John Wesley and Science

John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century Therapeutic Uses of Electricity

H. Newton Malony*

Fuller Theological Seminary
80 North Oakland Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101

wesley2.jpg (4216 bytes)

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45 (December 1995): 244.]
1995 by the American Scientific Affiliation

John Wesley (1704-1791) was the eighteenth century English divine who helped to pioneer the use of electricity for the treatment of illness. In 1760 he published The Desideratum, or Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense based on his use of electricity in free medical clinics which he had established for the poor in Bristol and London a decade earlier. Although not widely appreciated by either science or medicine, several historians have credited Wesley with being one of the most notable electrotherapists in the eighteenth century and with stimulating nineteenth century developments in psychiatry and general medicine. This essay reviews Wesley's applications of electricity to a wide variety of physical ailments. In the tradition of English parish priests, he combined treatment for illness with spiritual evangelism - a combination which characterized much of the Methodist movement, which Wesley founded. I have also detailed the reactions of physicians during Wesley's time and the theoretical/research developments which occurred after Wesley's death in 1791.

John Wesley (1704-1791) was an eighteenth century English clergyman who helped to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness. In 1760 he published The Desideratum: Or, Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense1 based on his use of electricity in free medical clinics, which he had established for the poor in Bristol and London a decade earlier.

In mid-October 1747, Wesley and a few friends went to observe one of "the Electrical experiments. Such public demonstrations were becoming very popular during this period. The words in his Journal show that Wesley was intrigued, but confused, about what he saw. He wrote:

Who can comprehend, how fire lives in water, and passes through it more freely than through air? How flame issues out of my finger, real flame, such as sets fire to spirits of wine? How these, and many more strange phenomena, arise from the turning round in a glass globe? It is all a mystery: If haply by any means God may hide pride from man!2

By 1753, Wesley's reaction had changed from perplexed curiosity to passionate conviction about the uses of electricity for human good. Having become excited by the therapeutic potential of Benjamin Franklin's demonstrations, Wesley reported in his Journal of November 9, 1756 that he obtained a portable electrical apparatus "on purpose. Out of a conviction that he had discovered a cheap and easy way to treat many diseases, he wrote:

I ordered several persons to be electrified, who were ill of various disorders; some of whom found an immediate, some a gradual cure. From this time I appointed, first some hours in every week, and afterward an hour in every day, wherein any that desired it might try the virtue of this surprising medicine. Two or three years after, our patients were so numerous that we were obliged to divide them; so part were electrified in Southwark, part at the Foundry, others near St. Paul, and the rest near the Seven Dials. The same method we have taken ever since; and to this day, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, have received unspeakable good, I have not known one man, woman, or child, who has received hurt thereby3

Several authors credit Wesley with playing a previously unacknowledged role in medical and psychiatric history and with being, along with Richard Lovett, Jean-Paul Marat, and James Graham, one of the four greatest electrotherapists of the 1700s.4 Hunter noted that Middlesex Hospital in London had purchased an electrical machine to train physicians only seven years after the publication of Wesley's Desideratum. In an article entitled "A brief review of the use of electricity in psychiatry with special reference to John Wesley, he reported that by the later 1880s electrotherapy had

...become the stock in trade of many physicians...(and) by 1793 the citizens of London had subscribed toward the foundation of The London Electrical Dispensary...with a view to afford a new benefit to the lower orders of is to administer electricity for all complaints in which its application may be useful.5

Over 3,000 patients were treated in this dispensary during the following decade.

This essay discusses Wesley's electrotherapeutic activity as a unique episode in the historical development of therapeutic theory. Although Wesley suggested in his book, Primitive Physick: Or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, that electric shock was beneficial to over 20 maladies, he felt it was particularly effective in the treatment of nervous disorders.6

Of particular interest in this discussion will be the question of whether Wesley's ideas are related to the development of electroconvulsive shock treatment in psychiatry. At least one author, Hackman, is convinced that the two are completely unrelated.7 Another author, Hunter, boldly asserted that "The spirit of electrical treatment of mental illness today is in direct contrast to Wesley's kindly and humanitarian efforts to bring hope, if not aid, to the sick and suffering with fairly innocuous electric currents and shocks.8 He further contended that electroconvulsive shock treatment is

...a descendent of the crude and violent methods to which the insane were subjected before the great lunacy reforms of the mid-eighteenth century, when they used to be shocked into unconsciousness by excessive bleeding, holding under water, dropping from a height or spinning in a revolving chair, in order as it was hoped to shock them back into their senses.9

