gradual process of becoming like Jesus. Henderson writes,
One of the key elements of the class meeting was the willingness to confront sin and be real about each member’s dark past. They weren’t to hide anything. One of the remarkable features of the class meeting format was the realism about human nature that was built into its design (note 29).
Meeting weekly helped them to sustain the discipleship process and maintain accountability. David Watson says, “The genius of Wesley’s organization of the Methodist societies lay in his recognition that Christian discipleship was first and foremost a response to God’s grace” (note 30). The classes weren’t as intense as the bands; nor were they designed for intensive counseling sessions or in-depth Bible studies. The dynamic of Christian fellowship quickly developed, as members began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and to “care for each other.” Wesley writes,
Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and “naturally” to “care for each other.” As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for each other. And “speaking the truth in love, they grew up into Him in all things which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love” (note 31).
The only requirement for joining a class meeting was the desire to flee from the wrath to come. A person needed to be willing to grow in holiness and take the steps necessary to separate from sin and separate to God. Hunter writes, “In time, two years on the average, most members experienced justification and new birth; and from that point on they ‘expected’ to experience ‘sanctification,’ that is, ‘being made perfect in love’ in this life” (note 32).
The early Methodists would boldly reduce the number of people if any sin was noticed. They wanted a pure society, free from the contamination of sin. In fact, guests were only allowed to visit a class on a trial basis. The visitor needed to understand the rules of the society and make a commitment to those rules. There were many instances of tickets being refused each quarter to those who failed to abide by them (note 33). And the quarterly renewal of class tickets became not only a disciplinary examination, but also an occasion when all of the members, including the leader, were questioned about their spiritual growth (note 34). The class meeting functioned to determine whether a Methodist was walking in the grace of God, and through the class meetings, Wesley pruned the Methodist vine (note 35).
More than anything, the class meeting was the chief way to keep the newly converted from slipping back into their former way of life. Wesley wrote,
I am more and more convinced, that the devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half-awakened, and then left to themselves to fall asleep again. Therefore I determine, by the grace of God, not to strike one stroke in any place where I cannot follow the blow (note 36).
Unlike that of the more general society, the purpose of the Methodist class was chiefly one of discipline, to discern, as Wesley put it, “whether they [were] indeed working out their own salvation” (note 37) Wesley was convinced that people rarely made progress in holiness by themselves. Wesley explicitly criticized George Whitefield’s inattention to the class meeting in Pembrokeshire in his published journal in 1763,
I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire! But no regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection. And the consequence is that nine in ten of the once awakened are now faster asleep than ever (note 38).
Without the small group structure, Wesley felt that preaching brought forth little lasting fruit. In fact, both George Whitefield and John Wesley preached continually in the open-air. Many were saved under Whitefield and Wesley. Both had similar histories and were excellent in open-air preaching. Both witnessed thousands of conversions through their ministries. Benjamin Franklin once calculated that Whitefield could easily preach to a crowd of thirty thousand people—without a microphone. Whitefield probably even recorded more decisions than Wesley because of the huge crowds he attracted.
Yet, there were some major differences between the two as well. At the end of his life George Whitefield said this: “My brother Wesley acted wisely—the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in classes, and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand” (note 39). Wesley organized the movement and brought it under systematic management; Whitefield hoped that those who had been “awakened” would follow through on their initiative; Wesley left nothing to chance.
Reporting on Your Soul
The class meeting was not a highly organized event. It normally lasted for one hour, and the main focus was “reporting on your soul” (note 40). The class would begin with an opening song or two. Then the leader would share a personal, religious experience. Afterwards, he would inquire about the spiritual life of those in the group. Each member would give a testimony about his or her spiritual condition. After participants answered the question, the leader would turn to someone else in the group and ask the same question.
The class leader or someone else would respond to the person’s answer by offering encouragement, and sometimes giving advice. Then other members would share about their spiritual lives. The basic pattern of the meeting was that simple. People were essentially giving testimony to their experience of God over the past week. And God used this format to transform lives and hold each person accountable to live a holy life. People often experienced conversion simply through participating in a class meeting! (note 41). Before closing in prayer, there would be an offering to support the ministry. Mallison writes, “Every member was expected to belong, to speak freely and plainly about every subject from their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed” (note 42).
