What can we learn from early American Methodism?
(Part Four of a four-part series on early American Methodism.)
A few ministry friends and I gathered last week to watch the NBA Playoffs.
We are “fanatics” of the game and enjoyed a spirited debate around key matchups, marquee players, statistics, quotes, podcasts, tweets, the owners, general managers, contracts, and how certain teams might restructure in the offseason.
Predictably, the basketball debate turned into a ministry conversation on the structural pros and cons of megachurches, mid-sized churches, microchurches, and everything in between.
To be clear, there is no “perfect” structure for churches and larger movements of God. Ed Stetzer rightly concluded,
“Remember, God used the megachurch to reach Korea and the house church to reach China.”
First Things First
And yet, structure often becomes the focus of discussion whenever a local church, network, or larger denomination is struggling.
I’ve been privy to dozens of “structure” conversations recently that involve merging churches, merging districts, changing leadership, adapting governance models, reallocating finances, and so on.
These conversations can become a distracting sideshow and only serve to “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” if the deeper challenges aren’t addressed.
Form follows function.
Spirit over strategy.
Movement over model.
The deepest challenge for Wesley wasn’t finding the silver-bullet structure for his ministry.
Instead, he needed a deep assurance of salvation (Aldersgate), a transformative encounter with the Spirit (Fetter Lane), and an innovative practice for reaching the lost (field preaching).
Only then did the structure of the Methodist System become important. The famous comparison between Whitefield and Wesley underscores this point.
In the first half of the 18th century, George Whitefield criss-crossed Great Britain and the American colonies through the Great Awakening and saw incredible fruit. Unfortunately, he never considered a disciple-making process or larger structure to his ministry.
Adam Clarke, the famous Methodist theologian once remarked,
“The fruit of Mr. Whitefield’s labor died with himself. Mr. Wesley’s remains and multiplies.”1
What was it about the Methodist movement that allowed the fruit to remain? The simple answer is a clear disciple-making strategy and process for mobilization.
Wesley employed an interlocking set of groups called societies, classes, and bands that provided the disciple-making structure for the Methodist movement at the local level. Each one performed a different function.
The society was the first gathering for those awakened by the gospel. It was a place for larger fellowship, prayer, and to receive instruction. The entry requirement for a society was simply, “a desire to flee the wrath to come”.
However, as societies grew larger, it became prudent to divide them into smaller class meetings.
The class meeting evolved as a practical gathering for receiving weekly offerings for the poor and working out the exhortation heard in a society. Classes were often ten to twelve people and met weekly for personal supervision and spiritual growth.
The band meeting was the final group and was designed to help purifying the thoughts and intentions of the heart through accountability. Limited to a smaller group, bands met weekly for mutual confession.
The society aimed for the head, the class meeting for the hands, and the band meeting for the heart.
This was the basic discipleship structure of Methodism at the local level and Wesley would admonish his leaders,
“Establish class meetings and form societies wherever you preach and have attentive hearers; for, wherever we have preached without doing so, the word has been like seed by the wayside.”2
This disciple-making structure of societies, classes, and bands was in place by 1742 and local preachers oversaw the effort.
In addition to band leaders, class leaders, and a variety of other opportunities for local leadership, Wesley also had local preachers and traveling preachers or “circuit riders” that expanded the movement.
These circuit riders were the tip of the spear and under Wesley’s direct supervision, functioning as a quasi-monastic order.
“These individuals were called to manage difficulties in societies, to face mobs, to brave any weather, to subsist without means, to rise at four and preach at five o’clock, to scatter books and tracts, to live by rule, and to die without fear.”3
Francis Asbury cut his teeth as a local preacher and then moved into a traveling preacher (circuit rider) role before he crossed the Atlantic in 1769 to serve as a missionary to America.
When he arrived in Philadelphia the context of the colonies was quite different from England and Asbury adapted Methodism to this new environment.
His first innovation was to underscore a firm break with the Anglican Church by emphasizing his role as a bishop.
The title “bishop” was a major point of contention between Asbury and Wesley. Wesley had insisted that the Methodist movement was never to separate from the bishops of the Church of England and in his final letter to Asbury, Wesley wrote,
“How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called Bishop…for my sake, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake put a full end to this.”4
Asbury was determined to break with the anti-British sentiment in America and the Anglican Church, and became the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This provided him direct control for appointing and stationing circuit riders and local preachers across the country, and established Methodism as a home-grown religion.
Asbury also added a layer of leadership for overseeing the movement by appointing presiding elders over various regions.
These presiding elders were the “eyes, ears, mouth, and pens” of Asbury and served as liaisons between the preachers and the people, resolving disputes and overseeing ordination. They were given the same pay as circuit riders, oversaw greater geography, and typically gave leadership to 10-15 circuits, 20-30 itinerants and 3000-5000 members.5
However, the most revered leadership position in the Methodist system continued to be the circuit riders.
