Wesley and the Treadmill Transcript


Ray Mayhew

For a bit of light relief, I thought you might appreciate exert from John Spalding’s book, A Pilgrim’s Digress, that appeared in the March (2003) edition of the journal Books and Culture.

This exert is on John Wesley’s fascination with medicine and healing. It make him out to be a bit of a crank, but after reading some of Spalding’s remarks I will conclude with some of my own, which demonstrate that Spalding’s observations only increase Wesley’s stature if interpreted properly.

Speaking of Wesley’s house in City Road, Spalding says,

In the dining room is displayed Wesley’s “chamberhorse”—an exercise chair. Wesley hopped up and down in this chair for hours, simulating horseback riding. He was convinced that exercise was essential for health and long life. Walking was the best, followed by riding. Wesley often paced his bedroom, having calculated that 200 trips wall-to-wall equaled a mile.”

Wesley himself manufactured and dispensed medicine at the Foundery. Wesley’s cure for hair loss: “Rub the scalp morning and evening with onions and rub it afterwards with honey.” For lethargy, Wesley recommended “strong vinegar up the nose.”

An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases was Wesley’s main tome on health. By its 24th edition, in 1792 the book included thousands of therapies, many of which Wesley tried himself, noting, “tried” after each one he had used on himself. For example, his cure for an earache: “Put in a hot roasted fig, or onion: tried. Or, blow the smoke of tobacco strongly into it” And his cure for a toothache: “Be electrified through the teeth: Tried”

Against the rear wall in one room stands his personal electric-shock machine. He’d turn the crank on this crude device to generate a current of electricity through a metal rod, against which he’d press his tongue, forehead, or an ailing body part—a burn or a sore tooth, for example. Wesley wrote that of all his cures, “One, I must recommend above all other medicines I have known; is electricity.”

Wesley claimed electricity could cure almost 50 ailments, from deafness and leprosy to stomachaches and even “teeth violently disordered.” When his brother, Charles lay on his deathbed, John “earnestly advised him to be electrified. Not shocked but only filled with electric fire.” Charles never roused himself long enough to undergo his brother’s cure.*

Spalding’s research, while amusing, gives the impression of a man rather preoccupied with his own health who sat around in his study dreaming up rather dubious cures for a vast variety of physical ailments.

However, we should first remember that Wesley rode over 225,000 miles on horseback in extending the gospel. He preached 2–3 times a day, 7 days a week, for 52 years. In addition he was a crusading abolitionist and fed the hungry every day at his famous “Foundery” (eating his meals, by the way, with the poor…and eating the same food as they were served).

His primary reason finding some time (somehow!!) to do medical experiments, write a medical text, and open a free dispensary, was not a preoccupation with his own health, but was an expression of his tremendous love for the poor and his desire to alleviate their physical suffering.

We should also remember that he represented a generation that had a tremendous curiosity about the whole created order. To discover and invent was in their DNA. Benjamin Franklin who lived about the same time is remembered as on of the American founding fathers, was just like Wesley in his total fascination with the created order. His contributions to our understanding of electricity is one of his outstanding contributions.

As children of the information age we are swamped with facts, but being spoon fed with information can dull our personal curiosity and creativity. We can learn from Wesley that even in the midst of a demanding ministry, some time can be set aside to explore the great love gift of creation.

However, what strikes me so powerfully is that as a theologian Wesley distinguished between nature and grace, the natural and the supernatural, but did not separate them. Therefore he was quite comfortable praying for the sick and also asking the Lord for medical remedies to help them.

As charismatics we can learn a lot from Wesley here. So many of us struggle trying to balance prayer and faith for healing with doctors and medicine. We often feel that to resort to one is to betray the other. If we have had anointing and prayer for a physical need we feel that to then visit the doctor is to invalidate the prayer for healing.

I might be wrong, but I think this is because, unlike Wesley, rather that simply distinguishing between nature and grace, we have now separated them. In doing so we fail to see the creation itself as an extravagant love gift of grace. There would be no “nature” (in the sense of creation) if there was no grace. All dimensions of creation are the gift and grace of God to humankind.

Human sin damaged this gift, and therefore in addition to the grace of creation we also needed the grace of redemption, but both are grace gifts. We can distinguish between nature and grace but we must not separate them.

Wesley’s clear headedness in seeing both the natural and the supernatural as equal love gifts from God to his children freed him to both pray for the sick and electrocute them (in a manner of speaking) and rub onions on the bald heads of his preachers.

Wesley was not a crank. He was a man ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit and a love for the poor. Please pray for my physical healing and meanwhile perhaps I need to go out and buy some onions.

* John D. Spalding, A Pilgrim’s Digress: My Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City