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«Methodist History, 46:1 (October 2007) JOhN WESLEy ON hOLISTIC hEALTh AND hEALINg1 Randy L. Maddox Few laity in Wesleyan traditions today are aware ...»

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Methodist History, 46:1 (October 2007)


Randy L. Maddox

Few laity in Wesleyan traditions today are aware that John Wesley

published a collection of advice for preserving health and treating diseases,

even though that collection, his Primitive Physick, went through twentythree editions in Wesley’s lifetime—among the highest number of anything

that he published—and stayed in print (and use!) continuously into the

1880s. Those who are aware of this collection, and have glanced at a few of his prescriptions for ailments (samples in Appendix A), tend to dismiss it in bemusement.

This is true of many scholars as well. One recent book on Wesley’s ethics describes Primitive Physick as “a collection of folklore prescriptions for various ailments... [revealing] his reliance on testimony and a sometime credulity in belief in what the folk tradition contained.” A new historical study of Wesley characterizes the work as “a strange mix of old wives’ tales and recent insights.”2 The goal of this essay is to call such evaluations, and the larger neglect of this dimension of Wesley’s work, into question. I hope to demonstrate that, far from being an amusing avocation, Wesley’s interest in health and healing was a central dimension of his ministry and of the mission of early Methodism. Moreover, when considered in its historical context, I believe that Wesley’s precedent provides a model of the concern for holistic health and healing that is instructive for his present ecclesial heirs.3 This essay was originally presented in 2003 at a celebration of the tercentenary of John Wesley’s birth at Emory University. It will appear in a slightly longer form under the title “A Heritage Reclaimed” in a collection of essays arising from that gathering.

See respectively, Ronald H. Stone, John Wesley’s Life and Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 157; and John Munsey Turner, John Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and the Rise of Methodism in England (Peterborough: Epworth, 2002), 41–42.

Readers are encouraged to supplement the discussion that follows with the helpful studies of Deborah Madden that appeared subsequent to my original presentation: “Experience and the Common Interest of Mankind: The Enlightened Empiricism of John Wesley’s Primitive Physic,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 (2003): 41–53; “Medicine and Moral Reform: The Place of Practical Piety in John Wesley’s Art of Physic,” Church History 73 (2004): 741–758; and “Primitive Physic”: John Wesley’s “Cheap, Safe and Natural Medicine for Health and Long Life” (New York: Rodopi, 2007).

John Wesley on Holistic Health and Healing 5 Wesley’s Life-long Study of Medical Works In considering Wesley’s interest in health and healing, it is helpful to recall that study of basic medicine had become part of the training of Anglican clergy candidates in the seventeenth century. It was common—at least in smaller villages—for priests to offer medical care as part of their overall ministry.4 This helps explain why clergy who left parish settings often turned to medicine as an alternative career. A good example is Wesley’s great-grandfather Bartholomew Wes(t)ley, who consulted from time to time as a physician while rector of Charmouth in Dorset, and took up this career for his full livelihood when his refusal to sign the Act of Conformity in the early 1660s led to ejection from his pastoral charge.

Following in this tradition, we know from sources like the diary that Wesley began at Oxford of several medical treatises by Robert Boyle and others that he purchased and/or read between 1724 and 1732.5 To take another snapshot, diary entries for 1736, when Wesley was serving as a missionary priest in Georgia, show continued reading of medical texts, including one by John Tennent listing medicinal herbs that were available on that continent.6 This reading continued more sporadically throughout Wesley’s life and included consultation of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and the Medical Transactions of the Royal College of Physicians. My working list of medical works that Wesley cites or mentions over his life span stands at nearly 100 items.

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This reading stands behind Wesley’s publication of medical advice. In Note how offering medical advice is central to the role of a parson in George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple; or the Country Parson (London: T. Garthwaite, 1652), ch. 23 (Wesley read Herbert in July 1730). Cf. A.W. Sloan, English Medicine in the Seventeenth Century (Durham: Durham Academic Press, 1996), 138–140; and Robert Heller, “‘Priest-Doctors’ as a Rural Health Service in the Age of the Enlightenment,” Medical History 20 (1976): 361–383.

