This week I am in Atlanta, GA., teaching a class in spiritual formation for the Salvation Army. Part of the class is learning the power and purpose of small groups in forming our lives in Christ. Today I read a historically accurate but imaginary description of a class meeting (small group) in the time of John Wesley. This reading is found in an old (and unable to locate) book of hymn stories. At the request of the class, I am posting the reading.
A Wesleyan Class Meeting
The room is a small school building contributed by the other societies for the poor of this region. The evening is Wednesday, after dark and after supper. Cennick is there first; he lights the candles, builds a fire in the grate. Soon the people arrive: an old lady with a cane; a couple of miners in their heavy boots and rough smocks, the grime not wholly removed from hands and face; the town simpleton who longs for company; the village drunk recently snatched from the burning; a charter, a shepherd, a farmer and wife. None of them has an education, most of them cannot read or write, every last one of them is poor – some of them desperately poor; they have worked all their lives and have never been further away from home than Bristol (four miles). Of such is the kingdom of God in Kingswood.
Cennick greets them as they come in: “The Lord bless you, brother.” “Thank the Lord you could come, sister.” “How’s the sick girl, Mrs. Stowe?” “How’s the lamb that broke her leg, Danny?” They nod to one another as they take their seats on the benches, glad to feel the warmth of friendship and a common aspiration. Cennick strikes up an old familiar hymn by Charles Wesley, “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing My Dear Redeemer’s Praise.” The tune is lively, Cennick is a good singer, and everybody joins whether he can sing or not. It makes one feel good to sing after twelve hours in the coal pit. The leader prays extemporaneously and calls for another hymn. The ex-drunkard asks for, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” He always asks for “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.”
The leader says that Mr. Charles Wesley has written a new hymn which he desires all the Kingswood class to learn. He wrote it when he heard of the stoning of some of the members of the class last week and the setting on fire of Mr. Barrow’s hayrick by the same ruffians. From his Bible, Cennick takes a piece of paper on which is written in Mr. Wesley’s own hand the words of “O Thou, To Whose All-Searching Sight.”
“It is to be sung in times of trouble and persecution, says Mr. Wesley, and he wrote it especially for us.”
Cennick then reads the whole hymn, re-reads the first stanza, sings the first stanza and asks them to join. The words go something like this:
If in this darksome wild I stray
Be Thou my light, be Thou my way;
No foes, no violence I fear,
No fraud, while Thou, My God, art near.
If rough and thorny be the way,
My strength proportion to my day;
Till toil, and grief and pain shall cease,
Where all is calm, and joy, and peace.
The leader then turns to the subject of the evening, “What should a Christian do if he falls into sin?” The subject has been announced previously and everyone has been thinking about it. Cennick introduces the subject with Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Depth of Mercy, Can There Be?” Discussion follows.
The last part of the class meeting is taken up with “testimony.” Each person present tells “what the Lord has done for him” since they last met together; encouragement in time of distress, strength in time of weakness, old habits losing their grip, prayer a greater help, singing the hymns while they went about their work as a source of joy, greater kindness in the treatment of others, forgiveness of enemies, deep sorrow over failures.
So it is that these humble folks, once ignorant and some of them depraved, were learning what the spiritual life is, how God is merciful and Christ a friend.
And so the social life of England was being measurably raised from the slough of despond into which centuries of neglect had plunged it – a little less ignorance, less gin drinking and gambling, less cruelty, a greater sense of responsibility, and a deeper loyalty to conscience.
Historical Note: The Methodist Revival did not concern itself with the reformation of social institutions. It did not tackle evils from the legislative end. John Wesley expressed the rationale: “The sure hope of a better age is a better man.” Yet, the Wesleys were perfectly conscious that institutions needed reformation. They spoke fiercely against human slavery, war, inhumane prisons, barbarous laws, the abuse of privilege, power, and wealth, and the liquor traffic. In France, it took a bloody revolution to break old bonds and liberate the lower classes. The Wesleys are credited with forestalling a bloody revolution in England, largely through the spiritual influence of class meetings just like the one described above.