Not everyone was a Methodist in the Church of England. This is an important thing to remember. Methodists were volunteers. They joined together under a system of accountability and mutual support because they felt such things were necessary to their sanctification and, hence, salvation.
Being part of a Methodist class meant having your life under scrutiny.
In his journal the week of March 9, 1747, John Wesley describes the work of examining the classes, which took up his regular attention. In the journal, he describes the skepticism people had expressed to him in the past whether it was possible to distinguish between “the precious and the vile” in a group of Christians.
Ever the practical one, Wesley insisted that it was a fairly simple task and process requiring only “courage and steadiness in the examiner” and “common sense and common honesty” from the class leader.
I visit, for instance, the class of the Close, of which Roger Peacock is Leader. I ask, “Does this and this person in your class live in drunkenness or any outward sin? Does he go to church, and use the other means of grace? Does he meet you as often as he has opportunity?” Now if Roger Peacock has common sense, he can answer these questions truly; and if he has common honesty, he will.
Under such examination, Wesley reported that a society that had included 800 members was reduced to 400, but he found the half better than the whole.
Without any question, such a system of examination and accountability could exist in a local congregation. (Indeed, it used to be part of being a Methodist.) Like early Methodism, church membership in America is voluntary. We have not state-church parish system like the Church of England in Wesley’s day. No one is required to be a United Methodist.
Practically it would be challenging, though. Our lives are less exposed to each other’s eyes than village, town, and city life in 18th century England. We do not know our neighbors nearly so well as they did. So a class leader would need to be much more active and intentional about visiting the members of his or her class to be able to answer such questions.
And, of course, there may be other reasons why such a system would not be wise for us. There are likely theological reasons why we do not embrace it. As far as I can tell, we mostly do not share Wesley’s convictions about hell, sin, salvation, and holiness. All these convictions formed the foundation of the class system. We tend rather to embrace 21st century American convictions about privacy and minding our own business.
I’m not certain how to sort out the theological, cultural, and political tangle in all this. It seems clear that the class system was important to the vitality of early Methodism.
Do we have practices such as this that are grounded on our theological convictions about the nature of salvation and that serve the same purposes for us and our people?