It might be hard to understand what the class meeting would look like today, or why it had such a powerful impact back then. Hunter explains,
But because eighteenth-century Methodism’s experience took place in a different time and culture from our own, the deeper meaning or mission of the class meetings is not so obvious today, and at least several scholars have tried to pinpoint it. Gloster’s Udy’s pioneering scholarship (1962) concluded that the primary mission of the class meetings was to provide people with the kind of family experience that the upheaval and fragmenting of the industrial revolution had robbed from them. The class experiences inculcated interpersonal values and facilitated people’s growth and development (note 43).
Wesley would often use the “one-anothers,” such as bearing each other’s burden, to describe the essence of the class meetings. They were a family away from family, just like the early house churches. What took place in the early Methodist class meetings resembles what the writer of Hebrews says,
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (3:12-13).
One way the members ministered to God and one another was through hymn singing. One member of a class back in Wesley’s day talked about singing being an important part of the class meeting. He writes,
As singing forms a considerable portion of the service at a class meeting, I must give you one or two specimens of their hymns . . . They are poured forth in the most soft, soothing, languishing, and melting strains that music is capable of; and music, you know, has charms to soothe a savage beast (note 44).
Evangelism and Multiplication
As mentioned earlier, Wesley was not convinced that a person had made a decision for Christ until he was involved in a small group. In fact, it was often in the small group that people were born again. Young writes, “The classes served as an evangelistic tool and as a discipling agent” (note 45). Even if people accepted Jesus during the field preaching, they would work out what that meant in the class meetings. The classes would nurture the person’s response and help him or her make it real. Brown says,
The groups also had a clear evangelistic function as people were converted during the meetings and lapsed members were enabled to renew their commitment to Christ. Wesley knew that the beginnings of faith in a person’s life could be incubated into saving faith more effectively in a warm Christian environment than it could in the chill of the world (note 46).
Hunter talks about Wesley being “driven to multiply ‘classes’ for these served best as recruiting groups, as ports of entry for new people, and for involving awakened people with the gospel and power” (note 47). He knew that he needed a lot more classes to reach a lost world for Jesus. There was a constant sense of urgency and vision to reach people without Jesus.
When a class became too large, it would multiply to allow more room for others. However, one of the most common ways of starting new groups was through cell planting. Leaders were developed and then one or two would start the new groups and begin inviting the newly awakened souls (note 48). T. A. Hegre writes,
I believe that the success of Wesley was due to his habit of establishing small groups. His converts would meet regularly in groups of about a dozen people. If the group became too large, it would divide, and it might continue to divide again and again (note 49).
Wesley would not start a class, if he could not effectively manage it, and he would not preach where he could not enroll people into classes (note 50). Hunter notes, “He [Wesley] saw no virtue in starting new ministry or group life that dies soon after birth, or is stunted in growth” (note 51). Wesley understood that discipleship was more important than simply getting a lot of people converted. Much of Wesley’s strategy could be summarized in four maxims:
- Preach and visit in as many places as you can.
- Go most where they want you most.
- Start as many classes as can be effectively managed.
- Do not preach where you cannot enroll awakened people in classes (note 52).
The bands were more informal and didn’t need a set leader. This wasn’t true in the classes. Class leaders were the spiritual pastors who cared for those in the group. The leader kept track of attendance and visited people who missed the weekly meeting. In fact, one key reason for the success of the classes was the system of leadership. Wesley established certain principles for leadership:
- The leaders were appointed (as opposed to the bands where the leaders were elected) (note 53).
- Women were permitted to be lay leaders (they eventually became a majority) (note 54).
- Selection of leadership was based on moral and spiritual character, as well as common sense (note 55).
- Leadership was “plural,” that is, there was more than one leader, so that leadership was shared (note 56). Snyder writes, “This was the normal system, based in part on Wesley’s conviction that spiritual oversight had to be intimate and personal and that plural leadership was the norm in a congregation” (note 57).
- The class leaders were viewed as pastors.
