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John Wesley’s The Primitive Physick: Q&A with Randy Maddox, Part II John Wesley’s The Primitive Physick: Q&A with Randy Maddox, Part II
February 10, 2011

Randy L. Maddox is the William Kellon Quick Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Duke Divinity School. In Part II of our interview with Maddox, he discusses the purpose and development of Wesley's book of medical advice, The Primitive Physick.

John Shorb: Could you situate John Wesley and his book The Primitive Physick within his time?

Randy Maddox: The title, The Primitive Physick, reflects its origins. Through the Medieval period and on through the 18th century, those who taught “physic,” from which we get the word “physician,” were primarily people who gave medical and health advice. These are not the people who gave the actual treatments. They would be the ones that suggest that you would use certain herbs or exercises or diet and then you would go to the apothecary or to the barber-surgeon or whomever for the actual treatment. After the reformation in England this was one role assigned to Anglican clergy.

Commitment to this role is clear in John Wesley. When he came to Georgia, he viewed it as part of his job as pastor of the parish that he’s serving. One of the first books he buought when he got over here described the kinds of herbs and other natural-occurring products in North America that were seen as having medical benefits.

What was the origin of The Primitive Physick? How did it come into being?

When Wesley was in Georgia as an actual parish priest, he clearly saw one of his roles as giving medical advice in addition to spiritual care. When he came back to England, the revival began to break out. Wesley was soon in Bristol doing open-air preaching. He quickly became convinced that he needed to be not only caring for the souls of those that were not going to the Anglican churches, but also caring for their bodies. He says, “I saw how many were sick who had no help,” and so he began to offer medical advice to those who were drawn into the revival.

Since most of these folk could not afford even the cheaper things that Wesley was recommending, he set up a free dispensary to provide some of those medicines in Bristol. He also offered medical advice and set up a dispensary in London, the other major site in the early years of the revival. But as the revival grew, Wesley found himself traveling more and more all over England. This meant that he was not available to carry on that role of onsite physician giving medical advice particularly to the poor. That’s when he made the decision to publish The Primitive Physick. It let him distill his advice and put it out there everywhere he went and where his circuit- riders went.

Who would have been reading The Primitive Physick?

If you to look at which of the things that Wesley published that went through the most editions during his life and are the most broadly spread, The Primitive Physick would be right towards the top of that list. Once he started publishing it, Wesley encouraged his traveling preachers, his assistants, to leave a copy in every home. He told them to leave a copy of his abridgement of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which was his cheaply published guide to the spiritual life, and a copy of The Primitive Physick, which was his way to care for the physical life. So this book was scattered all over England. It was one of the first books published, as well, when Methodist began publishing books in North America, and they soon added a bunch of suggested treatments that drew upon the kinds of herbs and resources available in North America.

Wesley wanted to empower the people to carry on the ministry of care for the body. By 1745 Wesley was encouraging every Methodist society to include a person who held the role “visitor of the sick.” This person was supposed to go to every home where there were folk that were sick, visiting them at least twice a week, giving them both spiritual and medical advice. The Primitive Physick would have been one of the key sources for getting that medical advice.

Was there any debate at this time around this role of the pastor as medical advisor?

Yes, there was some debate in the 17th century in England about whether pastors should give that much attention to medical advice. Some people, who were more Puritan-formed in their approach, prioritized spiritual advice over medical advice. Part of the reason was that they tended to read all medical problems – illnesses and providential catastrophes – as a way for God to make them aware of their spiritual need, and then hopefully to create spiritual renewal.

By contrast, when you read Wesley’s letters, he’s open to the notion of God working providentially, but his assumption is that in cases of physical ailment it is always God’s deepest intent and desire to heal. The primary purpose is not to inflict an illness in order to bring spiritual renewal, but that illness is part of the fallen-ness of the world. So the idea that physical wellness is always God’s hope for us is very essential to John Wesley and very central to the work he did in collecting and giving medical advice.

John Wesley always affirmed the possibility of divine healing, as did his brother Charles, but John insisted that in addition to praying for divine healing we ought to be doing all we can to use wisely what God’s provided in nature as means of healing. So in The Primitive Physick, having studied broadly in medical writings of his day and selected from them, Wesley is trying to provide those kinds of treatments for illness and injuries that are the most readily accessible, particularly to the poor. He strongly encouraged people to use those in addition to prayer. But perhaps most significantly, he prefaced the book by saying that the most important thing to do is to take care of yourself before you get ill. So if you read the preface to The Primitive Physick, it’s primarily about types of diet and exercise that would promote wellness and help prevent illness.

I want to get into the specifics of the advice he gives. He advocates horseback-riding in one part.

Wesley had a particular interest in riding horses. In the 18th century there was actually a book called Dr. Horse with a particular emphasis on horseback riding as good for health. Their sense was that the bouncing helped to keep the lungs clear. So when Wesley was younger and could ride horses all the time, he attributed this to part of what maintained his health. When he reached the point when he was riding horseback less , traveling more in a carriage, he actually began to use what he called a wooden horse, which in its earliest rendition was just two barrels and a plank laid across between them. He would straddle that plank and bounce on it for about a half an hour.

He also emphasized physical activity.

Right, he encouraged other kinds of what we would call calisthenics today. One of the most interesting is his recommendation of a “dumbbell.” We think of a dumbbell as weights you would lift for body building. But originally it meant a bell that didn’t have a clapper in it so it didn’t make a sound when you pulled the rope to ring it. He realized that pulling on that rope was good upper body calisthenics. They had developed by mid the 18th century a home version of that. It was a set of counterbalance weights that you put up in your attic on a spindle and then you tied a rope around it and you could pull that rope and when you got it to the bottom it would roll it back up to the other side and then you could just pull it you could ring it like that without making any sound. We know that John Fletcher, one of Wesley’s key associates, had one of those built into his house.

So there was exercise and then second a strong stress on correct diet. Now the key thing he talks about in diet was moderation: moderation in what you drink, moderation in the amount of meat you eat. But he also included, drawing on some of the medical philosophy of his day, the assumption that those in England should eat primarily cold and non-spicy food instead of hot and spicy food. The assumption behind that was that you ought to match your bodily intake to the climate in which you live. And of course England is a colder, damper environment so that you ought to be eating more salads and drinking colder drinks. If you lived in hotter environments, you might have spicier and hotter foods.

John Wesley had also read a tract that argued you could build up strength and stamina if you used cold water for drinking and bathing. He became convinced that this was true and sprinkled it through The Primitive Physick. Wesley believed all of this promotes good health. We might come to a different set of assumptions today, but these were broadly shared views in Wesley’s day. He is simply making them available to people through his writing.

There was a time when scholars dismissed The Primitive Physick as a collection of superstitious remedies, more like folk healing.

Yes, but now it’s clear that a large percentage of these remedies have their roots actually in medical texts Wesley had read. Wesley went through those texts and looked for those things which were the most widespread and thus readily available. He also left out a lot of the recommendations that he considered more dangerous or unreliable. He was particularly much less ready than most in his deay to commend the use of mercury, blood letting, and application of scalding plasters. So in that way, his book is one of the more sane ones, you might say, of the century.

Read Part I: The Holistic Vision of John Wesley>>

John Shorb is the Manager of Resource Production at the Church Health Center.

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Kissing the Sick: Amanda Porterfield

Medical Outreach in the Early Church: Gary Ferngren

Health Care & the Early Christians: Hector Avalos

The Holistic Vision of John Wesley: Randy Maddox, Part I

John Wesley’s The Primitive Physick: Randy Maddox, Part II