In Wesley's growing societies, the solution of the problem of exercising adequate pastoral oversight of the members was a by-product of a financial expedient used to pay off the debt on the New Room. On the suggestion of a Captain Foy, in 1742 the Bristol society was divided into 'little companies or classes', each numbering about twelve and having one person responsible for receiving one penny per week from the members and handing it to the stewards. 'Class' implied no teaching element or, at first, any pastoral function, but was simply the English form of the Latin classis (division). But almost immediately Wesley saw its potential, and within a few months other societies were similarly divided and a system established whereby the class was to meet weekly for this pastoral purpose under the leadership of class leaders. These class meetings gradually increased in significance compared with the meetings of the bands and attendance at class was a condition of membership of the society. The class's members were listed on a class paper, later in a class book, with quarterly class tickets being issued.
The same discipline of meeting in class, and the issue of class tickets, was followed in e.g. MNC and PM from their inception, and the centrality of group fellowship and pastoral care was integral to all branches of Methodism. In the nineteenth century, the class meeting continued as the basic unit for Methodist fellowship and pastoral care. But there is evidence that as early as 1802, the class meeting was already in decline in some places. E.g. A letter from one of the preachers in the Great Yarmouth Circuit asserts that 'a large proportion of the members neither did or would meet,' and steps were necessary to enforce Methodist discipline.
The system came under considerable pressure, particularly in Wesleyanism, for two reasons. First, class meetings were criticised in terms of their purpose, content and leadership. Secondly, the rule that church membership was based exclusively upon class membership (and, officially, attendance at class meetings) excluded many from both membership and office. The system was eventually modified in the 1880s and 1890s. A committee appointed in 1887 reported to the WM Conference of 1889, asserting the essential link between membership and attendance at class. Nevertheless, the traditional basis of class membership was being eroded and was greatly reduced in significance by meeting in class ceasing to be a condition of membership. In 1890 the class-book was replaced by a roll-book of members of the society. Similarly in the MNC the formal conditions of membership in 1889 were relaxed to include attendance at a class, fellowship or church meeting.
The 1932 Deed of Union emphasised the duty of members to seek to cultivate fellowship, and affirmed the weekly class meeting as having proved to be 'the most effective means of maintaining among Methodists true fellowship in Christian experience'. It provided that all Methodist members should have their names entered on a class book and be placed under the pastoral care of a class leader (the phrase 'or pastoral visitor' being added in 1974). Meetings for fellowship of various kinds have developed (e.g. Wesley Guilds). The traditional class meeting has continued to decline, although in some churches there are still classes meeting regularly (but not usually weekly). But the continued importance of every member being placed in local pastoral care was recognised by the 1974 addition to the Deed of Union quoted above.
More recently the element of 'accountability' in the early class meetings has been re-introduced through the growth of the 'Covenant Discipleship' movement, at first in the USA and now in Britain, often as a development of existing house groups.
See also Liverpool Minutes
John Wesley's Journal:
February 1742: 'Many met together to consult on a proper method for discharging the public debt [on the "New Room"]; and it was at length agreed, (1) that every member of the sociewty who was able should contribute a penny a week; (2) that the whole society should be divided into little companies or classes - about twelve in each class; and (3) that one person in each class should receive the contribution of the rest, and bring it in to the stewards weekly.'
April 1742: '[In London] I appointed several earnest and sensible men to meet me, to whom I showed the great difficulty I had long found of knowing the people who desired to be under my care. After much discourse, they all agreed there could be no better way to come to a sure, thorough knowledge of each person than to divide them into classes, like those at Bristol, under the inspection of those in whom I could most confide. This was the origin of our classes in London, for which I can never sufficiently praise God, the unspeakable usefulness of the institution having ever since been more and more manifest.'
March 1747: 'On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I examined the classes [at Newcastle]. I had often been told it was impossible for me to distinguish the precious from the vile, without the miraculous discernment of spirits. But I now saw more clearly than ever, that this might be done, and without much difficulty, supposing only two things: first, courage and steadiness in the examiner; secondly, common sense and common honesty in the leader of each class The question is not concerning the heart, but the life. And the general tenour of this I do not say cannot be known, but cannot be hid without a miracle.'
3 (1983) pp. 158-162; vol.4 (1988) pp.530-2, 571-5