Anyone living in New York in the late 1700s with an interest in joining John Street Methodist Episcopal Church – the founding of which we wrote about in our last post — was required to attend a weekly class meeting. After six months of learning about Christian doctrine from class leaders, hearing the testimonies of regular members and making their own professions of faith, those who had been “admitted on trial” might be recommended for full membership, or they might be continued as probationary members. Yes, even lay people were admitted on trial to membership in the early Methodist church.
Even at its earliest stages, “it was apparent that the spiritual vitality and sect-like quality of New York City Methodism and, for that matter, the entire denomination, were bound up closely with the Wesleyan class meeting, which was referred to by some 19th century Methodist writers as ‘the soul of Methodism,’” writes the Rev. Philip F. Hardt, a member of the United Methodist New York Annual (regional) Conference.
Class meetings originated with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in England. The practice continued as the likes of Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge, Francis Asbury and other circuit-riding preachers brought Methodism to America in the mid to late 1700s. “The class system stabilized New York Methodism by developing local church leadership and by monitoring behavior,” Hardt reports.
The class meeting system was perfect for a church in which the ordained clergy person was assigned to a circuit – consisting of several churches – and he only visited a particular church infrequently. The class meeting leader – a lay person — was charged with the soul care of members in between those clergy visits. I can’t emphasize enough how important the class meeting was to early Methodists, and how important it was to raising up lay leadership. There was not an attitude of “the preacher will do it” when the class leaders were at the pinnacle of their use. We noted in our last post how the Methodist movement in America began as LAY people – Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, and Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge – began class meetings in their homes. Wherever Methodists went as they followed the expanding country westward, they brought the class meeting with them, and the church grew.
“Methodists didn’t expect instantaneous conversion,” Hardt says. People who came to class meetings included “seekers” as well as believers, he adds. Hearing the testimony of other class participants could help the seekers find clarity for their own faith journeys.
Attendance at the weekly meetings, which usually lasted about an hour and a half, was mandatory. “If you missed three meetings, you could actually find yourself expelled,” Hardt says.
I have a copy of an 1812 pamphlet entitled “Directions and Cautions Addressed to the Class-Leaders in the Methodist Connection and Designed to Shew (sic) the Nature of Their Office, and the Necessity of Their Being Faithful in the Discharge of Their Duty” (you have to love old titles!) by James Wood. He says, “The author of this pamphlet has long seen the necessity and advantage of having holy, zealous, and active class-leaders, in the Methodist Societies. Where such are found, Scriptural Christianity makes its way and flourishes; but where they are not, the preachers have an almost intolerable burden to bear, while their designs and labours are rendered comparatively useless.” Class leaders asked each member of their group as they met together weekly, “What is the progress of your soul?”
The main difference between Methodist class meetings in America and England was that while the English class meetings could be segregated by gender, the American classes were segregated both by gender and by race. According to the class lists Hardt reviewed from 1800 to 1832, white men led the separate classes for women and African Americans. Classes did become more mixed by gender by the 1830s.
As the 19th century wore on, things changed. As the west was settled and cities grew, circuit riding preachers eventually settled down. They were increasingly appointed to “station charges,” and they had greater oversight of individual churches. (Clergy in the Methodist system are appointed by a bishop to a “charge.” That charge can be either a multi-point charge – several churches, i.e., a “circuit” – or it can be a “station charge,” which is one church on a charge. Chapelwood would be considered a “station charge.”) Those preachers were often married, and their wives saw congregational care as part of their ministry. And the focus of church life was shifting from class meetings to new voluntary societies: Bible societies, along with tract and mission societies. A new phenomenon – the Sunday school – also gained in popularity. “New priorities on respectability and education also moved Methodism further and further away from the weekly small sharing groups,” Hardt writes.
In addition, the size of class meetings had ballooned from 6-10 members up to 30-70 members, “which completely distorted the Wesleyan ideal of small group accountability and forced class leaders to rush through their meetings or allow the meetings to run late.”
In short, as Methodism acquired more mainstream Protestant characteristics in the mid-1800s, many members simply stopped attending class meetings. The “soul of Methodism” was dying from lack of use. “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven small groups and away from the class meeting,” says author Kevin Watson. By the time of the Civil War, the class meeting was effectively gone. The position of “lay leader” still exists in our church today – a reflection of the importance of the lay class leader to Methodism – but without a class meeting to run, it is very unclear what he or she is supposed to do.
The structure for a class meeting revival actually was approved by the1988 United Methodist General Conference. That legislative body stated that a pastor, in consultation with the local church nominating committee, could recommend a number of class leaders to be elected from that local church. The leaders would then invite the congregation to join their classes, with new members being assigned to existing classes.
I close with this account of a conversation between George Whitefield and a friend, John Pool. Whitefield, as we have seen in previous blog posts, was the great preacher of the American Great Awakening of the 1740s and who probably converted more people with his preaching than John Wesley did with his. John Pool told of this encounter to Adam Clarke, a contemporary of John Wesley:
“Mr. P. was well known to Mr. Whitefield, who, having met him one day, accosted him in the following manner:
WHITEFIELD: Well, John, art thou still a Wesleyan?
POOL: Yes, sir. I thank God I have the privilege of being in connection with Mr. Wesley, and one of his preachers.
WHITEFIELD: John, thou are in thy right place. My brother Wesley acted wisely; the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class, and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and MY PEOPLE ARE A ROPE OF SAND.”
Some of us hope for a revival of “the soul of Methodism.”
(Sources: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Linda Bloom, a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York and writing at http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=2&mid=5937; “The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience,” by Kevin M. Watson.)