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At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley advocated health care, wholeness

4/22/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: This is a regular feature on Methodist history by John Singleton prepared especially for distribution by United Methodist News Service. An artist's rendering of John Wesley is available. *John Singleton is a writer with the Methodist Recorder newspaper in London, England. He is currently serving as administrator of Methodist churches and projects in the Tower Hamlets area of East London. He can be contacted by e-mail: john@towerhamlets.org.

A UMNS Feature By John Singleton*

Access to adequate health care is an issue that concerns everyone, no matter where they live. And it is a sobering thought that, among the wide variety of countries with churches belonging to the worldwide Methodist family, the quality of health care provision is variable, to say the least.

In some areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, for instance, such provision may not be much better now than it was during John Wesley's time in the second half of the 18th century. Even those of us who today benefit from medical insurance schemes or state health service provision, live in countries where there is a substantial underclass of people who, for whatever reason, have slipped through the health care net and are entirely dependent upon charity.

Part of the Methodism's historic social witness has always been to try and bring wholeness and healing to those most in need, be it within the church's missionary context overseas or among the poorest communities on its own doorstep. In this, our church shares an empathy with John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, who, realizing that medicine in England was only available to the wealthy, sought to bring practical medical advice to workers and others who could not afford to visit a private doctor.

More than 250 years from the publication of Wesley's "Primitive Physick" (subtitled "An easy and natural method of curing most diseases"), advances in medical science have brought unparalleled benefits to millions of people, but in the context of the 18th century, Wesley was advocating natural remedies and disciplines that were as much about wholeness as anything else. And throughout his writings on this matter it is the example of his own somewhat cerebral lifestyle that consistently comes across.


The starting point for Wesley was that, since humanity has rebelled against its creator, the "incorruptible frame hath put on corruption, the immortal has put on mortality." He believed that: "the seeds of weakness and pain, sickness and death, are now lodged in our inmost substance; whence a thousand disorders continually spring, even without the aid of external violence. And how is the number of these increased by everything round about us! The heavens, the earth, and all things contained therein, conspire to punish the rebels against their creator."

Wesley's advice on health matters may seem simplistic, naive and even comical to us, but more than two centuries later some of it still sounds like good sense. "Use plain diet, easy of digestion; and this as sparingly as you can, consistent with ease and strength," he wrote. "Use as much exercise daily in the open air, as you can without weariness. Sup at six or seven on the lightest food; go to bed early, and rise betimes. To persevere with steadiness in this course, is often more than half the cure. Above all, add to the rest (for it is not labour lost) that old unfashionable medicine, prayer."

When it came to liquid consumption, Wesley described water as the "wholesomest of all drinks" that quickened the appetite and strengthened the digestion. But, when it came to "strong, and more especially, spirituous liquors," he dismissed them as a "certain, though slow, poison." Furthermore, we know that the founder of the Methodist movement became a staunch abstainer from coffee and tea, once describing them as "extremely hurtful to persons who have weak nerves." He advocated--and practiced -- a personal routine of going to bed at 9 pm and rising at 4 or 5 am (a time when he frequently preached to crowds in the open air).

In view of Wesley's long life (he died at the age of 87) and his constant journeying (he traveled an estimated 250,000 miles during his lifetime), it comes as no surprise to know that he believed that a "due degree of exercise" was indispensable for a healthy and long life. "Walking is the best exercise for those who are able to bear it; riding for those who are not," he wrote. "The open air, when the weather is fair, contributes much to the benefit of exercise."

He advocated that studious people ought to have regular times for exercise amounting to at least two or three hours a day and that they should frequently shave and wash their feet. "Those who read or write much, should learn to do it standing; otherwise, it will impair their health," said Wesley, who was renowned for reading and writing while on the move. He was also an advocate of cold bathing, believing that it prevented an "abundance of diseases."

The fact that, in later life, Wesley experimented with the novelty of electricity as an antidote for some ailments and even set up clinics where poor people could seek medical advice was indicative of an inquiring mind and his concern to minister to the whole needs of people. His "electricity machine" can be seen to this day in his house at Wesley's Chapel, London, England.

There is no doubt that John Wesley would have been thrilled at the great advancement in medical science that has occurred since his day, but he would have been dismayed that this was still not available to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

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