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date: 22 September 2023

Holy Clubfree

(act. 1729–c. 1738)

Holy Clubfree

(act. 1729–c. 1738)
  • Henry D. Rack

Holy Club (act. 1729–c. 1738), was a contemporary nickname for Oxford University men associated together for study, devotional exercises, and charitable work. John Wesley and Charles Wesley were its best-known members. Strictly speaking the nickname appears to have been current for only about six months from November 1730. Others equally short-lived followed, such as Godly Club and Sacramentarians. Only Methodist was to survive permanently, though acquiring fresh attributes in later years. The Holy Club nickname has, nevertheless, been commonly used to describe the Oxford association, though the alternative term Oxford Methodists is also often used to distinguish the earlier from the later associations of this term.

The Holy Club label has perpetuated the image of a formal organization regularly meeting under the leadership of John Wesley. This appears to be supported in a defensive letter he wrote to Richard Morgan in October 1732, rejecting the charge that the ascetic excesses of the association had led to the death of Morgan's son William (c.1712–1732). By John Wesley's account the association began in November 1729 when he returned to Oxford, though Charles Wesley, writing in 1785, claimed that he initiated the group earlier that year. By 1785, however, Charles wished to show that his brother had undermined the original Methodist loyalties to the Church of England by his recent ordinations. The image of a single formal organization led by John Wesley was visually strengthened by a popular Victorian painting, The Institution of Methodism (often reproduced as The Holy Club), created by Marshall Claxton.

The reality, as revealed by R. P. Heitzenrater's researches in the 1970s, was more complicated. As to the ‘club’ label, Wesley's father, recalling his own charitable work in Oxford, jokingly claimed that if John was the ‘father’ of the Holy Club he must be its ‘grandfather’ (J. Wesley, 25.339 n. 3). But John's elder brother Samuel disapproved of the term, presumably because of its convivial or political associations. Nor were there fixed rules of membership, an expedient rejected by Wesley's colleague John Clayton, who thought they needed only the rules of the ‘primitive church’. ‘Primitive’ here meant the church of the early centuries, with special reference to guidance from the so-called apostolic constitutions, thought to preserve apostolic traditions, though really from the fourth century. Heitzenrater showed that what he preferred to term the Oxford Methodists, though originating with the Wesleys, did not persist as a single organized group, but became a network of several small groups, created by a number of leaders and meeting in different colleges. Each group seldom exceeded half a dozen members and though some members were closely associated with John Wesley, others did not meet him at all. For example Benjamin Ingham, though closely following Wesley's recommended spiritual disciplines, did not meet his group but created his own and joined another led by Charles Wesley. Some university men also visited a society run by townspeople. John Wesley does seem to have been the most conspicuous and influential leader; however, John Gambold (probably referring to Wesley's relationship with his closest associates) thought that although he was 'always the chief manager' yet 'he never assumed anything to himself above his companions' (Tyerman, 158). Wesley himself did not use the term Holy Club, nor indeed any other fixed term for his associates, though he sometimes spoke of the ‘company’ or ‘society’.

The composition of the various groups frequently changed, partly due to the natural movements of a university community, partly to individuals joining or disengaging. Although shared concerns gave a degree of recognizable identity to the associated groups, the range of activities, times and places of meeting, and the nature and degree of commitment by individuals varied considerably.

In 1785 Charles Wesley claimed that Methodism began (and that the nickname was first applied) when he persuaded one or two friends to observe frequent communion and study as prescribed by the university in spring 1729. They proceeded more 'regularly' (C. Wesley to Chandler, 29 April 1785) on John Wesley's return in November. But John claimed that he began it then as a meeting two or three times a week to study the classics and a book of divinity on Sundays. Early in 1730 they added 'religious talk' (Diary of an Oxford Methodist, 13). Towards the end of 1730 they began attending communion regularly at Christ Church, and visiting prisoners and the poor. These activities apparently provoked the Holy Club and other nicknames. In 1732 they added various religious practices such as fasting twice a week, following the primitive church. Despite Charles Wesley's claim, the first documented use of ‘Methodist’ was in September 1732, and was followed by an attack on them in Fog's Weekly Journal in December and a defence in The Oxford Methodists (February 1733). It was from mid-1732 into 1733 that groups led by others than the Wesleys emerged.

Several of the activities were initiated by people other than the Wesleys. Prison visiting was begun by William Morgan in 1730, featuring religious exercises, education, and financial aid. Clayton introduced workhouse visits in 1732. There followed visitation of the poor and sick and schools for poor children. Through Clayton the Wesleys and some of their associates acquired a heightened respect for primitive church beliefs and practices from the nonjuring bishop Thomas Deacon of Manchester. This was reflected in Wesley's first publication, A Collection of Forms of Prayer (1733). He developed increasingly exacting systems of self-discipline, which were copied by Ingham, though others resisted some of his practices.