Most believed that the main responsibility of the episcopacy was to preserve the itinerancy.
Early Methodism found a way to hold in tension a decentralized approach to ministry combined with a strong respect for authority.
The leadership pathway for a traveling preacher (circuit rider) was often 1) conversion, 2) class participant, 3) class leader, 4) exhorter, 5) local preacher, and finally 6) traveling preacher.
If an individual was married or couldn’t maintain the pressure and pace of traveling, they would default back to local preacher status. Circuit riders were paid a small amount for their efforts representing a bias toward the edges of the movement and greater investment in pioneers over settlers.
Local preachers served as the shepherds of the movement and oversaw the religious societies and classes. They lived in the community, farmed, worked a trade, were married, and received no financial support from the ministry.
The circuit riders were the pioneers of the movement and the local preachers were the settlers. Both were necessary.
The ratio of local preachers to traveling preachers was about 3:1. In 1800 there were approximately 850 local preachers and 269 itinerants. Ten years later Asbury counted 1,610 local preachers and 597 itinerants and twenty years after that, there were nearly 7,500 local preachers across the expanding nation!6
A final piece of the structure of early American Methodism was the camp meeting, a place where one or more circuits would gather and spend several days preaching, singing, and socializing.
The first part of the 19th century witnessed a growing number of people gathering for quarterly business meetings as an opportunity for greater fellowship due to the isolation of the frontier. Soon, organizers began to lodge participants on the grounds or in the woods rather than in fixed shelters and the camp meeting was born.
Ten years later American Methodists were conducting 400-500 camp meetings annually!
Initially designed as a place to gather the scattered population of the frontier, camp meetings quickly became associated with Methodist evangelization and were held in every part of the territory.
The locus for field preaching moved from smaller settlements to larger camp meetings.
Asbury referred to camp meetings as “fishing with a large net”.
“Camp meetings! Camp meetings!” he exclaimed. “The battle ax and weapon of war, it will break down walls of wickedness, part of hell, superstition, and false doctrine.”7
These gatherings elevated the role of circuit rider in the imaginations of society as often they were often colorful preachers who would make overt attempts to have the power of God strike fire over the audience, encourage uncensored testimonials, and focus on physical displays of emotional release, spontaneous response to preaching, and the use of folk music.
American camp meetings were incredible spectacles and while many complained that the meeting often pushed the edges of emotionalism, Asbury’s promotion of camp meetings persisted.
They became a key piece of continued revival and passion.
What Can We Learn?
Early American Methodism was the greatest church-planting movement in our nation’s history. It’s a remarkable story.
The Anglican Church and other denominations had been around for hundreds of years, but the established church was failing to reach the lost.
Wesley cultivated a Missionary Spirit to “spread scriptural holiness across the land” and transform not only individuals, but entire communities. This missionary spirit lived on through Asbury who contextualized the movement for the new republic.
They also recruited the next generation of Maverick Leaders, traveling preachers who stormed the cities, communities, and frontier of the early republic with the message of the gospel and left in their wake local preachers and class leaders to shepherd the people.
The Lord used this missionary spirit and sacrificial leadership to provide Miraculous Encounters among the people. There was an openness and emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the heart experience of salvation and sanctification.
Finally, there was a Methodist System that balanced authority and innovation, pioneering and shepherding in an interlocking system of societies, classes, and bands. Without this system in place, it’s doubtful that the fruit of the movement would have remained.
There is not enough time to share the end of the story, but eventually the movement slowed and the missionary spirit was lost.
Band meetings were forgotten. Class meetings were no longer emphasized.
Societies evolved into established churches, building were purchased, and local preachers were elevated over circuit riders.
The sacrificial spirit of the traveling preacher was lost. The supernatural “enthusiasm” was replaced by a refined Christianity.
Instead of the “episcopacy preserving the itinerancy”, the order was flipped and the institution became primary. Fracturing ensued.
What will the future bring?
Is it possible for a movement to become a denomination or institution? This is the pattern we see throughout church history. Is it possible for a denomination to become a movement?
I’m hard pressed to find an example.
Perhaps a first step is to rediscover the missionary spirit of its founders, raise up more maverick leaders willing to count the cost, create a new emphasis on miraculous encounters, and then ensure that the structure creates movement.
I look forward to where God leads.
Watson, K. (2014). The class meeting: Reclaiming a forgotten and essential small group experience. Wilmore, KY: Seedbed Publishing, p.21.
Stevens, A. (1858). History of the Religious Movement of the 18th Century Called Methodism. Vol. II. Carleton and Porter, p.161.
Wigger, J. (2009). American saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 161.
Wigger, J. (1998). Taking heaven by storm: Methodism and the rise of popular Christianity in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 36.
Ibid, p. 31.
Hatch, N. (1989). Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.49.