Medicine within the doctrine of Methodism

Wesley’s interest in medicine arose initially from the fact that Anglican pastors were required to study it as part of their education. It was in fact common, especially in small villages, that religious ministers also offered medical care. In his diary, Wesley reports that he completed reading many medical texts between 1724 and 1732. During his stay in Georgia, he read a book on herbs present on American soil (Tennent 1734) and for all his life continued to be interested in this subject.

In order to summarize the content of his studies for the benefit of the Methodist community, he published a book of medical remedies, titled “Primitive Physic” (Wesley 1747),  often interpreted as a collection of “grandmother’s remedies” based on folklore. Nevertheless, according to some scholars, about a third of the advice provided in the book comes from medical texts, including those of famous authors such as Hermann Boerhaave and Thomas Sydenham. In line with the verse “The Most High hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them.” (Antonio Martini, Ecclesiastic 38:4). Wesley worked to identify and describe treatments available to all: his book intended to list those remedies that would be affordable, safe, easy-to-know and to find and administrable by simple and illiterate people (Maddox 2007).

Wesley did not consider the role of the pastor as limited only to preaching and to spiritual counseling, but believed that religious people should devote a lot of their time to do good works, which also included medical care for the most needy in their parish. Whenever he visited a Methodist society, Wesley would encourage those present to distribute his excerpt of Kempis’s “Imitation of Christ” and his own “Primitive Physic” to the faithful of the parish. He expected the assistants in charge of pastoral duties to be able to dispense medical advice: Methodist ministers had to take care of the body as well as the soul. They had to visit the sick at their bedside three times a week to ascertain the condition of their souls and bodies, and to offer advice on both respects. He spoke with respect of the medical class, recalling the biblical verse “Honor the physician because of necessity, and because the Most High created him” (Bible Antonio Martini, Ecclesiasticus 38:1-2) and argued that in many cases the best strategy was to find an “honest” doctor (often doctors unnecessarily prolonged treatments to gain financial benefit). However, he was also aware that poor people could not afford a consultation.

Although he was convinced of the importance of praying to summon the indispensable divine intervention in order to heal, he was far from relying passively only on it. On the other hand, he would not deny the possibility of miraculous healings, which are mentioned in his books (Maddox 2007).

Over the course of his life, Wesley assumed a holistic perspective on those diseases that medical science was beginning to define as nervous. Although he believed that many cases of insanity were diabolical, on several occasions he argued that medical intervention could be useful. The reading of a book written in 1724 by the physician George Cheyne (Cheyne 1753) – which Wesley obtained shortly after its publication – brought him to specifically emphasize the impact of emotions on the body’s health. In “Primitive Physic” Wesley reported some concepts extracted from Cheyne’s book, highlighting how passion had a great influence on health: violent and sudden passion would incline the body to acute diseases, while prolonged passion (like pain or unrequited love) could cause chronic pathologies. As long as a passion resided in the human soul no medicine could work. For this reason the love of God, which helped keep the passion within proper limits and gave out indescribable joy, perfect calm, serenity and tranquility, was the most powerful remedy for maintaining health (Maddox 2007).
Consequently, the physician had to take into account the spiritual origin of the disease while the religious minister had to consider also its natural causes. In fact, Wesley emphasized the impact of the physical condition on emotional and spiritual states, which could reflect physical ailments, acute pathologies, calamities, and poverty. From this approach came his lifestyle recommendations: appropriate diet, temperance, outdoor physical exercise for at least an hour a day, adequate rest, hygiene and cleanliness of the body, clothing and house and cold baths.

Wesley also became an enthusiastic advocate of electric therapies, to the point that, in 1756, he got himself an “electric machine” that delivered low-voltage shocks through a probe. He experimented the machine on himself and on others, and also included it in the “Primitive Physick” from the eighth edition, published in 1759, onwards. In a booklet describing the easy use of this remedy (Wesley 1871) he defined electricity as the soul of the universe, namely the created power that permeated everything else.

Finally, it is interesting to note that throughout his life Wesley remained arrayed against the monopoly of medicine that the category of doctors and pharmacists advocated persistently in the eighteenth-century Britain. He probably believed that such a monopoly would increase the disparity between the rich and the poor, and between those living in large cities and those living in a small town. Wesley was convinced that just as the grace of God was accessible to all creatures, even good works (both for the spirit and for the body) should be available to all.

Early on in his preaching and for a short time, he opened a free drug distribution center in London. The initiative was successful and attracted also non methodist people, but it was too expensive and had to be abandoned. What is more, because of the dispersion of his faithful, Wesley preferred to distribute his book of remedies in a capillary manner. Based on the experience gained managing the free pharmacy, he believed to have identified the most common obstacle to healing: although people were very inclined to take medicines, very rarely followed lifestyle advice (Maddox 2007).

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