You may have heard the story of the famous Oxford Holy Club that included students who went onto be some of history’s greatest evangelists, but you’ve probably never heard this aspect of the story. I came across this little tidbit a few years ago while working on a research project for the Maclellan Foundation’s Generous Giving Initiative and have written articles on it for a couple of publications. The story goes like this:
William Morgan, an Irish student at Christ Church in Oxford, England began his small group study in 1729 with two other students. Though the group was never larger than a dozen students, the extraordinary uproar and persecution from the Oxford student body is and faculty is legendary. Every day Holy Club members had to run the gauntlet of jeering crowds in order to attend church services. They were called many names (none of the complementary) including Bible Moths, the Sacramentarians, Super-Erogation Men, or the name that stuck — the Holy Club.
Morgan’s name is mostly forgotten, being overshadowed by the more famous members such as John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. All of them were destined to be among the greatest Christian leaders of their generation, perhaps of any generation. But it was Morgan, along with Charles Wesley, who founded that small group. It was also Morgan who in the most contrary circumstances pioneered a new brand of philanthropy, thus the name, “Super Erogation Men” or super givers from the Latin word erogatio — the act of giving.
Many assume that the opposition to the men of the Holy Club arose from their on campus evangelism. However, that was not the case. The Holy Club was a monastic group. They dedicated themselves to reading Scriptures, praying, and fasting. Begin inwardly focused on their own spiritual growth, no one in the Oxford community paid much attention; until that is, they got involved with philanthropy.
In August 1730, Wm. Morgan went to visit a condemned murderer being held in the Castle Prison. While there Morgan had the opportunity to speak with a few men who had been imprisoned for relatively insignificant unpaid debts. Morgan urged the two Wesley brothers to join him in an ongoing endeavor at the prison, and soon charitable giving became one of the primary ways the Holy Club attempted to apply their faith. Members determined to live simply and to give away all they had each year beyond their own necessities.
One would think that such generosity would be admired, even among their detractors. Not so, for many considered their charity to be upsetting the natural order of things. Meetings of faculty and students were organized at Oxford to protest against this new “enthusiasm” by which this group was collecting funds among themselves and using them to minister to prisoners and to the poor. Attacks upon members of the Holy Club were so frequent and persistent that in the winter of 1730-31 the club published a list of questions for the student body to consider. Among the questions were the following:
May we not try to do good to those who are hungry, naked, or sick?
May we not contribute what little we have toward have the children clothed and taught to read?
May we not lend small sums to those who are of any trade that they may procure themselves tools and materials to work with?
The Holy Club at Oxford existed for only a few years. Career pursuits, doctrinal differences, and varying opinions about whether to work inside or outside the prevailing ecclesiastical structures sent the club members in various directions. But as history shows, they continued to be super erogation men — super givers.