Hidden past of Methodism’s founding father revealed in heritage exhibition

As one of the founding fathers of Methodism, John Wesley is well-known throughout the world as a Christian evangelist. But his experiments into producing cures for the sick are not often talked about - until now.

An exhibition revealing the surprising and illuminating history of Wesley's wild and wonderful medical ideas will tour the country from 2 April until 30 September, visiting Epworth, Bristol, Launceston, Englesea Brook, London and Newcastle. The exhibition, entitled Wesley and Well-being, will explore Wesley's medicinal manual, Primitive Physic, which was so popular in its day that it was republished 23 times, making it an 18th century best-seller.

Although some of his "cures" were denounced by 18th century critics as "possibly deadly", his thinking was occasionally ahead of his time: honey is used in many of his remedies, even though its antiseptic and antibacterial properties have only been recently confirmed by science. It was only in the 1700s that medicine in Western Europe began to be a respectable profession and care for the sick was not seen as an extension of the pastoral care provided by the Church.

Jo Hibbard, Methodist Heritage Officer, said: "When Wesley's Primitive Physic was published in 1747, doctors were still more likely to kill at a price than cure for a fee. Wesley wanted to put the knowledge of curing diseases into ordinary people's hands. Some of his remedies, such as holding a live puppy over the stomach to cure colic, sound comic to us today. But, to Wesley's credit, if he thought a critic's claim was well-founded, then he would make changes in the next edition."

Wesley opened free clinics in London and dispensaries in London, Bristol and Newcastle. He took remedies and cures from other published medical books and re-wrote them in plain English. He tried to make all the remedies cheap and easy to get hold of and he asked his preachers to sell his book, encouraging them to add their own cures. He provided remedies and preventions on a range of ailments and diseases, from headaches to the plague, and gout to obesity. His "cures" ranged from advising people to exercise around two to three hours a day in order to "soften the evils of life" to drying and powdering a toad into small pills in order to help ease asthma.

Dr Richard Vautrey, Former Vice-President of the Methodist Conference and a practising GP, said: "John Wesley took the command to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind' seriously, working to ensure that Methodists were not only nurturing their spiritual health but looking after their physical health as well. Whilst some of his ideas belong in the 18th century, many are as relevant today as they were then. All Methodists today would do well to follow his advice by increasing the amount of exercise we do and reducing the amount of salt in our diets. By doing so whilst our hearts may still be "strangely warmed" - as Wesley's was - they won't overheat!"

The Church's Olympic and Paralympic Co-ordinator Ish Lennox is supporting the exhibition along with More Than Gold. "The Methodist influence on Britain's sporting heritage can be seen clearly in the history of football," she said. "Aston Villa FC was formed in March 1874 by four members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel. Walter Tull was brought up in the Methodist orphanage in Bethnal Green. He was one of Britain's first black footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur."

A souvenir leaflet for visitors will explain not only Wesley's interest in health but how the Church has used sport as a means of service and outreach since the 19th century. 

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