Randy Maddox: John Wesley says, 'Take care of yourself'
Q: Tell us more about the book.
Wesley was using the word “primitive” in the common usage of the time, meaning that which is pristine or goes back to the original. He was trying to offer medical advice that had been used for generations and that went back, as he understood it, to the roots of creation.
Wesley particularly wanted to offer care to the poor who didn’t have access to the few “professional” physicians -- certified by the Royal Society -- who were in and around London.
He would point them to things like honey or sometimes to specialized things like Peruvian bark, which is the source of quinine. Most things he suggests are herbs and minerals that you could find in the forest or at your local apothecary, and also all kinds of exercises.
For each ailment he gave four or five treatments, so if you didn’t have access or one didn’t work, you could try another.
To understand the book, it helps to understand what Wesley was doing before he wrote it. After he left Georgia and returned to England, he never again served as a parish priest. Instead, he gets caught up in this revival movement and spends the rest of his life as a traveling evangelist-organizer.
Early on, he noticed that the meetings attracted a lot of poor people who didn’t attend parish churches. Many were sick, and since they didn’t attend church, they didn’t have the connections to get health advice from a priest. And they didn’t have money for a physician.
He felt that he needed to care for these people, so he opened a clinic in Bristol and later in London, and a dispensary where people could get medicines. But as the movement grew, Wesley spent most of his time traveling around England meeting the Methodist societies, and he began to wonder how he could still do this.
That’s where the “Primitive Physick” came in. He put into a book the advice he had been giving verbally and then added to it over time.
He told his assistants in each region -- basically, lay preachers -- to leave two books in every home for spiritual and physical care: “The Christian’s Pattern,” his abridgment of Thomas à Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ” and “Primitive Physick.”
Q: Much of his advice still makes sense. He’s a big advocate for physical exercise, which researchers today call the most powerful anti-aging medicine.
Yeah. Wesley believed that God wants you to be an active participant in God’s transforming work. So both spiritual and physical exercises were an important part of early Methodism.
In his letters, he wrote that exercise was the most important way to cultivate the health of both body and soul. And he gave specific advice in the “Primitive Physick” about the types of exercise to do -- walking outside every day, getting your steps in, riding a horse. He recommends several, many of which are cardiovascular in nature.
Q: What was the pastor’s or the regional leader’s role?
In Wesley’s day, Methodism was kind of a parachurch movement. Wesley encouraged the movement’s traveling preachers to give advice but also leave behind the book. And he also set up in each local setting a position called the “visitor of the sick.”
It was usually a woman who visited the sick and drew upon the “Primitive Physick” or other resources to help meet their spiritual and physical needs.
But you could also say that the “preacher’s” role was to hold up the ideal. In many ways, even today, the most important thing preachers can do is articulate an understanding of God’s purposes and will that doesn’t separate the spiritual and the physical.
If everything we hear on Sunday is about the spiritual dimension of life and getting to an eternal rest, and nothing about caring for the whole body, it can encourage that separation.
Q: Ironically, some clergy today tend to be less healthy than much of the population. Did Wesley have specific advice for his leaders?
Wesley was very direct in letters to his lay preachers and clergy colleagues, charging them to care for themselves, to make sure they got enough exercise, good diet, proper sleep.
He did that partly because every Christian should do this, but he was also specifically telling pastors, “You won’t be able to carry on your ministry unless you take care of yourself.”
What I don’t find much of in his letters are reminders to find times of rest, of recreation. Wesley is clear about resting on the Sabbath, but otherwise his model tends to be, “Get a good night’s sleep, and when you get up, get to work and work all day long.” That was what he did. He tended to look upon rest or recreation as frivolity.
So we need to speak a word back to Wesley, and that is a word of balance. His drivenness had a negative impact upon his [failed] marriage. His brother Charles recognized that he couldn’t give proper attention to his role as father and husband if he was on the road nine months a year and so strived for a better balance.
John, though, was married to the movement and was probably better off being single. Most of us need more balance than he had.
So we shouldn’t look to Wesley as the ideal model of balanced pastoral life. Some clergy have inherited the notion that they’re supposed to give 24 hours a day to the church, and there are elements in Wesley that could feed that problem.
What he does help us do is to re-integrate the spiritual and the physical and to stress holistic care for ourselves and in our ministries.
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 practice proper diet, exercise and sleep in order to cultivate health, that God created and sustains us, and expects this of us.
It’s about human flourishing in every dimension, indeed, the flourishing of the whole creation. One insight that I don’t think he realized as deeply as we do is that our care for ourselves is tied up in our care for creation. If we don’t care for the creation, that too comes back to our physical detriment.
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.