The following extended quote is from The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright. Cartwright was a nineteenth century Methodist and politician in Illinois. (He ran against Abraham Lincoln for a seat in the US Congress in 1846, and lost.) Towards the end of his autobiography, Cartwright reflected on the importance of the class meeting for American Methodism. His account reveals not only his sense of the significance of the class meeting for nineteenth century American Methodism, but also the key emphases of the class meeting.
Class-meetings have been owned and blessed of God in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and from more than fifty years’ experience, I doubt whether any one means of grace has proved as successful in building up the Methodist Church as this blessed privilege. For many years we kept them with closed doors, and suffered none to remain in class-meeting more than twice or thrice unless they signified a desire to join the Church. In these class-meetings the weak have been made strong; the bowed down have been raised up; the tempted have found delivering grace; the doubting mind has had all its doubts and fears removed, and the whole class have found that this was ‘none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven.’ Here the hard heart has been tendered, the cold heart warmed with holy fire; here the dark mind, beclouded with trial and temptation, has had every cloud rolled away, and the sun of righteousness has risen with resplendent glory, ‘with healing in his wings;’ and in these class-meetings many seekers of religion have found them the spiritual birthplace of their souls into the heavenly family, and their dead souls made alive to God.
Every Christian that enjoys religion, and that desires to feel its mighty comforts, if he understands the nature of them really, loves them and wishes to attend them. But how sadly are these class-meetings neglected in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Are there not thousands of our members who habitually neglect to attend them, and is it any wonder that so many of our members grow cold and careless in religion, and finally backslide? Is it not for the want of enforcing our rules on class-meetings that their usefulness is destroyed? Are there not a great many worldly-minded, proud, fashionable members of our Church, who merely have the name of Methodist, that are constantly crying out and pleading that attendance on class-meetings should not be a test of membership in the Church? And now, before God, are not many of our preachers at fault in this matter? they neglect to meet the classes themselves, and they keep many class-leaders in office that will not attend to their duty; and is it not fearful to see our preachers so neglectful of their duty in dealing with the thousands of our delinquent members who stay away from class-meetings weeks, months, and for years? Just as sure as our preachers neglect their duty in enforcing the rules on class-meetings on our leaders and members, just so sure the power of religion will be lost in the Methodist Episcopal Church.O for faithful, holy preachers, and faithful, holy class-leaders! Then we shall have faithful, holy members. May the time never come when class-meetings shall be laid aside in the Methodist Episcopal Church, or when these class-meetings, or an attendance on them, shall cease to be a test of membership among us. I beg and beseech class-leaders to be punctual in attending their classes, and if any of their members stay away from any cause, hunt them up, find out the cause of their absence, pray with them and urge them to the all-important duty of regularly attending class-meeting. Much, very much, depends on faithful and religious class-leaders; and how will the unfaithful class-leader stand in the judgment of the great day, when by his neglect many of his members will have backslidden, and will be finally lost?
(Source: The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright. (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1857), 519-520)