On the other hand, Stainbrook took the opposite point of view in contending that Wesley's application of electricity to sickness was a precursor to the psychiatry's electroconvulsive shock treatments of the insane.10 Rogal advocated yet a third point of view. He proposed that the scientific and medical world of the eighteenth century was basically unaware of Wesley and that, even among those physicians who did react to him, their feelings were negative, rather than positive. Rogal concluded that acknowledging Wesley's influence would be among the last things they would do.11

The discussion will be divided into sections that consider the development of Wesley's interest in electricity, the equipment and method that he used, Wesley's reasoning that electricity was the God-given vital elixir of life, his application of electric shock to suffering and to illness, and the influence of Wesley on subsequent electrotherapy.

The Development of Wesley's Interest in Electricity

John Wesley was an "enthusiast in that when he became interested in a subject he pursued it with great diligence and excitement. He had broad interests and was conversant across many fields. In his preaching and promotion of Methodist societies, he reportedly traveled over 50,000 miles each year by horseback across England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales - always reading as he went! When given a carriage, Wesley boarded up one side and made a bookcase out of it so that he could have more access to a variety of books while he traveled.

He was not only versed in classical and contemporary religious literature; he was well acquainted with some of the scientific and much of the medical writings of his day. While a student at Oxford, he read medical texts for pleasure. Later, he studied medicine seriously in the six months before becoming a missionary to Georgia where he hoped to provide treatment for the Indians alongside his evangelistic ministry. Much of this study later provided the material for his book, Primitive Physick. Although it contained several quaint folk-remedies, the book also included many treatments from the medical literature of his day.

In addition, Wesley was also knowledgeable about natural science and understood current thinking, In a five-volume text entitled A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Wesley summarized the theory of "the great Newton."12 In fact, Wesley was so broad in his interests that some have considered him an expansive dilettante who was constantly seduced by the "new fangled.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Wesley should be among those who were intrigued by the public demonstrations of electrical phenomena, which were extremely popular in the second quarter of the eighteenth century in England. Frictional electrical machines had been improved to the point where they were portable and available for astonishing the public by igniting ether and brandy via sparks from fingers. Among the more dramatic demonstrations was the simultaneous leaping of a mile-long group of monks holding an iron wire connected to a Leyden jar which contained frictional electricity! One letter of the time contended that these public spectacles were "the universal topic of discourse. The fine ladies forget their cards and scandal to talk of the effects of electricity"13

Wesley became infatuated with what he heard about these demonstrations. As noted earlier, his Journal records that in October 1747 he went with some friends to see some of these experiments and became puzzlingly impressed.

Over the next several years, his interest became piqued by the letters of Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collison, a member of the British Royal Society of Science. These letters had been published in pamphlet form as early as 1751. Based on his well-known "kite experiment and including a series of subsequent investigations, Franklin's reports excited Wesley. His Journal for February 17, 1753 stated:

From Dr. Franklin's Letters I learned (1) that electric fire (ether) is a species of fire, is finer than any yet known; (2) that it is diffused, and in nearly equal proportions, through almost all substances; (3) that, as long as it is thus diffused, it has no discernible effect; (4) that if any quantity of it be collected together, whether by art or nature, it then becomes visible in the form of fire, and inexpressibly powerful; (5) that it is essentially different from the light of the sun, for it pervades a thousand bodies which light cannot penetrate, and yet cannot penetrate glass, which light pervades so freely; (6) that lightning is none other than electric fire, collected by one or more clouds; (7) that all the effects of lightning may be performed by an artificial electric fire; (8) that anything pointed, as a spire or tree, attracts the lightning, just as a needle does the electric fire; (9) that the electric fire, discharged on a rat or a fowl, will kill it instantly, but discharged on one dipped in water, will slide off, and do it no hurt at all. In like manner the lightning which will kill a man in a moment will not hurt him if he be thoroughly wet. What an amazing scene is here opened for after-ages to improve upon.14

Soon after reading Franklin's letters, Wesley himself became part of that "after-age improvement. His pursuit of knowledge about electricity had somehow turned from pure intellectual curiosity to a consideration of its possible usefulness to heal people.

