The Sinew of Early Methodism: The Class Meeting (Part 2)

Modern revival of the class meeting
Modern revival of the class meeting

In researching the class meeting for my last post, I discovered a relatively new book by Kevin M. Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (2013). I bought it and am currently reading it. I realized the class meeting was SO IMPORTANT to the explosive growth of early Methodism, that I feel we need to spend a little more time on the topic. We simply cannot comprehend the spread of early Methodism without understanding the class meeting.

Watson writes, “From 1776 to 1850 American Methodism grew like a weed. In 1776, Methodists accounted for 2.5 percent of religious adherents in the colonies, the second smallest of the major denominations of that time. By 1850, Methodists comprised 34.2 percent of religious adherents in the United States, which was 14 percent more than the next largest group! During this period, hundreds of thousands of people were coming to faith in Christ as a result of the preaching, testimony, and ministry of American Methodists. And throughout the period of this growth, every Methodist was expected to participate in a weekly class meeting. A strong case can be made that the class meeting was the single most important factor to the growth of early Methodism and to the retention of converts within Methodism.”

How did the class meeting get started? Watson explains: “The class meeting was started in 1742 when a group of Methodists were trying to figure out how to pay off a building debt [the building of The New Room] in Bristol, England. Captain Foy (who is otherwise unknown to historians) 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 retired. Someone raised a 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 said that he would visit them each week and ask them if they could contribute. If they were unable, he would pay their pennies on their behalf. 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. … Almost immediately, Wesley realized that the class leaders (the ones who had originally committed to make the weekly collection) were ideally situated to address the lack of discipline in keeping the General Rules among Methodists.”

Now let’s hear Mr. Wesley himself explain the class meeting and the role of its leader: “That it may the more easily be discerned whether they are indeed working out their own salvation, each Society is divided into smaller companies, called Classes, according to their respective places of abode. There are about twelve persons in every class, one of whom is styled the Leader. It is his business: (1.) To see each person in his class once a week at least; in order To receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the poor; To inquire how their souls prosper; To advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require. (2.) To meet the Minister and the stewards of the Society once a week, in order: To pay in to the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; To show their account of what each person has contributed; and To inform the Minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved.”

Describing the results achieved by the class meeting, Wesley reported: “It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. 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.’”

The class meeting, then, quickly developed into much more than a capital campaign. It became a crucial tool for enabling Methodists to “watch over one another in love,” to support and encourage one another in their lives with God. In fact, John Wesley thought the oversight and support that the class meeting provided was so important that it became a requirement for membership in a Methodist society. To be a Methodist meant that you were involved in a weekly class meeting.

So what happened in these weekly meetings? Again, we let Kevin Watson explain: “Classes were intended to have between seven and twelve members in them. Women and men often, though not always, met together in the same class. The groups were also led by both women and men. Classes were divided primarily by geographical location. In other words, you would have attended a class meeting with the Methodists in your neighborhood. As far as the content or organization of the weekly meetings, the class meeting seems to have focused on three things. First, it held people accountable to keeping the General Rules. Second, the class meeting was a place where Methodists were encouraged to give weekly to the relief of the poor. Third, and most central to the time spent in the weekly meeting, it was a place where every Methodist answered the question, ‘How is it with your soul?’ (Methodist historian Scott Kisker has recently rephrased this question as ‘How is your life with God?’)”

Thus, the class meeting was a very different kind of small group than the typical Sunday school class. Rather than being focused on transferring information or ideas about Christianity, the early Methodist class meeting was focused on helping people come to know Jesus Christ and learn how to give every part of their lives to loving and serving Christ. Early Methodists were asked to invite others into their lives and to be willing to enter deeply into the lives of other people so that together they would grow in grace. They were committed to the idea that the Christian life is a journey of growth in grace, or sanctification. And they believed that they needed one another in order to persevere on this journey.

Wesley believed that if the class meeting was threatened, then the “very root” of Methodism itself was in danger.

Because the early American Methodists like Philip Embury, Barbara Heck, Thomas Webb, and Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge were diligent to start new classes, and because people were often converted just by participating in a class meeting, early American Methodism spread like wildfire. Attendance at a weekly class meeting continued to be a formal requirement in the Methodist Episcopal Church throughout its first decades. This was the most basic requirement of membership. It is what gave Methodist membership its meaning. For example, the 1798 Doctrines and Discipline stated the consequence of failing to attend one’s class meeting as follows: “What shall we do with those members of society, who wilfully [sic] and repeatedly neglect to meet their class? Answ . 1. Let the elder, deacon, or one of the preachers, visit them, whenever it is practicable, and explain to them the consequence if they continue to neglect, viz. Exclusion. 2. If they do not amend, let him who has the charge of the circuit exclude them in the society; shewing that they are laid aside for a breach of our rules of discipline and not for immoral conduct.”

Francis Asbury, who we have yet to meet in our story thus far but who was essentially the John Wesley of American Methodism, testified that from his experience he rarely met a deeply committed Christian who was not involved in something like the class meeting. The fact that today so many Methodists are attempting to follow Christ in isolation reveals a serious disconnect from the riches of the Wesleyan heritage. Asbury concedes the value of Bible studies and other information-driven small groups. However, he insists that “the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.”  Asbury then clearly states that the class meeting was limited to a focus on “Christian experience” and not on instruction in the content of the Bible or another study.

The class meeting, according to Asbury, was thus the “pillar” of American Methodism’s exponential growth as a movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was also the main way that new leaders were raised up and prepared for ministry within Methodism! To quote Kevin Watson one more time, “We used to have an apprenticeship model to train people for ministry: you learned by watching someone else; then you did it with your mentor’s guidance and supervision, and then you did it on your own. We now have a very different model, and it does not seem to be bearing fruit for the kingdom of God. During the period that the class meeting was a basic requirement of membership, the Methodist Episcopal Church grew from a few thousand members to 2.5 million. But as Methodism began to distance itself from the class meeting, its growth also began to decrease, then stop, and finally decline.”

Is it time for Methodists to become people of Wesley’s method again.

Next time we’ll return to the narrative of our story and see how Mr. Wesley responded to the plea for spiritual leadership during a time of worsening relations between the American colonies and Britain.

(Source: Kevin M. Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, 2013)

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