Class leaders were called by different names such as sub-pastors, non-commissioned officers, and even spiritual police. What Wesley looked for in a leader was discipline, spirituality, and the commitment to help others become disciples of Jesus (note 58). The class leader needed to keep his or her spiritual life vibrant, as we can see by Francis Asbury’s description of a spiritual class leader in the 1798 Doctrines and Discipline:
We have almost constantly observed, that when a leader is dull or careless or inactive—when he has not abilities or zeal sufficient to reprove with courage though with gentleness, and to press a present salvation upon the hearts of the sincere, the class is, in general, languid; but, on the contrary, when the leader is much alive to God and faithful in his office, the class is also, in general, lively and spiritual (note 59).
The class leaders had two key responsibilities:
- To see each person in his class once a week in order to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require; to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the poor. In the Methodist rules, it says, “If possible, the Leader should see every one of his members once every week, and if in consequence of affliction or neglect, any member is absent from his class, that member should be without delay visited” (note 60).
- To meet the minister and supervisors of the small groups (called stewards of the society) once a week; in order to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly, and will not be reproved; to pay to the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; and to show their account of what each person has contributed (note 61).
Getting people to attend the class meeting became more and more difficult as time went on. The following was taken from The Wesley Banner and Revival (written in 1849) at a time when Methodism had become more institutionalized,
He [the leader] should urge his members to a weekly attendance upon their class, insisting, in spite of the excuses which some make for their irregular attendance, that, generally, where there is a will, there is a way (note 62).
To become a class leader, no formal training was necessary. The training was their experience. Henderson writes,
The early Methodists believed that leadership was a quality which occurred naturally among groups of people and could not be produced as such, only recognized. Although training schools for ministers were frequently discussed, there was never any seminary or Bible school for Methodist leaders for well over one hundred years. In fact, there was no formal training program at all during the eighteenth century for them. No academic course “qualified” preachers or would-be-preachers for Methodist appointments. Rather local people who showed leadership ability were promoted upwards through a succession of minor offices until that ability was recognized at the upper levels by consecration to the itinerancy (note 63).
Eventually the leaders began meeting on a weekly basis with their supervisors or “stewards,” to receive encouragement and instruction.
Wesley was the chief visionary and promoter of the Methodist class meetings. Yet, Wesley had to keep stepping back and delegating to others at increasingly higher levels of leadership. Latourette says,
For a time Wesley himself visited each of the societies to supervise them and enforce discipline. As they increased this became impossible and he assembled his preachers in annual conferences. . . . As societies and preachers further grew in numbers, he established “circuits” with traveling preachers and soon, as an assistant to himself, a superintendent was placed in charge of each circuit. He himself kept an autocratic control of the whole (note 64).
Wesley tried his best to minister up-close and stay connected with the thriving ministry, but ultimately he realized he couldn’t be present everywhere. He backed off and allowed others to take charge. The primary administrative oversight took place at the weekly supervisory meetings (society leadership). These supervisors were appointed by Wesley and would receive the reports of the leaders and offer counsel and encouragement. Henderson writes:
Every Methodist was under someone else’s direct and immediate supervision. There was a constant emphasis on “bearing one another’s burdens,” so that not even the slightest affliction went unnoticed. . . . The group processes of Methodism were under a simple but thorough system of constant surveillance. Just as a scientist can monitor a complicated and vast system by watching a panel or gauges, dials, and meters, so that Methodist local preacher could monitor the society by examining the class books and records that were regularly submitted (note 65).
Supervising those who would pastor the flock was a critical reason why the Methodists were able to continue to grow. They cared for leaders on every level. The classes made up a society; the societies were organized by districts; and the districts were arranged by provinces or nations, with Wesley, the principal leader and visionary.
Class Meetings in North America
As Methodism was transplanted from British to American soil in the second half of the eighteenth century, the class meeting became firmly rooted in the American context. In fact, when Methodism became a formal denomination in the United States in 1784, the class meeting was listed as a requirement for membership. The early Methodists in North America removed those who didn’t regularly attend a class meeting. They also used the ticket system as an entry checking method for the larger gathering. Yet those tickets gradually became more of a symbol of Methodist identity and were not a means of entry into the worship service (note 66). Peter Cartwright was a nineteenth century Methodist preacher and politician in Illinois, who ran against Abraham Lincoln for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1846, and lost. He wrote about the class,
Class-meetings have been owned and blessed of God in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and from more than fifty years’ experience, I doubt whether any one means of grace has proved as successful in building up the Methodist Church as this blessed privilege. . . . May the time never come when class-meetings shall be laid aside in the Methodist Episcopal Church, or when these class-meetings shall cease to be a test of membership among us. I beg and beseech class-leaders to be punctual in attending their classes, and if any of their members stay away from any cause, hunt them up, find out the cause of their absence, pray with them and urge them to the all-important duty of regularly attending the class-meeting. Much, very much, depends on faithful and religious class-leaders; and how will the unfaithful class-leader stand in the judgment of the great day, when by his neglect many of his members will have backslidden, and will be finally lost? (note 67)
The class meetings gave men and women a sense of purpose and direction as they grew together in Christian holiness.
