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Holy Club

'Holy Club' was a nickname, rather than an actual organization. John Wesleyreturned to Oxford in 1729 to find that Charles Wesley had begun to meet with other religiously inclined students for prayer, reading the Bible and other literature, religious conversation and weekly church-going. Though these activities later became more regular, there was no formal organization or membership; rather, several loosely connected groups with a fluid composition. John Wesley's seniority and natural flair for leadership gave him an informal influence, but no official status. Their activities attracted little attention in the University as a whole until, at the suggestion of William Morgan, they began in August 1730 to visit the debtors and condemned prisoners in the Castle and later in Bocardo, the city gaol. By 1732 they had added regular fasting and other practices associated with the 'primitive' Church.This drew them to the public attention and they were variously dubbed 'Sacramentarians', 'Bible Moths', 'Supererogation Men', the 'Godly Club' or 'Holy Club'.

Biographers and historians have fostered a popular version of the 'Holy Club' reinforced by Marshall Claxton's romanticized painting, which embodies and perpetuates several widespread misconceptions, to which Richard P. Heitzenrater has drawn attention: (1) At no time were all those depicted in the painting at Oxford together; (2) they rarely met in groups of more than six and there was no single meeting-place; (3) they engaged in discussion rather than listening to John Wesley or any other individual; (4) they spent more time in acts of benevolence than in either devotions or discussion. John Wesley himself (inadvertently?) contributed to the myth by describing these activities, retrospectively, as 'the first rise of Methodism'.

Among the more than forty associated with the 'Oxford Methodists' besides the Wesley brothers were John Clayton, John Gambold, Westley Hall, James Hervey, Benjamin Ingham, Robert Kirkham, George Whitefield and John Whitelamb.


  • [William Law], The Oxford Methodists: being an account of some young gentlemen in that city (1733)
  • Luke Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists (1873)
  • WHS Proceedings, 42 pp.90-1
  • History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain 4 (1988) pp.7-11
  • Richard P. Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the People Called Methodists (1995)pp.33-58
  • Oxford DNB

Entry written by: JAV
Category: Subject

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