As Methodists formed churches, the old timers in the class meeting experienced power struggles with the shift to resident clergy.

This entry is part 55 of 118 in the series Diagnosis, Dialogue, Decision: A DMin Project

Prairie class meetings became prairie churches, based on a single cell; this is a classic limitation to church growth as classes grew larger and became small churches.[1] The role of the class meeting to enforce church discipline seemed to disappear in America by the mid-nineteenth century.[2] Both Watson and White note that the tone of writings on class meetings in the nineteenth century in America becomes increasingly apologetic and persuasive, concluding that the once natural popularity of the class meeting must be waning.[3] Class meetings flourished in early days between visits of the circuit riders ranging from once a month to six months.[4] As Methodists formed churches, the old timers in the class meeting experienced power struggles with the shift to resident clergy.[5] The non-denominational Sunday School movement also put pressure on the Methodist class system as early as 1830[6] and is widely seen as displacing the class meeting after 1875.[7] Participation in the class meeting as a requirement of membership was discontinued in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.[8]





[1] The quote is a selection from David O. Kueker’s Fuller Seminary Doctor of Ministry project submitted in September, 2007, entitled Diagnosis, Dialogue, and Decision: A Threefold Process of Revitalization For the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
It is shared here in recognition of its 12th Anniversary along with comments to update and provide perspective on the material. The original project was a Training Manual/Study Guide of three Seminars supported by three chapters of research and an Introduction. The material is available for download at In 2009 it was provided for purchase as a softcover book entitled Designing Discipleship Systems: Christian Disciple Making For Any Size Church, Any Theology through

[2][3] [4][5] [6][7] [8]

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

[1]For information on single cell churches and church growth resistance, see Carl Dudley, Making the Small Church Effective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 32-60.

[2]White, “Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting,” 4n29. Cf. David Lowes Watson, Class Leaders: Recovering A Tradition (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1991), 50-51.

[3]“Wesley’s problem seems to be keeping the classes pure, while his successors’ problem seems to be keeping the classes going.” White, “Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting,” 5. Cf. Watson, Class Leaders, 44.

[4]The 1872 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church indicates a second purpose in the “design of the organization of classes” is to “establish and keep up a meeting for social and religious worship, for instruction, encouragement and admonition that shall be a profitable means of grace to our people.” This is a purpose far wider than Wesley’s class meeting and probably reflects actual practice. Cf. Watson, Class Leaders, 48. Cf. Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 14.

[5]Watson, Class Leaders, 48-50, 152.

[6]Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 85, 88, 119, 121, 144. The growing emphasis on Sunday School diverts leaders and energy from class meetings. Cf. Watson, Class Leaders, 51-52. Watson, Early Methodist Class Meeting, 137, notes that references to the class meeting decline abruptly in British Methodist autobiographies in the 1830s. Yet White notes that there is some evidence of a 40% continued participation in the class meeting in 1900. Cf. White, “Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting, 5n35.

[7]Watson, Class Leaders, 75.

[8]White, “Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting, 6. The same change occurred in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1866 and in Britain in 1912. For an excellent description of the causes of the decline, cf. Watson, Class Leaders, 39-59.

Series Navigation<< It is an gross oversimplification, however, to say that Methodism on the American frontier went “where the people were.”The Wesleyan discipleship system was always more focused on holiness than evangelism … >>
This entry was posted in Ch 1 The Problem. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.