Mirroring the early days of the Holy Club, it has been an important part of Oxford’s Methodist story for the past 136 years to bring students together. Their group provides mutual support and a focus for mission, and will continue to evolve in response to changing needs.
The John Wesley Society has its origins in the Oxford ministry of the Rev H Price Hughes. Amongst other innovations, he encouraged the establishment of a mission room in Catherine Street, in the St Clements parish of Oxford.
At a meeting of the University Class in February 1883, he proposed that members should form a union to be called the Wesley union or society and that a committee should be formed to run the mission room.
Quite quickly the name the Wesley Guild was adopted in preference to the term union. It was to be open to regular communicants of ‘some Christian church’, had an entrance fee, a committee and a programme of at least two meetings a year. The Superintendent minister of the Oxford Wesleyan Methodist Circuit was to be ex-officio President of the Guild.
Various other rules were drawn up in connection with the running of the mission room. Speaker meetings, debates and the reading of ‘papers’ by members were also typical activities of the Guild.
The financial state of the Guild was a cause for concern from the outset and it proved difficult to cover costs. Unsuccessful efforts were made to reduce expenditure and to ensure all members paid their dues. Evangelical work at the mission room work was hampered by the very great poverty of those who were being addressed. As a result attention was turned to supporting the new London Settlement Scheme at Bermondsey in 1889, encouraged by Rev J Scott Lidgett. In 1903 the Wesley Guild changed its name to the Wesley Society to avoid confusion with the newly formed Connexional Wesley Guild.
First World War
There were about 60 members in October 1914 but very rapidly numbers diminished. At least three members of the Society, Arthur Heath, Arthur Rigby, and Carl Shrewsbury were killed in action. After a hiatus in activity during the war, the number of members recovered and a programme was re-established in 1919.
The 1932 union of the various branches of the Methodist Church posed a challenge to Methodist students in Oxford. The Oxford University Methodist Society (for United and Primitive Methodists) had for some time admitted women. Despite debating the issue on several occasions the Wesley Society had remained all male. In June 1933 however the Wesley Society was wound up and a new society, the John Wesley Society, was formed for both women and men.
The John Wesley Society
Term programmes during this time show an increasing interest in contemporary issues and in 1935 Dr Donald Soper paid the first of many visits to the Society. Numbers flourished, rising to at least one hundred members by 1939.
Despite attendance being severely reduced during the Second World War, two future prime ministers joined the Society at this time: Kofi Busia (Prime Minister of Ghana 1969 – 72) and Margaret Roberts (later Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1979 – 1990).
In the post war years the number of members of the John Wesley Society increased rapidly. Groups of a dozen or so members were established to provide mutual support and nurture discipleship. For many, the ‘Group’ was the most important element of the Society and established life-long friendships and many marriages! Some members and many group leaders went on to candidate for the Methodist ministry. By Michaelmas Term in 1963 there were over 300 members in 21 groups.
This growth was not without its challenges: maintaining good relationships between the Committee and members, providing much needed training in leadership for group leaders and, from 1963, fully incorporating students from Westminster College into the organisation of the Society, were three examples.
The unfailing support for the Society of Dr Charles Coulson was cut short by his early death in 1974. For many years he and his wife Eileen provided hospitality for students at their home. He had supported the work of the Society since 1946, when he gave his first address on the interesting question “Is there a tree of knowledge the fruits of which we should not eat?”
The structure and programme of the Society remained much the same, albeit with slightly fewer numbers through to the 1990s. Groups continued to take responsibility for leading services in various churches in the Circuit as well as enjoying the programme of speakers, bible study, social events and mission work (by then in support of the Poplar Mission).
By the 21st century, numbers had reduced so far as to remove the need for groups and a number of activities were curtailed. Methodist students continued to value meeting with each other and worshipping together at Wesley Memorial Church.
In July 2019 the society was officially wound down recognising that the structure and programme no longer suited the needs of students. At the same time Wesley Memorial Church and the Oxford Circuit reaffirmed its commitment to support and nurture students as a distinctive and valued element of the Methodist community in Oxford.
This page has drawn on Robert Simonson’s booklet ‘A History of the John Wesley Society 1883 – 1983 (see image below) available via the Wesley Memorial Church: firstname.lastname@example.org.