October 25, 2010
John Wesley, 18th-century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, cared about people’s bodies. Through his sermons and writings, he often advocated a holistic approach for his time, emphasizing vigorous exercise, fresh air, and healthy diet. Wesley also had a particular care for the disadvantaged in society and wanted to make sure that all had access and understanding to the medical advice of the day. In this first interview with Randy Maddox, who serves as William Kellon Quick Professor of Theology and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School, we will discuss John Wesley’s focus on physical and spiritual well-being. In Part II, Maddox discusses The Primitive Physick, Wesley's book of medical advice.
John Shorb: During Wesley’s time, who was the medical expert? Who was trained to help the sick?
Randy Maddox: In most of the little villages in England, the only person that would have had the benefit of any higher education would have been a clergy person. And thus built into the training at Oxford or at Cambridge was coursework in medical advice as well as the coursework that they did such as scripture or theology for being clergy. So, Wesley was trained in the medical advice of the day as part of his education.
What did the role of a physician or healerlook like? Would Wesley have ever given treatment or practiced surgery?
For Wesley, it was usually giving advice. That’s what they would have understood a physician as in that day. But he blurs that role sometimes. For example, when he sets up dispensaries, in essence, he becomes an apothecary. He becomes the drug store, the place you go to get the elements you’re going to use to heal. But he’s doing that primarily because he’s trying to make them available for those who can’t afford to buy them at the regular apothecary. I never see him taking on the role of barber-surgeon, that is doing actual surgery. Sometimes he would suggest it be done. Only very rarely does he recommend letting blood. He tends to be suspicious of letting blood, which was a very common remedy in the 18th century.
Could you talk about the kind of advice Wesley gave, especially in his book The Primitive Physick?
The most important thing about the book The Primitive Physick and Wesley’s advice that he scatters throughout his letters is that his emphasis is always on preventative care. He emphasizes the kind of things we ought to be doing routinely to cultivate health. If you do get ill or injured, Wesley also gives suggestions for that. In a way, it’s modeled like his guide to the search of life. He’s encouraging us to do the same in our physical dimensions of our being to promote health and wholeness. In the advice he gives, one of the central elements is about exercising correctly. He encourages you to get out and walk, particularly walking in the open air when you can.
Did Wesley direct his advice to the average person of his time?
Yes, I think that’s the crucial thing. What pushed him was a desire to make the best medical and health advice available and accessible to those who were not among the privileged few. The privileged could afford to pay professional physicians at that point. In the 1740s and 50s, the Royal Society of Physicians had organized in London, and there were only about a hundred people approved by that society. Most of them were in and around London, so if you didn’t have access to them, where did you get this advice? Wesley is trying to make sure that those who are not among the wealthier have access to it as well. That is carried on in Methodist history. Methodists have always had this particular concern to support and encourage the development of medicine and to use the gifts wisely that God has given us. Then to ask the question: how do we then make sure that those resources are also accessible to those of the most limited means, to the poor?
Yet eventually the church and medicine become more separate. How do you see this separation happening in history?
A couple things happen in Methodist history that lead us to separate spiritual care and physical care. To a degree this makes us forget or even cover up this attention that Methodists had for the physical care earlier on. One is simply the increasing impact of professionalization. In the 18th century, you begin to see the emergence of specialized work in all fields, but particularly specialization in medicine. So you get the creation of the Royal Society of Physicians, and an increasing move to say only physicians ought to be giving out this medical advice – not all the amateurs such as clergy, barber-surgeons or apothecaries. While specialization has had undeniable benefits, by focusing expertise on skills and research, it has also had costs. One of the biggest costs is the obscuring of the holistic nature of health and the tendency to isolate the medical and spiritual dimensions.
In the long term, professionalization has been a very good thing, but in the short term, it has tended to say: “we’ll give this advice; you do your thing.” It builds a separation. It works against holistic care. In the last years of the 18th century as Methodist circuit-riders traveled around the various villages to preach, they were encouraged to give out The Primitive Physick. But eventually they were told to stop giving medical advice. If they wanted to give medical advice, then they have to stop being a circuit-rider. And if you did that – if you chose to go into medicine instead of riding the circuit – you begin to see these separations. Then it becomes almost embarrassing that Wesley, trained as a clergy person, would presume to give medical advice. We’ve gotten distant enough that we’ve forgotten that training that clergy had earlier.
Could you talk more about Wesley’s view of physical and spiritual care?
I would start first at the individual level. Wesley tells us not to make sharp distinctions between caring for your soul and for your body. To care for your body is a spiritual duty. He’s deeply aware of the way spiritual things can impact us physically and physical things spiritually. At a personal level, Wesley tells us to be more integrated persons, and then secondly he is asking us to look at how we support our communities and provide outreach to others. He clearly wants us to reach out not just to care for souls but to care for bodies. Now, the ways in which you do that could include building colleges to train nurses and doctors to give the advanced medical care. Many of the earliest Methodist colleges had departments for training nurses and doctors for this reason. But it also means to take that role of the church seriously. The church becomes a place that creates a vision of this holistic health and sustains it. Finally, he had a particular concern for assuring that those benefits are extended to the most vulnerable, to the ones with the least resources, to the poor. That is something the church ought to be asking in any setting: who does not have access to what they need for the health of body and soul?
Read Part II: The Primitive Physick: Q&A with Randy Maddox
John Shorb is the Manager of Resource Production at the Church Health Center.