Attack of the Bible-Moths

AS A COLLEGE STUDENT, Charles Wesley remarked, “Christ Church is certainly the worst place in the world to begin a reformation; a man stands a very fair chance of being laughed out of his religion at his first setting out, in a place where ‘tis scandalous to have any at all.” Yet this wealthy and well-connected Oxford college was the birthplace of the Wesleys’ new “method” of living.

Eighteenth-century Oxford should have been a good venue for religious training. It existed primarily to prepare young men for ministry in the Church of England, and some 70 percent of its graduates eventually took orders.

Few of these men, however, felt “called” to ministry. Most, like the Wesley brothers, came from middle— to lower-class families and had few job prospects outside the church. The Wesleys, raised by a pastor, held ministry in higher regard than did most of their peers, though even they originally hoped to use Oxford connections to attain comfortable posts.

In general neither Oxford students nor faculty expressed much interest in godliness—or, according to numerous critics, in scholarship. Oxford was known throughout Europe as a party school, where students and dons alike devoted most of their energies to drinking, gaming, and idle talk.

In a satirical magazine launched in 1721, the school’s self-appointed jester sneered, “I have known a profligate debauchee chosen professor of moral philosophy; and a fellow, who never look’d upon the stars soberly in his life, professor of astronomy . . . and, not long ago, a famous gamester and stock—jobber was elected professor of divinity; so great, it seems, is the analogy between dusting of cushions, and shaking of elbows; or between squandering away of estates, and saving of souls!”

When John entered Christ Church in 1720, he fit in well. Known for being serious yet sociable, he played tennis, danced, read and attended plays, and maintained close—but not scandalous—relations with several young women. He was even punished once for a minor dress code infraction.

It was not until 1726, when he was elected a fellow of Oxford’s Lincoln College, that John focused on self- discipline. “I executed a resolution,” he wrote, “which I was before convinced was of the utmost importance, shaking off at once all my trifling acquaintance. I began to see more and more the value of time. I applied myself closer to study. I watched more carefully against actual sins. I advised others to be religious, according to that scheme or religion by which I modeled my own life.”

That same year Charles matriculated at Christ Church. He too was at first taken with the Oxford social scene, but, due in part to his brother’s influence, he quickly shifted his attention to spirituality. In fact, Charles took the lead in organizing what would become the Holy Club.

Charles began by faithfully attending school—sponsored prayers and services. Regular attendance was supposedly mandatory, but so few students complied that this act alone qualified a man as having the “character of a Sanctify’d Person.”

He then, so he wrote later, “persuaded two or three young scholars to accompany me, and to observe the method of study prescribed by the Statutes of the University.” He even convinced his neighbor who “was got into vile hands” to break off his destructive friendships and seek God instead.

For his efforts Charles earned the nickname “hick-homily,” and his friends were soon called “Bible-Moths,” “Sacramentarians,” and “Methodists.”

The Holy Club

Never a formally organized society, the Holy Club consisted of five or six core members plus a shifting periphery of around 20. The members acknowledged John as their leader, but they were not always in direct contact with him. They usually met privately in groups of three or four for prayer, devotional study, and religious conversation.

In some ways the club resembled other pious and charitable societies of the day. The famous Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which aimed to erect charity schools, distribute literature, and “in general to advance the honor of God and the good of mankind,” had been founded in 1698. John attended SPCK meetings, and the organization paid his passage to Georgia in 1735.

Like the SPCK, the Holy Club emphasized good works. Members regularly visited prisoners and the sick, a ministry started in 1730 when William Morgan persuaded John and Charles to speak with a man condemned for killing his wife.

John wrote, “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 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 it would be worthwhile 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.”

Club members delivered medicines, Bibles, and tracts to the needy. They celebrated Communion in the jail, secured legal aid for the accused, and also taught prisoners to read.

"There are only two in the jail who want this accomplishment,” John Clayton reported, “John Clanvill, who reads but moderately, and the horse—stealer, who cannot yet read at all.”

Early successes, plus favorable recognition from figures like the bishop of Oxford, made the Wesleys and their friends optimistic that the Holy Club would continue to blossom. As Clayton wrote in 1732, “I hope in God we shall get at least an advocate for us, if not a brother and a fellow laborer, in every College in town.”

Such optimism was short-lived. John Wesley had already heard reports that college officials “were going to blow up the Godly Club.”

The end of enthusiasm

Three main factors contributed to the demise of the Holy Club. The most obvious was the departure of John and Charles for America in 1735. Though they left behind a capable leader, George Whitefield, the club could not weather the loss of its charismatic leaders.

Bad publicity also proved costly. In 1732 the Methodists were criticized for William Morgan’s death. Suffering from an unknown malady, he had gone insane and died repeating the Wesleys’ name. Rumors blamed the death on John’s insistence that Morgan fast rigorously, though John had not done so.

The same year, the Methodists were attacked for ministering to a prisoner accused of sodomy. A local man, Thomas Wilson, noted in his diary, “Whether the man is innocent or no they were not proper judges, it was better he should suffer than such a scandal given in countenancing a man whom the whole town think guilty of such an enormous crime. Whatever good design they pretend it was highly imprudent and has given the occasion of terrible reflections.”

Less than a month after Wilson’s diary entry, an anonymous letter in the London paper Fog’s Weekly Journal assaulted “this sect called Methodists.” It claimed “the university at present is not a little pestered with those sons of sorrow, whose number daily received addition” and who aimed to “make the place nothing but a monastery.” The letter also cited the group’s “absurd and perpetual melancholy” and “enthusiastic madness and superstitious scruples,” offering advice on how to end “this gloomy stupidity.”

The Holy Club did not dissolve in 1732, but events like these placed the group under ever—tightening surveillance. Finally, in 1768, the administration took decisive action against the Methodist vestige, expelling six students on trumped-up charges.

The general attitude toward Methodists—and anyone who would upset Oxford’s entrenched culture-shows in this conversation between James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson:

Johnson: “Sir, the expulsion of six students from the University of Oxford, who were Methodists and would not desist from publicly praying and exhorting, was extremely just and proper. What have they to do at an University who are not willing to be taught, but will presume to teach? Where is religion to be learnt, but at an University?”

Boswell: “But was it not hard, Sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings.”

Johnson: “I believe they might be good beings, but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in a field, but we turn her out of a garden.”

Indeed, fields proved to be much more productive sites for the work of John and Charles Wesley. Through open-air preaching they fanned the spark that Oxford had endeavored to snuff out. CH

By Elesha Coffman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #69 in 2001]

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
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