|A UMNS photo by John Goodwin
Class meetings were a part of 18th-century life at New York's John Street Church.
Nov. 1, 2004
By Linda Bloom*
YORK (UMNS) – Anyone living in New York in the late 1700s with an
interest in joining John Street Methodist Episcopal Church was required
to attend a weekly class meeting.
six months of learning about Christian doctrine from class leaders,
hearing the testimonies of regular members and making their own
professions of faith, those who had been “admitted on trial” might be
recommended for full membership or continued as probationary members.
at its earliest stages, “it was apparent that the spiritual vitality
and sect-like quality of New York City Methodism and, for that matter,
the entire denomination, were bound up closely with the Wesleyan class
meeting, which was referred to by some 19th century Methodist writers as
‘the soul of Methodism,’” writes the Rev. Philip F. Hardt, a member of
the United Methodist New York Annual (regional) Conference.
Hardt, this is not just an interesting aspect of church history. He
believes that the reintroduction of the class meeting as an integral
part of United Methodism could enhance unity among the denomination’s
members, develop leadership and attract new members.
book, The Soul of Methodism: The Class Meeting in Early New York City
Methodism, released in 2000 by University Press of America, helps make
that case. A paperback version is to be published this fall.
who teaches theology courses at Union Theological Seminary and Fordham
College in New York and the New Brunswick (N.J.) Theological Seminary,
points out that many nondenominational mega-churches “are using small
groups to strengthen their church programs.”
some United Methodist churches have latched on to that idea, he thinks
the denomination can be more intentional about reviving a process that,
“far from being a relic of the past, can enhance existing church efforts
at initiation and assimilation into the body of Christ.”
idea for the book began as Hardt was working on his dissertation for a
doctorate in theology, which he received from Fordham University in
1998. What started as a history of John Street Methodist Church in lower
Manhattan expanded into research on class meetings as he found minutes
of those meetings, individual diaries of class meetings and “lots of
class lists” in the rare books room of the main research branch of the
New York Public Library.
meetings originated with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in
England. The practice continued when Francis Asbury and other
circuit-riding preachers brought Methodism to New York from 1766 to
1780. “The class system stabilized New York Methodism by developing
local church leadership and by monitoring behavior,” the Soul of
didn’t expect instantaneous conversion,” Hardt tells United Methodist
News Service. People who came to class meetings included “seekers” as
well as believers, he adds. Hearing the testimony of other class
participants could help the seekers find clarity for their own faith
at the weekly meetings, which usually lasted about an hour and a half,
was mandatory. “If you missed three meetings, you could actually find
yourself expelled,” Hardt says.
main difference between Methodist class meetings in New York and
England was that the New York classes were segregated both by gender and
by race. According to the class lists he reviewed from 1800 to 1832,
white men led the separate classes for women and African Americans.
Classes did become more mixed by gender by the 1830s.
the 19th century wore on, preachers had greater oversight of individual
churches, and the focus shifted from class meetings to new voluntary
societies: Bible, tract, Sunday school and mission. “New priorities on
respectability and education also moved Methodism further and further
away from the weekly small sharing groups,” Hardt writes.
addition, the class meetings had ballooned to 30 to 70 members, “which
completely distorted the Wesleyan ideal of small group accountability
and forced class leaders to rush through their meetings or allow the
meetings to run late.”
short, as New York Methodism acquired more mainstream Protestant
characteristics in the mid-1800s, many members simply stopped attending
Hardt believes the revival of class meetings – on the local, district
or conference levels – could benefit current members hungering for more
spirituality and prospective members wanting a better grounding in the
more intimate setting of the class meeting also provides an opportunity
for closer relationships to form and allows members to “agree to
disagree.” By praying together and talking about personal experiences,
“you tend to bond with those people,” he says. “I think it would draw
structure for a class meeting revival actually was approved by the1988
United Methodist General Conference. That legislative body stated that a
pastor, in consultation with the local church nominating committee,
could recommend a number of class leaders to be elected from that local
church. The leaders would then invite the congregation to join their
classes, with new members being assigned to existing classes.
recommends that local churches consider having study groups about the
class meetings before actually implementing the system, “maybe easing it
into the life of the congregation.”
book, The Soul of Methodism, can be ordered through Cokesbury or
University Press of America. It also can be found at some seminary
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.