WESLEYS & Vignettes of their latter years in Oxford by John Telford

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: Below are excerpts from John Telford’s classic, "The Life of John Wesley."


WESLEY returned to Oxford on November 22nd, 1729. Dr. Morley’s letter had suggested that he might take pupils or a curacy. He himself put eleven pupils under Wesley’s care immediately after his return, and in this work he continued until his mission to Georgia… The journal for 1776 * shows what a zealous tutor Wesley was. “In the English colleges,” he says, “every one may reside all the year, as all my pupils did; and I should have thought myself little better than a highwayman if I had not lectured them every day in the year but Sundays.” In later years he sometimes read lectures to his preachers on theology, logic, and rhetoric, in much the same manner as with his pupils at the University. As a tutor he was singularly diligent and careful, and laboured earnestly to make those under his charge both scholars and Christians.t

It will have been observed that Wesley was called to Oxford to preside at Moderations. Public disputation formed a large part in the University training of those days. The Moderator was the chairman and arbitrator at such discussions. At Lincoln College these exercises were held every day, so that the junior Fellow gained a thorough grasp of all the niceties of formal logic, which proved invaluable to him amid the heated and often captious controversies of later days. 1-le gratefully refers to this training in a well-known passage of his works. “For several years I was Moderator in the disputations which were held six times a week at Lincoln College in Oxford. I could not avoid acquiring hereby some degree of expertness in arguing, and especially in discerning and pointing out well-covered and plausible fallacies. I have since found abundant reason to praise God for giving me this honest art. By this, when men have hedged me in by what they call demonstrations, I have been many times able to dash them in pieces, in spite of all its covers, to touch the very point where the fallacy lay; and it flew open in a moment…”*

Such was Wesley’s life during the last six years be spent at Oxford. But the surpassing interest of these years is found in the rise of Methodism in the University. We have seen that Charles Wesley, who had come up from Westminster School in 1726, spent his first year in diversion, and rebuffed his brother when he spoke to him about religion. Whilst John was at Wroote, however, Charles became more serious. He had devoted himself to study, and soon found that diligence led him to seriousness. In the beginning of the year 1729 he wrote to consult John about keeping a diary, and expressed his conviction that, though at present he was deprived of his brother’s company and assistance, yet lie was persuaded that it was through his means that God would establish the work He had begun. In May, 1729, on the eve of John’s visit to Oxford, Charles tells him of a modest, humble, well-disposed youth who had fallen into vile hands. Charles had been able to rescue him, and the friends now took the Sacrament together every week. He felt the need of help himself. “I earnestly long for and desire the blessing God is about to send me in you. I am sensible this is my day of grace, and that upon my employing the time before our next meeting and next parting will in great measure depend my condition for eternity.” *

John Wesley came in June and spent two months with his brother. During his stay he passed almost every evening with the little Society which had gathered round Charles. The call from Dr. Morley must have given no small pleasure to these friends. Charles Wesley, who was nearly twenty-two, had taken his degree, and become a college tutor. He was now fairly launched, as his father reminded him in an affectionate letter written in January, 1730. Beside the Wesleys, William Morgan, a commoner of Christ Church, and Robert Kirkham, of Merton, seem to have been the principal members of this little Society. When Wesley came to Oxford he was at once recognised as their head. Gambold, who was introduced to him a few months after his return, and who joined the Methodists, says, “Mr. John Wesley was always the chief manager, for which he was very fit; for he not only had more learning and experience than the rest, but he was blest with such activity as to be always gaining ground, and such steadiness that he lost none. What proposals he made to any were sure to charm them, because they saw him always the same. What supported this uniform vigour was the care he took to consider well of every affair before he engaged in it, making all his decisions in the fear of God, without passion, humour, or self-confidence; for though he had naturally a very clear apprehension, yet his exact prudence depended more on humanity and singleness of heart. To this I may add that he had, I think, something of authority in his countenance, though, as he did not want address, he could soften his manner, and point it as occasion required. Yet he never assumed anything to himself above his companions. Any of them might speak their mind, and their words were as strictly regarded by him as his were by them."

