Prelude to the Holy Club

In this episode, we look at the circumstances which brought John Wesley from his position as a curate in northern England back to Oxford and the early beginnings of the Oxford Holy Club.

Episode 35

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: Prelude to the Holy Club.

As John Wesley began to take his faith more seriously, before and after his ordination in 1725, and as he began to take the guidance of Jeremy Taylor and Thomas à Kempis more seriously, he found very few people in his life who would follow the same road that he was on. He later wrote in Sermon 132 about this period that he “sought for some that would be his companions in the way, but could find none; so that for several years, he was constrained to travel alone, having no man either to guide or to help him.”1

By 1727, John was feeling burned out by Oxford, and so he took his father’s advice and came back north to the Isle of Axholme in order to be the curate of the parish at Wroot. He had helped before in the summer of 1726 and was ready to come again.

In the summer of 1728, John headed south for his ordination to the priesthood. He was ordained on September 22 and by October, he was headed back north to Wroot, his Father’s parish near Epworth in which he had been serving as the curate.

John’s departure was hard news for his younger brother Charles to hear. Charles wrote the following to John in January of 1728, after hearing about John’s intention to remain at Wroot and not return to Oxford. It is a longer excerpt to share a greater sense of Charles’ prose style as a young man. It also includes a young poem that John wrote which Charles quotes back at him.

’Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good! That same favourable blast, at which my father may say ‘Ego in portu navigo’ has quite overset my patience, which you know is but a slight vessel at best, and at present is sadly at a loss for ballast. ‘Settled for life, at least for years!’ You can’t imagine what a violent effect those few words had upon the gentle reader. Bob and I have been ready to knock our heads against every post we have met since that plaguing piece of news. It will most certainly have one of two widely different effects upon me—make me a very hard student or none at all, an excellent oeconomist or a poor desperate scoundrel, a patient grizzle like Moll or a grumbletonial like Pat. Tis in the power of a few Epworth or Wroot guineas and clothes to give things the favourable turn and make a gentleman of me. Come money then, and quickly, to rescue me from my melancholy maxim ex nihilo nihil fit. I can possibly save nothing, where there’s nothing to be saved.

‘Nor yet from my dim eyes THY form retires!’

(The cold empty starving grate before me makes me add the following disconsolate line.)

Nor cheering image of thine absent fires.
No longer now on Horrel’s airy van,
With thee shall I admire the subject plain,
Or where the sight in neighbouring shades is lost,
Or where the length’ned prospect widens most:
While or the tuneful poet’s (something16) song,
Or truths divine flow’d easy from thy tongue.

You’ll pardon my turning your own words upon you, as likewise my dwelling so long upon so trifling a subject as is that of our separation for a few years only.2

One of their mutual friends at Oxford, Robert Kirkham, came to visit Epworth and Wroot bringing recent news of the goings on at Oxford. John had kept up to date with the colleges through correspondence, but in December of 1728, a Programma had been passed at a General Meeting of the Vice-Chancellor, Heads of Houses, and Proctors to combat the “Wicked Advocates for Pretended Human Reason against Divine Revelation.” A programma, according to the OED, is “a written notice, proclamation, or edict.”

Charles includes a transcript of the programma in his letter to John from January 5, 1729.

Whereas there is too much reason to believe that some members of the university have of late been in danger of being corrupted by ill-designing persons, who have not only entertained wicked and blasphemous notions contrary to the truth of the Christian religion but have endeavoured to instill the same ill-principles into others, and the more effectually to propagate heir infidelity have applied their poison to the unguarded inexperience of less-informed minds, where they thought it might operate with the better success, carefully concealing their impious tenets from those whose riper judgment and more wary conduct might discover their false- reasoning and disappoint the intended progress of their infidelity. And whereas therefore it is more especially necessary at this time to guard the youth of this place against these wicked advocates for pretended human reason against divine revelation, and to enable them the better to defend their religion and to expose the pride and impiety of those who endeavour to undermine it, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, with the consent of the Heads of Houses and Proctors, has thought fit to recommend it as a matter of the utmost consequence to the several tutors of each college and hall in the university that they discharge their duty by a double diligence in informing their respective pupils in their Christian duty, as in explaining to them the Articles of Religion which they profess and are often called upon to subscribe to, in recommending to them the frequent and careful reading of the Scriptures and such other books as may serve more effectually to promote Christianity, sound principles, and orthodox faith. And farther Mr. Vice-Chancellor with the same consent does hereby forbid the said youth the reading such books as may tend to the weakening their faith, subverting the authority of the Scripture, and introducing deism, profaneness, and irreligion in their stead.3

John Wesley’s diary is missing from this time, as are his letters. So we don’t have the letter in which John asked Charles for this programma.

In the same January 5 letter, Charles asks his brother for advice on what classics to read: “I can’t take so long views as to foresee for a whole life, but could manage a month perhaps, or a year, and shall be glad of your advice how I may make my best use of the following.”

Richard Heitzenreiter asserts that “one can almost feel John begin to squirm uneasily in his parish duties at the receipt of this letter. The battle lines were being drawn at Oxford…The Programma listed on the broadside suited John’s temperament perfectly.”4

In his next letter of January 22, Charles makes evident his willingness to keep a diary and he seeks his brother’s advice again.

