The History and Significance of the Wesleyan Class Meeting

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Discipleship is a weakness in the evangelical church world. Dallas Willard wrote about this in his book The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship:

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship…. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship is clearly optional.1

It is clear from Scripture that we are to make disciples by teaching them to observe everything that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20). But how is this best accomplished? One considerable answer is found in small groups and in the form they took in the Methodist heritage. 

The Class Meeting

The Class Meeting was a system of discipleship and accountability, designed by John Wesley, which was used by God to bring revival to eighteenth-century England. The movement that began under Wesley was mockingly called “Methodism,” because even those who didn’t agree with Wesley’s methods realized that the heart of his movement was a method!2 Wesley’s definition of a Methodist was “one who lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.” The heart of Wesley’s method was small cell groups which Wesley called the Class Meeting. These groups met to give an account of their personal spiritual progress to one another.

At the heart of Wesley’s movement was a method—a system of discipleship and accountability.

In the beginning the Class Meeting was not primarily a discipleship tool, but a way to raise much needed finances. On February 15, 1742 Wesley met with the Society in Bristol England to discuss how to pay off a loan on the preaching-house and cover its frequent repair costs. A sea captain named Foy presented an idea that led to the Class Meeting: “Let everyone in the Society give a penny a week, and it will easily be done.” It was suggested that this might be a problem because not everyone could afford to give a penny. Captain Foy said, “Then put ten or twelve to me, and I will supply what is wanting [lacking].” He volunteered to call upon these “ten or twelve” each week, and if they could not pay, he would pay for them.

Other leaders at the Society agreed to do the same. But as they visited their people, they discovered many problems. Soon their collecting became more pastoral in nature as the leaders realized the needs of those they visited. Before long, the leaders invited those they visited to meet with them in a “class.”

Captain Foy’s suggestion helped to solve a financial crisis at the Bristol Society, but more importantly it helped establish a system where fellow believers would help to bear one another’s burdens in Christian love. Wesley realized the potential that this system presented, and he wrote later: “This is the very thing we wanted. The Leaders are the person who may not only receive the contributions, but also watch over the souls of their brethren.”3

John Wesley believed that the Class Meeting helped to recapture several principles of New Testament Christianity:

  • Personal growth within the context of intimate fellowship
  • Accountability for spiritual stewardship
  • “Bearing one another’s burdens”  
  • “Speaking the truth in love.”4

On December 18, 1745 Wesley wrote a letter to a man named Vincent Perronet who had “desired an account of the whole economy of the people commonly called Methodists.” Wesley responded by writing:

Upon reflection, I could not but observe, this is the very thing [the Class Meeting] which was from the beginning of Christianity. In the earliest times, those whom God had sent forth “preached the Gospel to every creature.” And of the acroatai, “the body of hearers,” were mostly either Jews or Heathens. But as soon as any of these were so convinced of the truth, as to forsake sin and seek the Gospel salvation, they immediately joined them together, took an account of their names, advised them to watch over each other, and met these katacoumenoi, “catechumens,” (as they were then called,) apart from the great congregation, that they might instruct, rebuke, exhort, and pray with them, and for them, according to their several necessities.5

Wesley had several interlocking groups that formed his movement: the Society, the Class Meeting, and the Band. These interlocking groups (Society, Class Meeting, and Band) all had the goal of holiness in constant focus. “The Societies proclaimed and explained the doctrine, the Class Meeting was designed to implement the behavioral quest of holy lifestyle, and the bands facilitated the cultivation of inner purity and the purging of the attitudes.”6

These interlocking groups began with the Society, and the Class Meeting was a subdivision of the Society. Every Methodist became a member of a Class and attended it regularly, or they would be excluded from the Society. The only condition for those who wanted to be a part of the Class Meeting was a desire “to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sin.” Wesley added, “Wherever this is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.” According to Wesley they did this by:

  1. Avoiding all evil such as not taking the Lord’s Name in vain, drunkenness, buying and selling alcohol, fighting, quarreling, and not returning evil for evil or borrowing without intention of paying.
  2. Doing good of every possible sort” such as giving food to the hungry, visiting and helping the sick, and living with all possible diligence and frugality.7

The Benefits

In 1748 Wesley wrote “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists.” In this publication he gave several benefits of the Class Meeting. The first was the prevention of backsliding.