The name of “Methodists” was given to the friends before John Wesley came into residence.’ A young gentleman of Christ Church, struck with the exact regularity of their lives and studies, said, “Here is a new sect of Methodists sprung up…" The name “Methodist” was quaint, and not inappropriate. The members of the little Society were soon known by it throughout the University. The title was not new. It was used to describe an ancient school of physicians who thought that all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise. In 1639, there is a reference in a sermon preached at Lambeth to “plain packstaff Methodists,” who despised all rhetoric.* About forty years before it found its most famous application it was given to Dr. Williams and other Nonconformist divines to describe their views on the method of man’s justification before God.t “Methodist” was not the only name given to the Society. The Reforming Club, the Godly Club, the Holy Club, Sacramentarians, Bible Moths, Supererogation men, and Enthusiasts were all in used John Wesley was called the Curator, or Father of the Holy Club.

At first the four friends met every Sunday evening, then two evenings a week were passed together, and at last every evening from six to nine. They began their meetings with prayer, studied the Greek Testament and the classics, reviewed the work of the past day, and talked over their plans for the morrow. They met either in John Wesley’s room, or in that of some other member of the Society. After prayers, the chief subject of which was charity, they had supper together, and John Wesley read some book. On Sunday evening they read divinity. They fasted on Wednesday and Friday, and received the Lord’s Supper every week, coming to Christ Church when the Sacrament was not given in their own colleges. A system of self-examination brought all their conduct under searching review. On Sunday they examined themselves as to the “Love of God and simplicity,” on Monday on “Love of Man.” A glance at the entire scheme will show how carefully the Oxford Methodists sought to order their lives. They studied to do the will of God in all things, to pray with fervour, to use ejaculations or hourly prayers for humility, faith, hope, love, and the particular virtue they set themselves to seek each day. The members repeated a collect at nine, twelve, and three, and had their stated times for meditation and private prayer. The “Love of Man” led them to inquire whether they had been zealous in doing good, had persuaded all they could to attend the means of grace and to observe the laws of the Church and the University, or had shown all kindness and used all prayer for those around them.

The 24th of August, 1730, was a memorable day for the little Society. Up to this time they had quietly pursued their studies and their devotional exercises, doing all the good that lay in their power. Now they entered upon that work of charity which was to bear such blessed fruit. Mr. Morgan, the son of a gentleman in Dublin, led the way. He had visited a man lying at the jail under sentence of death for the murder of his wife, and had spoken to one of the debtors there. What he saw convinced him that much good might be done by any one who would take pains to teach the prisoners. He spoke so often of this that John and Charles Wesley went with him to the Castle. They now agreed to visit there once or twice a week. Morgan also led the way in the visiting of the sick. The friends were soon busy enough. They resolved to spend an hour or two a week in looking after the sick, provided that the minister of the parish in which any of these lived should not be opposed to it…

John Wesley wrote his father an account of their work, asking his counsel, that nothing might be done rashly. On September 21st, 1730, he replied, “And now, as to your own designs and employments, what can I say less of them than valde probo; 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” He expresses his satisfaction that they had such a friend as Mr. Morgan to break the ice for them, and says that he must adopt him as his own son. “Go on then,” he adds, “in God’s name, in the path to which your Saviour bath directed you, and that track wherein your father has gone before you! For when I was an undergraduate at Oxford I visited those 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…”

A year after John Wesley’s return to Oxford there were only five members in the Holy Club. Some, no doubt, had joined them and withdrawn. Mr. Kirkham, of Merton, reported to his friends that he was much rallied for his connection with them, and that the Club had become a common subject of mirth at his college. So far were the young Methodists from any desire to offend the prejudices of the University that Wesley at once wrote to his father for further advice…

To their deep sorrow, Morgan went home to Ireland in consumption. This devoted young man, who had “broken the ice” for the Wesleys, and led them to engage in those works of charity which they delighted to fulfil for nearly sixty years, died in peace on August 26th, 1732. “He kept several children at school, and when be found beggars in the street he would bring them into his chambers and talk to them.” Mr. Gambold, who gives these particulars, joined the little Society about six months before his death, and was greatly impressed by “his calm and resigned behaviour, hardly curbing in a confident joy in God…"