Decline of Class Meetings
Many Methodists today have never even heard of a class meeting, and the majority are not practicing the weekly class meetings. The question is why?
From Society to Church
Wesley resisted separating from the Church of England to his dying day. This made the transition from society to church difficult after his death. Wesley argued that God had raised them up within the Church of England to be a “witnessing order.” Because he refused to identify Methodism as a church, he was not forced to integrate the class structure within an independent local church. Watson writes, “Not only was this progression from society to church contrary to Wesley’s reforming intentions: it proved to be debilitating for the class meeting.” (note 68). Because Wesley didn’t lead the change from society to church, the class structure became less important in the transition.
Wesley and others were quick to remove erring members in order to purify the society, but those same members could continue to participate in the Anglican Church, of which the Methodist Movement was a part. When Methodism ceased to be a voluntary society, removing someone from membership for failure to attend a class meeting became an issue. If a person was expelled from membership because of not attending a class meeting, it meant that the individual was excommunicated from the local church, cut off from the community of the faithful, and unable to participate in the sacraments.
Such a penalty seemed unduly harsh, especially for those who came regularly to the other meetings of the church. In 1889, the conference committee declared that the class was important but failure to join a class didn’t cause a person to lose membership. The class became optional. It became another alternative for growth, but not the basis for joining the church. Watson writes, “Given the lack of any clear Methodist doctrine of the church, the class meeting became a central means of fellowship rather than the basis of church membership, and the Wesleyan standards of personal holiness became more broadly social” (note 69).
The Nature of the Church
We’ve seen that Methodism operated within the Anglican Church, and Wesley’s passion was to reform the Anglican Church through the spread of scriptural holiness. Wesley never concerned himself with church structure and polity because all those in the Methodist movement were considered Anglicans. Wesley viewed the class meeting as one of the spiritual disciplines to become like Jesus. But he never considered the class as the church.
Involvement in a class was a means of grace, but since there was no clear doctrine of the church, class involvement was just one means of grace, among others. Henry Rack writes, “It [the class meeting] was always liable to suffer from other popular and perhaps less ‘official’ means of grace” (note 70). Wesley was quick to admit that his rules for the societies were merely human applications of divine rules. When Methodists came to regard themselves as an official church, they did not see the class as equally important as the larger church gathering on Sunday.
The Problem of Priorities
Methodist churches soon began to construct and own their buildings. Sunday school, programs, educational ministry, and other activities began to fill the church schedule. Many churches still believed in the class meeting, but it became less of a priority to insist that each member attend a weekly class meeting outside the building. Gradually, the need lessened to meet in home groups because of a new, modern structure and system of church life. After all, the church members were coming to hear the sermon each Sunday, attend Sunday school classes, and maybe a midweek prayer meeting. Perhaps some viewed the Sunday school as their class meeting or substituted their class meeting for the mid-week Bible study or prayer meeting within the church building. The center of church life, in other words, became focused on the activities in the building. A wide array of programs, meetings, and larger events eventually replaced the central place of the class meeting.
Charles Edward White noticed that the class meetings declined in America due to what he referred to as the settled pastor. He noticed that when there were circuit preachers, the class meeting was the center of church life because the pastor or circuit preacher would only visit occasionally and in his or her absence, the class functioned as the church. After pastors were appointed to the churches, there didn’t seem to be the same need for class meetings. The sermon was sufficient (note 71). Frederick Norwood observes:
The high point of the class meeting coincides with the heyday of the circuit rider. Its decline dates from his dismounting. [Previously] the class leader was needed to perform those pastoral functions which are part of a balanced ministry. But when the preacher settled down . . . the class leader . . . became an unnecessary wheel (note 72).
