John Wesley had a lifelong interest in medicine. He made medical advice and pharmaceuticals available to the poor in a number of ways during his ministry. He also believed that a human being was fundamentally a union of body & soul, so he thought that salvation should have to do with both the material and spiritual aspects of human life.
One of the areas that Wesley showed real foresight was the way in which he grasped the psychosomatic aspects of illness. That is, he realized that the mental and emotional parts of human experience could often play a role in physical symptoms. If we want to treat the body, Wesley knew, we have to treat the soul as well. There is a deep interconnectedness between body and soul.
Take this entry from Wesley’s journal as an example, where he comments on the condition of a woman he met and the limitations of the standard medical treatments of his day:
“Reflecting today on the case of a poor woman who had a 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.”
The problem with most physicians, Wesley argues, is that they want to treat the body like a broken machine. They don’t have an adequate understanding of the way in which stress, anxiety, depression, traumatic experiences, and the like can manifest themselves through bodily ailments. A proper diagnosis—and treatment!—requires a deeper understanding of illness. Wesley goes on:
“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? And in those cases which are utterly out of their sphere, call in the assistance of a minister—as ministers, when they find the mind disordered by the body, call in the assistance of a physician?”
This is a good example of Wesley’s concern for holistic health and healing. Today, of course, we’d add to his two examples of the physician and the minister: nutritionists, psychologists, pastoral counselors, strong friendships, and a supportive faith community all play a big role in how we can be healthy and whole persons. The Wesleyan insight into the body-soul union is not always appreciated even today, though, and that’s a good reason to take his pastoral wisdom to heart.
Do you have thoughts on this issue? Experiences of your own that relate to it? Feel free to share below.
[This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights important themes that emerge in the Journal that John Wesley published throughout his adult life. For other posts in the series, click here.]