The Holy Club in Wesley's Eyes

In this episode, we hear an account of the Holy Club from John Wesley's own words as he tells it in a letter to the father of his friend, Richard Morgan.

Episode 36

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

On August 26th of 1732, William Morgan died of a fever. There was some confusion over whether his father, Richard, blamed John and Charles Wesley for William’s death. William was an Irish student at Oxford who had started meeting with Charles, Robert Kirkham, and John in November of 1729.

In October of 1732, John Wesley wrote a long letter to Richard Morgan, in order to give a full account of the history of the Holy Club and to assuage any thoughts of culpability for William’s death.

In our next episode, we will look more deeply into the historical record of the Holy Club, but I thought it best to let John speak in his own words, about how he saw Oxford Methodism from inside the movement. His thoughts will change later after his return from Georgia and his Aldersgate Experience, but these early reflections stamp for an strong impression of how the holy club felt and why they did what they did.

Because of that, this episode will consist of an extended excerpt from John’s letter to Richard Morgan that will set the history straight for us all.

To Richard Morgan

October 18, 1732

In November 1729, at which time I came to reside at Oxford, your son, my brother and myself, and one more agreed to spend three or four evenings in a week together. Our design was to read over the classics, which we had before read in private, on common nights, and on Sunday some book in divinity. In the summer following, Mr. Morgan told me he had called at the jail, to see a man that was condemned for killing his wife; and that, from the talk he had with one of the debtors, he verily believed that it would do much good if any one would be at the pains now and then of speaking with them. This he so frequently repeated, that on the 24th of August, 1730, my brother and I walked down with him to the Castle. We were so well satisfied with our conversation there, that we agreed to go thither once or twice a week; which we had not done long, before he desired me, August 31, to go with him to see a poor woman in the town who was sick. In this employment too, when we came to reflect upon it, we believed that it would be worth while to spend an hour or two in a week; provided the minister of the parish in which any such person was were not against it. But that we might not depend wholly on our own judgments, I wrote an account to my father of our whole design; withal begging that he, who had lived seventy years in the world, and seen as much of it as most private men have ever done, would advise us whether we had yet gone too far, and whether we should now stand still or go forward.

In pursuance of [my father’s] directions, I immediately went to Mr. Gerard, the Bishop of Oxford's chaplain, who was likewise the person that took care of the prisoners when any were condemned to die (at other times they were left to their own care): I proposed to him our design of serving them as far as we could, and my own intention to preach there once a month, if the Bishop approved of it. He much commended our design, and said he would answer for the Bishop's approbation, to whom he would take the first opportunity of mentioning it. It was not long before he informed me he had done so, and that his lordship not only gave his permission, but was greatly pleased with the undertaking, and hoped it would have the desired success.

Soon after, a gentleman of Merton College, who was one of our little company, which now consisted of five persons, acquainted us that he had been rallied the day before for being a member of The Holy Club; and that it was become a common topic of mirth at his college, where they had found out several of our customs, to which we were ourselves utter strangers. Upon this I consulted my father again.

Upon [his] encouragement we still continued to sit together as usual; to confirm one another as well as we could in our resolutions to communicate as often as we had an opportunity (which is here once a week); and to do what service we could to our acquaintance, the prisoners, and two or three poor families in the town. But the outcry daily increasing, that we might show what ground there was for it, we proposed to our friends, or opponents, as we had opportunity, these or the like questions: --