When the “settled” pastor began to concern him or herself with all the structures and programs, it was often overwhelming to also prioritize the class meeting. Many began to view the class meeting as one more program. Some simply stopped fighting the tension between the larger gathering and the small cell. Watson writes,
Confronted by the radical discipleship of these contemporary ecclesiola, there are many members of mainline North American churches who are only too aware of being challenged by a call to further commitment, but in all sincerity do not know how to answer it without rejecting most of what they have hitherto known as churchly activity. To become ecclesiola seems to present an unavoidable alienation from the ecclesia, however much a structural relationship is sought and maintained. It is not too much to say that for some, the tension of this dilemma is sufficiently intense for them to opt out of the struggle, and to settle for the blandness of folk religiosity (note 73).
Many pastors replaced the transformational weekly class meetings with occasional small groups or task groups that were more like church programs than Wesleyan class meetings. Even the prayer meeting was a substitute for the class meeting, rather than a means to enhance it. During the 1830s, there were fewer and fewer references to the class meeting and this was about the time that churches began to emphasize church prayer meetings. Watson writes,
During the 1830s, the role they [class meetings] had hitherto served as a door into the societies was taken over by the prayer meeting—especially the after-preaching prayer meeting at the Communion rail or in the vestry. Indeed, spiritual vitality in general became more frequently related to prayer meetings than to classes. They were less structured and more spontaneous gatherings, and were more readily adaptable to the institutional activities of the chapel than the interpersonal spirituality of the class meetings (note 74).
From Transformation to Information
Another reason for the decline of the class meeting was the change of emphasis from transformation to curriculum based learning groups. Kevin Watson wrote a 2013 book called The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. He writes,
The decline of the class meeting began in the mid-nineteenth century. The move away from the class meeting could be discussed in a variety of ways. One explanation is that the rise of the Sunday school movement gradually pushed the class meeting to the margins of Methodism, ultimately causing it to disappear altogether . . . the Sunday school movement led to an approach to small groups where a group of people gathered to learn from a perceived expert, either the leader of the small group or the author of a book the group was studying. In other words, the Sunday school movement shifted attention away from the focus on Christian experience and on becoming a deeply committed Christian, which Asbury had so strongly endorsed.
Watson adds, “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven small groups” (note 75). In early Methodism, personal growth in holiness was all important. As information became the new dominant priority, Sunday school became a growing phenomenon. People wanted to learn new truth but didn’t feel the same need to meet in homes to talk about the state of their souls. In the early days, the class meeting was more about one’s current relationship with God and how they were living it out. Yet as curriculum-driven groups became more important, those in the small groups assumed a learner’s role—those who received information, rather than the role of an active participant (note 75).
When a person is uncomfortable in talking about his or her relationship with God, a curriculum driven study can be less intimidating. A person can talk about content instead of really talking about a relationship with his or her creator. In many Methodist churches, the Methodist “classes” literally became Sunday school “classes.” (note 76).
Unfortunately, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the class meeting was almost entirely extinct in America. It was occasionally referred to by historians, but it was far easier to find an early Methodist class meeting ticket than a group of Methodists who were actually meeting together as a class meeting. Instead of talking to each other about their experience of God and their pursuit of holiness, Methodists were talking to each other about abstract ideas that were increasingly difficult to connect to the intimate and mundane details of their lives. The class meeting became an archaeological relic instead of the vehicle for Christian discipleship (note 77).
- The Wesleyan classes prioritized transparency and “plain speaking.” The emphasis was transformation, rather than information.
- Participation in the classes was vital. Wesley knew that people had to experience ministry to grow.
- Wesley developed his future leaders from those who regularly attended classes, manifested godly character, and showed promising signs of leadership.
- Every leader in the Methodist system was closely supervised by a higher level leader.
- In the historical process of moving from volunteer society to Methodist denomination, the class meeting lost its priority. Wesley’s voluntary society structure alongside the Anglican Church did not transfer well to the Methodist local church structure. Wesley was not able to guide the transition since he insisted on Methodism staying within the Anglican Church to his dying day.
- Because Wesley was very careful not to establish another church that competed with the Anglican Church, he never developed the idea that the class was the church, comparable to a New Testament house church.
