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The Essential Works of John Wesley
Selected Sermons, Essays, and Other Writings
By Alice Russie
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Selections from John Wesley's Journal
The Rise of the Holy Club
"What shall we say then? That ... Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law."
1. It was in pursuance of an advice given by Bishop Taylor in his "Rules for Holy Living and Dying" that, about fifteen years ago, I began to take a more exact account than I had done before of the manner in which I spent my time, writing down how I had employed every hour. This I continued to do wherever I was till the time of my leaving England. The variety of scenes which I then passed through induced me to transcribe, from time to time, the more material parts of my diary, adding here and there such little reflections as occurred to my mind. Of this journal thus occasionally compiled, the following is a short extract—it not being my design to relate all those particulars which I wrote for my own use only, and which would answer no valuable end to others, however important they were to me.
2. Indeed I had no design or desire to trouble the world with any of my little affairs, as cannot but appear to every impartial mind, from my having been so long as one who hears not, notwithstanding the loud and frequent calls I have had to answer for myself. Nor should I have done it now had not Captain Williams's affidavit, published as soon as he had left England, laid an obligation upon me to do what lies in my power in obedience to that command of God: "Do not let your good be spoken of as evil" (Rom. 14:16). With this view I do at length give an answer to every man who asks a reason of the hope which is in me, that in all these things I have a conscience without offense toward God and toward men.
3. I have prefixed to this extract a letter, written several years ago, containing a plain account of the rise of that little society in Oxford which has been so variously represented. Part of this was published in 1733 but without my consent or knowledge. It now stands as it was written, without any addition, diminution, or amendment; it being my only concern to nakedly declare the thing as it is.
4. Perhaps my employments of another kind may not allow me to give any further answer to them who say all manner of evil of me falsely, and seem to think that they do God service. Suffice it to say that both they and I shall shortly give an account to Him that is ready to judge the living and the dead.
Oxon, Oct. 18th, 1732
The occasion of my giving you this trouble is of a very extraordinary nature. On Sunday last I was informed (as no doubt you will be ere long) that my brother and I had killed your son [Mr. Morgan]: That the rigorous fasting which he had imposed upon himself by our advice had increased his illness and hastened his death. Now, considering it in itself, it is a very small thing with me to be judged by man's judgment. Yet as the being thought guilty of so mischievous an imprudence might make me the less able to do the work I came into the world for, I am obliged to clear myself of it by observing to you, as I have done to others, that your son left off fasting about a year and a half ago, and that it is not yet half a year since I began to practice it.
I must not let this opportunity slip of doing my part towards giving you a more just notion of some other particulars, relating both to him and myself, which have been industriously misrepresented to you.
In March last he received a letter from you, which, not being able to read, he desired me to read to him. Several of the expressions of it I perfectly remember, and shall do, till I too am called from this life. I then determined that if God was pleased to take away your son before me, I would justify him and myself, which I now do with all plainness and simplicity as both my character and cause required.
In one practice for which you blamed your son I am only concerned as a friend, not as a partner. That, therefore, I shall consider first. Your own account of it was in effect this:—"He frequently went into poor people's houses in the villages about Holt, called their children together and instructed them in their duty to God, their neighbor, and themselves. He likewise explained to them the necessity of private as well as public prayer, and provided them with such forms as were best suited to their several capacities. And being well appraised how much the success of his endeavors depended on their goodwill toward him, to win upon their affections he sometimes distributed among them a little of that money which he had saved from gaming and the other fashionable expenses of the place." This is the first charge against him; upon which all that I shall observe is that I will refer it to your own judgment whether this is more fit to have a place in the catalog of his faults or of those virtues for which he is now numbered among the sons of God.
If all the persons concerned in "that ridiculous society, whose follies you have so often heard repeated" could but give such a proof of their deserving the glorious title [The Holy Club] which was once bestowed upon them, they would be contented that their lives too should be counted madness and their end thought to be without honor. But the truth is their title to holiness stands upon much less stable foundations, as you will easily perceive when you know the ground of this wonderful outcry, which it seems England is not wide enough to contain.