How Wesley made this transition from curiosity to application is unclear. Although there was much written about electricity during this second quarter of the eighteenth century, there is no evidence that Wesley read John Neale's 1747 volume, Directions for Gentlemen, who have Electrical Machines, How to proceed in making Their Experiments. Richard Lovett, Wesley's later compatriot in electrotherapy, had not yet written his 1760 volume entitled, An Appendix on Electricity rendered Useful in Medical Intentions, nor do we know whether Wesley was aware of the correspondence between Peter Collinson and Benjamin Franklin regarding the application of electricity to physical illness. As early as 1748 Collison, who was the one to make Franklin's work known in England, wrote Franklin about three such instances. Further, in a later letter (1753) he reported to Franklin that the King had ordered the construction of an electrical machine for the treatment of rheumatism.

What is clear is that Wesley's motivation was strongly focused on physical health and on spiritual salvation among the common people to whom he ministered in his travels. Electricity became one of those inexpensive healing agents available for use by everyone.

By early 1753 Wesley procured an electrical machine and began to think about its practical application to the alleviation of human suffering. He experimented with the machine by shocking himself for lameness and neuralgia. A cure was certain, but gradual. He advised a person with a "stubborn paralytic disorder to try the "new remedy. Immediate relief followed. He recorded in his  Journal, "By the same means I have known two persons cured of an inveterate pain in the stomach, and another of a pain in his side which he had ever since he was a child.15

Added to this report was a hint of the disdain in which he held the medical practitioners of his day, who he felt were consumed with greed and committed to expensive drugs. Wesley said that they would probably ignore the value of electricity with these words: "Nevertheless, who can wonder that many gentlemen of the faculty (physicians), as well as their good friends of the apothecaries, decry a medicine so shockingly cheap and easy (i.e., electricity), as much as they do quicksilver and tar-water (parentheses mine).16

In his desire to provide cheap and easy-to-use remedies for poor people, Wesley provided electric shock machines for all of his free clinics: three in London, one in Bristol. Based on what he termed "experiment, he noted 37 disorders (See Table 1.) in which he felt that electricity had been of unquestionable value in their cures. Although his claims may seem outlandish to modern ears, nevertheless, he advised caution in difficult cases and admonished those who administered the shocks to take care not to hurt their patients. In anticipating the later application of electricity to mental illness, Wesley noted that many of those who were helped were of Athe nervous kind and added,"...perhaps there is no nervous distemper whatever which would not yield to a steady use of this remedy.17

Wesley's Equipment and Method

Before I discuss Wesley's theories about the nature of electricity and his rationale about its therapeutic effects, it seems helpful to describe the machine and methods which Wesley used. Figure 1, below, depicts one of four machines in Wesley's possession. It is displayed at the museum in the house next to the chapel on City Road, London where Wesley lived for the last 12 years of his life.

Woodward described this machine thusly:

It consists of a hollow glass cylinder (7 1/2 in. long by 41/2 in. diameter) supported on two wooden uprights. Through it runs a metal bar to which a handle is attached, by means of which the cylinder can be freely rotated. A leather pad (to which is firmly attached a piece of black silk) is pressed against the cylinder. It is controlled, very simply, by a thumbscrew. On an attached platform (8 in. long by 5 in. wide) and mounted on a glass insulating column, is a metal arm with a thin rod (91/2 in. long) attached to it, at the end of which is a small metal ball 1 in. diameter. The whole Amachine is mounted on four glass insulating legs (41/2 in. in height).18

Presumably the patient caught hold of the ball and as the metal arm made contact with the rotating cylinder, got a shock C the intensity depending upon the vigor with which the handle was turned. It is important to note that this was a "friction machine which discharged electric current in one discharge and was not a "continuous current apparatus such as became possible after Allessandro Volta developed the first electric battery in 1799, eight years after Wesley's death. Continuous current apparati are those used in electroconvulsive shock treatment. This does not mean that it was impossible to administer harmful shocks with friction machines. By storing up current in Leyden jars, which were available to Wesley, it was possible to vary the amount of shock administered. Also, some machines had attached "wands with insulated handles, which could administer varying amounts of shock dependent on the distance the wand was held from the area of the body toward which it was directed. Current could be built up by turning the handle. More powerful shocks jumped greater distances.

