Wesley: preacher and medicine man

Published 31 March 2012
A live puppy held over the stomach to treat colic? How about a dried toad crushed into small pills for asthma? Or perhaps orange rind rolled up and inserted into the nostrils to cure a cold in the head?

These are just some of the “cures” that were recommended by Methodist founder John Wesley. While most know him as the renowned 18th century preacher and evangelist, few will be aware of his keen interest in medicine.

And it appears that the 18th century public embraced him as much for his words of heavenly wisdom as they did for his medical insights. His book of remedies, Primitive Physic, was so popular in its day that it was republished 23 times, making it one of the period’s best-sellers.

The book covered everything from headaches to the plague, to gout and obesity.

Some of the supposed cures were denounced by 18th century critics as possibly deadly, but some were proved right with time.

One of his recommendations was two to three hours of exercise a day to “soften the evils of life”.

Many of the remedies used honey, which scientists have only recently confirmed the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of.

Some of Wesley’s wild and wonderful medical ideas will be highlighted in a forthcoming exhibition, Wesley and Wellbeing, touring the country from 2 April to 30 September.

Jo Hibbard, Methodist Heritage Officer, said: “When Wesley’s Primitive Physic was published in 1747, doctors were still more likely to kill at a price than cure for a fee.

“Wesley wanted to put the knowledge of curing diseases into ordinary people’s hands. Some of his remedies, such as holding a live puppy over the stomach to cure colic, sound comic to us today.

“But, to Wesley’s credit, if he thought a critic’s claim was well-founded, then he would make changes in the next edition.”

Wesley’s concern for the whole wellbeing of a person led him to open free clinics and dispensaries in London, Bristol and Newcastle.

Remedies were borrowed from other published medical books and then written in plain English by Wesley.

He encouraged his preachers to sell his book as well as add in their own remedies.

Dr Richard Vautrey, Former Vice-President of the Methodist Conference and a practising GP, said: “John Wesley took the command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind’ seriously, working to ensure that Methodists were not only nurturing their spiritual health but looking after their physical health as well.

“Whilst some of his ideas belong in the 18th century, many are as relevant today as they were then.

“All Methodists today would do well to follow his advice by increasing the amount of exercise we do and reducing the amount of salt in our diets.

“By doing so whilst our hearts may still be "strangely warmed" – as Wesley’s was – they won't overheat!”

The exhibition will visit Epworth, Bristol, Launceston, Englesea Brook, London and Newcastle.

A souvenir leaflet for visitors will explain not only Wesley’s interest in health but how the Church has used sport as a means of service and outreach since the 19th century.

Ish Lennox, the Church’s Olympic and Paralymic Co-ordinator, explains: “The Methodist influence on Britain’s sporting heritage can be seen clearly in the history of football.

"Aston Villa FC was formed in March 1874 by four members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel. Walter Tull was brought up in the Methodist orphanage in Bethnal Green. He was one of Britain’s first black footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur."

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