DEVELOPMENT OF THE CLASSMEETING.
The institution, whose founding was described in the previous chapter, had a nurse on hand to care for it. John Wesley served as that nurse. We previously saw how God had prepared him for this mission through his education.
The weekly contribution was kept up even after the chapel bills were settled. They were initially paid to the stewards for the impoverished by the class leaders. The Methodist movement soon gave rise to a lay ministry, and the Class-meeting became their main source of funding. The “penny a week and shilling a quarter” worked wonders, creating a church-finance system that was unparalleled in its ease of use and efficiency.
The Class-meeting had immeasurable advantages for the Church as a means of moral discipline. The Class-leaders, who served in the capacity of sub-pastors and were chosen by the pastors, examined the Societies’ members on a weekly basis and reported the findings initially once per week, then only once per month. Since the apostolic era, there had not been such discipline. The class meeting was necessary in a providential way. During the great religious awakening, a huge number of men and women were drawn to the Methodist Societies by their straightforward admission requirements because they required their scrutiny, nurturing, and education.
The Methodist Societies’ pastors—Mr. Wesley used the terms “Society” and “Church” interchangeably—were forced to travel continuously because of the enormous religious movement itself. Many of them barely made any stops, often spending an entire day in one area. It was impossible to provide the Societies with direct pastoral monitoring and care. The Class-Leaders accepted this responsibility, and through their work the pastors’ labors were gladly preserved. The world witnessed the operation of a system that combined the most effective evangelizing and the strictest moral discipline at once.
As an addition to the class meeting, the band meeting was introduced. It too had Bristol as its starting point. It developed out of a need for a way for many people to have a closer level of communion. They desired to take full advantage of the blessings of Christian fellowship. When they realized that this was the explicit counsel of an inspired author, “Confess your faults one to another, and fray one for another, that ye may be healed,” adds Mr. Wesley, “they were the more desirous of this.” He split them up into smaller groups, grouping married or single men with married or single women.
The band promise was as follows: “We intend to confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another so that we may be cured. 1. To get together at least once every week. 2. To arrive promptly at the scheduled time. 3. To start with a prayer or song. 4. To speak honestly and openly about the temptations we have experienced since our last gathering, as well as the sins we have committed in thought, speech, or deed. 5. To want someone among us—referred to as a leader—to talk first about his or her own situation before asking the other members of the group as many probing questions as necessary about their situation, sins, and temptations.”
In order to receive any special instructions and exhortations that may be necessary for them, Mr. Wesley requested that all the male bands meet him or his preacher every Wednesday evening, and the women on Sunday. This would allow for the offering of special prayers as their circumstances required and the expression of gratitude for mercy bestowed.
The General Rules never forbade a band meeting. Some of its elements were adopted by the Class-meeting, which ultimately replaced it.
The Methodism of that time is illuminated by these Band-meeting norms. How powerful the emotion that emerged from this was! What a powerful and compelling motive religion has! When these guidelines were formed, the great revival was in full swing, so it is not surprising that formality and worldliness were cast away as if by the Lord’s indwelling spirit.
Saying that Class-meeting Methodism was more due to that organization than to any other for the rigor of its discipline, the purity of its members, and the durability of its acquisitions is not making an excessive claim. It served as both a tool for grace and a litmus test for truthfulness. Every teacher became a drill sergeant in the Lord’s army as a result. By using it, the Church was able to regain its lost ability to speak, and in places where State stipendiaries in surplice had mumbled printed prayers to dozing auditors or empty pews, tens of thousands of men and women were heard extolling the wonders of God in the freedom with which they had been set free. As in the time of the apostles, Christians encouraged, consoled, and edified one another. There was a revival of apostolic authority and a return to apostolic practices.