Oxford Methodism Part 1

In this episode, we look at the history of Oxford Methodism from a scholarly perspective, honing in on the time between 1729-32. We discuss the members of the group, what they did, and what they were trying to do.

Episode 37

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: Oxford Methodism Part 1.

The University of Oxford did not have extracurricular activities in the 1720s and 30s. There wasn’t a workout facility nor a set of campus ministries that people could be a part of. There was no associate vice president for student affairs, and definitely not a vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As well, the Holy Club or Oxford Methodism (two terms i shall use interchangeably) did not begin on a clear evening in November of 1729 when John Wesley and his friends said together, “We shall have a Holy Club. And we shall be Methodical about it!”

No, the association of John and Charles Wesley and their friends emerged organically during this process. They were not trying to start a club. Their goal was much bigger. They were trying to be holy and they saw each other as aids in this process.

In episode 36, we heard John Wesley’s perspective on Oxford Methodism in his letter from 1732. This neat narrative that Wesley presented was not exactly historically accurate. As Henry Rack puts it, “the picture of a single, tightly-knit ‘club’ led by Wesley under fixed rules and meeting in one place has dissolved in the light of recent research.”1 The research Rack cites is Richard Heitzenrater dissertation work and later publications based on that work.

I will quote large chunks of Heitzenrater’s work in order to follow his narrative, which is still broadly the consensus today.

Heitzenrater writes:

Bob Kirkham and William Morgan were already at Oxford when Charles and John arrived [in 1729]…The "four young gentlemen of Oxford" were together again. The next nine months would see a definite strengthening of the bonds which drew them together as well as a developing awareness of their corporate fellowship by others. The group began again where they had left off…except that now John was resident… and his attitude was attuned more to the establishment of permanent ties within the University community. He had no students yet, and the offer of a curacy had not arisen. He had his friends, however, and together they began slowly to build their movement, leaning heavily on John's leader­ship, which was grounded in his four years of personal intellectual and spiritual searching and his experience in the parish, and was supported by the mutual interests and concerns of his company of friends.2

Wesley was lecturing in classics, logic, and divinity, at this time,3 but he had yet to take on any private students. As Heitzenrater continues:

For the better part of a year after John's return late in 1729, the small circle of friends resembled an informal literary society more than anything else. There was no organizational structure, nor even regular meeting times at first, but the focus of their activity together was unmistakably tied to a "scheme of study," as Wesley would call it. The evening gatherings are clearly discernible in the mass of abbreviated diary entries by the careful notation of who has come and what is being read. 4

At this point, these meetings were more a book club than anything else. In some ways, it was an informal tutoring session where they read classics each undergraduate had to read, including Lucretius, Terence, Juvenal, and Horace, among others. 5

But a schedule was beginning to take place, as Heitzenrater notes:

By March 1730…the first real pattern of meetings of the Oxford Methodists [began] to take shape: Tuesdays at Charles’, Thursdays at Bob Kirkham's, Saturdays at John’s and Sundays at William Morgan's.

In August of 1730, John formally received his first students from the Bishop of Lincoln (though he had been supervising one for a few months by then). He then designed a course of study for them, including to read Nelson’s Devotion, Howell's History of England, read Terence and Horace in Latin, and Anacreon and the New Testament in Greek.6

Heitzenrater says that the group at that time “still consisted of the original four gentlemen, and the evening gatherings followed the same schedule they had settled upon half a year before. But their program of study and devotion was soon complemented by a new and more active focus of concern.”7

On a late summer afternoon Wesley accompanied his brother Charles and their close friend William Morgan to the Oxford Castle, with its unique mound and tall tower (ancient even in Wesley’s day) on the banks of the Isis on the outskirts of town."They had gone there on Mr. Morgan's suggestion that "it would do much good" for the prisoners in the old fortification "if any one would be at the pains now and then of speaking with them."^ Morgan had been to the prison many times before, particularly to see a man that was condemned for killing his wife. On August 24, the Wesley brothers went along with him. As a result, John was fully satisfied of the value of such an endeavor, and began going to the prison for an hour every Saturday after­ noon.8

John began to organize questions for the group in November of 1730.9

There were at least four sets of questions. Some referring to social actions for group use. The others for more personal use in the development of virtue and learning.10

The basic set, or general questions, that Wesley used for self-examination were edited multiple times. Some lists having 15 questions, others having twenty, and still others in between. The goal was to “have the mind which was in Christ.”11 Wesley included four lists in his diaries, but they were all based on the incomplete first list, which I will share now.

