The Heart of The Methodist Revival

Kevin Watson

Kevin Watson

By Kevin M. Watson –

In the 18th century, a small number of Anglican priests began preaching on the importance of justification (forgiveness, or pardon with God) by faith and the new birth (entering into a new relationship with God the Father as an adopted child). The best known of these priests were George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley. Many of their contemporaries were more scandalized by the fact that they were preaching outdoors than by the content of their preaching. But these preachers, who soon became known as Methodists because of their methodical approach to the Christian life, were determined to preach to as many people as possible, and were willing to preach outside the walls of the church if it helped them reach more people.

Thousands of women and men were converted to the Christian faith by these Methodists. And, particularly through the efforts of George Whitefield, the message of justification by faith and new birth crossed the Atlantic Ocean, gaining momentum in the British colonies in America. The First Great Awakening was due largely to the traveling and preaching of Whitefield throughout the colonies from 1739 to 1740. It was Whitefield, then, and not John Wesley, who was largely the face of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival. By all accounts, Whitefield was the most dynamic preacher of his era. He traveled throughout England and the colonies in America, preaching to audiences that sometimes had tens of thousands of people. Whitefield was a better preacher than John Wesley. And in all likelihood his preaching resulted in the conversion to Christian faith of many more people than did John Wesley’s. So why is it that today people often speak of the Wesleyan tradition, but never the Whitefieldian tradition?

One way of explaining Wesley’s endurance as a key figure for contemporary Christians is his emphasis on small group formation, particularly the class meeting. It has frequently been noted that between Whitefield and John Wesley, Wesley was the more gifted organizer. A biography of Adam Clarke (Methodist preacher during Wesley’s lifetime) recounted Wesley’s insistence that class meetings were essential to the revival:

“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.’ It was by this means 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’s labor died with himself. Mr. Wesley’s remains and multiplies.”

The author then recounted his memory of a conversation between George Whitefield and John Pool, as it was related to him by Pool.

“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 art 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.”

According to Pool’s memory, Whitefield himself conceded the value of the class meetings for the Methodist revival and wished he had been more proactive in maintaining them.

The most explosive growth of Methodism, however, actually came after the deaths of both George Whitefield and John Wesley. 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. People who had come to faith in Christ were immediately placed in a class meeting, where they would be helped to grow in their faith and where they would learn how to practice their faith.

“Watching Over One Another in Love”

The class meeting was started in 1742 when 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. While the first two are fairly straightforward, “attend upon the ordinances of God” referred to basic Christian practices or disciplines. Wesley explicitly mentioned public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. 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.

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 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.” 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 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 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, 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 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?”)

Did you notice what did not happen in the early Methodist class meeting? These groups were not Bible studies. People did not study a book in these meetings. Among the purposes or goals of the class meeting, Wesley did not list the transfer of information from a perceived expert to a largely passive and ignorant audience. In other words, 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.

The phrase that 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.

And so, in the early Methodist class meeting, people would gather together, someone would open the meeting with prayer, the group would often sing a song or two, and then the class leader would start by answering the question, “How does your soul prosper?” After participants answered the question, the leader would turn to someone else in the group and ask that individual the same question. The class leader or someone else might occasionally respond to the person’s answer by asking another question, offering encouragement, and sometimes giving advice. 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 seems to have used this, as the testimony of others was frequently contagious. People often experienced conversion simply through participating in a class meeting!

The Pillars of Early Methodism

As Methodism was transplanted from British to American soil in the second half of the 18th century, the class meeting quickly became firmly rooted in the American context. One of the first appearances of Methodism in America was when a woman urged a family member to start a class meeting among friends and family who were falling away from the Christian faith after migrating to America from Britain. When Methodism became a formal denomination in 1784, the class meeting was listed as a requirement for membership. As a result, from its beginnings as a church in America, Methodists were committed to gathering together with a small group of Christians every single week to talk about their lives as followers of Jesus Christ, to check in and ask one another if they were growing closer to Christ or falling farther away. 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.

American Methodists believed that this practice was so essential to what it meant to be a Methodist that they were willing to remove someone from membership if the person did not attend the class meeting consistently. For a period of time, Methodists even issued class meeting tickets to people each quarter that were used to gain admittance into the larger worship service. These tickets gradually became more of a symbol of Methodist identity and of the importance of the class meeting, without being used as a means of entry into the worship service.

In the 1798 Doctrines and Discipline, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury commented on their sense of the significance of the class meeting for Methodism. What follows is a quotation that reveals so much about why the early Methodists were committed to this practice that it is worth reading carefully.

“We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart. We therefore confine these meetings to Christian experience, only adjoining singing and prayer in the introduction and conclusion. And we praise the Lord, they have been made a blessing to scores of thousands . . . In short, we can truly say, that through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.”

I am confident that Asbury (who was essentially the John Wesley of American Methodism) would not mind if we changed the name of these groups. But I am also convinced that he would see the reclaiming of this practice as essential and urgent. Asbury 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.” He 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 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!

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.

It is time for Methodists to become people of Wesley’s method again.

Kevin M. Watson is assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This essay was adapted from The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (Seedbed). The book contains complete citations for the sources the article used. Reprinted by permission of Seedbed (Seedbed.com). 

 

Comments

  1. I believe Wesley’s small groups are so important to revival in The United Methodist Church that we should once again require participation in a class meeting for membership. Calling it something different would be fine, but not watering it down as some groups seem to do now. We would not only gain members but our members would be more committed as they hold each other accountable and build each other up for growth in perfect love.

    Kevin, where would Bible study take place? Could this happen in society meetings or would different meetings be needed?

  2. Here are some great quotes by early Methodists about class meetings: http://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/sermon-free-church-rocked-the-early-methodists/

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