A Wesleyan Food Ethic?

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John Wesley devoted a substantial part of his life’s work to improving the physical health and well-being of all people. To better serve the poor, who were unable to afford the services of physicians, for example, Wesley had resolved to “give them physic myself” and later wrote that he had for more than twenty-six years made “anatomy and physic the diversion of my leisure hours.” In 1747 he published A Primitive Physic or an Essay and Natural Method of Curing Diseases, a collection of folk remedies intended primarily to benefit the impoverished, who could not afford doctors, medicine, or medical books. For the title Wesley chose the word Physic, an archaic word meaning “medicine” or “health care” (the root of the word physician), because he was urging traditional “primitive” remedies. Wesley’s intended audience for the book was a society that rarely had any contact with a physician, and usually could not afford the services of one. Primitive Physic was wildly popular, going through thirty-two editions (twenty-three during his lifetime). It was one of the most widely read books in England between 1750 and 1850, and has been called one of the all-time medical best sellers.

Wesley made the book available for only a shilling, far less than comparable works sold for at the time, in hope that it would be affordable to every family. He advised the preachers under his authority to leave a copy of Primitive Physic in any home they visited. “It is a great pity that any Methodist should be without” a copy of it, Wesley wrote.

Although many of the remedies in Primitive Physic appear quaint (or patently ridiculous) to modern readers, they tended to reflect the best scientific and medical knowledge of the day, and in many cases reflect holistic practices that are still followed. Wesley’s intent was to help inform people of inexpensive and natural remedies for illness, in keeping with his committed belief that there is a duty to do so. For the maintenance of good health, Wesley advised, above all else except prayer, exercise, and a healthy diet.

Wesley’s attention to health and well-being was not parallel to his interest in the soul and spiritual well-being, but rather was an integral part of it. He was convinced that God’s original plan for humanity included healthy bodies and that we need not await the resurrection to start bringing our bodily health in line with God’s plan. Wesley believed that God intends both “inward and outward healing” and that a properly oriented Christian life should promote both.

A Wesleyan Food Ethic?

Wesley published more than four hundred books and tracts during his lifetime, believing it was part of his calling. Within this abundant body of work, including sermons, treatises, tracts, letters, and journals, there is evidence from which we can discern where Wesley’s views might locate him within the contemporary food movement, and from which we can identify the elements of a Wesleyan food ethic. Proponents of the food movement, whether secular or religious, generally ground the ethics of the movement in five principal areas:

1. A desire for better health and more nutritious food

2. Advocacy of a moderate, reasonable level of consumption

3. Preference for natural farming practices over chemical-based farming (along with a concomitant desire to protect the environment)

4. A desire to avoid complicity in the abuse and mistreatment of farm animals

5. A preference for a food system that is local and sustainable rather than globalized and dependent upon industrialization

In Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming and Faith, I examine how Wesley’s teachings might be relevant to each of these concerns.

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Bill is a graduate of seminary, a former attorney and now a full-time farmer in southern Virginia. He is the author of Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming and Faith, now available from Seedbed.

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