Within a few months of beginning field preaching in 1739, Wesley had set up the basic structure that was to mark Methodism for more than a century. The patterns he established formed the infrastructure of the movement and were crucial to its development and growth. They reveal something of Wesley’s understanding of the church and sense of priorities. Wesley himself described how these forms originated in a 1749 letter which he called “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists.”
Wesley’s converts in London wished to meet with him regularly, and he was ready to comply. As numbers grew he quickly saw he could not visit them all separately in their homes. So he told them, “If you will all . . . come together every Thursday, in the evening, I will gladly spend some time with you in prayer, and give you the best advice I can.” Wesley comments:
Thus arose, without any previous design on either side, what was afterwards called a Society—a very innocent name, and very common in London for any number of people associating themselves together. . . . They therefore united themselves “in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they might help each other to work out their salvation.”
There is only one condition previously required in those who desire admission into this Society, “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” (The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:256-57; hereafter cited as “works”)
With this one simple entrance requirement, the Methodist society was at once the easiest and hardest group to join.
Wesley organized dozens of such societies in the London and Bristol areas. All the groups together were called the United Societies. As Wesley hints, he was building upon the religious society pattern already common in England. He spoke often to existing religious societies in London and Bristol, as well as organizing new Methodist societies. The French historian Elie Halévy wrote:
It was, indeed, upon the Religious Societies in London and in the provinces that the two Wesleys and Whitefield first launched their propaganda. They found these societies numerous and flourishing; they succeeded so well in penetrating them with their influence that it is often difficult to say whether, . . . when the Methodists speak of a society, they mean a new association that they formed to spread their doctrine or one of the earlier Religious Societies that was now open, by the will of its members, to their new preaching. (Elie Halévy, The Birth of Methodism in England, trans.
Bernard Semmel, 42-43)
The main difference between the Methodist societies and the many other religious societies then functioning was that these were directly under the supervision of Wesley and were united chiefly in his person. Wesley was, of course, at this time still meeting with the Fetter Lane Society.
Of the rise of the Methodist societies Wesley says characteristically, “Upon reflection I could not but observe, This is the very thing which was from the beginning of Christianity.” (Works, 9:258)
The Band Meeting
Of all Wesley’s innovations, the bands most directly trace to Moravian influence. Wesley had found numerous bands functioning at Herrnhut and, as Baker notes, on his return he “enthusiastically advocated the system of ‘bands’ for all the religious societies in London, including that in Fetter Lane.” (Frank Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 141) We have noted in Wesley’s letter to Herrnhut that he reports ten bands meeting in the Fetter Lane Society by October 1739 with an average membership of about six.
The bands were small cells of either men or women gathered for pastoral care. New converts were beset with temptations and needed both encouragement and opportunity for confession. Wesley noted:
These therefore wanted some means of closer union; they wanted to pour out their hearts without reserve, particularly with regard to the sin which did still “easily beset” them, and the temptations which were most apt to prevail over them. And they were the more desirous of this when they observed, it was the express advice of an inspired writer, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed.”
In compliance with their desire I divided them into smaller companies; putting the married or single men, and married or single women together. (Works, 9:266-67)
Rules for band societies were drawn up as early as December 1738. Thus the bands actually preceded both the organized Methodist societies and the class meetings.
The Class Meeting
The Wesleyan class meeting arose in Bristol in early 1742 somewhat by accident. Wesley was increasingly concerned that many Methodists did not live the gospel; “several grew cold, and gave way to the sins which had long easily beset them.” (Works, 77-78) Clearly some mechanism for exercising discipline was needed. (Learn more about the class meeting with Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten Small Group Experience)
To meet the preaching-house debt in Bristol, the society there (now numbering more than 1,100) was divided into “classes” of a dozen each. Leaders were appointed to secure weekly contributions toward the debt, and Wesley, being Wesley, asked the leaders also to “make a particular inquiry into the behaviour of those whom he saw weekly.” (Works, 9:261) This provided the opportunity for exercising discipline. Thus, says Wesley:
As soon as possible the same method was used in London and all other places. Evil men were detected, and reproved. They were borne with for a season. If they forsook their sins, we received them gladly; if they obstinately persisted therein, it was openly declared that they were not of us. The rest mourned and prayed for them, and yet rejoiced that, as far as in us lay, the scandal was rolled away from the Society. (Works, 9:261)
At first the class leaders visited members in their homes, but this proved to be too time-consuming and somewhat complicated for several reasons, in part because of the poor and crowded conditions where many new converts lived. “Upon all these considerations it was agreed that those of each class should meet all together. And by this means a more full inquiry was made into the behaviour of each person.” (Works, 9:262) And Wesley reflects:
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.” (Works, 9:262)
This little statement bears reading and rereading. Note what is happening here. Through the small group structure of the class meeting, biblical descriptions of what should happen in the church spring to life. Without this intimate form of community, believers were not, in fact, bearing one another’s burdens; encouraging and exhorting one another; speaking the truth in love. The growth of the body was merely an abstract idea, as in so much contemporary Christianity (evangelical and otherwise). But once a structure and practice of community were instituted, the church began to function biblically as church, as body of Christ. Here is a lesson in the biblical reality of the church that has not been lost on those today who are calling for and experiencing true Christian community.
The class meetings were not designed merely as Christian growth groups, however. They didn’t focus specifically on koinonia, although in fact they certainly provided that. Their primary purpose was discipline. Bands had already been organized as the primary spiritual cell of Methodism. As A. Skevington Wood observes, “The class was the disciplinary unit of the society” and was “the keystone to the entire Methodist edifice,” while the band was the confessional unit. Wood adds, “This mutual confession to one another, based on the scriptural injunction of James 5:16, was the Methodist equivalent of auricular confession to a priest, and was designed to bring the same sense of relief and catharsis.” (Skevington Wood, A Burning Heart, 191-92). And much more, since grounded in shared community.
In fact, such confession and mutual support in the context of close community produced a deeper level of healing than confession to an individual priest by itself could ever do. All band and class members met together quarterly for the love feast, another Moravian contribution. A system of membership tickets was used, and only persons with tickets were admitted to the love feasts.
Leaders in the Methodist movement now included the preachers and assistants Wesley appointed, class and band leaders, stewards, visitors of the sick, and schoolmasters. In providing for the care of the sick, Wesley observed, “Upon reflection I saw how exactly in this also, we had copied after the primitive church.” (Works, 9:274)
In building the Methodist system, Wesley was led to take measures he had not foreseen. Surveying the unshepherded crowds at Bristol, he determined that preaching the gospel to the poor must take precedence over custom and propriety. And as awakened sheep flocked to him for guidance, he adopted and adapted forms to keep the sheep folded and growing. And Wesley saw—in surprise and confirmation—that this was the very thing the New Testament church was all about.
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