In addition to Boyle’s Medicinal Experiments; or, A collection of choice remedies, for the most part simple, and easily prepared, 3 vols. (London: Sam Smith, 1692–1694), and Of the Reconcileableness of Specific Medicines to the Corpuscular Philosophy; to which is annexed a discourse about the advantages of the use of simple medicines (London: Samuel Smith, 1685);

he read during this time at least John Allen, Dr. Allen’s Synopsis medicinae, 2 vols. (London:

Pemberton & Meandows, 1730); George Cheyne, An Essay of Health and Long Life (London:

George Strahan, 1724); George Cheyne, A New Theory of Acute and Slow Continued Fevers (London: George Strahan, 1702); John Drake, Anthropologia Nova; or, A New System of Anatomy, 2 volumes (London: William Innys, 1727–1728); John Floyer, Pharmako-Basanos; or, the Touch-stone of Medicines, 2 vols. (London: Michael Johnson, 1687–1690); and Daniel Le Clerc, The History of Physick (London: Brown, et al., 1699).

Thomas Sydenham, Complete Method of Curing almost all Diseases (London: Randal Taylor, 1694), see Works 18:447; John Tennent, Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter’s Physician (Williamsburg, VA: William Parks, 1734), see Works 18:443; and Daniel Turner, The Art of Surgery (London: C. Rivington & J. Clarke, 1722), see Works 18:385. Note also Wesley’s comment about studying physick “properly” in preparation for his time in America, in Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, §XII.2, Works 9:275.

Methodist History particular, the Primitive Physick was based on much more than “folk lore” and “old wive’s tales.” Wesley’s own account traces its origins to remedies transcribed from the books of Robert Boyle and John Tennent, along with “a few more from books or conversation.”7 In research toward a critical edition of Wesley’s medical writings, James Donat has traced nearly a third of the remedies in Primitive Physick back to texts of medical advice, including texts by such other authors as Hermann Boerhaave, Kenelm Digby, Thomas Dover, John Huxham, Richard Mead, Lazarus Riverius, Thomas Short, Thomas Sydenham, and Thomas Willis.8 The fact that Wesley drew heavily on his reading of medical works for the original text and later updates of Primitive Physick suggests that, far from being a tangential or idiosyncratic concern, publication of this resource should be seen more as a parallel to Wesley’s fifty-volume Christian Library.

In both cases he was distilling the fruits of broad reading for the benefit of his Methodist people and the larger public. Since his ministry was larger than a single parish, he dispensed the spiritual and medical guidance expected of his priestly office in printed form.

Just as Wesley published more than the Christian Library offering spiritual guidance, his medical advice reached beyond the Primitive Physick.

He published several other works related to maintaining or restoring health, including A Letter to a Friend Concerning Tea (1748); The Desideratum, or Electricity Made Plain and Useful (1760); Thoughts on the Sin of Onan, chiefly extracted from [Tissot] (1767); Advices with Respect to Health, extracted from [Tissot] (1769); “Extract from [William] Cadogan on the Gout” (in vol. 26 of his Works, 1774); and An Estimate of the Manners of Present Times (1782).9

Wesley’s holistic Understanding of Salvation

While Wesley’s practice of offering medical advice was in keeping with a traditional role of clergy, his ministry spanned a period when the Royal College of Physicians in London was increasingly seeking to control certification of medical practitioners. Clergy joined barber-surgeons, apothecaries, and various “quacks” as groups targeted for exclusion.10 Like most in the other Letter to the Editor of Lloyd’s Evening Post (23? January 1776), in Lloyd’s Evening Post (26–29 January 1776), 102.

See James G. Donat, “Empirical Medicine in the 18th Century: The Rev. John Wesley’s Search for Remedies that Work,” Methodist History 44 (2006): 216–226.