  • I. Whether it does not concern all men of all conditions to imitate Him, as much as they can, ' who went about doing good'
  • Whether all Christians are not concerned in that command, ' While we have time, let us do good to all men'
  • Whether we shall not be more happy hereafter, the more good we do now
  • Whether we can be happy at all hereafter, unless we have, according to our power, 'fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those that are sick and in prison'; and made all these actions subservient to an higher purpose, even the saving of souls from death
  • Whether it be not our bounden duty always to remember that He did more for us than we can do for Him, who assures us, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me'
  • II. Whether, upon these considerations, we may not try to do good to our acquaintance Particularly, whether we may not try to convince them of the necessity of being Christians Whether of the consequent necessity of being scholars
  • Whether of the necessity of method and industry, in order to either learning or virtue
  • Whether we may not try to persuade them to confirm and increase their industry, by communicating as often as they can
  • Whether we may not mention to them the authors whom we conceive to have wrote best on those subjects
  • Whether we may not assist them, as we are able, from time to time, to form resolutions upon what they read in those authors, and to execute them with steadiness and perseverance
  • III. Whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are hungry, naked, or sick In particular, whether, if we know any necessitous family, we may not give them a little food, clothes, or physic, as they want
  • Whether we may not give them, if they can read, a Bible, Common Prayer Book, or Whole Duty of Man
  • Whether we may not now and then inquire how they have used them; explain what they don't understand, and enforce what they do
  • Whether we may not enforce upon them more especially the necessity of private prayer and of frequenting the church and sacrament
  • Whether we may not contribute what little we are able toward having their children clothed and taught to read
  • Whether we may not take care that they be taught their Catechism and short prayers for morning and evening
  • IV. Lastly: Whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are in prison In particular, Whether we may not release such well-disposed persons as remain in prison for small sums
  • Whether we may not lend smaller sums to those that are of any trade, that they may procure themselves tools and materials to work with
  • Whether we may not give to them who appear to want it most a little money, or clothes, or physic
  • Whether we may not supply as many as are serious enough to read them with a Bible and Whole Duty of Man
  • Whether we may not, as we have opportunity, explain and enforce these upon them, especially with respect to public and private prayer and the blessed sacrament

I do not remember that we met with any person who answered any of these questions in the negative, or who even doubted whether it were not lawful to apply to this use that time and money which we should else have spent in other diversions. But several we met with who increased our little stock of money for the prisoners and the poor by subscribing something quarterly to it; so that the more persons we proposed our designs to, the more were we confirmed in the belief of their innocency, and the more determined to pursue them, in spite of the ridicule which increased fast upon us during the winter.

(However, in spring I thought it could not be improper to desire farther instructions from those who were wiser and better than ourselves; and accordingly (on May 18, 1731) I wrote a particular account of all our proceedings to a clergyman1 of known wisdom and integrity. After having informed him of all the branches of our design as clearly and simply as I could, I next acquainted him with the success it had met with, in the following words: ' Almost as soon as we had made our first attempts this way, some of the men of wit in Christ Church entered the lists against us; and, between mirth and anger, made a pretty many reflections upon the Sacramentarians, as they were pleased to call us. Soon after, their allies at Merton changed our title, and did us the honor of styling us The Holy Club. But most of them being persons of well-known characters, they had not the good fortune to gain any proselytes from the sacrament, till a gentleman, eminent for learning, and well esteemed for piety, joining them, told his nephew that if he dared to go to the weekly communion any longer he would immediately turn him out of doors. That argument, indeed, had no success: the young gentleman communicated the next week; upon which his uncle, having again tried to convince him that he was in the wrong way by shaking him by the throat to no purpose, changed his method, and by mildness prevailed upon him to absent from it the Sunday following; as he has done five Sundays in six ever since. This much delighted our gay opponents, who increased their numbers apace; especially when, shortly after, one of the seniors of the College having been with the Doctor, upon his return from him sent for two young gentlemen severally, who had communicated weekly for some time, and was so successful in his exhortations that for the future they proposed to do it only three times a year. )

About this time there was a meeting (as one who was present at it informed your son) of several of the officers and seniors of the College, wherein it was consulted what would be the speediest way to stop the progress of enthusiasm in it. The result we know not, only it was soon publicly reported that Dr. Terry2 and the censors were going to blow up The Godly Club.' (This was now our common title; though we were sometimes dignified with that of The Enthusiasts or The Reforming Club.)

Your son was now at Holt: however, we continued to meet at our usual times, though our little affairs went on but heavily without him. But at our return from Lincolnshire in September we had the pleasure of seeing him again; when, though he could not be so active with us as formerly, yet we were exceeding glad to spend what time we could in talking and reading with him. It was a little before this time my brother and I were at London, when going into a bookseller's shop (Mr. Rivington, in St. Paul's Churchyard3), after some other conversation, he asked us whether we lived in town; and upon our answering, “No; at Oxford,” “Then, gentlemen,” said he, “let me earnestly recommend to your acquaintance a friend I have there, Mr. Clayton, of Brazen-nose.4 Of this, having small leisure for contracting new acquaintance, we took no notice for the present. But in the spring following (April 20), Mr. Clayton meeting me in the street, and giving Mr. Rivington's service, I desired his company to my room, and then commenced our acquaintance. At the first opportunity I acquainted him with our whole design, which he immediately and heartily closed with; and not long after, Mr. Morgan having then left Oxford, we fixed two evenings in a week to meet on, partly to talk upon that subject, and partly to read something in practical divinity.

