This Week in Texas Methodist History April 29
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of class meetings in the development and spread of Methodism in the first half of the nineteenth century. A "class" would be formed when a small group of people would covenant among themselves to meet regularly to help each other in the Christian journey. The class meeting combined elements of a prayer meeting, confessional, self-help group, and social hour. The class had a lay man who was officially designated "class leader." That class leader was subject to examination of character at quarterly conferences as were local preachers and exhorters. Since many circuits in 19th century Texas took 6 to 8 weeks to complete, the class leader was important in keeping the flock together in the long intervals between preacher visits. Class leaders assumed roles of spiritual counselors.
Let each (class) Leader carefully inquire how every soul of his class prospers; not only how each person observes the outward rules, but how he grows in the knowledge and love of God. (MEC Discipline, 1860)
One of the other functions of class meeting was judicial. The behavior of class members was subject to scrutiny. Violations of church law or community standards could result in punishment, even expulsion. John Woolam reports on a class meeting in Marshall, April 29, 1850.
Bro. Talafero charged with having a party at his house.
Bro. Harris charged with roling (sic) ten pins.
Bro. Martin charged with drinking. Cais (sic) laid over til next meeting.
Jas. Lambert charged with immorality.
The list of cases considered by the class, now preserved at Bridwell Library, SMU, goes on and on. Action on most of the cases was deferred. Similar documents from the period list infractions that seem harmless to most Methodists of the 21st century. They include wearing gold jewelry, attending a circus or theater, attending an oyster supper, and other similar actions.
Modern readers may wonder, "How did Methodism grow so quickly when it made such strict demands upon its members?" One would think that the strictness of the rules would prevent persons from joining. Sociologists of religion argue to the contrary. They maintain that strict behavioral standards in the early years of denominations actually help their growth. As denominations mature and make concessions to worldliness, the proselytizing zeal of its members diminishes. Those concessions to worldliness were already occurring in Methodism as this class in Marshall was disciplining its members. General Conferences from the 1880s through the 1920s chipped away at the restrictions on such matters as attending circuses. Although Class Meetings remained in both MEC and MECS Disciplines in the 1920s, few Methodists participated in classes. Some of their functions, including public confession, continued in Wednesday night prayer meeting. The era of the class meeting was over.