I’ve written before on 4 questions to ask and be asked every week. I participate in a group that asks each other those questions – or something to get at the same – each week. It has been the single most important practice I’ve kept as part of my Christian growth in the past two years. See those questions in “How is it with your soul?” and “2 more questions to ask and be asked every week.”
Those questions, and the groups we’re asking them in, stem from a very early Methodist practice called the “class meeting.” A practice that was at the heart of the Methodist movement/explosion in 18th century England and then in America. A practice that The United Methodist Church has all but forgotten today. A practice that I think could be incredibly life-giving for you, and full of potential for renewal in the church.
A document called “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies” is the best, most concise account of how those class meetings developed and the accountability that came along with them. I think it can shed a lot of light on the nature and purpose of these groups and the four questions I think we should all ask and be asked every week.
As usual, it’s in old King James style English, which makes it tough to get through. So I’ve worked on an update. Find it below. Or see a copy of the original here. Enjoy!
The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies
Near the end of the year 1739 eight or ten people came to John Wesley in London. They appeared to be deeply convicted of sin and longing for redemption. They asked, as did two or three more the next day, if he would spend some time with them in prayer, and advise them how to flee from the coming wrath, which they saw continually hanging over their heads. So he might have more time for this important work, he set a time when they might all come together — Thursday evening — which from then on they did every week. To these, and as many others as desired to join them (they grew daily in numbers), he gave the advice which he judged they most needed, and they always concluded their meeting with prayer according to their needs.
This was the rise of the United Society, first in Europe, and then in America. Such a society is nothing other than “a company of people having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”
To more easily discern whether they are truly working out their own salvation, each society is divided into smaller companies, called classes, according to where they live. There are about twelve people in a class, one of whom is designated the leader. It is his/her duty:
- To see each person in the class once a week at least, in order: (1) to inquire into their spiritual state; (2) to counsel, correct, encourage or urge on, as the occasion may require; (3) to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, the church, and the poor.
- To meet the ministers and the stewards of the society once a week, in order: (1) to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that are idle or disruptive and will not be corrected; (2) to pay the stewards what they have received from their classes that week.
There is only one condition required for admission into these societies: “a desire to flee from the coming wrath, and to be saved from their sins.”
But wherever this desire is really fixed in someone’s soul, it will be shown by its fruits.
It is therefore expected of everyone who continues in the societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:
- Misusing the name of God.
- Desecrating the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work on it, or by buying or selling.
- Drunkenness: buying or selling distilled liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
- Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
- Fighting, quarreling, brawling, one brother taking another to court; repaying evil with evil or insult with insult; not treating others as ourselves in buying or selling.
- Buying or selling goods without paying appropriate taxes.
- Giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.
- Unkind or useless conversation; particularly slandering or heaping abuse on rulers or on ministers.
Doing to others what we would not have them do to us.
Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, such as:
- Wearing gold or expensive clothes.
- Being diverted by entertainment that cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
- Singing those songs, or reading those books, that do not lead to the knowledge or love of God.
- Softness and needless self-indulgence.
- Storing up treasure on earth.
- Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking goods without a probability of paying for them.
It is expected of everyone who continues in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
Secondly: By doing good; by being in every way merciful according to their ability; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people:
To their bodies, with the strength God provides, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing those needing clothes, by visiting or helping those that are sick or in prison.
To their souls, by instructing, correcting, or encouraging anyone we have any communication with; trampling under foot that extreme doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts are willing to do it.”
By doing good, especially to those who belong to the family of believers or are groaning to belong to it; employing them in preference to others; buying from one another, helping each other in business, and all the more because the world will love its own and them only.
By all possible diligence and frugality, so that the gospel will not be discredited.
By running with perseverance the race marked out for them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear disgrace for the sake of Christ, to be as the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world; and expecting that people will falsely say all kinds of evil of them because of the Lord.
It is expected of everyone who desires to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
Thirdly: By being devoted to all the commands of God; such are:
- The public worship of God.
- The ministry of the Word, either read or explained.
- The Lord’s Supper.
- Family and private prayer.
- Searching the Scriptures.
- Fasting or abstinence.
These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught to observe by God in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And we know God’s Spirit writes all these rules on truly awakened hearts. If there are any people among us who do not observe them, who habitually break any of them, let it be known to the ones who keep watch over that person as those who must give an account. We will warn them of the error of their way. We will put up with them for a season. But then, if they do not repent, they will have no more place among us. We have absolved ourselves.
I’ve also been slowly working toward updates of Wesley’s standard sermons. Find that work here.
4 thoughts on “You need a class meeting, and an update of “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies””
I’d be curious to see what folks, including you, would put in an updated “general rules” regarding content.
Good job on the modernization of Wesley. I agree that the “covenant group” is one of the keys to the renewal of Methodism. Every pastor ought to emphasize “spiritual formation groups” (what they are called in the statistical report) as a central component of the local church’s ministry.
BTW, did you know that Kenneth Kinghorn has done a modernization of Wesley’s sermons? They are available through Bristol Books.
Thanks Tom. I do know of Dr. Kinghorn’s modernization. He’s actually a member of my congregation, and I have a deep respect for him and all his work. I really appreciate hist modernizations and have recommended them to many.
I have three reasons for going ahead with another “update” of Wesley:
1) I wanted to make something freely accessible, as I’ve found too many people who weren’t willing to buy the 3-volume set.
2) Dr. Kinghorn’s modernization is somewhere along the lines of a New Living Translation – not quite Message Bible form. That’s great and helpful for many. After reading Wesley directly, I’ve grown to love his rhetorical form and wanted to keep a bit more of it. So my update is trying to stay a bit closer to that — closer, perhaps, to an NRSV or NIV translation.
3) I’ve found this to be a really helpful exercise for me. I’m seeing Wesley’s sermons in a different, deeper light. So in part, I’m doing this just for my own benefit.
Excellent. I found your WordPress site in the first place because I was searching for online versions of Wesley’s sermons. Like you, I am being challenged anew by reading more of John Wesley’s life and work.