The two points whereunto, by the blessing of God and your son's help, we had before attained, we still endeavor to hold fast: I mean, the doing what good we can; and, in order thereto, communicating as oft as we have an opportunity. To these, by the advice of Mr. Clayton, we have added a third -- the observing the fasts of the Church, the general neglect of which we can by no means apprehend to be a lawful excuse for neglecting them. And in the resolution to adhere to these and all things else which we are convinced God requires at our hands, we trust that we shall persevere till He calls us too to give an account of our stewardship. As for the names of Methodists, Supererogation Men, and so on, with which some of our neighbors are pleased to compliment us, we do not conceive ourselves under any obligation to regard them, much less to take them for arguments. To the law and to the testimony we appeal, whereby we ought to be judged. If by these it can be proved that we are in an error, we will immediately' and gladly retract it; if not, we have not so learned Christ as to renounce any part of His service, though men should say all manner of evil against us, with more judgment and as little truth as hitherto. We do, indeed, use all the lawful means we know to prevent the good which is in us from being evil spoken of: but if the neglect of known duties be the one condition of securing our reputation -- why, fare it well; we know whom we have believed, and what we thus lay out He will pay us again. Your son already stands before the judgment-seat of Him who judges righteous judgment; at the brightness of whose presence the clouds remove: his eyes are open, and he sees clearly whether it was 'blind zeal and a thorough mistake of true religion that hurried him on in the error of his way'; or whether he acted like a faithful and wise servant, who, from a just sense that his time was short, made haste to finish his work before his Lord's coming, that when laid in the balance he might not be found wanting.

I have now largely and plainly laid before you the real ground of all the strange outcry you have heard; and am not without hope that by this fairer representation of it than you probably ever received before, both you and the clergyman you formerly mentioned may have a more favorable opinion of a good cause, though under an ill name. Whether you have or no, I shall ever acknowledge my best services to be due to yourself and your family, both for the generous assistance you have given my father,5and for the invaluable advantages your son has (under God) bestowed on, sir,

Your ever obliged and most obedient servant, John

John Wesley later republished this letter as a way to tell this early story, even after his Aldersgate experience had made him discredit much of his earlier religious fervor. We hear how John understood the Holy Club? But how can we understand it’s history? What actually happened with the Oxford Methodists? Next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. This was probably Joseph Hoole, Vicar of Haxey, whose young brother, Nathaniel, was Samuel Wesley's curate, for the benefit of whom he wrote his noble Letter to a Curate. Hoole was in the house at Epworth at the time of the mysterious knockings, and Mrs. Wesley wrote him a full account of the fire in 1709. John Wesley often visited him at Haxey while serving as his father's curate. See letter of Dec. 6, 1726. ↩︎
  2. 'Terry' is inserted in a copy of the first edition of the Works now in Richmond College. Thomas Terry, of Canterbury, matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford; Proctor 1708-9, Regius Professor of Greek .1712-35, Canon of Christ Church 1713-35' Chaplain to the King and Rector of Chalfont St. Giles 1725-35. He died Sept. 15, 1735, and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral. ↩︎
  3. Charles Rivington published The Christian's Pattern (Wesley's translation of Kempis) in 1735. See letter of May 28, 1725,n. ↩︎
  4. John Clayton, son of a Manchester bookseller, was born in 1709, entered Brasenose in 1726, and was Hulme's exhibitioner in 1729. He was college tutor. He returned to Manchester in 1733, and became Chaplain of the Collegiate Church. Wesley visited him there on his return from Georgia; but after Wesley's evangelical conversion Clayton held aloof from him. See Tyerman's Oxford Methodists, pp. 24-56. ↩︎
  5. Richard Morgan subscribed for five copies of Samuel Wesley’s Dissertation on Job; his son also was a subscriber. See letter of Oct. 15 1735. ↩︎