  1. Have I frequent Thoughts of God and [Prayers] to Him?
  2. Do I maintain Warm, Even Purpose of obeying him?
  3. Am I active and zealous in doing what Good I can?
  4. Is Good Will the Spring of All my Actions toward Others?
  5. Do I labour to make them Sensible of it?
  6. Have I conversed as usefully as I could?
  7. Did I in the Morning look forward on the business and Duty of the Day?
  8. Have I said in the Morning and Afternoon, "Almighty God"? How?
  9. Have I missed Prayers, unless for Communion?
  10. With what fervor did I pray by myself, in the Thanksgiving, at Church?
  11. Have I to any pleasure received immediately subjoined Thanks?
  12. Have I been or Seemed Angry?
  13. Have Lies or Words that unnecessarily grieve my Neighbor fallen from me?
  14. Have I divulged Any Evil that was not Necessary to do Good?
  15. Have I entertained any Proud, Unchaste Thoughts?
  16. Have I immediately thrown them from me?
  17. Have I read over the Questions for the Day?
  18. Have I visited a rich man, and not a poor one first?
  19. Have I conversed with!
  20. Have I immediately after breakfast said “O God"? After Tea "Remember"?

The question of the day mentioned above has to do with a set of questions Wesley made up, based on the work of Robert Nelson and others, to lift up a different virtue for each day of the week.

The virtue for Sunday was Love of God; Monday, Love of Man; Tuesday, Humility; Wednesday, Meekness, Sweetness, and Resignation; Thursday, Sincerity and Courtesy; Friday, Mortification; Saturday, Chastity.

The questions for Tuesday illustrate the depth to which the inquirer probes himself.

  1. Have I spent any moments in thinking on my Infirmities, Follies, Wickedness?
  2. Have I commended myself?
  3. Have I avoided flattery?
  4. Have I given way to others?
  5. Have I despised anyone's Advice?
  6. Have I, when I thought so, Said "I was in the Wrong"?
  7. Have I meekly suffered Reproach or contempt?
  8. Have I rejoiced in contempt for doing Well?
  9. Have I desired Praise for being Humble?12

The group didn’t grow very fast, and also began to receive opposition from other’s at Oxford. 13

A few new recruits were found in Wesley’s diary: Boyce, Hall, Hervey, and John Gambold. Gambold described the meeting at the time as mostly concerned with prayers and the study of books, “but the chief business was to review what each had done that day, in pursuance of the common design, and to consult what steps were to be taken next.”14

Heitzenrater notes some changes that took place for the next year writing:

As the winter of 1731-32 began to recede, the membership of the small group of Methodists began slowly to change. In mid-February Mr. Boyce left Oxford and seems to have taken the living at Bletchingdon, where Wesley visited him two months later. The second Saturday in March was Bob Kirkham's last occasion to meet with the group before taking up a cure somewhere in the neighborhood of Abingdon, six miles to the south. Bob continued to maintain contact with the group, but never again as a regular participant.15

Finally, in June of 1732, William Morgan became sick and left Oxford for the final time. His influence shaped a large part of this early period, leading to the social concern and care for the sick and imprisoned that John and Charles Wesley continued their whole lives.

As Heitzenrater writes,

In the three years they had walked together, William Morgan and the Wesley brothers had set the basic design of personal piety, intellectual endeavor, and social concern upon which Oxford Methodism was to build for the next three years. The only other area which was to alter noticeably in the next months was their churchmanship, and this began when John Wesley made the acquaintance of a new friend, John Clayton.16

The departure of William Morgan and the entrance of John Clayton mark a turning point in Oxford Methodism. What changed? How did the group grow? And what did Oxford Methodism become before the trip to Georgia? 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. rack, 87. ↩︎
  2. Heitzenrater, 96. ↩︎
  3. Rack, 87. ↩︎
  4. Heitzenrater, 96-97. ↩︎
  5. Heitzenrater, 97. ↩︎
  6. Heitzenrater, 109. ↩︎
  7. Heitzenrater, 118. ↩︎
  8. Heitzenrater, 118-119. ↩︎
  9. Heitzenrater, 131. ↩︎
  10. Heitzenrater, 132. ↩︎
  11. Heitzenrater, 132-134. ↩︎
  12. Heitzenrater, 132-134. ↩︎
  13. Heitzenrater, 140. ↩︎
  14. quoted in Rack, 89-90. ↩︎
  15. Heitzenrater, 146. ↩︎
  16. Heitzenrater, 151. ↩︎