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John D. Spalding

The Shocking Truth About John Wesley

A visit to the cradle of Methodism

Even the most devout Methodists will be excused if they've never considered what their denomination's founder's kitchen looks like. I have stood in it. I was on a tour of the John Wesley House and Museum of Methodism in London, and in my ears were the voices of James Rogers, a preacher who lived in the Wesley home, and Elizabeth "Betsy" Ritchie, John Wesley's housekeeper.

All right, what I heard was only actors, playing Rogers and Betsy on the audiocassette tour. But to one like me who spent his youth fidgeting in Methodist and Holiness church pews, the house is entrancing. In a room off John Wesley's kitchen are display cases containing his personal belongings—christening robe and baby rattle; his nightcap, shoes, and traveling case, containing the holy man's fork and fruit knife—relics displayed with such reverence it's hard to believe Protestants were involved. "The one on the far right has a very special meaning for me," Rogers said of one cabinet. "It's a lock of Mr. Wesley's hair, cut after his death from his poor, dear head and given me." After a pause, the Reverend Rogers added solemnly, "Please, take as much time as you want to look at this cabinet, and when you're finished, switch the tape guide on again."

Wesley moved into his four-story Georgian townhouse in 1779, a year after he built his famous chapel—the "Cathedral of Methodism"—next door. The house stands on City Road in what's now the London Borough of Islington. Wesley, a dissenter from the Church of England, chose a location beyond the old city wall on a site that, ironically, had been used some one hundred years earlier as a dirt dump during the construction of St. Paul's Cathedral about a mile south. Before my visit I stopped to pay respects at Bunhill Fields, the small nonconformist burial ground across the street from Wesley's house. Those buried on the quiet, tree-shrouded grounds include Daniel Defoe, William Blake, George Fox (founder of the Quakers), Susanna Wesley (John and Charles's mother), and John Bunyan. Bunyan's monument is perhaps the largest and most elaborate of the bunch. It includes an effigy of the writer and bas-relief sculptures of scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress. In 1898 Wesley's House was opened to the public, and the Museum of Methodism, established in the chapel crypt in 1984, boasts "one of the world's largest collections of Wesleyan ceramics and some of the finest Methodist paintings."

One of these paintings is the now-famous Robert Hunter portrait of Wesley, which he cherished as one of the finest of him ever rendered—"a most striking likeness," he wrote in his journal. But what Wesley didn't mention was that the portrait, painted when he was 62, makes him appear 30 years younger.

Wesley's pinkness is attributable to what Betsy kindly described as "Mr. Wesley's abiding interest in health." Interest, in the days when every medical procedure was an experiment, is a bit of an understatement. In the dining room is displayed Wesley's "chamber horse"—an exercise chair with a thick leather cushion filled with air, which, when sat in, flattened like an accordion. Wesley hopped up and down in this chair for hours, simulating horseback riding. Betsy said, "He was convinced that a due degree of exercise was essential for health and long life. Walking was the best form, followed by riding. He loved exercise, even in old age, and was physically fit!" (A docent told me Wesley often paced his bedroom, having calculated that 200 trips wall-to-wall equaled a mile.)

In other words, John Wesley was a health nut. "I am as strong at 81 as I was at 21," he wrote, "but abundantly more healthy, being a stranger to the headache, toothache and other bodily disorders which attended me in my youth."

This was no secret to his contemporaries. As part of his social ministry, Wesley himself manufactured and dispensed medicine at the Foundery. For this, Wesley was labeled a quack.

As one satirist wrote:

Tottenham's the best accustom'd Place,
There Magus squints men into Grace,
W-s-y sells Powders, Draughts, and Pills,
Sov'reign against all sorts of Ills.

Wesleyan theology has no grips on me any longer. But being follicularly challenged, I couldn't resist trying Wesley's cure for hair loss: "Rub the part morning and evening with onions, till it is red; and rub it afterwards with honey." After several attempts, all I wound up with were onion tears streaming down my face and a sticky raw forehead that attracted flies.

