Wesley’s life was forever changed when in 1735 he was convinced salvation was at its heart about fully and unreservedly loving God and neighbor. Then in 1738 he found through his own experience and the testimonies of others that salvation is a gift of grace, and we enter into it by faith. We are forgiven our sins and reconciled to God (justification), are born anew and grow in love (sanctification) until we attain Christian perfection, in which we love God and neighbor with all our hearts.
A year later he reluctantly followed George Whitefield in preaching outside the walls of church buildings, providing a way to bring this message of salvation to the people of England without the restraint of church authorities or the limitations of a parish. After recognizing that God was calling laity to preach, he organized a connection of lay preachers to spread this message even more widely. This was significantly augmented by other Methodists who shared their faith with their neighbors.
Historically, religious awakenings like the one of which Wesley was a part, often have had a strong initial impact but limited lasting effect. Lives were changed, but only some persevered. Wesley was aware of this and took several steps to counteract this tendency. He gathered Methodists into societies centered in cities and towns. He designed a spiritual discipline (“The Rules of the United Societies”) to aid their growth, consisting of three rules: (1) do no harm, (2) do good to the bodies and souls of others, and (3) attend the ordinances of God, both in their daily devotions and Sunday worship. Wesley also created smaller groups called “bands.” Borrowed from the Moravian Brethren, Wesley refashioned his bands to be an aid for those who were growing in sanctification.
But as the success of Wesleyan preaching and testimony brought ever-increasing numbers of both seekers of salvation and newly reborn Christians into his movement, the societies grew rapidly. They were too large to enable conversation and sharing, and the bands were not designed for these newer members. Many were not keeping to the rules of discipline; some had fallen back into sinful habits. With the societies so large, and their members widely dispersed, how could Wesley assist these “disorderly walkers” to return to the way of salvation?
The solution came in Bristol in 1740 when a member named Captain Foy suggested the society be divided into classes of 12 members each, to enable a leader to weekly collect a penny from each member of his or her class to pay off the debt for the building of a preaching chapel. As the leaders visited, they discovered those who were struggling to keep to the spiritual disciplines, and hence maintain their relationship with God. Wesley quickly realized that having these classes was the solution to the problem of how to maintain spiritual oversight over his growing movement. The difficulties of visiting each member led to having a weekly class meeting instead, whose main purpose was accountability to the discipline and spiritual counsel from the leader to its members. Persons now entered Wesley’s societies through enrollment in a class meeting, and regular attendance became requisite to continue as one of his Methodists.
It was the combination of society, class, band, and spiritual discipline that enabled his Methodists to grow toward that goal of perfect love. Wesley later speaks of their importance in this way: “I was more convinced than ever, that the peaching like an Apostle, without joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer” (Journal, August 25, 1763). Wesley now had an organizational structure not only designed to spread the gospel but to enable those who respond to remain on the way of salvation.
This structure, along with his connection of lay preachers, was Wesley’s remedy to what he believed was lacking in the church of England. When criticized in 1746 for violating the order of the church Wesley asks in response, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746). Wesley had found a structure that did meet those ends, enabling thousands to hear, believe, and grow in the knowledge and love of God.