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Wesley and physical health: Practicing what he preached

Third in a series

During the final days of the Wesley Pilgrimage in England in July 2016, pilgrims traveled to London to visit Wesley's Chapel. The Chapel campus includes a Museum of Methodism, John Wesley's tomb and John Wesley's winter home for the final 12 years of his life.

The curators display Wesley's house as it may have looked when he lived there. Furniture owned and used by John Wesley is there. Other pieces belonged to Charles Wesley, John's hymn-writing brother. Still others are careful reproductions.

In the dining room is an odd-looking chair. It is quite tall, looking as if the manufacturer stacked several cushions on top of one another.

One of the docents, dressed in period costume, noticed me looking at this piece of furniture and told me it was an exercise chair. She pressed down on the top cushion several times to show me the spring action.


I later learned that this "chair" was actually a reproduction of a chamber hourse, a piece of exercise equipment from the 1700s. Sitting in the chair, one would bounce up and down, mimicking the activity of riding a horse — similar to the way we use stationary bicycles and treadmills today.

During his winters in London, Wesley used the chamber hourse to help him stay in shape for his grueling riding schedule the rest of the year. He traveled long distances on horseback well into his 80s, overseeing the Methodist movement.

The dining room may seem like an odd place for a piece of exercise equipment, but historians are certain that this is where Wesley kept the chair. He said so in a letter to his niece, Sarah Wesley, dated Aug. 18, 1790, when Wesley was 87:

[Y]ou should be sure to take as much exercise every day as you can bear. I wish you would desire George Whitfield [a Methodist preacher] to send you the chamber-hourse out of my dining-room, which you should use half an hour at least daily.

Wesley often advised friends to exercise to keep them well.

In the study is another object I could not identify. The mechanical looking device made of wood, glass and metal is an 18th-century electrical machine. Cranking the handle creates low-level electric current many believed had healing properties.

In his book, Primitive Physick, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, Wesley lists more than 40 ailments for which he prescribes electrifying. At worst, it couldn't hurt, Wesley writes, "unless the shock were immoderately strong."

Primitive Physick, Wesley's best-selling book during his lifetime, also included natural remedies for asthma, baldness (onions and honey), earaches, bee stings, kidney stones, vertigo and much more. He also includes tips on maintaining wellness through exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep.

Under Wesley's leadership, Methodist preachers and meetinghouses were known as dispensers of remedies for illnesses, especially for those who could not afford to see a doctor. Primitive Physick was their primary reference.

Wesley understood that physical and spiritual health were intimately connected. In a letter dated Oct. 26, 1778, Wesley offers this telling advice to his friend, Alexander Knox. "Alleck ... it will be a double blessing if you give yourself up to the Great Physician, that he may heal soul and body together. And unquestionably this is his design. He wants to give you ... both inward and outward health."

Wesley taught that God cares for the health of our minds and bodies as well as our souls. The United Methodist Church continues in that tradition today. writer the Rev. Joe Iovino and United Methodist Communications photographer Kathleen Barry were part of a July 2016 Wesley pilgrimage in England. The 2017 tour will be July 10-20. Deadline to apply for scholarships is Jan. 15. Learn more at

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