For lethargy, Wesley recommended "strong vinegar up the nose." And I must say, the vinegar certainly perked me up, as I spent several minutes gagging, spitting, and discharging my nasal cavity into a paper towel.

Primitive Physic: An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases was Wesley's main tome on health, which he published in 1747. By its 24th edition, in 1792, the book included thousands of therapies, many of which Wesley tried himself, noting, sensibly, "Tried" after each. For example, his cure for an earache: "Put in a roasted fig, or onion, as hot as may be: Tried. Or, blow the smoke of tobacco strongly into it." And his cure for a toothache: "Be electrified through the teeth: Tried."

On the house tour, which begins in the basement kitchen, Betsy explains in a prim but exuberant British accent that only plain meals were prepared—"for Mr. Wesley decreed that all pickled, smoked, or salted food, and all high-seasoned, is unwholesome!"

Perfectly wholesome to Wesley, but grounds to expel the old man from most evangelical colleges in America, was relishing fine wines. "I remember how vexed he was," Rogers murmured in my ear, "when a case of claret shipped to him as a gift was seized by customs and, despite several written requests, was never released to him." To think—the man whose teachings form the doctrinal core of, for example, the teetotaling Church of the Nazarene, himself tippled with the devil.

But an even greater shock, so to speak, awaited me upstairs.

Against the rear wall in one room stood a contraption that looked like it belonged more in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory than in the Reverend Mr. Wesley's study—his "personal electric-shock machine." He'd turn the crank on this crude device to generate a current of electricity through a metal rod, against which he'd press his tongue, forehead, or an ailing body part—a burn or a sore tooth, for example. In the postscript to Primitive Physic, Wesley wrote that of all his cures, "one, I must aver from personal knowledge, grounded on a thousand experiments, to be far superior to all other medicines I have known; I mean Electricity."

Wesley claimed electricity was "the nearest [to a] universal medicine of any yet known in the world" and maintained it could cure almost 50 ailments, from deafness and leprosy to stomachaches and even "feet violently disordered." When his brother, Charles, the famous composer of more than 6,000 hymns, lay on his deathbed, John "earnestly advised him to be electrified. Not shocked but only filled with electric fire." Understandably, Charles never roused himself long enough to undergo his brother's cure.

I refrain from criticizing Wesley for his superstitions about electric shock because I share his preoccupations utterly. I'm with him when he fell sick in 1753 and, convinced he would die any day of "consumption" at age 51, composed his own epitaph "to prevent vile panegyric." He went on to live another 38 years.

The great success of the John Wesley House is that here the founder of Methodism comes alive, not as the abstract holy man perhaps some followers imagine him to have been, but as a very human person who grappled with the mortal fears we all share. But the museum also illustrates how Wesley addressed those concerns as a mandate to take time seriously, and to order his life so that he could fully realize the ministry he felt called to create. Methodism, I realized as never before, was as much about the ascetic, yes, methodical lifestyle advocated by Wesley, a man who was asleep every night by 9:30 and awake every morning by 4, as it was a form of Protestant theology.

"Perhaps the regularity of his life, and the fact that he took regular exercise, helped him age gracefully," observed James Rogers, driving the stake further into me, a guy whose life is about as regular as flash flooding in the Mojave Desert. To which Betsy added, in a tone that made me want to hire a housekeeper, "He looked wonderful, too. His step was firm and his appearance, to within a few years of his death, was vigorous and muscular. His face was one of the finest I have ever seen—a clear, smooth forehead, an aquiline nose; an eye the brightest and most piercing that can be conceived; and a freshness of complexion scarcely ever to be found at his years and expressive of the most perfect health."

Gee, maybe I'll search eBay for an electric-shock machine.

John D. Spalding writes a humor column for Beliefnet.com, where this essay first appeared. It is excerpted from his book, A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City, published by Harmony Books in March. Used with permission.

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