The first part of Wesley's Desideratum reviews all the information he could gather on electricity. The approach he used was typical for scholars of his day. "He anchored himself to the traditional forms of Oxford instruction - abstract, extract, and summation - from which he proceeded to advance his role as an explicator of the phenomenon 19 He asserted: "To throw all the Light I can on the Subject, I subjoin a few Extracts from several other Writers."20

One of those whose thinking he reviewed was his contemporary J. P. Marat (1743-1793), the eccentric Frenchman who was one of the more influential electrotherapists of the eighteenth century. Marat distinguished among five methods, three of which Wesley might have used. The first method, Marat termed l'electrisation par bains in which the patient would sit in an insulated chair and hold a conductor from the machine (e.g., the metal ball) while the handle was turned to generate current. The body was thus bathed with the warmth of electricity. The second method was a variation of the first and was labeled l'electrisation par impression de souffle. In this method the conductor was placed on the affected body part, which then received a focused sensation of a gentle warm breeze. The third method was termed par frictions. This method did not use the machine but, instead, involved rubbing flannel which had been wrapped around the affected part with a metal plate attached to a glass handle. The fourth method, par etincelles, drew sparks from the affected organ by attaching an uncharged metal wand to the affected body part which, in turn, was connected to a conductor from the machine. The last method listed by Marat was called par commotions. In this procedure a strong discharge was sent across the diseased body part. Occasionally this method induced heart attacks, convulsions, blindness, and sometimes death.21 This is the friction method most akin to later psychiatric electroconvulsive continuous-current shock treatment. It was not used by Wesley.

Although I will discuss what was happening in these treatments in the next section, it can be stated here that there were two basic processes involved in these treatments: attraction and repulsion. It was assumed that the human body was a conductor of electricity and that it would attract current as well as repel it, if the body was attached to some other conductive material. In general, it was theorized that where a body part was not functioning or was paralyzed, electricity was deficient and, thus, attraction treatment was needed. In this procedure the person was positioned in an insulated chair and then connected to the friction machine by holding onto a metal connection as in Marat's l'electrisation par bains method. On the other hand, it was theorized that where a body part was feverish or infected, electricity was excessive and thus, withdrawal treatment was needed. In this procedure the person was positioned in an insulated chair and then sparks were drawn from the infected part as in Marat's par etincelles approach.

Wesley's Reasoning about Electricity

Primarily, Wesley was a pragmatist. He applied what worked without much attention to explaining causation. He called himself an "experimentalist, but used that term in a far different way than it is used in modern science. Others called him an "empiric. They were probably more accurate. His recommendation of the use of resin for cold sores, as recommended in his Primitive Physick, is an example of this approach. Dunlop notes this discovery: "As he sat beneath a tree and read a book, his tongue worried with a cold sore. A bed of resin fell on his page. Wesley applied it to the sore and effected a cure. From then on he cured other sores in this fashion.22 Thus, his application of electric shock to disease and suffering was probably more an artifact of trial-and-error than of reasoned judgment. 

Nevertheless, by the time he wrote his Desideratum Wesley had thought long and hard about the nature of electricity. He provided his readers with an extensive justification for thinking of electricity as the elixir of life which God provided to make creation function. Along with Richard Lovett, Wesley speculated that electricity was the source of "all motion in the Universe and that principle in air without which life or flame cannot exist...23

Lovett, a lay clerk at Worcester Cathedral, wrote a book on electricity four years before Wesley published his volume. Lovett's title bespeaks this conviction about the nature of the phenomenon. It was called The Subtil Medium proved: or the wonderful power of Nature, so long ago conjectured by the most ancient and remarkable philosophers, which they called sometimes Aether, but oftener Elementary Fire, verified: showing that all the distinguishing and essential qualities ascribed to Aether by them and the most eminent modern philosophers, are to be found in Electrical Fire, and that, too, in the utmost degree of perfection.24 Lovett felt he had identified the Materia Subtilis of Descartes and the essence of Newton's Aether. Electricity was the "subtle, or integral but unseen, essence of life.

Wesley concurred. His book title Desideratum implied that electricity was "the thing to be desired. Wesley called electricity the "soul of the universe. He wrote in his first chapter that electricity was:

...the general principle of all Motion in the Universe: From this "pure Fire, (which is properly so called) the vulgar "Culinary Fire is kindled. For in Truth there is but one Kind of Fire in Nature, which exists in all Places and in all Bodies. And this is subtle and active enough, not only to be, under the Great Cause, the secondary Cause of Motion, but to produce and sustain Life thro'out all Nature, as well in Animals as in Vegetables.25

Of course, Wesley went beyond Lovett in reasoning theologically that electricity was God-given. He said:

This great machine of the World requires some such constant, active, and powerful Principle, constituted by its Creator, to keep the heavenly Bodies in their several Courses, and at the same Time give Support, Life, and Increase to the various Inhabitants of the Earth.26

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to read that he justified the application of electricity for human good as the intent of this creator God. He asserted:

We know that the Creator of the Universe, is likewise, the Governor of all Things therein. But we know likewise, that he governs by second Causes; and that accordingly it is his Will, we should use all the Probable Means he has given us to attain every lawful End.27

The "second Causes in Wesley's statement were the ways, discovered by human investigators, that electricity brought relief from human disease and suffering. He felt these were the laws of God which were intended to be used for "every lawful End.

