Class-Meetings In the Methodist Episcopal Church, and indeed in all Methodist churches throughout the world, each congregation is divided into smaller companies, called classes. One of the more experienced members is appointed by the pastor to be leader of the class. "It is his duty," in the Methodist Episcopal Church,
"I. To see each person in his class once a week at least; in order
(1.) To inquire how their souls prosper.
(2.) To advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require.
(3.) To receive what they are willing to give towards the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.
II. To meet the ministers and the stewards of the society once a week; in order
(1.) To inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly, and will not be reproved.
(2.) To pay the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding" (Discipline, pt. 1, ch. 2, § 1).
A rudiment of the "class-meeting" may perhaps be found in the Prophesyings begun at Northampton. These were religious meetings for discussions on the Scriptures, prayer, and mutual instruction, conducted by clergymen under fixed rules. Bishop Grindal, Bishop Parkhurst, and other bishops highly approved them, but Queen Elizabeth prohibited them (May 7, 1577; Wilkins,' Concil. 4:289); they were, however, kept up in many places until Whitgift (who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1583) succeeded, in his violent way, in putting them down. Marsden (Churches and Sects, 1, 250) remarks that these meetings gave Wesley "the idea of those social meetings in which the laity were to sustain an important part, though still under the guidance of their pastors, and in which the strength of Methodism consists" (see also Grant, History of the English Church, 1, 426, London, 1811). A nearer approach to the "class-meeting" is to be found in the "religious societies" so widely diffused in the Church of England toward the close of the 17th century. According to Woodward (Rise and Progress of the Religious Societies, etc., Lond. 1744), it was "about 1666 that several young men in London, being brought to serious convictions by the preaching of their clergy, and applying to their ministers for religious counsel, were advised by them to meet together once a week, and apply themselves to good discourse and things wherein they might edify one another." These societies soon multiplied, and in 1678 a digest of rules for their conduct was adopted. Horneck, Beveridge, Stillingfleet, and Tillotson were among the promoters of these societies. By 1691 there were forty of these religious societies in London, and many in other parts of England. For their rules see Woodward (cited above), and also Hook, Ecclesiastical Biography, 2, 363; 6:166. Dr. Clarke (Memoirs of the Wesley Family, Lond. 1843, vol. 1, p. 144) gives a letter from Samuel Wesley, Concerning the Religious Societies (1699), in which they are named as supplying the lack of confraternities, sodalities, etc., in the Church of England, and their objects and methods are highly commended. On the Continent of Europe, the Collegia Pietatis, begun by Spener at about the same time, had ends and methods somewhat like those of the later class-meeting, SEE PIETISM; SEE SPENER. Woodward's book was translated into German by the excellent D. E. Jablonski (q.v.), and similar societies were formed in various parts of Germany (Christian Remembrancer, July, 1854, 200). The nearest approach to the "class- meeting" in the Roman Church is perhaps to be found in the "Society of St. Vincent de Paul," which is composed of laymen, whose objects are mutual edification at periodical meetings, and the promotion of active charity. SEE VINCENT DE PAUL, SOCIETY OF.
When Wesley commenced his itinerant labors, the religious societies "received Mr. Wesley with open arms" (Coke and Moore, Life of Wesley, 1792, p. 6, 7). It is not at all unlikely that Wesley's views as to the true "social" life of Christianity received an impulse from these organizations. But, according to his own account, the "class-meeting" arose out of what was at first a merely fiscal plan to pay a church debt in Bristol (1742). "It was agreed
(1.) That every member of the society that was able should contribute a penny a week;
(2.) That the whole society should be divided into little companies or classes, about twelve in each class; and
(3.) That one person in each should receive that contribution of the rest, and bring it in to the stewards weekly. Thus began that excellent institution, merely upon a temporal account, from which we reaped so many spiritual blessings that we soon fixed the same rule in all our societies" (Wesley, Works, N. Y. ed., 7, 350). Some time after, complaints being made to Wesley of the conduct of some members of the societies, it struck his mind, "This is the very thing we need. The leaders are the persons who may not only receive the contributions, but also watch over the souls of their brethren" (Wesley, Works, 7, 350). All Mr. Wesley's societies were soon divided into these classes, under rules which are still substantially observed (see above).
Much of the energy, unity, and stability of Methodism is due to the class system. The most intelligent and advanced Methodists hold it in high esteem. "Methodism holds that the communion of saints is part of a man's duty before he can claim to be a partaker of the body and blood of Christ, which is the public sign of fellowship with the whole body; and it says to a man that we hold that it is part of God's will that we should exhort one another, edify one another, confess our faults one to another, commune one with another on God's dealings with us and our walk with God. I am prepared to stand before members of the Lutheran Church, members of Presbyterian or Episcopal churches, and say, as I constantly do, You omit from your Church organization a vital part of New Testament Christianity. Your Church provides for the individual life; it provides for the public life of the Church, but it altogether leaves out the social life of the Church; and that is in the New Testament as I hold" (Arthur, Speech at Wesleyan Conference, Sheffield, 1863). "Nothing is so little understood amongst Christians as the nature of the 'communion of saints,' and its vitalizing influence in the conservation of religious life, and the enlargement of the kingdom of Christ. The class-meeting amongst the Methodists is nothing but the realization of this idea; it is the concert of souls actuated by religious feeling to carry out the great purpose of their 'high calling.' It has been the true life of every thing in Methodism, in every part of the world, like those agencies of nature which lie out of sight, but, by their penetrating influence, give vitality alike to the flower and the forest tree" (Lond; Quar. Review, Oct. 1854, p. 131). "Even if the class-meeting were less inseparably bound up with the entire disciplinary and financial economy of Methodism, still its advantages are so numerous that to sever it from the Methodistic system would be to inflict a paralyzing stroke, if not a death- blow. It affords opportunity for instruction more individual and personal than can be offered from the pulpit, for Christian fellowship more intimate than can be enjoyed in the congregation, for the needful outpourings of a mind burdened either with sorrow or with joy, for watching the progress of young disciples, for preventing backsliding by timely admonition, and for special oversight of the sick and the poor." See Keys, Class. leaders' Manual (N. Y. 1851, 18mo); Miley, Treatise on Class-meetings (Cincinnati. 1851, 18mo); Rosser, On Class-meetings (Richmond, 1855); Fish, On Class-meetings (Lond. 1850, 18mo); Wesley, Works (N. Y. edit.), v. 179, and often; Porter, Compendiun of Methodism, 47, 458; Stevens, History of Methodism, 2, 430, 452; Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, July, 1863, p. 619; August, 1855, p. 704; Smith, History of Wesleyan Methodism, 1, 660-672 (Lond. 1857, 8vo); Meth. Quar. Rev. 1862, 559, 662; Life of Father Reeves, the Class-leader (N. Y. Carlton and Porter).