In 1744 Benjamin Kennicott (who would later become a noted cleric and biblical scholar) went to see John Wesley preach. He recorded his impressions of the controversial evangelist and his description of Wesley is both striking and telling: “He is neither tall nor fat; for the latter would ill become a Methodist.”
Despite Wesley’s lifetime of teaching on the importance of health, nutritious diets and dietary discipline, such that during the 18th century one might joke that obesity would “ill become a Methodist,” today, in the midst of an epidemic of obesity that finds over a third of American adults and nearly twenty percent of American children clinically obese, the jokes are more likely to be like Garrison Keillor’s: “You know you are a Methodist when doughnuts are a line item on the budget.” No doubt this would deeply trouble Wesley.
According to a 2010 study published in the journal Obesity, a full three-fourths of the Methodist clergy in North Carolina are overweight, and forty percent are clinically obese, a rate ten percent higher than that of the North Carolina general public. The problem is not, however, uniquely Methodist. The Obesity article cites, for example, a 2002 study by the Evangelical Lutheran Church reporting that 34 percent of ELCA pastors were obese, compared to the then national average of 22 percent. Anecdotally, in his book The Rest of Life Ben Witherington describes speaking to a convention of Southern Baptist pastors and their wives and being shocked to see that “a considerable majority of them were overweight” and that over 30 percent of them were “certifiably obese or morbidly obese.”
Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. One study has concluded that nearly one-fifth of all deaths in America each year are linked to obesity. On average an obese person spends $1,500 per year more on health care than a person of normal weight. And consider this sobering fact: in the U.S. medical expenses attributable to obesity exceed $147 billion per year, about five times more than the $30 billion the U.N. estimates would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger.
Interestingly, obesity rates are highest in those parts of the country with the highest rates of church attendance. In a 2006 study of the relationship between obesity and religion Purdue University sociologist Ken Ferraro concluded, “America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity and churches are a feeding ground for the problem…. Overeating is not considered a great sin—it has become the accepted vice.” A 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University based on research conducted over 18 years, found that people who attend church services at least once a week are a whopping 50 percent more likely to become obese than those who do not. These facts surely suggest that too little is being done by churches to combat obesity in their communities, congregations and pulpits.
John Wesley did not consider eating to be a morally neutral act. In fact, wellness and diet were central to Wesley’s message in ways that might seem strange to most American churchgoers today.
Wesley believed that God expects food choices to be made with the preservation of health in mind, rather than the gratification of personal desires, and that those who choose to eat poorly will someday be required to account to their Creator for having done so. In his 1768 sermon “The Good Steward,” Wesley imagines the scene on the Day of Judgment, when all of humanity is standing before God to give an account of their lives and to be judged accordingly. One of the specific questions Wesley imagines God asking those about to be judged concerns their diets:
The Lord of all will next inquire, “How didst thou employ the worldly goods which I lodged in thy hands? Didst thou use thy food, not so as to seek or place thy happiness therein, but so as to preserve thy body in health, in strength and vigour, a fit instrument for the soul?”
Surely the prospect of answering such a question should be disquieting to those who have ruined their health with junk food and overeating.
Indeed, Wesley considered the intentional consumption of unhealthy food to be a grievous sin, tantamount to suicide. In commenting on Deuteronomy 5:17 (“Thou shalt not kill”) in his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, Wesley referred specifically to food choices, pointedly asking the reader, “Are you guilty of no degree of self-murder? Do you never eat or drink anything because you like it, although you have reason to believe it is prejudicial to your health?” Likewise, in a letter of April 16, 1777 Wesley wrote, “Thus our general rule is ‘Thou shalt do no murder’; which plainly forbids everything that tends to impair health, and implies that we use every probable means of preserving or restoring it.”
In light of how strongly he held these beliefs, Wesley would find distressing the contemporary Church’s relative silence on matters of nutrition and personal health. Temperance and moderation of consumption are fundamental to a Wesleyan food ethic. For Wesley a diet of nutritious, wholesome food is best-suited to keeping the human body in the healthy condition he believed God desires and intends. A properly nourished body, healthy and fit, is most capable of doing the good works God expects from it. Intentionally choosing an unwholesome diet, in Wesley’s view, is a direct affront to God. Wesley might well be baffled, therefore, at a contemporary Christian culture that calls itself “pro-life,” while engaged so pervasively in “self-murder.”