Wesley's Application of Electricity to Suffering and Illness

In characteristic "experimental fashion, Wesley tried electricity first on himself. I have already mentioned the cure of his own lameness soon after procuring his first machine. His Journal records at least two other occasions where he applied this remedy to himself, once when he was 70 and once when he was 80 years old. Hill describes these events. In 1773, while on one of his many preaching tours, Wesley had such a pain in his left side and shoulder that he had great difficulty even lifting his hand to his face. For several days previous he had been trying to recover from inflammation in his throat and mouth. He felt that the pain in his side and shoulder was a result of the earlier inflammation. After getting one of his assistants to electrify him, he felt much better and was able to preach in the evening. Ten years later he was electrified for cramp. Three months earlier he had contracted a cold while riding in an open chaise from one preaching appointment to another. This had resulted in a deep cough which would not dissipate. He tried to keep preaching but became very weak and was sent to bed. After a night of rest coupled with some vomiting he felt better and set out for another town. Shortly after his arrival, he became feverish and had to lie down. His chest became tight and he experienced some violent cramps in his legs. He convinced a friend to electrify him in the legs and chest several times a day. A few days later he had no more fever, tightness in the chest, or cramps in his legs and was able to resume preaching. These examples indicate his personal experience and confidence in the method.28

However, it is in Wesley's book, Desideratum, that we gain a complete understanding of electrotherapy. After thoroughly surveying the writing and research on electricity done up to that time, Wesley wrote in the second half of his book of practical applications. He introduced this section with these words, "I have been hitherto endeavoring to make Electricity plain: I shall endeavour in the second Place, to make it useful.29

Ascribing, as we might expect, electricity's usefulness to "the wise Author of Nature (i.e., to God), Wesley contended that it "communicates Activity and Motion to Fluids in general, and particularly accelerates the Motion of the Blood in the human Body...And it is certain many bodily Disorders may be removed, even by this safe and easy Operation.30 This underlying assumption that electric shock was a stimulant was the primary rationale behind most of Wesley's treatments.

After detailing these assumptions, Wesley lists 37 ailments in which "Electrification has been found eminently useful. (See Table 1.) We can probably assume that this was not simply a list of conjectured cures because this list is followed by 49 paragraphs each of which describes a case in which the patient was electrified. The paragraphs, while mostly positive in their outcomes, do not read as outlandish claims. Often, the treatment is gradual and, sometimes, temporary. Some paragraphs include several reports of treatment. In several situations, such as cancers and scrofulous tumors, Wesley contends that electrification may have curative powers where no other medicines have been able to help.

As noted earlier, Wesley observed that a majority of these were of nervous disorders. However, he also noted that electricity seemed to him to be the "grand Desideratum in Physick, from which we may expect Relief when all other Relief fails, even in many of the most painful and stubborn Disorders to which the human Frame is liable.31

Several examples of the cures reveal the type of case material on which Wesley made his judgments.

Anne Heathcot...was seized, in May last, with what is commonly called an "Ague in the Head, having a violent Pain in her Head, Face, and Teeth. After trying abundance of Remedies, to no purpose, she was, in August, electrified thro' the Head. Immediately the Pain fix'd in her Teeth. She was electrified four Times more, and has felt nothing of it since.32

William Jones, a Plaisterer,...fell from a Scaffold on Thursday, Feb. 15 last. He was grievously bruised, both outwardly and inwardly, and lay in violent pain utterly helpless, till Saturday in the Afternoon, when he was brought (carried) by two Men to be electrified. After a few Minutes he walk'd home alone, and on Monday went to work.33

A young Lady had been affected with Fits near seven Years, which seized her without any Warning, and threw her flat on her Face, quite insensible. These frequently returned twice in a Day. This was attended with almost continual Coldness in her Feet. Her Stomach also was much affected. She stood upon a Wire coming from the Coat of the Phial, and to complete the Circuit, another Wire was laid upon her Head, by which means the Fire was conveyed to that Part. By this Means both the Fits and Coldness were gradually removed, and a complete Cure effected.34

