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Sustaining Health for Both Body and Soul

John Wesley's booklet Primitive Physick emphasized the importance of care for physical health as part of holistic ministry

Recently a church-related college asked me to address its students about the value of their Methodist heritage. Hearing of the assignment, a colleague playfully asked, “What can a white-haired guy say about an 18th-century white-haired guy that would be of interest to college students today?” While acknowledging the challenges, I responded that this assignment resonated with my vocation as a scholar of Wesleyan traditions. As I wade into stacks of Wesley letters, pore over 18th-century newspapers, or try to ferret out John Wesley’s (frequently uncited!) sources in his publications, I certainly want to understand these materials in their historical location. But I also bring to this study a sense of our present setting. This sense often helps to discern the roots of challenges that still confront us; just as importantly, it can cast light on overlooked or undervalued resources in our heritage.

A good example is a booklet published in 1747 by John Wesley titled Primitive Physick, which lists over 300 illnesses, wounds, and other health issues and offers suggested treatments for each. The treatments are generally native herbs and naturally occurring elements, with scattered recommendations of cold-water bathing and mild electrical shock. When I began to focus on Wesley studies in the 1980s, this booklet was rarely mentioned—and if it was, it was cited as an example of Wesley’s credulity in depending upon folk remedies or the folly of meddling in a field where he did not belong. At this same time, calls were increasing in our culture for more holistic health care, and specifically for more attention to preventive care and promoting wellness. As I took up Primitive Physick in this setting, I was struck that Wesley’s preface to his collection of remedies culminated with a set of “plain, easy rules” for retaining health. This led me to explore Wesley’s interest in health and wellness more deeply in its context. The result was a growing conviction that Wesley’s publication of Primitive Physick was neither an idiosyncrasy nor merely a personal avocation. Rather, it reflected the heart of his understanding of salvation, was an abiding concern in his ministry, and was central to the mission of early Methodism.

Integral to Salvation
To begin with the first point, most Methodists recognize that John Wesley refused to limit salvation to forgiveness of sins and a guarantee of eternal blessing. He insisted that it also included through the work of the Spirit, “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” (Farther Appeal, Pt. I, §3). They also know that Wesley had to defend this emphasis on present spiritual healing frequently, even to fellow revivalists like George Whitefield.

But fewer of his Methodist descendants are aware that John Wesley was just as insistent that the Great Physician’s unquestionable design is to “heal soul and body together,” to nurture “both inward and outward health” in this life (letter to Alexander Knox, Oct. 26, 1778). Wesley emphasized this point because so many in his day questioned it. Puritan theology had permeated English Christianity for over a century, fostering an understanding of providence that viewed calamity and disease as divinely intended, usually to teach a spiritual lesson. On these terms, one should not assume that God’s present design was physical healing; rather, God’s purpose in inflicting ailment was often specifically to remind us not to become too attached to earthly things like health. This broadly shared view can be found even in the hymns of John Wesley’s brother Charles; one framed as a prayer for parents whose child has smallpox, for example, affirms in the second stanza that “Love inflicts the plague severe” in order to “tear our hearts from earth away” (Family Hymns 1767, 76–78). This makes it all the more striking that at least a quarter of John’s private letters in his later years include not only assurances to his correspondents that God desired their  physical health, but also suggested treatments and frequent exhortations to practices of diet and exercise that can improve and sustain health.

Abiding Concern of Wesley’s Ministry
None of these letters contain a hint that Wesley viewed his health advice as less important than his spiritual advice. This was in keeping with his training. Priests were often the only university-educated persons in 18th-century English villages. The newly dominant “Anglican” model of ministry elevated concern for the physical health of parishioners to a central aspect of pastoral care. While priests were not expected to dispense medicines or perform medical procedures, they were strongly encouraged to offer “physic”—general instruction in the nature of health and suggestions for sustaining or restoring it. To prepare priests for this role, basic medicine was part of their university studies.

From the diary that he began at Oxford, we know that Wesley read extensively in works about health. When he became a missionary priest in Georgia, he purchased a text on medicinal herbs native to the region. His desire to stay current was lifelong and included consultation of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and Medical Transactions of the Royal College of Physicians.

After his return from Georgia, Wesley went to neither his old life as a fellow at Oxford nor a parish in the Church of England. Drawn into the emerging revival, he embraced the “more vile” ministry of open-air evangelism and caring for the growing cadres of followers. As he settled into this new role, Wesley noticed the numerous people (particularly the poor) in his audiences and society meetings who had health needs but little access to the parish priest or private physicians. Wesley’s pastoral concern drove him to offer them physic as well, belying any suggestion that he thought meeting their spiritual needs alone was sufficient. Initially he not only offered advice but also set up free clinics in Bristol and London where they could obtain medicines. As the Methodist movement spread across England, this form of ministry to the whole person proved unworkable. Wesley was rarely available to offer the benefit of his training in physic because of his itinerant leadership, and few of his lay preachers had appropriate training. So Wesley distilled his advice in Primitive Physick, which was reprinted frequently and sold at a minimal cost, as a companion to his spiritual guidance offered in collections of sermons. And he peppered his letters with advice on both spiritual and physical health.