Given varying degrees of commitment and the changing membership of the university, continuity of these activities depended on the presence of energetic members. The departure of the Wesleys and Ingham for Georgia in October 1735 weakened their efforts, though some individuals continued to be involved. George Whitefield helped with occasional visits; so did Charles Wesley during 1737 after returning from Georgia. In October that year Ingham, now in Yorkshire, informed John Wesley that several of the friends in Oxford were 'zealous' (J. Wesley, 25.521) though others had weakened. John Wesley visited Oxford after his return to England in February 1738 but seemed mainly preoccupied with the process leading to his ‘evangelical conversion’ in May. Oxford Methodism seems now to have become located mainly among the townspeople and concerned with personal salvation. Wesley's reports of his later visits to Oxford, though including comments on the university and nostalgia about his spiritual achievements there, were mainly concerned with non-university Methodists.

It has been estimated that between 1729 and 1735 about forty-five individuals were involved in Methodist activities in the university. Their subsequent careers are in many cases difficult to trace, though the majority were ordained and acquired Anglican livings, like Robert Kirkham (c.1708–1767), one of the first members of the Holy Club. The Wesleys encountered a few individuals in later years but none joined their brand of Methodism. Few attained any prominence in Anglican life. Best known are the Wesley brothers as leaders of a new kind of Methodism; and Whitefield, the most spectacular preacher of his time and leader of English Calvinistic Methodism. James Hervey became a Calvinistic evangelical Anglican and wrote Meditations among the Tombs, a popular, florid, devotional work. Ingham became the leader of an evangelical association, mainly in Yorkshire, brought for a time under Moravian control. Gambold became a Moravian bishop. Charles Kinchin (1711–1742) was an Anglican clergyman and had Oxford Methodists as curates, but latterly was attracted by the Moravians. Christopher Atkinson (1713–1774) was a devoted Yorkshire parish priest and the father of Miles Atkinson, a leading evangelical Anglican in that county. Walter Chapman (1711–1791), though a parish priest, also worked for the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. Westley Hall became John Wesley's brother-in-law but later scandalously advocated polygamy and seduced some of his female followers. John Whitelamb (c.1709–1769) married a sister of John Wesley who died in childbirth; he remained in a Lincolnshire curacy. Richard Morgan (1714–1785) became a lawyer in Ireland. John Clayton became chaplain and later fellow of the collegiate church in Manchester and a notorious Jacobite. Thomas Broughton became secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Oxford Methodism, then, did not produce a uniform type of later churchmanship or religious allegiance. Yet for several individuals their Oxford experiences and associations provided a stimulus to their spiritual development and may have influenced their future activities, though in a variety of ways. The common factor in their Oxford activities, it has been suggested, was the committed pursuit of spiritual and practical holiness.

The Holy Club, or Oxford Methodism, did not have a long-term influence in the university or the Church of England at large comparable to that of the Oxford Movement of the 1830s. Apart from its effects on individuals, its most striking legacy seems to be that of the later form of Methodism led by John Wesley. If the Holy Club nickname represented only a short-term (and arguably misleading) identification, that of Methodist had a broader application and was to achieve a substantial later history, though acquiring new characteristics and a more ambiguous relationship with the Church of England than had been the case with Oxford Methodism. Wesley himself adopted the label for his movement with reservations and was often at pains to explain what he claimed to be its true meaning: a voluntary organization expressing true primitive Christianity, and faithful to the Church of England. He frequently claimed that it originated in the Oxford association and that its aim then and later was always the pursuit of holiness. That disciplined pursuit was indeed shared by the Oxford and later Methodists. What harking back to Oxford tended to obscure was Wesley's debt to Moravian notions of justification by faith and conversion. This debt he tended to play down, but the inheritance was indeed significant. Its quest for perfection as later developed by Wesley was not typical of contemporary evangelicals and indeed highly suspect to many of them.


  • V. H. H. Green, The young Mr Wesley (1961)
  • R. P. Heitzenrater, ‘John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725–35’, PhD diss., Duke U., 1972
  • Diary of an Oxford Methodist: Benjamin Ingham, 1733–1734, ed. R. P. Heitzenrater (1985)
  • R. P. Heitzenrater, Mirror and memory: reflections on early Methodism (1989)
  • D. M. Lewis, ed., The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, 1730–1860, 2 vols. (1995)
  • L. Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists (1873)
  • C. Wesley, letter to Dr Chandler, 29 April 1785, JRL, Methodist church archives, DD WES/1/38
  • The works of John Wesley, 25: Letters, 1721–39, ed. F. Baker (1980), letters 233–9, 278–9, 281–2, 331–44, 352, 355–6, 364–71, 374–6, 379–82, 391–3, 521–2
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