Methodist Church

Health, wellness ‘central to John Wesley’s

DURHAM (North Carolina, US) – Health and wellness was an integral part of the ministry of the Rev John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said the Rev Randy Maddox, a noted Wesley scholar.

Indeed, Wesley’s most popular publication in his lifetime was Primitive Physick, a book of medical advice first published in the 1740s.

“Wesley was convinced that God cares about the whole person,” the Rev Maddox said. “He didn’t see the spiritual and the physical as separate.”

Wesley believed that God wanted human flourishing in every dimension, indeed, the flourishing of all creation.

That emphasis on integrating the physical and the spiritual is just one of the many lessons Wesley’s writings and thinking on health offer the church today, added the Rev Maddox, who is the William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about Wesley’s interest in health and wellness. The following is an edited transcript of some of the questions and answers.

Q: People today might be surprised that Wesley was interested in and wrote about health and wellness. Was that unusual in his day?

Of all Wesley’s books, the one that stayed in print the longest and went through the most editions was not his sermons or hymns. It was Primitive Physick, a book on medical advice. It was central to his work.

Today, spiritual care is done by pastors in churches, and physical care is done by physicians and nurses in hospitals and clinics. But you would not have had that separation before the 1700s.

In most villages in early 18th-century England, the pastor was the only person with any college education. Anglican clergy were responsible not only for the parish’s spiritual care but also for physical care. Part of their job was to give health advice.

The word physick or physician didn’t describe the person who gave you medicine or did surgery. It was the one who gave you advice about how to maintain health, and then you would go to your local apothecary or to a barber-surgeon or whatever.

When John and Charles Wesley trained at Oxford to become Anglican clergy, one of the required subjects they studied was medicine, or physick.

Q: Given the primitive nature of medicine at the time, were people probably better off seeing a clergyperson?

Eighteenth-century England was when medical care began to emerge as a profession. Many people were hanging out a shingle and saying, “I can do surgery; I can give medicines.” Some were good and many were quacks, but how do you know?

But yes, few folk in the villages had any serious training that enabled them to give wise advice. Even if they did, many accepted medical treatments that were not helpful. Some recommended taking mercury, which is a poison.

The Primitive Physick is basically a listing of various ailments and possible treatments. If you have a sore tooth, here are some things you might try. When you look at the suggestions, many strike you as common-sense – and a few strike you as kind of weird.

A lot of earlier scholarship on Wesley assumed he was collecting old wives’ tales as he rode around England, but we now know that he took most of these from the standard medical textbooks of his day.

Q: Some scholars dismiss his work on health and healing, but you contend it was a central part of his ministry. How so?

First, Wesley was convinced that God cares about the whole person. He did not see the spiritual and the physical as separate. He actually differed from his brother Charles on this.

John was clear that God wants health for all God’s children – health of soul and health of body.

Q: You’ve written that Wesley’s views on health were part of his holistic view of salvation. What do you mean?

He comes to that view over his lifetime. When you look at early biblical models about what God wants for creation, it is clear that God wants a flourishing of the whole creation. Not just humans, but all creation.

While that view carried over into the early church, so did others, including certain strands from the Greek tradition that suggest that only the spiritual is real and enduring, and that the physical is at best something not valuable.

Over time, many Christians bought into that view. They came to believe that our eternal state will be one where we leave the body to exist as disembodied spirits with God the eternal spirit.

Q: What are the lessons for the church today?

First, that God cares about body and soul, that we are created in such a way that the spiritual and the physical are interdependent.

Second, Wesley was concerned not just about how we heal that which is sick or broken but also how we nurture sustaining practices of health. He stressed that we ought to have proper diet, exercise and sleep in order to cultivate health, that God created and sustains us, and expects this of us.

Finally, Wesley wanted to make sure that good basic care was available to all people. He designed the Primitive Physick and the work of the visitor of the sick and things like that to reach out to those who didn’t have access to or the means to purchase care.  – United Methodist News Service.