- Henderson, p. 93.
- J. W. Etheridge, The Life of the Rev. Adam Clarke (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1859), 189, as quoted in Kevin Watson (2013-11-01), The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (Kindle Location 1816). Asbury Seedbed Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- As quoted in Henderson, p. 93.
- Latourette, p. 1026.
- Brown, p. 38.
- These were not one-on-one discipleship meetings, a practice that later became very popular in America. Rather the bands prioritized smaller group interaction for the purpose of transformation. One-on-one interaction did exist between members and class leaders with his or her supervisor, but the band was a group experience.
- Young, p. 112.
- Bunton, p. 64.
- Young, p. 112.
- The “ordinances of God” referred to the Christian practices or spiritual disciplines (e.g., public worship, private prayer, Bible reading,and so forth).
- Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 377-390.
- Bunton, p. 63.
- Wesley, Wesley’s Works, Vol. 2 (London, Wesleyan-Methodist Book- Room), p. 482.
- Young, p. 113.
- Henderson, p. 98.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 95.
- Bunton, pp. 63-64.
- Hunter III, p. 85.
- Ibid., p. 85.
- Henderson, p. 85.
- Ibid., p. 85.
- As quoted in Stanley Aysling, John Wesley (New York: Collins Publishers, 1979), p. 132.
- Hunter III, pp. 124-125.
- Ibid., p. 125.
- Ibid., p. 125.
- John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection ,” in Works, Jackson, 11: 433, as quoted in Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 1828-1829.
- Henderson, p. 99.
- David Lowes Watson, p. xi.
- Henderson, p. 103.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 87
- As quoted in Kevin Watson, Kindle Location 1823.
- Hunter III, p. 121.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 108.
- Ibid., p. 110.
- Kenneth J. Collins, John Wesley (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 122.
- Wesley, March 13, 1743, “Journals and Diaries II” (1738-1743), Vol. 19 in Works, 318.
- Collins, p. 122.
- Wesley, “Journal for August 25, 1763,” in Works, 21: 424, as quoted in Kevin Watson, Kindle Location 1856.
- Henderson, p. 30.
- Snyder, p. 55.
- Thomas R. Albin, “‘Inwardly Persuaded’: Religion of the Heart in Early British Methodism,” in Heart Religion” in the Methodist Tradition and Related Movements, Richard B. Steele, ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001), 45, as quoted in Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 1826-1827.
- John Mallison, Growing Christians in Small Groups (London: Scripture Union, 1989), pp. 127-128.
- Hunter III, p. 121.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 97.
- Young, p. 113.
- Brown, p. 39.
- Hunter III, p. 56.
- William Walter Dean, in his dissertation on the Wesley class system writes, “Cell division was much less common than might have been expected. The formation of new classes was by far the most frequent approach to growth” (Dean 1985:266).
- Hegre, p. 8.
- Hunter III, p. 56.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 119.
- Hunter III, p. 56.
- Pallil, p. 110.
- Brown, p. 39.
- Young, p. 113.
- Snyder, p. 58.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 101.
- Frederick A. Norwood, ed., The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. With Explanatory Notes by Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, Facsimile ed. (Evanston, IL : The Institute for the Study of Methodism and Related Movements, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 1979), 147 (henceforth, 1798 Doctrines and Discipline), as quoted in Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 1798-1801.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 103.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 103.
- Henderson, p. 149.
- Latourette, p. 1,027.
- Henderson, p. 144.
- Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 459-463.
- Peter Cartwright, The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1857), 519-520. Accessed at http://vitalpiety.com/author/deeplycommitted/page/5/ on Monday, December 23, 2013.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 136.
- Ibid., p. 137.
- Henry Rack, “The Decline of the Class-Meeting and the Problems of Church-Membership in Nineteenth-Century Wesleyanism,” WHS Proc 39 (1973-1974), pp. 12-21.
- Charles Edward White, The Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting (Spring Arbor, Michigan). Accessed at http://myweb.arbor.edu/cwhite/cm.pdf on Monday, May 5, 2014.
- Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), p. 132.
- David Lowes Watson, p. 142.
- Ibid., p. 137.
- Kevin Watson, Kindle Locations 193-195.
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 227-241.
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 802-808.