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Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s - Medical treatments



Type of spiritual experience


Until the 1720s, England's population growth had been held in check by periodic harvest failures and by diseases such as influenza, smallpox, dysentery and typhus. At around 5.25 million in 1720, England's population would be around nine million at the end of the century.  London's population in this period rose from around 700,000 to over one million, a larger population than Paris

At one time local women healers provided medical assistance using herbal remedies, but in the 1600s, the rise of the medical man who charged fees, along with the persecution or even burning of the healers as witches, created a vacuum in medical care.  Simply put, medicine was probably the worst it has ever been in Wesley’s day:

Med Hist. 1986 Jan;30(1):1-41.  Deaths in childbed from the eighteenth century to 1935. - Loudon I.
The practice of midwifery by men began in the early 17th century in Britain, but attendance at normal labours by medical practitioners… did not become common, and then only in urban areas, until 1730. …. Estimates of maternal mortality, from the 1st recorded unselected series, in the late 18th century range from 5-29/1000. Some of the high figures are from ‘specialists’ in obstetrics … From these data the maternal death rate was estimated at about 25/1000 among unassisted women. …. In the 19th century, lying-in hospitals became more common and their death rates were higher, … up to as high as 85/1000.  PMID:  3511335

In other words the medical men made it worse.  You were better off staying at home to have a child.


A description of the experience

Medical treatments

John Wesley was a competent physician, quite capable of the diagnosis and care of patients. He rejected the bleeding and purging which were common at that time and he was ahead of his time in his emphasis on hygiene, cleanliness and simple living. In this he has been regarded as a pioneer of preventive medicine. He was in the forefront of the philanthropic movement in his provision of Dispensaries for the poor and his care of the sick and elderly.

Wesley was also way way ahead of his time in advocating an holistic approach to healing - caring for body, mind, and spirit.  It is worth noting that there are Universities like Duke University in the USA who are revisiting Wesley’s approach “the possibilities for integrated medicine in our own day as informed by a Wesleyan way of holistic practice”.

Needless to say, his contribution is to be found nowhere in the history of medicine, simply because preventative medicine, holistic medicine and healing put the doctors of the day out of a job.   He was about as popular as Culpepper with the so called medical profession.

Wesley wrote a medical text book for use by practitioners and the general public entitled Primitive Physic or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. He based much of the book and what he had learnt from the few healers still left who called for the prevention of disease through healthy living and who recommended time-honored, inexpensive natural [usually plant based] methods of cure :

While John Wesley's Primitive Physick (1747) cannot be termed a classic of British medical literature, it must certainly be identified as one of the most popular volumes published in England during the eighteenth century. Although the work came under attack from contemporary surgeons, physicians, and apothecaries, who maintained that its remedies were founded upon ignorance, Wesley probably knew as much [or more] than most members of the medical profession; …., despite its obvious emphasis upon practical remedies, the underlying focus of Primitive Physick is upon the soul of man. Wesley had consulted some sources, common sense, and his own experience, tempering those with the general principle of "doing good to all men," particularly "those who desire to live according to the gospel...." …..  PMID: 354225

In 1747 AD, John Wesley, went to Bedlam to observe the patients in order to see if he could improve healing practice.  He noted one patient who was "blooded largely, confined to a dark room, and a strong blister put on each of his arms, with another over all his head”. He noted however that “he was as 'mad' as before, praying or singing, or giving thanks continually; of which having laboured to cure him for six weeks in vain, though he was now so weak he could not stand alone, his mother dismissed the doctor and apothecary, and let him be 'beside himself' in peace".

Susannah Wesley wrote to her son John and said, "the man is not Lunatick, but rather … hath much more need of a spiritual, than bodily physician".

Another case, he realised was triggered by extreme grief of a mother whose son had died. And he started to question the treatment being given to people.  Wesley realised that the mind can cause the body to get sick.

Saturday, 12 May 1759. Reflecting today on the case of a poor woman who had continual pain in her stomach, I could not but remark the inexcusable negligence of most physicians in cases of this nature. They prescribe drug upon drug, without knowing a jot of the matter concerning the root of the disorder. And without knowing this they cannot cure, though they can murder, the patient. Whence came this woman's pain (which she would never have told had she never been questioned about it) ? From fretting for the death of her son. And what availed medicines while that fretting continued ? Why, then, do not all physicians consider how far bodily disorders are caused or influenced by the mind?

We are now 200 plus years on and these comments ring even truer today than they did in Wesley’s day.  And to this can be added this comment

John Wesley (1703-91) Primitive Physic: or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases (1747)
When Sir John Floyer published his excellent Book on Cold-bathing, many for a Time used and prosited by it. So did abundance of People by Cold Water, when it was publickly recommended by Dr. Hancock. The ingenious and benevolent Bishop of Cloyne, brought Tar-Water likewise into Credit for a season; and innumerable were the Cures wrought thereby, even in the most desperate and deplorable Cases. Nor was it a little Good which was done by the Use of Sea-water, after Dr. Russel had published his Tract concerning it. Indeed each of these did Wonders in it's turn. But alas ! their Reign was short. The vast Party which were on the other Side, soon raised the Cry, and ran them down. In a few Years they were out of Fashion, out of Use, and almost out of Memory : And the foul, hard named Exotics took Place again, to the utter Confusion of Common Sense.

As we can see from the pharmaceuticals section - the ‘foul, hard named Exotics’ are used even more and causing far greater harm.

Wesley is not commonly known for his medical work, but in fact his interest in the subject was lifelong. His reading in the field was substantial, and he freely dispensed prescriptions and advice to those who consulted him during his travels. He particularly espoused the use of electricity for a wide range of ailments, mental as well as physical. But this should not be misconstrued as being like ECT treatment.  He advocated a very small pulsed current – an approach still being used and experimented with by Russian doctors today.  It is in many respects a form of acupuncture without the needles

9 November 1756 - Journal

'Having procured an apparatus on purpose, I ordered several persons to be electrified . . . some of whom found an immediate, some a gradual, cure . . . Two or three years after, our patients were so numerous that we were obliged to divide them; so part were electrified in Southwark, part at the Foundary, others near St. Paul's, and the rest near the Seven Dials . . . and to this day, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, have received unspeakable good, I have not known one man, woman, or child, who has received any hurt thereby'.

In the end John Wesley was ahead, is ahead of his time:

John Wesley (1703-91) Primitive Physic: or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases (1747).
The Creator, …. gave us through nature the simple means to cure these ills, and medical practice of this kind was available to all, or at least to all men, 'every father delivering down to his sons, what he had himself in like manner received'.
But men … motivated by the search for profit, have over time contrived so to complicate the art of healing that physic has become 'an abstruse science, quite out of the reach of ordinary men'.   The purpose of Primitive Physic, therefore, is to restore the art of healing to simple men, for 'Who would not wish to have a Physician always in his house, and one that attends without fee or reward?'


The source of the experience

Wesley, John

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image



Observation contributed by: Margaret Booth