I would willingly write a diary of my actions, but don’t know how to go about it. What particulars am I to take notice of? Am I to give my thoughts and words, as well as deeds, a place in it? I’m to mark all the good and ill I do, and what besides? Must not I take account of my progress in learning as well as religion? What cipher can I make use of? If you would direct me to the same or a like method with your own, I would gladly follow it, for I’m fully convinced of the usefulness of such an undertaking. I shall be at a stand till I hear from you.5

By the time we get to May of 1729, as Henry Rack puts it, “Charles was trying not only to reform himself but to influence Bob Kirkham…and others.”6 John had already decided to visit Oxford, and Charles is elated. He writes:

I earnestly long for and desire the blessing God is about to send me in you. I am sensible this is my day of grace and that upon my employing the time before our meeting and next parting will in great measure depend my condition for eternity.7

We also read in his May 5 letter about Charles working out his own salvation by method, in language similar to John’s and in a prefiguration of the Oxford Methodists. As well as Charles sharing the method with a neighbor. He writes.

Providence has at present put it in my power to do some good. I have a modest, humble, well- disposed youth lives next me, and have been (I thank God!) somewhat instrumental in keeping him so. He was got into vile hands and is now broke loose. I assisted in setting him free, and will do my utmost to hinder his getting in with them again. He is already content to live without any company but Bob’s and mine. He was of opinion that passive goodness was sufficient, and would fain have kept in with his acquaintances and God at the same time. He durst not receive the sacrament but at the usual times for fear of being laughed at. I have persuaded him to neglect censure on a religious account, and thereby greatly encouraged myself to do so. By convincing him of the duty of frequent communicating I have prevailed on both of us to receive once a week. He has got Nelson upon my recommendation, and is resolved to spare no pains in working out his salvation. Ought I not to give God the glory? Ought I not to despise the hard constructions people put upon our acquaintance, even though they should say and think what I am far from judging they do, that he is a cully and I a sharper? Ought I not to seek opportunities of appearing in public with him, if for no other reason yet because I am averse to it? He is an object worthy your charity and acquaintance; how far he deserves either you’ll be better able to judge when we meet. Meantime let me hear what you say to him.8

John’s diary picks up again in April of 1729 and continues apace. Heitzenreiter guesses the Henry Moore had access to the missing diary for his biography, but it has still not been located. So as John moves from Wroot to Oxford, we have a much better sense of his day-to-day life.

John Wesley returned to Oxford on June 28, 1729, the date of his 26th birthday. The first person he went to see was his brother Charles. Soon they began a pattern of life together, with Bob Kirkham, and William Morgan, that would include many long hours of religious conversation and hours reserved for evening reading.

But other than these conversations, John Wesley’s life was not too different from his life at Wroot. He woke up a little earlier, but still generally followed the rules he had given himself back in 1725. The great difference now was friendship and this difference was monumental.

As Heitzenrater writes,

This little band of friends, then, encouraged by the presence and direction of John Wesley, occasionally meeting together for study, prayer, and religious conversation, attending the Sacrament regularly, keeping track of their lives by daily notations in a diary, represents the organized manifestations of Oxford Methodism. The gatherings are not regular, everyone does not always attend, the daily routine is not set, the light recreation is still evident now and then, but the marks of the Wesleyan movement are present in the group. The only difference between these summer experiences of 1729 and the developments later in the year (November being the traditional "rise"), is that John Wesley was only visiting and had not yet resumed his residence at Oxford.9

After the summer, Wesley returned to Wroot.

In October of 1729, John received a letter from the Reverend Dr. John Morley asking him to return to Oxford full time in order to fulfill his duties as a Fellow of Lincoln College.

As before, Wesley did not take a direct route to Oxford. He preached in Epworth, Wentwroth, and thrice at Wroot, translated a sermon, helped with his father’s work on Job, consumed an unusually large portion of light literature, reading plays and other entertaining pieces to his sisters and their friends. On November 9 he left home with Charles for the journey back. Wesley went through London, staying on Aldersgate street to visit his older Brother. Samuel, before arriving at Oxford on a Saturday night.

It is to this November return that John Wesley notes the rise of the Holy Club. What did it look like? Who was involved? Before we look at the Holy Club historically, we are going to hear John Wesley’s own words on the rise of the Holy Club, next time on the History of Methodism.


Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725-1735, Diss. (Durham: Duke, 1972).

Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast (London: Epworth, 1988).

  1. Sermon 132, “On Laying the Foundation.” ↩︎
  2. Letter from January 20, 1728, WW 25:230-231. ↩︎
  3. Letter from January 22, 1729, WW 25:233-235. ↩︎
  4. Heitzenrater, 78. ↩︎
  5. Letter from January 22, 1729, WW 25:236. ↩︎
  6. Rack, 86. ↩︎
  7. Letter from May 5, 1729. WW 25:237. ↩︎
  8. Letter from May 5, 1729, WW 25:237. ↩︎
  9. Heitzenrater, 90. ↩︎