Oxford Methodism Part 2

In this episode, we look at Oxford Methodism from the years 1732-1734 and the transformations that took place there among the students and John Wesley himself.

Episode 38

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: Oxford Methodism Part 2.

In the summer of 1732, there was no evidence that the Oxford Methodists would ever amount to anything. As we discussed in our last episode, many of the original members had left Oxford by this time. In some ways, it looked like John and Charles Wesley had to start from scratch if Oxford Methodism or the Holy Club (I use the terms interchangeably) was going to continue. And yet, it is important to remember that they weren’t trying to do anything other than follow God faithfully and strive to live a holy life. They thought this a goal worth pursuing and worth sharing.

John Wesley had returned to Oxford in 1729. After three years back in Oxford, John was getting used to his advisory responsibilities at Lincoln College and more confident in his plans and designs for Christian living. Despite the challenges, new people started to join the brothers in this pursuit.

John Gambold, Benjamin Ingham, Will Clements, and William Smith all joined around this time. Westley Hall, W-E-S-T-L-E-Y, was a student of John’s who joined the group.

John was so taken with Westley Hall that he wrote his mother, Susanna about him, saying, “Almost every hour we are together I am utterly astonished at his humility, and love to God, and to man for his sake…O may I be a follower of him, as he is of Christ!”1

John Clayton was another new member who would prove instrumental. Clayton was born in 1709 in Manchester, the son of a bookseller. The Wesleys would connect with Clayton due to another bookseller, Charles Rivington of London, who later joined the group.

During the summer of 1732, the new and old members of the Holy Club began to meet every day with a more consistent emphasis on devotional literature instead of scholarship. One of the first works of this kind was a biography of Gaston de Renty, a Frenchmen of the 17th century who had devoted his life to the poor.

The edition of de Renty which they probably read, from 1684, begins with this note to the reader:

Such nourishment, as the reading of vain romances, or the lives of secular, love knights supply to the earthly principle in us, our carnal, lusts and ambitions, set up on feeding, glories and beauties; the same, do the history of saints, and persons, enamored of heaven, administer to the other celestial principle in us, the Holy Spirit, which more or less inhabits, and everyone who is more than the name, Christian. 2

That is, the idea was to present the Christian life in as exciting a way as Lancelot and Arthur presented the romantic life of the medieval knights and kings.

Other French mystics were important during this time, including Madame Guyon and Bishop Fénelon, who published a work on Christian perfection a century before Wesley.

There was also a new emphasis on works of the early church, like the Apostolic Constitutions, that John Wesley himself later credited to John Clayton. This also led to an increase in the study of non-juror literature, that is works by people who had refused to swear an oath to William of Orange. Spinckes collection of the Private Devotions and Robert Nelson’s Practice of True Devotion being two examples.

Clayton was influential, as well, with continuing two practices that Methodists had started with William Morgan (who we described in our last episode) and then adding a third. "Doing what good we can; and, in order thereto, communicating as often as we have opportunity.” To these two were added, by Clayton's advice, a third— "the observing of the fasts of the Church.”3

This meant fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays as the Didache teaches. They fasted on Wednesday because it was the day the betrayal was organized and Friday because of the crucifixion.

Clayton also promoted the idea of sharing the Holy Club throughout Oxford, desiring “at least an advocate for us, if not a brother and fellow laborer in every college of the university.”4 This led to Holy Club members in 8 colleges within the University over the next few years.

Clayton’s influence was not just on Wesley’s methods but his connections. Clayton connected Wesley with a number of folks in Oxford, but even more outside of Oxford. Sir John Philips of London became a friend of John Wesley’s and a financial backer.

Another connection was to the English Spiritual writer, William Law. Law was born in 1686. His father was a grocer. He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705 as a sizar, or a student who supported himself at college through menial tasks and labors. He was elected a fellow of the college in 1711, but in 1714, when George I was crowned king of England, William refused to swear an oath to a non-Stuart and lost his position. He became what some call the second generation of Non-jurors. George was clearly not of the Stuart line and William Law could not stomach it. He left Cambridge and worked in London for twenty years, writing pamphlets from time to time. He wrote a tract in 1726 titled The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment. and another that same year called A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection. It was at this time that Law gained more steady employment in the home of Edward Gibbon, father of the famous historian Edward Gibbon who wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Law was a live-in tutor to the young Gibbon and followed the boy to Cambridge.

As he entered the Gibbon household, Law wrote his most influential works, which is still in print today: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Wesley read the work during July of 1732 and then had to meet the author in person. At their meeting, Law gave Wesley the Theologica Germanica, a work of Christian Mysticism from the 14th century.

