I want to start this series of posts on the contemporary relevance of the Methodist class meeting by covering the basics of the early Methodist class meeting. For those of you who already know about the early Methodist class meeting, please bear with me. After this post, the remainder of the conversation will be focused on practical application. I do want to take the time to give a brief introduction to the origins of the class meeting in case people find this series who want to know how to start small groups that are focused on growing as disciples, but aren’t familiar with the Methodist jargon of “societies,” “classes,” and “bands.”
The class meeting was started in 1742 when a group of Methodists were trying to figure out how to pay off a building debt in Bristol (pictured above). Captain Foy suggested that the Bristol society be divided up into groups of 12 people. One person in each group would be designated the leader and would be responsible for visiting each person in their group every week in order to collect one penny from 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 11 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 penny 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 were: do no harm, do good, and practice the means of grace (i.e., prayer, searching the Scriptures, receiving Communion, etc.). Almost immediately, Wesley realized that the class leaders (who were the ones that had originally committed to make the weekly collection) were ideally suited to address the lack of discipline in keeping the General Rules amongst Methodists.
In the General Rules Wesley described the duty of the class leader:
That it may the more easily be discerned, whether they are indeed working out their own salvation, each society is divided into small 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 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. (2.) To meet the Minister and the 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. (3)
Initially, the class leader met each person at his or her own house. However, it was quickly decided that it would be more practical for the entire class to meet together once a week. Wesley reported in A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists that at the class meeting “Advice or reproof was given as need required, quarrels made up, misunderstandings removed: And after an hour or two spent in this labour of love, they concluded with prayer and thanksgiving.” (II.6)*
Wesley further reported on what he believed were the fruits of the class meeting:
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 burderns,’ 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, who 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.’ (Plain Account, II.7)
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?
Classes were intended to have between 7 to 12 members in them. They had both women and men in the classes and class leaders were 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. From what we have seen above, 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 every Methodist weekly answered the question, “How is it with you soul?” (Methodist historian Scott Kisker has recently rephrased this question as “How is your life in God?”) Third, it was a place where Methodists were encouraged to give weekly to the relief of the poor.
The phrase that I believe best captures what the Methodists believed was so important about the class meeting was “watching over one another in love.” 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.
The remainder of this series will be focused on what it might look like to “watch over one another in love” in the twenty-first century. I continue to welcome your questions about the relevance or application of the class meeting for the twenty-first century. You can leave your questions as a comment on the first post in this series, or you can email me at deeplycommitted at gmail dot com. I am looking forward to the conversation!
*(Note: All quotations in this post are from John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8., ed. Thomas Jackson, first published 1872. I have used this edition because it is in the public domain, and I am not sure what the copyright implications are for quoting as extensively as I have from “A Plain Account” and “The General Rules.” Having said that, I would highly recommend The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, as it is the recent scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. Vol. 9 of this edition contains the documents I have cited here.)