Near the end of 1739 eight to ten persons came to John Wesley in London. They were deeply convinced of their sin and were earnestly seeking redemption and salvation. They wanted Wesley to spend some time with them in prayer, and advise them how to “flee from the wrath to come, which they saw continually hanging over their heads.” In order for him to have more time for this work, Wesley appointed a day when they might all come together, which they did from that time every Thursday evening. To these, and as many more as desired to join with them (for their number increased daily), Wesley gave advice which he judged most needful for them, and they always concluded their meeting with prayer suited to their needs.
This was the beginning of Methodist Society, first in Europe, and then in America. Such a society is no other than a company of people “having the form and seeking the power of godliness,” united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation. In time, these Societies became the foundation for the Methodist Church.
In order to discern if individuals were indeed working out their own salvation, each society was divided into smaller groups, called classes, with about twelve persons in a class, one of whom served as the leader. It is the leader’s duty:
To see each person in the class once a week at least, in order:
- to inquire how their souls prosper;
- to advise, reprove, comfort or exhort, as occasion may require;
- to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.
To meet the ministers and the stewards of the society once a week, in order:
- to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved;
- to pay the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding.
There was only one condition required of those who desire admission into these societies: a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins. But Wesley knew that wherever this desire was really fixed in a person’s soul it will be shown by his or her fruit.
It was therefore expected of all who continued in the Societies that they should show evidence of their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced.
Second: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people.
Third, it was further expected of all who desired to continue in the societies that they should to evidence their desire of salvation by attending upon all the ordinances of God; such as:
- The public worship of God.
- The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
- The Supper of the Lord.
- Family and private prayer.
- Searching the Scriptures.
- Fasting or abstinence.
As Wesley stated:
These were and are the General Rules of the societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know the Holy Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish persons of the error of their ways. We will bear with them for a season. But then, if they do not repent, they will have no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.