Unit 7.5 American Adaptations of the Methodist discipleship system



Methodist DNA evolved differently on the prairies of the United States, where the parish church was the Methodist church. Class membership was necessary for membership and receiving the sacraments. Churches began as class meetings, shepherded between visits of the circuit rider by class leaders, many of whom were located preachers or licensed exhorters.[2] The terminology on the prairie is one of circuits made up of class meetings rather than Societies of the British type. There is no evidence of multiple classes being formed on the prairie in a single location as was normal in Wesley=s urban societies.[3] Class sizes increased to as many as seventy-three.[4] There is no evidence that anything like the band system developed on the prairie; the band concept was strenuously pushed in the first Book of Discipline of 1785 but all references had disappeared from the Discipline by 1844.[5] Class meetings and tickets were the major elements of Wesleyan Methodism found on the prairie.

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.[6] The role of the class meeting to enforce church discipline seemed to disappear in America by the mid 19th century.[7] Both Watson and White note that the tone of writings on class meetings in the 19th century in America becomes increasingly apologetic and persuasive, concluding that the once natural popularity of the class meeting must be waning.[8] Class meetings flourished in early days between visits of the circuit riders ranging from once a month to six months.[9] As Methodists formed churches, the old timers in the class meeting experienced power struggles with the shift to resident clergy.[10] The non-denominational Sunday School movement also put pressure on the Methodist class system as early as 1830[11] and is widely seen as displacing the class meeting after 1875.[12] Participation in the class meeting as a requirement of membership was discontinued in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.[13]

Prairie DNA was phenomenally successful in its time; from 1860-1920 the Methodist Episcopal Church grew from one million to well over four million members,[14] far outperforming Wesley=s societies. This membership increase coincides with the end of the requirement that all Methodists participate in class meeting as a condition of membership.[15] This change marks the end of classic Methodist discipline within the church as a whole, although the class meeting continues to this day as an option.

[1]For a more complete treatment of how Methodist DNA abandoned the Wesleyan discipleship system on the American prairies and became the shrinking Methodism of today, see the section on Prairie DNA on pp. 16-28 of Chapter One: Systemic Problems on the Resources page at www.disciplewalk.com.

[2]One suspects the presence of exhorters and located preachers led to class meetings that were more like worship services between visits of the circuit rider than the careful lay supervision toward holiness found in Wesley=s classes in England. Cf. Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955), 20-24. Ferguson indicates this erosion of small group process as coinciding with rise of the camp meeting in 1805 and 1840. Cf. Charles W. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil: Methodists and the Making of America (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 149.

[3]Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 14. Melton recognizes the pattern of single classes becoming single churches but refers to Asome societies with several classes@ in the 1840s without identifying locations; these could have been in urban Chicago. The author has found no single specific citing of a downstate Illinois Methodist church with more than one class meeting and no record of the use of bands or select bands on the prairie. Cf. J. Gordon Melton, Log Cabins to Steeples: the Complete Story of the United Methodist Way in Illinois Including All Constituent Elements of the United Methodist Church (n.p.: The Commissions on Archives and History, Northern, Central and Southern Illinois Conferences, 1974), 109, 111.

[4]Charles Edward White, AThe Rise And Decline Of The Class Meeting,@ Methodist History 40, no. 4 (July 2002), http://myweb.arbor.edu/cwhite/cm.pdf (accessed June 4, 2007), 7. Pagination is from the online resource.

[5]Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 75.

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

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

[8]AWesley=s problem seems to be keeping the classes pure, while his successors= problem seems to be keeping the classes going.@ White, ARise and Decline of the Class Meeting,@ 5. Cf. Watson, Class Leaders, 44.

[9]The 1872 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church indicates a second purpose in the Adesign of the organization of classes@ is to Aestablish 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.

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

[11]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, ARise and Decline of the Class Meeting,@ 5n35.

[12]Watson, Class Leaders, 75.

[13]White, ARise 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.

[14]Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., APart Two: The Nineteenth Century@, in John G. McEllhenney, ed., United Methodism In America: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 91.

[15]Charles Edward White, ARise and Decline of the Class Meeting,@ 6. The requirement was ended in the Methodist Episcopal South in 1866 and the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.

NOTE (my response)



The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

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.

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