These will all be included in Volume 17 of Wesley’s Works. For an analysis of the two extracts from Tissot, see James G. Donat, “The Rev. Mr. John Wesley’s Extractions from Dr. Tissot: A Methodist Imprimatur,” History of Science 39 (2001): 285–298.

Cf. Dorothy Porter & Roy Porter, Patient’s Progress: Doctors and Doctoring in Eighteenth Century England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989); Irvine Loudon, “Medical Practitioners 1750–1850 and the period of Medical Reform in Britain,” in Medicine in Society, edited by Andrew Wear (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 219–247; and Roy Porter, “The Eighteenth Century,” in The Western Medical Tradition, edited by Lawrence Conrad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 371–475.

John Wesley on Holistic Health and Healing 7 groups, Wesley resisted the suggestion to refrain from offering medical guidance, leaving it to those certified by the College.11 But his motive for resisting was not to protect a source of income; it was grounded instead in his holistic understanding of salvation.

One of Wesley’s deepest theological convictions was that the mediocrity of moral life and the ineffectiveness in social impact of Christians in eighteenth-century England could be traced to an inadequate understanding of salvation assumed broadly in the church. The root of this inadequacy, and the core of Wesley’s alternative understanding, can be seen in his own most

pointed definition of salvation:

By salvation I mean, not barely (according to the vulgar notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health... the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.12 The notion that Wesley was rejecting here reduces salvation to forgiveness of our guilt as sinners, which frees us from future condemnation. Wesley consistently encouraged his followers and contemporaries to seek the benefits of truly holistic salvation, where God’s forgiveness of sins is interwoven with God’s gracious healing of the damages that sin has wrought.13 The scope of the healing that Wesley invited all to expect is captured well in pastoral letters, like his reminder to Alexander Knox: “It will be a double blessing if you give yourself up to the Great Physician, that He may heal soul and body together. And unquestionably this is His design. He wants to give you... both inward and outward health.”14 While most Christians shared the conviction that God would provide full healing of body and soul at the resurrection, Wesley’s emphasis on the degree to which both dimensions of divine healing can be experienced in the present was less common. This is evident concerning the spiritual dimension even within the Methodist revival, where the Calvinist branch insisted that we can hope for only limited transformation of our fallen spiritual nature in this life.15 The assumption that we should expect only limited expression in this life of God’s promised salvation of our bodies was more wide spread, but it is notable that resistance to suggestions of clergy including medical care as part of their ministry in the English church during the reign of James I Note his rejection of this explicit suggestion in Letter to ‘John Smith’ (25 March 1747), Works 26:236.

Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Pt. I, §3, Works 11:106.

For more on the “healing” emphasis in Wesley’s understanding of salvation, see Randy L.

Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 144–147.

Letter to Alexander Knox (26 October 1778), in The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., edited by John Telford (London: Epworth, 1931), 6:327. Another good example is Letter to Miss Agnes Gibbes (28 April 1784), Methodist History 6.3 (1968): 53.

See in this regard George Whitefield’s Letter to John Wesley (25 September 1740), Works

–  –  –

(1603–1625) also came from the most Calvinist voices in the church. These objectors urged that labor for the souls of their parishioners, by preaching and counseling, should fill the full time of the pastor. In contrast, the more Arminian “High Church” voices, which gained in strength after 1625, elevated a model where, in addition to reverent leadership in defined times of regular worship, clergy were expected to spend a significant part of their time in good works—like medical care—among the needy in their parish.16 Wesley’s ancestors, on both the paternal and maternal side, were among those who objected to the reinstatement of the Act of Uniformity governing Anglican worship in 1662 and eventually formed dissenting congregations.

While most of these dissenters were moderate to strong Calvinists, they tended to be more willing than their predecessors to make some room for offering medical care in their understanding of the pastoral task. We have already noted how this is reflected in Wesley’s paternal great-grandfather.

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