'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.
John Gambold on the Holy Club:
'About the middle of March, 1730, I became acqainted with Mr. Charles Wesley of Christ-Church. I was just then come up from the country, and had made a resolution to find out some persons of religion to keep company with or else instill something of it into those I knew already… One day an old acquaintance entertained me with some reflections on the whimsical Mr. Wesley, his preciseness and pious extravagances… I therefore went to his room, and without any ceremony desired the benefit of his conversation…
'The Wesleys were already talked of for some religious practices, which were first occasioned by Mr. Morgan of Christ-Church. He deighted much in works of charity; he kept several children at school, and when he found beggars in the street, he would bring them into his chambers and talk to them. Many such things he did; and being acquainted with these two brothers, he invited them to join with him; and proposed that they should meet frequently to encourage one another, and have some scheme to proceed by in their daily employments….
'From these combined friends bgan a little Society (tho' all such names they also declined;) for several others from time to time fell in, most of them only to be improved by their serious and useful discourse; and some espousing all their resolutions and their whole way of life, Mr. John Wesley was always the chief manager for which he was very fit. For he had not only more learning and experience than the rest, but he was blessed with such activity asa to be always gaining ground and such steadiness that he lost none,.. Yet he nevr asumed any thing to himself above his companions; any of them might speak his mind, and their words were as strictly regarded by him as his were by them.
'It was their custom to meet most evenings either at his chamber or one of the others, where after some prayers(the chief subject of which was charity,) they eat their supper together, and he read some book. But the chief business was to review what each had done that day, in pursuance of their common design, and to consult wtat steps were to be taken next.
'Their undertaking included these several particulars: to converse with young students, to visit the prisons, to instruct some poor families, to take care of a school, and a parish work-house. They took great pains with the younger members of the University, to rescue them from bad company, and encouage them in a sober studious life… Some or other of them went to the Castle every day, and another most commonly to Bocardo; whoever came to the Castle was to read in the Chapel to as many prisoners as would attend, and to talk apart to the man or men whom he had taken partcularly in charge….
'In order to release those who were confined for small debts, and were bettered by their affliction, (and likewise to purchase books, physic, and other necessaries), they raised a little fund, to which many of their acquaintances contributed quarterly. They had prayers at the Castle most Wednesdays and Fridays, a sermon on Sunday, and the sacrament once a month…'
(Methodist Magazine, March 1798, pp.117-21, 168-72)