E- T- taking cold, was seized with a sore Throat, which grew worse and worse for six Days. She then could not swallow even a Bit of Bread soaked in Tea. The same Morning she was electrified, so as to direct the Shock in a right Line thro' the Part affected. By the Time she got home she could eat any Thing. Two shocks more made a perfect Cure.35

Sarah Guilford, aged 37,...was for upwards of seven Years so afflicted with Rheumatism in her right Side, that the Knee and the Ankle were wasted exceedingly. January 2d last she was electrified, and perfectly cured in one Ray. But it threw her into a profuse Sweat, particularly from those Parts which had been most affected.36

A person had rigid Knots in the Thigh like what appear in violent Cramps, but not so hard or painful. These were entirely dissipated in a Minute or two, only by drawing sparks.

One at Upsal, who had lost the Use of his Limbs from Cold, for several Years, was in some Weeks quite restored.37

Abigail Brown, aged 22,...was from a Child frequently afflicted with a violent Head-ache...she was electrified five Days successively, having one Wire applied to the fore Part, another to the hinder Part of the Head, and receiving seven or eight Shocks each Time. Hereby she was entirely cured, nor has found any Pain in her Head since, unless occasionally for want of Sleep.38

A Man, fifty-seven Years old, who had been deaf for thirty-two Years, was so relieved in a few Days, as to hear tolerably well.39

These case studies illustrate the variety of both the methods used and the ailments treated by electricity during the last half of the eighteenth century. They corroborate Wesley's observation that the majority of the cases are of the nervous, hysteric type. He asserted, "We know it (electricity) is a thousand medicines in one; in particular, that it is the most efficacious medicine in nervous disorders of every kind, which has yet been discovered.40 It is important to remember, however, that Wesley's rationale for these effects was physiological, not psychological. He concluded:

It seems the Electric Fire in Cases of this kind and of many other Kinds, dilates the minute Vessels, and capillary Passages, as well as separates the clogging Particles of the stagnating Fluids. By accelerating likewise the Motion of the Blood, it removes many Obstructions.41

It is interesting, however, that none of the cases recounted by Wesley in the Desideratum refers to "the English Malady, or depression. Certainly, Wesley was aware of discouragement and feelings of hopelessness among the poor. There was a great debate in the eighteenth century about the nature of this disorder. It was so common that the French, among others, contended that the British were peculiarly susceptible to symptoms of morose melancholy. Wesley, however, was deeply influenced by the physician George Cheyne who wrote on depression in his volume, The English Malady: Or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of all Kind (1733). He had written his mother while still at Oxford about his admiration for Cheyne, who put great emphasis on diet and physical exercise. There was little, if any, ideas in Cheyne about electricity, however.

Post-hoc evaluation of Britain's poor social conditions and widespread poverty in these years of transition from rural to urban industrial economy might lead us to contend that depression would be largely exogenous not endogenous, environmental rather than temperamental. Such an analysis might explain the curious omission of this disorder from those which Wesley contended might be healed through electrification, though he said that electricity might be especially efficacious in nervous disorders. He was extremely sensitive to social conditions and worked long and hard to correct social injustice. Besides prescribing "plain and simple remedies for physical illnesses in both the Desideratum and Primitive Physick, Wesley is credited with speaking out against slavery, debtors' imprisonment, poor working conditions, and unsanitary living conditions.

He encouraged his followers to be clean, hygienic, honest, frugal, temperate, and compassionate. Perhaps he felt that the "English malady would be cured more in these ways than by electrification. The fact remains, however, that this "English malady (depression) was widespread and it is curious that, with all his concern for health, Wesley did not mention it in his books on electrotherapy or on general healing.

A final comment on Wesley's approach to electrotherapy needs to be made. It concerns the treatment cautions he recommends. While the cases he reports seem to include the variety of methods noted earlier, in all treatment he advises against haphazard administrations of shock. His words of caution on the next-to-last page of the Desideratum are as follows:

In order to prevent any ill Effect, these two cautions should always be remembered. First, let not the Shock be too violent; rather let several small Shocks be given. Secondly, do not give a Shock to the whole Body, when only a particular Part is affected. If it be given to the Part affected only, little Harm can follow even from a violent Shock.42

