Practical Medicine: John Wesley, Methodism, Medicine

Image of John Wesley, Lois Perkins Chapel stained glass window, Southwestern University.

Best known as the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) was also deeply committed to the democratization of medicine. Wesley, an advocate for social justice, recognized that medicine in England was increasingly available only to the wealthy, partly due to a shortage of physicians during a time of great population growth in England. One scholar comments:

If we take into consideration the fact that the three principal medical schools of United Kingdom in the 18th century, Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, all together, were graduating slightly more than two dozen physicians a year, plus a few more arriving from Leiden and other Continental medical schools, to service a growing population of five to nine million people, the scarcity of physicians can be appreciated. If the bulk of this expanding population is poor, who is going to address the medical needs of those people who cannot afford the attendance of a university trained doctor? (Donat, 2006, 218).

Wesley considered making medical knowledge and practical treatments accessible to the ‘Majority of Mankind’ a necessary and important aspect of his pastoral duties.

Drawing from contemporary advice on healthy living and holistic cures for disease with a particular influence from Dr. George Cheyne’s A Book of Health and Long Life, Wesley published a low-cost and easy-to read medical handbook entitled Primitive Physic: an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. He first published his book anonymously in 1745 under the title A Collection of Receits for the Use of the Poor, which he later expanded as Primitive Physic. The latter went though a multitude of revisions and editions.

The influence of Hippocrates and humoral theory is evident in Wesley's remedies, which were published about one hundred years after John Hester and William Johnson published their compilation and translation of Phioravanti and their physicians. Wesley's Primitive Physic was also written 1300 years after Hippocrates first wrote his Aphorisms. Like Phioravante, Wesley recommends fevers, induced vomiting, and bloodletting. This emphasis on diet and readily available drugs and herbs enhanced the tract's household usefulness and contributed to its huge success. Wesley's treatise proved tremendously popular.

An excerpt from the preface of Primitive Physic shows Wesley’s style of medical advice for the “common man,” while offering practical prescriptions with a Protestant Christian justification:

As to the manner of using the medicines here set down, I should advise, As soon as you know your distemper, (which is very easy, unless in a complication of disorders, and then you would do well to apply to a physician that fears God. First, use the first of the remedies for that disease which occurs in the ensuing collection; (unless some other of them be easier to be had, and then it may do just as well.) Secondly, After a competent time, if it takes no effect, use the second, the third, and so on. I have purposely set down (in most cases) several remedies for each disorder; not only because all are not equally easy to be procured at all times, and in all places: But likewise the medicine that cures one man, will not always cure another of the same distemper. Nor will it cure the same man at all times. Therefore it was necessary to have a variety. However, I have subjoined the letter (I) to those medicines some think to be infallible. -- Thirdly, Observe all the time the greatest exactness in your regimen or manner of living. Abstain from all mixed, all high seasoned food. Use plain diet, easy of digestion; and this as sparingly as you can, consistent with ease and strength. Drink only water, if it agrees with our stomach; if not, good, clear small beer. Use as much exercise daily in the open air, as you can without weariness. Sup at six or seven on the lightest food; go to bed early, and rise betimes. To persevere with steadiness in this course, is often more than half the cure. Above all, add to the rest, (for it is not labour lost) that old unfashionable medicine, prayer. And have faith in God who "killeth and maketh alive, who bringeth down to the grace, and bringeth up"(Wesley 4).

Wesley continued his work in medicine throughout his life. James G. Donat, a Wesley historian, writes of his continual work in providing lower socioeconomic classes with medical knowledge.

Wesley was perpetually in search of new material for the “approved” education of his followers. By the end of his long life he had been responsible for the publication of some 371 titles, either originally his own, or extracted from others. He was the human dynamo behind a publishing mill that produced inexpensive editions of books and tracts for Methodist Society libraries and interested individuals around the English speaking world (Donat, 2001, 286).

Like Wesley, Henry Matthews (1799-18??), actively practiced medicine and Methodism. During the nineteenth century he served as both a physician and Methodist minister throughout the Southwest. A Methodist circuit rider, schoolteacher, and practicing physician from Ohio, Matthews made his way from Ohio through the Illinois Territory to Texas. Matthew practiced medicine more formally in the 1830s and 1840s in San Felipe, Texas, where he and his wife Miranda eventually settled. Evident from his later writings, Matthews was well acquainted with some of the founders of Southwestern's predecessor, Rutersville College, near La Grange, Texas, in 1840, and may have been an active participant in the initial Methodist camp meetings at Rutersville in the late 1830s.

A five-volume set of diaries owned by The A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library's Special Collections includes transcriptions of letters written by Matthews' to various family members and friends in Ohio; student rosters and progress reports; descriptions of medical services rendered and patients' progress and conditions; and sermon notes and copies of scriptural passages. The earliest of the diaries traces Matthews' life on the Fairfield Circuit in Ohio and as a schoolteacher in rural Ohio. In later diary entries, Matthews' commentary focuses on daily life in Texas, ranging from weather reports to crop and garden progress to community events and news to Texans' relations with the nearby Native American Indian tribes like the Coshatta Indians.


Wesley, John. Primitive Physic or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. Bristol: William Pine, 1773.

Donat, James G. “The Rev. John Wesley’s Extractions from Dr Tissot: A Methodist Imprimatur.” Science History Publications Ltd. 39 (2001): 285-298.

Donat, James G. "Empirical Medicine in the 18th Century: The Rev. John Wesley's Search for Remedies that Work." Methodist History. 44.4 (2006): 216-226.


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