Wesley would turn to William Law at various times for guidance in spiritual matters. In 1734, he wrote Law a letter concern a pupil he was discipling who could spout the content of faith but, in Wesley’s words, said “that he cared not whether it was true or no—he was very happy at present, and he desired nothing further.”5 Wesley ended the letter by saying: “I am now entirely at a loss what step to take…I therefore beseech you, sir, by the mercies of God…to advise and pray for him.”

Law’s influence over Wesley was great up until 1738, when they had a falling out concerning the thought of another German mystic, Jacob Boehme, and his theosophical ideas. John Wesley was continually troubled by mystical writings that went beyond the words of Scripture.

Clayton’s influence also connected John to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, or SPCK. As Heitzenrater writes, “The importance of this relationship cannot be exaggerated.”6

As can be seen by the influence of Clayton and Morgan, John Wesley did not rule the Holy Club like a dictator. As Heitzenrater writes,

There is a conscious and evident attempt on Wesley’s part to adapt not only the methods but also the content of his design to meet changing needs within his own situation and that of his friends. Methodism did not grow by Wesley imposing his own ideas and methods upon a growing list of friends and associates, but rather by attracting into his fellowship persons of like mind who also contributed to the growth and development of the group.7

Heitzenrater continues:

It is of crucial importance in trying to understand the dynamics of Oxford Methodism to note that the various activities which characterize its public image (visiting the prisons, helping the sick, teaching the poor, attending the sacrament) were in most cases not lead by Wesley himself. It must be remembered that Wesley was deeply engaged in the search for a right state of soul. Consequently, his method was not static, settled scheme, but rather an approach to life that grew and developed and changed as he confronted different crises, had further insights, and met new friends.8

The dynamism of Oxford Methodism is illustrated best by the diary of Benjamin Ingham. In 1733, John Wesley changed his method of diary keeping to the exacter method, with columns and more precise notations. Three days later, Ingham adopted this method and two weeks later he was teaching others.

Ingham’s diary offers us a description of actually existing Oxford Methodism, not just the Methodism of Wesley’s mind.

As Heitzenrater notes:

Oxford Methodism consisted not of one group but of many. The core society was indeed gathered around John Wesley and by the beginning of 1732 consisted of six persons. But this simple pattern of one group, complicated only by some fluctuation of membership, began to change in mid-1732 when John Clayton joined the Wesleyan movement. Clayton already had a "small flock" meeting with him at Brasenose College for study and devotion, and his joining with the Wesleyan company gave the Methodist movement a two-level structure, the Wesley group and the Clayton subgroup. Another satellite group appeared in town in 1733 led by Miss Potter, to whom Wesley also provided guidance and with whom he occasionally met.

The purpose of the meeting sometimes determined the schedule. Some groups met regularly at three in the afternoon on fast days for breakfast (to break the fast) as well as for study and discussion, and at least one small band prepared for Sundays by meeting late on Saturday evenings to "watch,' pray, and read. Other groups met for purposes that did not necessarily determine their schedule: to read logic, to study experimental philosophy, to compare diaries, or to read the Greek Testament. The frequency of meeting also varied among the groups, some meeting only once a week, others meeting on a regular schedule as often as three or four times a week. The longevity of the groups varied widely. In some cases, four or five meetings were sufficient for them to accomplish a particular purpose such as reading a book together. In others, such as Ingham's Friday evening group or the Wednesday-Saturday-Sunday group, meetings persisted regularly for months in spite of several changes in focus and/or personnel.

The Methodist program often fused academic and devotional interests, as can be seen in their meetings, which consisted primarily of two types of activity: (1) study and discussion of useful books that would help them promote their common design, and (2) religious talk about their progress in holy living, which included praying (" the chief subject of which was charity" or love), reviewing their progress in holiness (which often included comparing diaries), considering their charitable activities, passing out "pious books" for their own and others' use, and determining the duties of the following day or days.

John Wesley’s leadership of the Oxford Methodists changed on October 11, 1734, when he received news of his father, Samuel’s, ailing health. In almost exactly a year, John would be on a boat headed for Savannah in the new Georgia Colony. What precipitated this change? Why would an Oxford Don decide to be a missionary to the new world? Next time on the History of Methodism.


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

Jean Baptist S. Fure, The Holy Life of Monsieur de Rentry (1684).

  1. WW 25:373. ↩︎
  2. Fure, i-ii. ↩︎
  3. Heitzenrater, 162. ↩︎
  4. Heitzenrater, 75. ↩︎
  5. WW 25:388. ↩︎
  6. Heitzenrater, 170. ↩︎
  7. Heitzenrater, 167-8. ↩︎
  8. Heitzentater, 76. ↩︎