Wesley's Influence on Later Electrotherapy

In the early pages of his book, Wesley proclaimed that he was indebted to Franklin for the speculative part of Desideratum and to Lovett for the practical. Yet in one matter, he strongly disagreed with Lovett. Lovett contended that the use of electricity in treating disease would make no progress until and unless the medical community embraced it. Wesley adamantly disagreed with Lovett on this. He said that if society had to wait on the physicians to try it, society would wait in vain because physicians were too committed to making money by prescribing complex medications for which they charged much money. According to Wesley, physicians would not be interested in such a simple, cheap treatment as electrification until they Ahave more regard to the interests of their neighbors than their own. At least not till there are no more apothecaries in the land or till physicians are independent of them."43

However he never gave up hoping they would change and, in fact, depended heavily on them in Primitiv Physick for many of his recommended cures. Wesley concluded Desiratum with a somewhat sarcastic plea:

Before I conclude, I would beg one Thing (if it be not too great a Favour) from the Gentlemen of the Faculty (i.e., physicians), and indeed from all who desire Health and Freedom from Pain, either for themselves or their Neighbors. It is, That none of them would condemn they know not what: That they would hear the Cause, before they pass Sentence: That they would not peremptorily pronounce against Electricity, while they know little or nothing about it. Rather let every candid Man take a little Pains, to understand the Question before he determines it. Let him for two or three Weeks (at least) try it for himself in the above-named Disorders. And then his own Senses will show him, whether it is a mere Play-thing, or the noblest Medicine yet known in the World.44

It should be obvious that John Wesley had already concluded the latter. But it must be remembered that he did so from a thorough study of the literature, prolonged reasoning and reflection, coupled with extensive pragmatic application both on himself and on others. His was not an uninformed assessment.

While his judgment about the willingness of physicians to use electrotherapy turned out to be somewhat overdrawn, his invitation to them to try it before passing judgment cannot be discounted. Turrell, writing 150 years later, agreed with Wesley that we "still need some lovers of mankind, who have some knowledge of the animal economy, to be diligent in making experiments on the subject.45

Nevertheless, Wesley was not without his critics. Joseph Priestly, the Unitarian minister who wrote a definitive book on electricity which Wesley reviewed in his Desideratum, opined:

This account of the medical use of electricity by Mr. Lovett and Mr. Wesley is certainly liable to an objection which will always lie against the accounts of these persons, who not being of the faculty (i.e., not being physicians), cannot be supposed capable of distinguishing with accuracy either the nature of the disorder or the consequence of a seeming cure.46

Even Benjamin Franklin, who later changed his mind, said in a letter read to the Royal Society in 1758 that he "never knew any permanent advantage from electricity in palsies...perhaps some permanent advantage might be obtained if the electrical shocks had been accompanied with proper medicine and regimen under the direction of a skilled physician.47

Rogal recounts two occasions in which Franklin accidentally shocked himself in his experiments and concluded that great harm could come to human beings with too much shock. He concluded, "Of course, there exists no easy means for determining the differences in the strength of electrical shock...between Franklin's apparatus and Wesley's electrifying machine. This however raises an obvious question: if the Philadelphia scientist could not always control his devices, could the self-appointed healer of the Methodists, and/or his appointed agents, administer the shock with any greater care or confidence.48

Of course, the truth is that Wesley was as well informed and as skilled as many physicians in his day. His two books, Desideratum and Primitive Physick are based on much reading and personal experience. Moreover, the including of treatment for illness in the tasks of clergy had a longstanding tradition in seventeenth and eighteenth century England. Many clergy and lords-of-the-manor offered medical treatment to the poor who could not afford physicians. While nineteenth century Methodism in both England and America evidenced an increasing differentiation between the roles of clergy and physicians, in Wesley's time this distinction was not necessarily true. In fact, although the free clinics that Wesley started seemed to become defunct soon after his death in 1791, Methodist pastors persisted in offering medical advice to their parishioners well into the 1800s. Further, not all physicians were offended by Wesley's involvement in medical matters. Many of them were prominent in early Methodism.49

That electrotherapy Acaught-on and was embraced by many physicians later in the eighteenth century cannot be denied. A few of these developments were noted in the introduction to this essay. Among other developments was the first installation of a room for electrification in the asylum at Leicester in 1788. A fascinating account of an electric cure of an epidemic of hysteric reactions in a cotton mill at Lancashire was reported in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1787. A physician with a portable electric machine shocked some female workers who had gone into convulsions in imitation of a colleague who had a mouse put down her blouse in a playful ruse. The "fits were stopped but it took a week for work to return to normal. Whether any of these developments were due to Wesley's influence is debatable, as Rogal noted in his thesis that Wesley was a relative unknown in professional circles.

