Class Papers: How to

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:

If absent:

  • D away from home or distant
  • S sick
  • B away on business
  • N absent due to neglect

If present:

  • ? (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.


One thought on “Class Papers: How to

  1. From Wesley’s sermon_ The Repentance of Believers_ describing the ‘awakened’ state after Justification. I would say, according to Wesley, being fully awakened is having the knowledge of our true misery and helplessness short the power of Christ. So, being ‘asleep’ (the opposite of ‘awakened’) describes coldness to pardon both before or after justification. Hence, the Awakening applies to all men dying in sin. Below is an example of coldness after justification, applying to churchmen as much as heathen, etc..

    “2. And this is undoubtedly true, that there is a repentance and a faith, which are, more especially, necessary at the beginning: a repentance, which is a conviction of our utter sinfulness, and guiltiness, and helplessness [before justification]; and which precedes our receiving that kingdom of God, which, our Lord observes, is “within us;” and a faith, whereby we receive that kingdom, even “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

    3. But, notwithstanding this, there is also a repentance and a faith (taking the words in another sense, a sense not quite the same, nor yet entirely different) which are requisite after we have “believed the gospel [after justification];” yea, and in every subsequent stage of our Christian course, or we cannot “run the race which is set before us.” And this repentance and faith are full as necessary, in order to our continuance and growth in grace, as the former faith and repentance were, in order to our entering into the kingdom of God…

    [How a hardening to Sin, or forgetful Drowsiness, might occur after Justification, thereby requiring an ‘awakening’]

    2. Indeed when we first know this; when we first find the redemption in the blood of Jesus; when the love of God is first shed abroad in our hearts, and his kingdom set up therein; it is natural to suppose that we are no longer sinners, that all our sins are not only covered but destroyed. As we do not then feel any evil in our hearts, we readily imagine none is there… But though we readily acknowledge, “he that believeth is born of God,” and “he that is born of God doth not commit sin;” yet we cannot allow that he does not feel it from within: it does not reign, but it does remain. And a conviction of the sin which remains in our heart, is one great branch of the repentance we are now speaking of.

    3. For it is seldom long before he who imagined all sin was gone, feels there is still pride in his heart. He is convinced both that in many respects he has thought of himself more highly than he ought to think, and that he has taken to himself the praise of something he had received, and gloried in it as though he had not received it; and yet he knows he is in the favour of God. He cannot, and ought not to, “cast away his confidence.” “The Spirit” still “witnesses with” his “spirit, that he is a child of God.”

    4. Nor is it long before he feels self-will in his heart; even a will contrary to the will of God. A will every man must inevitably have, as long as he has an understanding. This is an essential part of human nature, indeed of the nature of every intelligent being. Our blessed Lord himself had a will as a man; otherwise he had not been a man. But his human will was invariably subject to the will of his Father. At all times, and on all occasions, even in the deepest affliction, he could say, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” But this is not the case at all times, even with a true believer in Christ. He frequently finds his will more or less exalting itself against the will of God. He wills something, because it is pleasing to nature, which is not pleasing to Godn and he nills (is averse from) something, because it is painful to nature, which is the will of God concerning him. Indeed, suppose he continues in the faith, he fights against it with all his might: but this very thing implies that it really exists, and that he is conscious of it.

    5. Now self-will, as well as pride, is a species of idolatry and both are directly contrary to the love of God. The same observation may be made concerning the love of the world. But this likewise even true believers are liable to feel in themselves; and every one of them does feel it, more or less, sooner or later, in one branch or another. It is true, when he first “passes from death unto life,” he desires nothing more but God. He can truly say, “All my desire is unto Thee, and unto the remembrance of Thy name:” “Whom have I in heaven but Thee and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.” But it is not so always. In process of time he will feel again, though perhaps only for a few moments, either “the desire of the flesh,” or “the desire of the eye,” or “the pride of life.” Nay, if he does not continually watch and pray, he may find lust reviving; yea, and thrusting sore at him that he may fall, till he has scarce any strength left in him. He may feel the assaults of inordinate affection; yea, a strong propensity to “love the creature more than the Creator;” whether it be a child, a parent, a husband, or wife, or “the friend that is as his own soul.” He may feel, in a thousand various ways, a desire of earthly things or pleasures. In the same proportion he will forget God, not seeking his happiness in him, and consequently being a “lover of pleasure more than a lover of God.”

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