Among the several groupings of methodists from Britain, the Wesleyans were distinct for their discipline or form of organization, namely, the class meeting. While George Whitfield’s fame has been passed to us by his incredible gift of public oration, John Wesley’s legacy was secured by the formation of the United Societies and their rather systematic monitoring life and manners.
For the Wesleyans, religious monitoring required the keeping of class papers by lay-leaders. Lay-leaders typically were charged with classes of no more than twelve members. In his class book, the lay-leader would tabulate the spiritual grace of each member, drawing tables with ledgers and rows that registered the progress of each soul.
Typically, a class paper would begin with a list of names, followed by their place of residence (evidently for visiting if absent). The next column(s) would then mark attendance at each class with respective dates above, each weekly meeting containing some note of spiritual estate, designated by one of several letters. Possibly entries include:
- D away from home or distant
- S sick
- B away on business
- N absent due to neglect
- ? (question-mark) doubtful or still asleep
- a (lower-case) having signs of being awakened
- . (period)justified
- : (colon) perfected in love
If a member had three ‘N”s in a row, the individual would be expelled from the society. To be ‘awakened’ (a) meant to have a true knowledge of cleaving sin and helplessness without the power of Christ, corresponding to a penitent believer who earnestly calls upon the Lord. Of course, this was the spiritual state required of anyone who would join the methodist society, “to know the wrath to come and flee sin”. To be ‘justified’ meant having the trust and confidence of Christ received by the sinner, such that a certain peace was had in the soul, albeit there remained something of the old man in the heart. This would be a spiritual birth though not complete. ‘Perfected’ would correspond to a state where mortal man (on this side of the grave) is ruled entirely by the Spirit, having an undivided love for God and neighbor. The flesh has been thrust out the heart, though it still tempts yet without dominion over the will or heart of a mature, or ‘altogether’, Christian.
In some cases perhaps these might be fine-lines? Wesley’s sermon on the ‘Almost Christian‘ seems to distinguish between the justified and perfected: where the justified is described in the first- and the perfected in the second-half of the paragraph below. Wesley says,
“The right and true Christian faith is (to go on the words of our own church) not only to believe that holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ. It is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favor of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments [e.g., justified]. Now, whosoever has this faith, which purifies the heart (by the power of God, who dwelleth therein) from pride, anger, desire, from all unrighteousness from all filthiness of flesh and spirit; which fills it with love stronger than death, both to God and to all mankind; love that doeth the works of God, glorifying to spend and to be spent for all men, and that endureth with joy, not only the reproach of Christ, the being mocked, despised, and hated of all men, but whatsoever the wisdom of God permits the malice of men or devils to inflict, — whosever has this faith thus working by love is not almost only, but altogether, a Christian [e.g., perfected].” (p. 71, Sermons)
The registry of spiritual estates by class papers really made the machinery of the United Societies work. The bulk of Wesleyan hymns were organized according to degrees of grace with sections labeled “pentitent”, “awakened”, “backsliding”, “mourning”, and “believers”. Papers also reinforced the structure of the society itself. In order to attend the quarterly meetings, Wesleyans required a record of good standing. Class Papers were thus collected and examined by Circuit Preachers, permitting the heads of circuits to issue quarterly tickets for serious members to attend Love Feasts. In fact, Wesley further sub-divided his Societies according to where a man stood in his Christian walk. The 1744 conference asks,
Q. 1. How are the people divided who desire to be under your care?
A. Into the United Societies, the Bands, the Select Societies, and the Penitents.
Q. 2 How do these differ from each other?
A. The United Societies (which are the largest of all) consist of awakened persons. Part of these, who are supposed to have remission of sins, are more closely united in the Bands. Those in the Bands who seem to walk n the light of God [perfected] compose the Select Societies. Those of them who have made shipwreck of the faith meet apart as Penitents.
So, the pool of local methodists would meet in the Class, consisting mostly of awakened persons (the minimal criteria to be a methodist). The Justified might be in a Band, and the Perfected in a Select Band. As a person progressed in their walk, they’d go from one weekly group to another with each ‘level’ having less rules, keeping in mind the law was on the heart of the sanctified not left to stone, etc.. Such an organization of monitoring would not be possible without the class paper and its leaders who maintained it. Also, this says something about the Wesleyan view of salvation as a sometimes gradual, even strange, progress but nonetheless one of ‘grace to grace’. Nor is conversion a single, dramatic experience, but sanctification consists of many conversions, sometimes with relapse to sin. I think this stands in contrast to today’s charismatic or Pentecostal which is less bookish, ledger-like, and scrutinizing or self-examining of the spirit. Indeed, the historical Wesley (something I’ll argue more about in the future) was fairly cautious with bold spiritual claims, especially extraordinary prophecy.
Class papers, along with other instruments related to religious monitoring or discipline, have basically disappeared. But renewal movements might want to take note. As classes grow above six people, or include more than one or two families, the use of class papers might help track spiritual journeys of individual persons, and also convey the impression of serious discipline by keeping recorded attendance. Class papers might likewise emphasize the authority of the lay-leader, pressing differentials in experience and motivation between individuals. It certainly should be connected with the restoration or use of Love Feasts. Moreover, class papers are a quick reference for measuring spiritual estates where circuits and districts have grown to such an extent that the speedy communication of information from the leader to elder, all the way up to the conference head or superintendent, is needed.
Perhaps in potential evangelical districts or circuits like northern California (we’re spread between Monterey and Sacramento), Papers could be used if several classes or family altars existed? In such a ward, the members would receive invitations or tickets, indicating their good standing for the quarterly meeting and its related Love Feast. This is certainly something we’d like to move toward in New Albion.