Wesley wrote that those who joined the classes usually continued in the Christian way, while those who did not often fell away:

In a few months, the far greater part of those who had begun to “fear God, and work righteousness,” but were not united together, grew faint in their minds, and fell back into what they were before. Meanwhile the far greater part of those who were thus united together continued “striving to enter in at the strait gate,” and to “lay hold on eternal life.8

In 1742 one Society in London had 426 members which were divided into 65 Classes. Within eighteen months that same Society had 2200 members, all of whom were members of a Class Meeting!9

What Happened in a Class Meeting?

The Class Meeting provided a forum where everyone was welcomed in an accepting environment. These Meetings usually had only six to twelve people per Class. The Class Meeting began with a short hymn followed by the leader sharing his own spiritual condition. They would then share about their previous week’s experience, thanking God for progress and honestly sharing their own failures, temptations, or inner battles.

The Class Meeting served as a place where people could be honest about their condition and receive loving exhortation and encouragement in their battles.

According to James Scott the following is typically what happened in a Class Meeting:

Usually lasting only one hour but not over one and a half hours, the meeting included a prayer, singing, exposition on a previously announced topic, testimonies of what God had done to save individuals, and often asking for the gift of sanctification…The Class-Meeting had prayer, but was not a prayer group; discussed Scripture, but was not a Bible Study; had deep relationships among members, but was not a support group as we know it today.10

The subject of the Class Meeting was personal experience. The goal of the Class Meeting was personal holiness. New converts were invited to the class where they would also take up this goal of personal holiness. In the Class Meeting they were nurtured in the encouraging context of an affirming group. The Class Meeting served as a place where people could be honest about their condition and receive loving exhortation and encouragement in their battles. Wesley’s goal for the Class Meeting was “that the heart would be laid bare in the midst of forgiving love.”11 It “existed in order that its members might enjoy salvation in its fullest sense.”12

During a Class Meeting the Class Leader would ask accountability questions of those in attendance. Some of the questions that may have been asked at the Class Meetings were:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
  5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?13

These questions were designed to encourage those attending to share honestly with one another about their spiritual condition and struggles so that they could help bear one another’s burdens in Christian love. This mutual sharing and accountability helped members develop a deep love and care for one another and for Christ.

Whitefield’s Mistake

George Whitfield and John Wesley were both evangelists in England during this same period. Whitefield was a powerful preacher who became a speaker to the masses prior to Wesley. He convinced a reluctant Wesley to preach outside of the church in the open air. Whitefield was extremely successful in reaching the masses, and thousands were saved through his preaching. Whitefield was known as the better speaker and is credited with initiating and popularizing mass evangelism. However, it is Wesley who is credited with saving England in its dying hour. What made the difference in their ministries? Whitefield hoped that those who had been “awakened” would follow through on their own initiative. John Wesley was not willing to take that chance; he organized them into Class Meetings for accountability and discipleship.14 Adam Clarke, an early historian of Methodism, explained the success of Methodism:

It was by this means—the formation of small groups—that we have been enabled to establish permanent and holy churches over the world. Mr. Wesley saw the necessity of this from the beginning. Mr. Whitefield, when he separated from Mr. Wesley, did not follow it. What was the consequence? The fruit of Mr. Whitefield died with himself. Mr. Wesley’s fruit remains, grows, increases, and multiplies exceedingly. Did Mr. Whitefield see his error? He did, but not till it was too late. His people, long unused to it, would not come under this discipline.15

Clarke also told the following story:

Whitefield met an old friend, Mr. John Pool and accosted him in the following manner: “Well, John, art thou still a Wesleyan?” Pool replied, “Yes, sir, and I thank God that I have the privilege of being in connection with him, and one of his preachers.” “John,” said Whitefield, “thou art in the 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.”16

The reason George Whitefield acknowledged his converts were “a rope of sand” and Wesley’s “fruit remained” was because Wesley utilized Class Meetings for accountability and discipleship. On one occasion Wesley was asked why the Methodists could not content themselves with preaching and let God look after the converts instead of going to all the trouble of forming them into societies and classes and bands. His reply was, “We have made the trial in various places…but in all [of them] the seed has fallen by the highwayside. There is scarce any fruit remaining.”17 

Wesley himself wrote:

It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation [Class Meetings]. 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, 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.18

The great preacher Henry Ward Beecher said, “The greatest thing John Wesley ever gave to the world is the Methodist class-meeting.” Dwight L. Moody agreed, “The Methodist class-meetings are the best institution for training converts this world ever saw.”19

“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.” —John Wesley

In 1763 Wesley wrote:

I was more convinced than ever that 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 connexion: and the consequence is that nine in ten of the once-awakened are now faster asleep than ever.20