Morgan died early, but his care for the poor and for the prisoner was the legacy which he left to his friends the Oxford Methodists. His impress is thus stamped on every page of Methodism. Robert Kirkham, son of a Gloucestershire clergyman, left Oxford to become his uncle’s curate in 1731. The Wesleys were now the only members of the first group. But others were added to the circle. John Gambold, afterwards a Moravian bishop, had come up to Oxford from the country determined to find some religious friend. One day an old acquaintance entertained him with some sketch of the whimsical Mr. Charles Wesley. This account had a different effect from that which was intended. Gambold began to think that Charles Wesley might be a good Christian. He at once went to his room, and became his fast friend. He was afterwards introduced to John Wesley, and cast in his lot with the despised Methodists. Benjamin Ingham, their companion in the mission to Georgia, joined them in the year Morgan died. Thomas Broughton, afterwards secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, became a member of the Society the same year. John Clayton was added to their number in the spring of 1732. Mr. Rivington, the bookseller, had mentioned him to the two Wesleys when they called at his shop in London, seven or eight months before, but they did not make his acquaintance till Clayton met John Wesley in the street, and introduced himself, giving Mr. Rivington’s “service.” Clayton first suggested that the friends should observe the fasts of the Church, a suggestion they at once adopted. James Hervey, whose works once enjoyed such popularity, joined the brotherhood somewhat later than Clayton. Two or three pupils of Wesley and Clayton and one of Charles Wesley’s also became members of the Society.

The most important addition was made on the eve of the mission to Georgia. George Whitefield had come up to Oxford strongly prepossessed in favour of the Methodists. He greatly admired their devotion, and wished to join them, but no opportunity offered. At last, hearing that a poor woman in one of the workhouses had attempted to cut her throat, he sent the news to Charles Wesley. The messenger, an old apple-woman, was strictly charged not to mention his name, but happily she did not observe her instructions. Charles Wesley at once invited Whitefield to breakfast with him next morning. In this remarkable way that life-long friendship commenced which contributed so greatly to the Evangelical Revival. Whitefield joined the Society, and soon won a convert of his own. He gives * an interesting sketch of the circumstances which kept down the numbers of the Oxford Methodists. Some fell away in time of temptation; others were turned aside by the displeasure of a tutor or the head of a college; whilst the “change of gown” consequent on a higher degree, and the fear of reproach, led many more to forsake the little company.

No sketch of the Oxford Methodists would be complete without some reference to Wesley’s self-denying charity. The members of the Holy Club were accustomed to give away each year whatever remained after they had made provision for their own necessities. Many friends also contributed every quarter to their relief fund. This was employed to release those confined for small debts, or to purchase books, medicine, and other things needed for their work. When they found any poor family that deserved help, they saw them at least once a week, sometimes gave them money, read to them, and examined their children.

Wesley was foremost in all this good work. "I abridged myself," he says, “of all superfluities, and many that are called necessaries of life.” * This self-denial was practised at a time when he was far from robust…

When he had an income of thirty pounds a year he lived on twenty-eight, and gave away two. Next year he received sixty pounds, and gave thirty-two in charity. By limiting his expenses to the same sum, he was able to give away sixty-two pounds the third year, and ninety-two the fourth. One cold winter’s day a young girl, one of those whom the Methodists maintained at school, came to his room. He noticed her thin linen gown and her half-starved look, and inquired if she had no clothes more suitable for winter wear. When he learned that she had not, he put his hand in his pocket, but found that he had scarcely any money. Immediately he thought, “Will thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold Oh, justice Oh, mercy I Are not these pictures the blood of this poor creature’” * By denying himself, Wesley was able to pay the mistress and clothe some, if not all, of the children.t There were about twenty scholars. Wesley’s journal for October, 1739, shows how deeply he regretted that this useful work had afterwards been given up because there was no one to support it.

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