In November, 1729, at which time I came to reside at Oxford, your son, my brother, myself, and one more, agreed to spend three or four evenings in a week together. Our design was to read over, on common nights, the classics which we had before read in private, and on Sunday some book in divinity. In the summer following, Mr. M. told me he had called at the jail to see a man who was condemned for killing his wife; and from the talk he had with one of the debtors, he verily believed it would do much good if anyone would be at the pains of now and then speaking with them. This he so frequently repeated that on the 24th of August, 1730, my brother and I walked with him to the castle [prison]. We were so well satisfied with our conversation there that we agreed to go there once or twice a week. This 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 also, 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. But that we might not depend wholly on our own judgments, I wrote to my father an account of our whole design, therewith begging that he, who had lived seventy years in the world and seen as much of it as most private men have ever done, would advise us whether we had yet gone too far, and whether we should now stand still, or go forward.
Part of his answer, dated September 21st, 1730, was this: "And now, as to your own designs and employments, what can I say less of them than, I greatly approve. And that I have the highest reason to bless God that He has given me two sons together at Oxford, to whom He has given grace and courage to turn the war against the world and the devil, which is the best way to conquer them....
"Go on then, in God's name, in the path to which your Savior has directed you, and that track in which your father has gone before you! For when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I visited those [prisoners] in the castle there, and reflect on it with great satisfaction to this day. Walk as prudently as you can, though not fearfully, and my heart and prayers are with you.
"Your first regular step is to consult with him (if there is any such) who has a jurisdiction over the prisoners; and the next is to obtain the direction and approbation of your bishop. This is Monday morning, at which time I shall never forget you. If it is possible, I should be glad to see you all three here in the fine end of the summer. But if I cannot have that satisfaction, I am sure I can reach you every day, though you were beyond the Indies. Accordingly, to Him who is everywhere I now heartily commit you, as being
"Your most affectionate and joyful father."
In pursuance of these directions, I immediately went to Mr. Gerard, the Bishop of Oxford's chaplain, who was likewise the person that took care of the prisoners when any were condemned to die (at other times they were left to their own care). I proposed to him our design of serving them as far as we could, and my own intention to preach there once a month, if the bishop approved of it. He much commended our design and said he would answer for the bishop's approbation, to whom he would take the first opportunity of mentioning it. It was not long before he informed me he had done so, and that his Lordship not only gave his permission but was greatly pleased with the undertaking, and hoped it would have the desired success....
... we still continued to meet together as usual, and to confirm one another, as well as we could, in our resolutions to communicate as often as we had opportunity (which is here once a week); and do what service we could to our acquaintance, the prisoners, and two or three poor families in the town. But the outcry daily increasing, that we might show what ground there was for it, we proposed to our friends, or opponents, as we had opportunity, these or the like questions:
I. Whether it does not concern all men of all conditions to imitate, as much as they can, Him "who went about doing good"?
Whether all Christians are not concerned in that command, "While we have time, let us do good to all men"?
Whether we shall not be more happy hereafter, the more good we do now?
Whether we can be happy at all hereafter unless, according to our power, we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those that are sick and in prison; and made all these actions subservient to a higher purpose, even the saving of souls from death?
Whether it is not our bounden duty always to remember that He did more for us than we can do for Him, the One who assures us, "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me"? (Matt. 25:40).
II. Whether, upon these considerations, we may not try to do good to our acquaintance? Particularly, whether we may not try to convince them of the necessity of being Christians?
Whether of the consequent necessity of being scholars?
Whether of the necessity of method and industry in order to either learning or virtue?
Whether we may not try to persuade them to confirm and increase their industry by communicating [receiving the sacrament of the Lord's Supper] as often as they can?
Whether we may not mention to them the authors whom we conceive to have written the best on those subjects?
Whether we may not assist them from time to time, as we are able, to form resolutions upon what they read in those authors, and to execute them with steadiness and perseverance?
III. Whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are hungry, naked, or sick? In particular, if we know any necessitous family, whether we may not give them a little food, clothes, or medicine, as they need?
Whether we may not give them, if they can read, a Bible, Common-Prayer Book, or "Whole Duty of Man"?
Whether we may not, now and then, inquire how they have used them, explain what they do not understand, and enforce what they do?
Whether we may not, more especially, enforce upon them the necessity of private prayer and of frequenting the church and sacrament?