Without the Class Meeting, Methodism Falls

In his book The Drillmaster of Methodism (1902), Charles Goodell wrote:

For organization and discipline the class is the head and origin of the Church. Our Discipline makes it obligatory that our church membership should be divided into classes and every individual a member of some class. If the church does not have a class it is not a Methodist church in any true sense…We may be sure that Methodism of the true type goes up or down with the growth or deterioration of the Class Meeting.”21

William Carvosso (a Class Leader who was close friends with John Wesley) said the following about Wesley:

He considered the class-meeting a spiritual fold, into which every soul who had a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from sin, should at once be conducted; because he knew, from facts almost innumerable, that, within the boundary of this infinitely important means of salvation, holy desires and resolution were more happily nourished, defended, and strengthened than they could be elsewhere. A Class Meeting was used by him as a grand instrument to promote decision of religious principle; and the good which he did in this way is beyond calculation.22

In 1882 Gilbert Murray wrote:

The class-meeting is a holy place in Methodism. Her membership has found it marvelously adapted to the nurture of Christian character, and there live few true Methodists who do not thank God for the Methodist class-meeting. The unspeakable usefulness of the institution has been more and more manifest…The class-meeting has, more than any other means, preserved the original purity and vigor of Methodism…Without the weekly class-meeting, Wesleyan Methodism would be at an end…The class-meeting is Methodism. And Methodism is the class-meeting. The two are indissolubly associated.23

In 1881, O.P. Fitzgerald (a Class Leader) wrote: “…as a fire in my bones…[I believe] that Methodism cannot afford to give up the Class-Meeting, that it can be made even more effective as a means of grace than ever before.” He went on to call for a “Class-Meeting Revival” in Methodism, claiming that without it, Methodism would not long survive. A study of the history of the Methodist Church shows that when the Class Meetings began to decline so did the Church. In 1916, Wilson Hogue warned: “The character of the class-meeting cannot be lowered, or the glorious, soul-refreshing and powerful vitality of the church will cease to exist.”24 

He continued:

The decline of the class-meeting always indicates the decline of the church in spiritual life, power and fruitfulness. Whenever the church’s pulse beats high with revival intensity you will always find the class-meeting well attended. Whenever the ecclesiastical pulse is spiritually feeble, interest in the class-meeting will be found at ebb-tide.25

John Wesley famously wrote:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.26

Time to Return to Our Roots?

Those of us who claim the Wesleyan heritage as our own are in danger of becoming a “dead sect.” We must hold to the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline” with which we first set out. The only way to accomplish this is to continually disciple those in our churches in the way of scriptural holiness. Our mandate is to reach the lost with the message of full salvation from sin and to teach those we reach how to “observe all things” that Christ has commanded.

The Class Meeting was a powerful tool that God used to help disciple those reached by the Methodist revival. Perhaps it is time for us to revisit the Class Meeting as a tool for discipleship within the Wesleyan-Methodist context. John Wesley said, “The Church changes the world not by making converts but by making disciples.” May God help us to make disciples!

 


 

  1. Willard, Dallas, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco: Harper, 2006. 4
  2. Henderson, D. Michael. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: a Model for Making Disciples. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Pub. House, 1997. 11.
  3. Watson, David Lowes. The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance. Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Pub., 2002. 93.
  4. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 11.
  5. Wesley, John, and John Emory. The Works of the Reverend John Wesley. New York: T. Mason and G. Lane for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831. 177.
  6. Scott, James B., and Molly Ann Davis-Scott. Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting. Dallas, TX: Provident Pub., 2008. 115.
  7. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 97.
  8. Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, 177. 
  9. Discipleship: John Wesley’s 3-Strand Discipleship Model | CORE Discipleship.” Discipleship: Welcome To CoreDiscipleship.com. Web. 30 Sept. 2010.
  10. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 110-112.
  11. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 4-6.
  12. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 104.
  13. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 139.
  14. Discipleship Resource Center – John Wesley’s Accountability Discipleship Groups.” Discipleship Resource Center – Home. Web. 05 Oct. 2010. 
  15. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 28.
  16. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 30.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 106.
  19. Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, 180.
  20. Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, 156.
  21. As quoted by Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 93.
  22. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 31-33.
  23. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 62.
  24. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 67-72.
  25. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 99.
  26. Scott, Restoring the Wesleyan Class-meeting, 101.
  27. Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, 315.
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Jon Earls
Jon Earls pastors the Bible Methodist Church in Tarrant (Birmingham), AL. He and his wife Michelle have three children. He is the author of a book of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. He can be found on Facebook and on Twitter.