Francis Asbury preached the gospel on the empty prairies during a
vast migration of people from urban to rural areas. Prairie Methodists
simultaneously built churches and communities in the rural wilderness. They
faithfully replicated Epworth and Wroot across the
Midwestern frontier, replacing passive Anglican curates with fiery Methodist
circuit riding preachers. Churches began as class meetings, shepherded between
visits of the circuit rider by located preachers or licensed exhorters as class
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. Class sizes
increased to as many as seventy-three. 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. 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. The role of
the class meeting to enforce church discipline seemed to disappear in America
by the mid-nineteenth century. 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. Class meetings
flourished in early days between visits of the circuit riders ranging from once
a month to six months. As Methodists
formed churches, the old timers in the class meeting experienced power
struggles with the shift to resident clergy. The
non-denominational Sunday School movement also put pressure on the Methodist
class system as early as 1830 and is widely
seen as displacing the class meeting after 1875. Participation
in the class meeting as a requirement of membership was discontinued in the
Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.
Epworth and Wroot were the small rural parishes in which Wesley grew up, and of a type very familiar to Asbury and all immigrants from England.
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.
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. I have 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.
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.
Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 75.
For information on single cell churches and church growth resistance, see Carl Dudley, Making the Small Church Effective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 32-60.
White, ARise and Decline of the Class Meeting,@ 4n29. Cf. David Lowes Watson, Class Leaders: Recovering A Tradition (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1991), 50-51.
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.
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.
Watson, Class Leaders, 48-50, 152.
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.
Watson, Class Leaders, 75.
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.
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
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