Randy Maddox: John Wesley says, 'Take care of yourself'
Health and wellness was central to the ministry of the founder of Methodism, says a leading Wesley scholar. God cares about body and soul, and wants the flourishing of humanity and all creation.
July 31, 2012 | Health and wellness was an integral part of the ministry of the Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said Randy Maddox, a noted Wesley scholar.
Indeed, Wesley’s most popular publication in his lifetime was “Primitive Physick,” a book of medical advice.
“Wesley is convinced that God cares about the whole person,” Maddox said. “He doesn’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, Maddox said.
Maddox 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.
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 wasn’t 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. That was part of the pastor’s duty, and they understood it in the sense that God cared for the whole person and they should too.
When John and Charles Wesley trained at Oxford to become Anglican clergy, one of the required subjects they studied was medicine, or physick. We know that John in particular continued to read books on physick.
When he came to Georgia to serve as a pastor, one of the books he read to prepare was on plants and herbs that grew in the New World and their medical usages, so that he could give this kind of advice.
Q: Given the primitive nature of medicine at the time, people were probably better off seeing a clergyperson.
Eighteenth-century England is when the professionalization of medical care began to emerge. 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 were not helpful. Bleeding, for example, was a common treatment, meant to restore the balance of humors. Some also 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.
He was trying to distill the wisdom that he had learned at school and make it available for those who didn’t get to go to Oxford. Compared with other books of the period, his is pretty cautious. His advice was much safer than the advice people got on the streets.
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 is convinced that God cares about the whole person. He doesn’t see the spiritual and the physical as separate. He actually differed from his brother Charles on this.
There was a strand of Puritan thought that assumed that whenever we had a physical ailment, whatever its physical cause, the ultimate cause was God. Illness awakened us to our spiritual need. We were to learn lessons from it, including not being too attached to this life.
If you understand illness that way, then trying to relieve or cure it could be seen as working against God’s purposes. Many of Charles Wesley’s hymns around illness basically say, “Lord, teach me the lesson I’m supposed to learn from this.”
But John is clear that God wants health for all God’s children -- health of soul and health of body.
Q: In this life.
Yes. He recognized that we won’t have perfect health forever and that we all eventually die, but he believed that God wants good for us and provided means to support that.
Wesley sees this life as a foretaste of what will be in the next. If the next life is to be a life of flourishing of body and soul, then in this life God also wants us to work toward a flourishing of body and soul, and that’s what Wesley encouraged people to do.
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’s 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.
You see that in Wesley’s early writings, where he talked about, “I’m a spirit come from God returning to God.” But as he studied biology texts of his day, he became convinced that creation is rich with things that God must have placed here because God valued them.
In his later years, he recovered the theme that God offers salvation not just to humans but to the whole creation. He preached a very influential and famous sermon called “The General Deliverance,” about animals participating in God’s eternal salvation. He makes the point that if God cares about animals, then we ought to care about them. We ought to imitate the God whose mercy is over all God’s works.
Similarly, if you believe God cares about the whole person -- body and soul -- then we should care about the whole person, and the church should structure its ministries to address both the spiritual and the physical health of people.