Tuesday, March 23, 2010

John Wesley and Healthcare

Okay - first a disclaimer:

This post has no current political undertones.  If you're attempting to glean a political message from this post - please stop - because there isn't one.  I take great care to guard my personal political beliefs because I work for a church, and in no way is it appropriate for me to talk politics in a public forum.  

I honestly write this because I think its a fun story that not many people know and it I believe it has an important message for Jesus followers - and of course, I'm banking on opportunity to share this during the current popularity of the subject.

I've never actually met a fellow UMC member or pastor who knows this bit of history about Wesley, which is fascinating to me.  That being said, John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England) cared about people's health.
For Wesley, caring for people's health was a no-brainer.  One could argue that Wesley's calling in life was to care for the spiritual well-being of God's people.  In accordance with this calling, he firmly believed that a persons physical well-being greatly impacted their spiritual health.
So what did he do when he saw so many poor people unable to afford care from clinics?  He started his own, in fact two of them.  Wesley was known for prescribing cheap "medications", and even published books with quirky remedies for the ill.  One such book, Primitive Physic: an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, offered readers such remedies as -
"To cure Baldness Rub the part morning and evening with onions till it is red and rub it afterwards with honey Or wash it   with a decoction of box wood"

"Chin Cough or Hooping Cough - Rub the feet thoroughly with hog's lard before the fire at going to bed and keep the child warm therein. Or rub the back at lying down with old rum It seldom fails. Or give a spoonful of juice of penny royal  mist with brown sugar candy twice a day. Or half a pint of milk warm from the cow with the quantity of a nutmeg of conserve of roses dissolved in it every morning. Or dissolve a scruple of salt of tartar in a quarter of a pint of clear water   add to it ten grains of finely powdered cochineal and sweeten it with loaf sugar."
These are excerpts that I found on a much more updated version of the book (1858) on Google Books which you can find at the bottom of this post.
The book is full of odd remedies for the poor.  But its not the strangest stuff Wesley wrote concerning health care.
I mentioned before that Wesley opened two free health clinics in England.  I forgot to mention that the reason he opened these was because of his newly bought "electric machines" that he used to administer electric shock to patients to cure ailments such as headaches and bloody noses.  Yep - that's right.  Wesley, the beloved founder of the Methodist movement pioneered the concept of medical electric shock after Ben Franklin had discovered electricity (albeit, it was more for physical problems and not the mental prescriptions we think of today).  He kept a journal, wrote, and published about his success with electric shock in a book called the Desideratum or Electricity Made Plain and Useful (which you can also read below if you're that interested). But here's an excerpt from the 1759 edition:
"John Read Cabinet maker in Warder Street was for six years afflicted with violent Pains in the back of his neck In Spring 1758 he was electrified about twice a Week for a Month and quite cured."

"Joseph Jones was taken about March 12 1757 with a violent Pain in the Stomach He received the same day a few gentle Shocks The Pain went off and returned no more."
So there you have it.  Wesley did in the 18th century some stuff we would consider very strange today, and most likely, it was somewhat strange even then.  He even rode a mechanical horse in his bedroom as a sort of primitive precursor to the treadmill or stationary bike to keep in shape.  But he did this for purely theological purposes - 

1) Wesley cared about people souls.  
2) He believed that well-being of one's soul was greatly impacted by their physical health.
3) Wesley saw too many people not able to afford health care.
Wesley cared deeply about God's people.  This is a calling that every professed Christian shares whether they like or not.  I don't honestly know what Wesley would say about the current healthcare debate, and again, spreading a political agenda is not the point of this post.  I'm sure he would agree with many points on the right and left.  But in the end there's no question or debate for Wesley: 

God's people need to be cared for.

And this IS NOT a political statement.  Its a Gospel imperative.  In the end, no matter what you believe about current healthcare legislation, if you are a Christian, you by definition care about people.  While people argue about the logistics of how people should be cared for, where the money comes from, how this works or doesn't work with American law (which are all valid and important conversations that need to take place), if Jesus were here today he wouldn't have much time to debate - because he would be healing people.  Jesus calls us to do the same in the Gospels.
And by the way - the rest of the title of the Desideratum is this:
"By a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense"


  1. Found this gem at my alma mater's library: "Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics" by Theodore Jennings, Jr. Check it out! His dedication to the poor will motivate anyone.

    Just got some Amoxilcylin today in S. America. It's cheaper to buy a popsicle-a-day for a year than get this basic antibiotic.

    Do you think it's ever appropriate for a pastor to take a specific political stance on an issue (a particular bill, action, etc)? I think the main Episcopal church in Pasadena, CA started to get trouble a few years back when it spoke out against the war (one example).

  2. Interesting stuff. I knew a little bit about that electro-shock therapy stuff and the folk remedies Wesley was into from my Methodist History class last semester.

    Your comments also put me in mind of some African theology I was reading about recently. Apparently in most of Africa the dominant image of Christ is Healer. This connects both with the Medicine Man tradition from their pre-Christian religions, as well all kinds of biblical imagery of God and Jesus as Healer and Life Giver. For Africans this is the primary image of what it means for Christ to "save" us.

  3. You're exactly right - Christians need to use their own resources to provide for others in need. That's called compassion, and it's what Jesus did. However, going door-to-door telling your neighbors they must give is called extortion, and I see no biblical example for that at all.