“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
As most of you know, I am the oddball Wesleyan among my Calvinist peers. So, today, I am writing a piece illustrating how science was a central element of John Wesley’s ministry. While most researchers focus on his work on holiness, there is enough evidence to support my statement. Wesley’s understanding of science, healthcare, ecology, and the human body is outdated by 21st-century standards. However, there is a body of literature that suggests he read both the Book of Scripture and the book of nature to help those around him.
Historians, researchers, and biographers alike point out the difficulties and disadvantages of ministering in 18th-century England. Sanitary conditions, lack of access to medical resources, and an inadequate understanding of the proliferation of infectious diseases were some of the underlying factors that drove Wesley’s ministry. Consequently, as Wesleyan theologian Randy Maddox points out, health and healing became central dimensions of Wesley’s efforts and the focus of early Methodism’s mission.
A series of essays compiled by Wesleyan researcher Deborah Madden shows how the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment came together to minister to the community’s physical and spiritual needs. Thus, by applying the available medical concepts, environmental understanding, and theological formulations of his days, Wesley creates a sort of ministerial ecology aimed at caring for those around him.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
While it may be impossible to be entirely sure, this maxim has been attributed to Wesley: “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Together with most historians, Charles Yrigoyen, Wesley’s biographer, underscores how the prevailing unsanitary conditions affected the lives of the most vulnerable members of British society. Therefore, following extant principles, Wesley insisted that Methodists avoid every form of uncleanliness and take care to clean their homes, clothes, and bodies. These practices not only helped early Methodists become respectable members of society but were effective in keeping them healthy.
D. Michael Henderson, Wesley’s researcher, explains that Wesley used an intertwined system of class meetings and societies to provide spiritual and practical instruction and a sort of rational and emotional retraining of these early Methodists. These societies were a foundational element of the British social reform started by Wesley. These reforms were aimed at the individual’s spiritual transformation and reinforced by the best scientific principles.
As part of his ministry, Wesley carefully instructed people to follow a sensible diet, live active lives, avoid tobacco and alcohol use, and live clean lives. He regularly instructed people to “touch no supper, but a little milk or water gruel,” “be active; avoid all laziness and sloth,” “be cleanly and avoid all nastiness, dirt, slovenliness, both in your person, clothes, house and all about you,” “clean yourselves of lice,” “cure yourself and your family of the itch (i.e., scabies)” by “taking a spoonful of brimstone,” and to avoid “tobacco” and “dram” (e.g., whiskey).
Why? Because living a clean, healthy life was connected to the renewal of God’s image and the deliverance from sin. In other words, for Wesley, salvation was genuinely holistic and intended to affect the believer’s spiritual and bodily dimensions. Therefore, we care for those around us because God desires to give us inward and outward health.
- If you are interested in a first-hand account of Wesley’s work on science and medicine, you can check out his book Primitive Physick: An Easy and Natural Method Curing Most Diseases.
- In this interview, Randy Maddox unpacks Wesley’s focus on health and wellness as central elements of his ministry.
- For more resources about science and religion from a Wesleyan perspective, visit Wesley Nexus.
- Nazarenes for Creation Care is a discussion group that connects Wesleyan theology to ecological and environmental resources.
- Visit Duke Divinity’s Stories to learn innovative ways to witness and do outreach.
- Don’t forget to check John Wesley and Science, where I unpack how Wesley used science to serve the most vulnerable members of society.
Caring for Those Around You
It is no secret that Wesley never intended to build a denomination separate from the Church of England. Instead, he desired to inspire, equip, and unleash a grassroots movement to change the world by loving God’s world. Why? Because we are more effective when we follow Christ’s example. Megan Pardue, pastor at Refuge Home Church in Durham, N.C., understands this calling. She explains that, outside of the rigid structures of the organized church, “our literal and metaphorical energy is directed elsewhere, and meeting outdoors connects us to nature and makes conversation, practices, and activism related to creation care and a natural outcome of our worshipping life.”
For Wesley, caring for those around us was more than preaching a sermon. It was taking care of the needs of the less fortunate by using every means available to provide for their sustenance, to avail ourselves of the latest scientific advancements to care for their health, to stand in the gap and advocate and provide better medical treatments, and to care for the home God has entrusted to us. This level of care was demonstrated by a holistic approach to spiritual care that included financial support to provide medicine for those who were unable to afford it, to provide physical care for those who needed it, and to fight the unjust structures keeping people ignorant of their most pressing needs.
Wesley’s passion for understanding God’s creation helped him imagine and pursue a kind of ministry (i.e., Christian stewardship) that understood we are called to care for creation as a whole. I began this newsletter with a verse on Christ’s reminder of love as the defining Christian quality. We love when we take care of our ecosystem, provide equitable health reform, strengthen educational structures, and care for the most vulnerable. This is part of our Christian service. A Wesleyan understanding of the foundational declaration “For God so loved the world” is multifaceted, extending to humankind, all life, and every hill, rock, and plain that forms our world. In other words, we love God when we use all the tools the Creator has placed at our disposal to care for them.
In Nobis Regnat Iesus,