John Wesley and Science: Using Science to Serve the Poor

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I know! You are probably thinking, “Wesley is not Calvin.” And you are right. However, I think that, outside holiness circles, John Wesley’s contributions to our theological understanding, his approach to social action leading to transformation, and the use of science as a tool for social improvement have gone unnoticed or altogether ignored. As this introduction hints, my approach to theology is decidedly Wesleyan and, in the same way Greg Cootsona circles back to St. Clive when he writes, I cannot help but talk about St. John Wesley and his contributions to Christian thought.

Wesley was ordained as an Anglican Priest in July 1728, after graduating from Lincoln College, Oxford. He ministered to a prosperous, college-educated community and was introduced to the message of holiness by a group of Moravian Christians. Wesley was faced with the social evils encountered by his fellow British citizens. Instead of turning a blind eye to the extreme poverty, unsanitary conditions, and the proliferation of illness within the poorest British communities, Wesley integrated the gospel with current scientific knowledge to care for the physical needs of people as a vehicle to meet their spiritual needs.

Wesley and Science

I’ve primarily served as a parish pastor to inner-city communities of faith, but I have also worked with ministerial students and other pastors to build their capacity, to use science to bring about social transformation. Wesley’s emphasis on healing, not only the soul but also the body, has been instrumental in my understanding of the practice of ministry. Wesley’s sermons, correspondence, journals, and other writings give us a glimpse into his approach to Christian ministry. For example, his 1759 sermon “Original Sin” highlighted that “the great physician of the souls” (i.e., God) is continually working to restore our corrupted human nature in all its faculties. Therefore, we should emulate God’s love by taking care of a person’s physical needs “until their whole sickness be healed.”

It has been said that Wesley was “a man of one Book.” That’s not entirely accurate. He pursued knowledge beyond the pages of Scripture to garner understanding from the book of nature. Wesley scholar Mark Mann explains that one of Wesley’s earliest scientific publications was a series of books entitled “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: Or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy.” There Wesley addressed God’s wisdom as it is expressed in the natural order and presented a concise survey of his era’s medical and scientific advances. Of course, for the modern reader, some of the ideas presented by Wesley are outdated, but we must remember that he was reflecting the best scientific knowledge available in the eighteenth century.

His emphasis on loving and serving God by loving and serving his sisters and brothers was the fulcrum for a ministry focused on using science to transform his social context. Loving God by helping those around him was a foundational principle for Wesley. He served as a physician dispensing rudimentary medical care to alleviate human suffering as an integral part of his pastoral duties. Thus, as he reflected on God’s nature against the backdrop of human suffering, he turned to the world of science to answer the most pressing questions and address the most significant needs in his community.


Scholars like Randy Maddox, Deborah Madden, and Mark Mann are excellent resources to learn more about Wesley’s views on science:

  • John Wesley says, ‘Take care of yourself.’ — Randy Maddox highlights Wesley’s use of health and wellness as a central element of his ministry.
  • Inward and Outward Health — Deborah Madden provides a comprehensive assessment of Wesley’s use of medical science to serve the poor.
  • Wesley and the Two Books — Mark H. Mann delves into John Wesley of Natural Philosophy and Christian faith.
  • Wesley scholar David Bell describes John Wesley’s understanding and appreciation of science in this 6-minutes video. It explains how his understanding of holiness informs the domains of human reason and science.
  • Wesley Nexus is a resource for Wesleyan types like me engaging science. They provide a concise explanation of how Wesley engaged with the scientific principles of his day, detailing some of his most salient scientific writings.
  • Next week, fellow Nazarene (a Wesleyan denomination) Dean Blevins is continuing Wesley’s legacy of using science – for Blevins, it is psychology and neuroscience – to support ministry through this online continuing education course offered by Nazarene Theological Seminary.

A Holistic Approach

In Inward and Outward Health, Deborah Madden underscores that Wesley’s approach to medicine was grounded in a holistic understanding of the relationship of body and soul at the intersection of the physical and spiritual worlds. In other words, Wesley’s approach to presenting the gospel of Christ was not limited to soul saving because it included a significant emphasis on healing the human body. For these reasons, Wesley stood against slavery, fought for prison and labor reforms, opposed alcoholism and child labor, provided monetary relief to the poor, and supplied medicine and medical care for those who could not afford it.

Wesleyan scholars rightly relate the importance of medical care to Wesley’s brand of ministry. Randy Maddox explains that this interest in medicine is not coincidental but was a prominent feature of the training eighteenth-century Anglican clergy received.  During his days at Oxford, Wesley began studying medical treatises and received additional medical training under the Royal College of Physicians.

Wesley’s understanding of the holistic nature of salvation is evidenced in his 1745 book A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion. He wrote that God’s salvific works are not circumscribed to issues of heaven and hell but included a holistic deliverance from the powers and influences of sin. It incorporated a renewal of the imago Dei and the introduction of God’s righteousness, holiness, justice, mercy, and truth, evidenced by the works of mercy delineated by Matthew 25:35-36: feeding the hungry, caring for the foreigner, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and freeing the prisoners. Ergo, Wesley’s emphasis on medical science was an outgrowth of his perception of salvation that was not relegated to a spiritual act but encompassed the holistic healing of the human body.

Our social context is different from Wesley’s eighteen-century England. However, as I look around, especially in the context of ministry with inner-city communities of faith, I still see people that need the benefits science brings. Unfortunately, I also hear science wielded as an instrument of division instead of an instrument for God’s goodness. Thus, we can benefit from a new look at Wesley’s approach to science. His extensive treatment of science cannot be exhausted in just one newsletter article. So, I invite you to stay tuned for more about Wesley’s approach to science in future articles.

In Nobis Regnat Iesus,

Ed

P.S. As the newest member of the SftC team, I invite you to invest in the work of Science for the Church.  Moreover, I ask that you help us to ensure that voices like John Wesley are heard afresh today.  Your financial gift helps us to strengthen the church as we discover ways science can be used in service to the poor.

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