Whether we may not contribute what little we are able toward having their children clothed and taught to read?
Whether we may not take care that they be taught their catechism and short prayers for morning and evening?
IV. Lastly, whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are in prison? In particular, whether we may not release such well-disposed persons as remain in prison for small sums?
Whether we may not lend smaller sums to those that are of any trade, that they may procure themselves tools and materials to work with?
Whether we may not give to them who appear to need it most, a little money, or clothes, or medicine?
Whether we may not supply as many as are serious enough to read with a Bible, and "Whole Duty of Man"?
Whether we may not, as we have opportunity, explain and enforce these upon them especially with respect to public and private prayer, and the blessed sacrament?
I do not remember that we met with any person who answered any of these questions in the negative, or who even doubted whether it were not lawful to apply to this use that time and money which we should otherwise have spent in other diversions. But we met with several who increased our little stock of money for the prisoners and the poor by subscribing something quarterly to it; so that the more persons we proposed our designs to, the more we were confirmed in the belief of their innocence, and the more we determined to pursue them in spite of the ridicule, which increased fast upon us during the winter. However, in spring I thought it could not be improper to desire further instructions from those who were wiser and better than ourselves; accordingly (on May 18th, 1731) I wrote a particular account of all our proceedings to a clergyman of known wisdom and integrity. After having informed him of all the branches of our design as clearly and simply as I could, I next acquainted him with the success it had met with, in the following words: "Almost as soon as we had made our first attempts this way, some of the men of wit in Christ Church entered the lists against us; and between mirth and anger made a pretty many reflections upon the Sacramentarians, as they were pleased to call us. Soon after, their allies at Merton changed our title and did us the honor of styling us, The Holy Club. But most of them being persons of well-known characters, they had not the good fortune to gain any proselytes [away] from the sacrament, till a gentleman eminent for learning and well esteemed for piety joined them and told his nephew that if he dared to go to the weekly communion any longer, he would immediately turn him out of doors. That argument, indeed, had no success: The young gentleman communicated next week; upon which his uncle, having again tried to convince him that he was in the wrong way by shaking him by the throat to no purpose, changed his method, and by mildness prevailed upon him to be absent from it the Sunday following—as he has done five Sundays in six ever since. This much delighted our lighthearted opponents, who increased their number swiftly; especially shortly after, when one of the seniors of the college having been with the doctor, upon his return from him, sent for two young gentlemen severally, who had communicated weekly for some time; and was so successful in his exhortations that for the future they promised to do it only three times a year. About this time there was a meeting (as one who was present at it informed your son) of several of the officers and seniors of the college, in which it was consulted what would be the speediest way to stop the progress of enthusiasm in it. The result we do not know; only it was soon publicly reported that Dr.—and the censors were going to blow up The Godly Club. This was now our common title; though we were sometimes dignified with that of The Enthusiasts, or The Reforming Club."
Part of the answer I received was as follows:
"A pretty while after the date, yours came to my hand. I waived my answer till I had an opportunity of consulting your father, who, upon all accounts, is a more proper judge of the affair than I am. But I could never find a fit occasion for it. As to my own sense of the matter, I confess, I cannot but heartily approve of that serious and religious turn of mind that prompts you and your associates to those pious and charitable offices; and can have no notion of that man's religion or concern for the honor of the university that opposes you as far as your design respects the colleges. I should be loath to send a son of mine to any seminary where his conversing with virtuous young men—whose professed design of meeting together at proper times was to assist each other in forming good resolutions, and encouraging one another to execute them with constancy and steadiness—was inconsistent with any received maxims or rules of life among the members. As to the other branch of your design: as the town is divided into parishes, each of which has its proper incumbent, and as there is probably an Ecclesiastic who has the spiritual charge of the prisoners, prudence may direct you to consult them. For though I dare not say you would be too officious if you should of your own mere motion seek out the persons that need your instructions and charitable contributions, yet if you should have the concurrence of their proper pastor, your good offices would be more regular and less liable to censure."
Your son was now at Holt. However, we continued to meet at our usual times, though our little affairs went on heavily without him. But at our return from Lincolnshire, in September last, we had the pleasure of seeing him again; when we were exceeding glad to spend what time we could in talking and reading with him, though he could not be so active with us as formerly....
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