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Observations placeholder

Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s - Alcohol abuse/temperance



Type of Spiritual Experience


Lead poisoning

One of the major health problems of the 1700s was lead poisoning.

Pewter tankards and plates - Although Pewter is traditionally 85–99% tin, it can contain lead, in the past it was often in quite high quantities.  As acid and heat can leach lead out into food very easily.  Tinkers often used lead to mend cooking utensils including cooking pots.  Gout, [also prevalent in affluent Rome], is thought to be the result of lead, or leaded eating and drinking vessels.  People also consumed quantities of lead through the consumption of musts made by boiling down fruit in lead cookware.

‘Medicine’ – Alchemy uses the metals symbolically and they represent various stages on the spiritual path.  But many aspiring medics, knowing nothing of the symbolism or the meaning of alchemy actually incorporated heavy metals in ‘medicines’.
Many secret remedies contained little more than a few vegetable extracts, but others did contain active constituents that might include opium or heavy metals such as mercury, lead, antimony or arsenic which were variously used for treating coughs, colds, consumption,  venereal and skin diseases” [from Making Medicines: A Brief History Of Pharmacy And Pharmaceuticals - Stuart Anderson

Wine - Sugar of lead (Lead II Acetate) was once used to sweeten wine, the gout that resulted from this was known as "saturnine" gout.  In 17th-century Germany, the physician Eberhard Gockel discovered lead-contaminated wine to be the cause of an epidemic of colic.  He had noticed that monks who did not drink wine were healthy, while wine drinkers were ill, and traced the cause to sugar of lead, made by simmering litharge with vinegar.  Lead was added to cheap wine illegally in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a sweetener.   The composer Beethoven, a heavy wine drinker, suffered elevated lead levels (as later detected in his hair) possibly due to this; the cause of his death is controversial, but lead poisoning is one factor.   It is supposed to be banned now, but if the Austrians can add antifreeze to wine, who knows what happens.

The one commodity that was not in short supply in England in the 1700s was alcohol – wine, beer, cider and spirits, such as gin.   One consequence of the English’s high consumption of alcohol was that they suffered from lead poisoning, as a number of the beverages were also made and stored in lead lined vats.   Even when not stored in lead vats they could be stored in lead crystal decanters and drunk from lead crystal glasses.

Rum - In 18th century Boston, lead poisoning was fairly frequent on account of the widespread drinking of rum, which was made in stills with a lead component.   Benjamin Franklin suspected lead to be a risk in 1786.  This may seem somewhat trivial until you look at rum consumption at the time.  The first rum distillery was set up in 1664 on present-day Staten Island. Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of 3 imperial gallons of rum each year.  Given the somewhat aggressive nature of the people at this time, lead poisoning may have been a reason.

Cider -  Also in the 18th century, "Devonshire colic" was the name given to the symptoms suffered by people of Devon who drank cider made in presses that were lined with lead.

Lead piping -  Although piped water to houses had not begun, water from wells was often extracted via lead pipes. 

A description of the experience


Wesley’s warning against the dangers of alcohol abuse was expressed his famous sermon, The Use of Money, and in his letter to an alcoholic.

But, he was not against alcoholic drinks per se.  For example, he encouraged experimentation in the role of hops in the brewing of beer in a letter dated to 1789.  Thus there is an apparent ambivalence in his attitude that is worth exploring.

Nowhere in Wesley’s papers that we could find, is there any reference to lead poisoning.  But it as if he had a deep seated intuitive understanding that somehow it was the drinks with alcohol in them that were the root cause of a whole plethora of society’s ills at the time.  In his sermon, On Public Diversions, Wesley says:

 "You see the wine when it sparkles in the cup, and are going to drink of it. I tell you there is poison in it! and, therefore, beg you to throw it away".

There is poison in it. 

He himself got a lot better after he had stopped drinking, his stomach problems improved, his anger gradually abated.  He put two and two together.

Symptoms of lead poisoning

The brain is the most sensitive to lead poisoning, over time it causes permanent brain damage with memory problems, behavioural problems especially aggression and irritability.  Other symptoms  include abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, an inability to have children, and tingling in the hands and feet.  In severe cases anaemia, seizures, coma, or death may occur.

Lead poisoning causes severe Behavioural problems including violent aggressive behaviour.   Lead exposure is correlated with neuropsychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and antisocial behaviour. Elevated lead levels in children [and adults] are correlated with higher scores on aggression and delinquency measures.  A correlation has also been found between lead exposure and violent crime. There also seems to be a link with lead and violent nations.
Countries with the highest air lead levels have been found to have the highest murder rates, after adjusting for confounding factors.  A May 2000 study by economic consultant Rick Nevin theorizes that lead exposure explains 65% to 90% of the variation in violent crime rates in the US. 

The Sermons of John Wesley - Sermon 130 - National Sins And Miseries

Grievous enough is this calamity, which multitudes every day suffer. But I do not know whether many more do not labour under a still more grievous calamity. It is a great affliction to be deprived of bread; but it is a still greater to be deprived of our senses. And this is the case with thousands upon thousands of our countrymen at this day.

Wide-spread poverty (though not in so high a degree) I have seen several years ago. But so widespread a lunacy I never saw, nor, I believe the oldest man alive. Thousands of plain, honest people throughout the land are driven utterly out of their senses, by means of the poison which is so diligently spread through every city and town in the kingdom.

They are screaming out for liberty while they have it in their hands, while they actually possess it; and to so great an extent, that the like is not known in any other nation under heaven; whether we mean civil liberty, a liberty of enjoying all our legal property, -- or religious liberty, a liberty of worshipping God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Therefore all those who are either passionately or dolefully crying out, "Bondage! Slavery!" while there is no more danger of any such thing, than there is of the sky falling upon their head, are utterly distracted; their reason is gone; their intellects are quite confounded. Indeed, many of these have lately recovered their senses; yet are there multitudes still remaining, who are in this respect as perfectly mad as any of the inhabitants of Bedlam.

Let not anyone think, this is but a small calamity which has fallen upon our land. If you saw, as I have seen, in every county, city, town, men who were once of a calm, mild, friendly temper, mad with party-zeal, foaming with rage against their quiet neighbours, ready to tear out one another's throats, and to plunge their swords into each other's bowels; if you had heard men who once feared God and honoured the king, now breathing out the bitterest invectives against him, and just ripe, should any occasion offer, for treason and rebellion; you would not then judge this to be a little evil, a matter of small moment, but one of the heaviest judgments which God can permit to fall upon a guilty land.

Such is the condition of Englishmen at home.

And is it any better abroad? I fear not.

From those who are now upon the spot, I learn that in our colonies also many are causing the people to drink largely of the same deadly wine; thousands of whom are thereby inflamed more and more, till their heads are utterly turned, and they are mad to all intents and purposes. Reason is lost in rage; its small still voice is drowned by popular clamour. Wisdom is fallen in the streets. And where is the place of understanding? It is hardly to be found in these provinces. Here is slavery, real slavery indeed, most properly so called……

Permit me to touch on one article more, wherein, indeed, we excel all the nations upon earth. Not one nation under the canopy of heaven can vie with the English in profaneness.

Such a total neglect, such an utter contempt of God, is nowhere else to be found. In no other streets, except in Ireland, can you hear on every side. 

The horrid oath, the direful curse, That latest weapon of the wretch's war, And blasphemy, sad comrade of despair!

The source of the experience

Wesley, John

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Lead poisoning