Probably the first physician to write a book on the use of electricity in general medicine was Christian Kratzenstein in 1745. By 1783, Nicholas Phillipe Ledru and his son Charles established a "medico-electric clinic in France and made house calls using a portable machine similar to that of Wesley's. Electricity was being used in Italy and Germany by 1786 when Galvani published his researches which were to lead to continuous current applications. Perhaps the most interesting indications of medicine's acceptance of this form of treatment were six pages of endorsements for Mr. J. L. Pulvermacher's "electric chains in the back of the 1781 edition of Wesley's Desideratum that included over ten "gentlemen of the faculty, four of whom were listed as physicians to the queen! For physicians to be willing to have their names in print with Wesley's indicated electrotherapy had finally "arrived! Even Benjamin Franklin had begun offering treatment by this time. Although these developments were, no doubt, due to more than Wesley's initiative, Turrell's evaluation of his efforts would evoke almost universal agreement. He stated, "Clearly, we find (in Wesley) a man of conspicuous ability, of indomitable energy, of reckless and fearless impetuosity, of science and fixed convictions, and of outstanding `Benevolence to Human Kind.'50

By the time Wesley died in 1791, major developments were taking place in research on electricity that had import for the treatment of both general and mental illness. Aliosio Galvani had published his great De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentaris on "animal electricity based on his study of frogs. He forthrightly stated in his preface that he was induced to undertake his arduous task to make the application of electricity safer in the treatment of disease.51

In 1799 Alessandro Volta disproved Galvani's thesis that what he had observed was a natural substance in organisms and was but the nerves conducting a current between two metals. He produced his first battery; and two years later Bischoff claimed that he was able to cure hysterical paralysis and stupor by the application of direct continuous current. In 1818 the first psychiatric treatments of melancholia by similar methods were reported by Heinroth at Leipzig.52 In 1831 Faraday's description of electromagnetism and the introduction of induced current provided the French physician, Guillaume Duchenne, a rational basis for using Faradic as well as Galvanic procedures in treating hysterical paralysis in 1849.53

Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century the electrotherapy which Wesley had practiced on a theological and pragmatic basis had, at last, a firm theoretical and rational foundation. However, Hackman is probably correct in saying that the primary stimulus for psychiatry's adoption of electroconvulsive shock treatment was more dependent on observations that epileptics never seemed to suffer from a psychosis than on these theoretical developments in the treatment of common sicknesses.

There is stronger support for concluding that the heritage of Wesley was that he influenced the use of mild applications of electricity in the treatment of muscle stimulation and general medicine. Despite how well he was known or accepted among the physicians of his day, there is still some warrant for suggesting that Wesley foresaw the application of "the greatest medicine yet known to the world to a great variety of maladies. Without a doubt, the use of electrical stimulation is a well-accepted procedure in twentieth century medicine.

The contention that Wesley was among the four best-known electrotherapists of the eighteenth century (and a precursor to the modern use of these procedures in general medicine) is well deserved.54 More importantly, his example of a visionary who combined spiritual salvation with physical and mental health remains worthy of emulation among modern Christians.

Table 1. Disorders in Which Wesley Thought Electrification to be of Use

Agues                                                        King's Evil
St. Anthony's Fire                                      Knots in the Flesh
Blindness, even from a Gurra Serena       Lameness, Leprosy
Blood extravasated                                   Mortification (dead flesh)
Bronchocele                                              Palpitation of the Heart
Chlorosis                                                   Pain in the back, in the Stomach
Coldness in the feet                                   Palsy, Pleurisy
Consumption                                              Rheumanism, Ring worms
Contractions of the limbs                           Sciatica, Shingles, Sprain
Cramp                                                        Surfeit (excessive eating)
Deafness, Dropsy                                       Swellings of all kinds
Epilepsy                                                     Throat sore 
Feet violently disorded                              Toe hurt
Felons                                                        Tooth - Ache
Fistula Lacrymalis                                      Wen (tumor on the scalp, goitre 
Fits, Ganglions, Gout, Gravel
Head ache, Hysterics, Inflammations





1This book has been republished by The United Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, Tennessee, 1992.

2Hill, A., John Wesley among the Physicians: A Study in Eighteen-Century Medicine. (London: The Epworth Press, 1958), p. 87.

3Tyerman, L., The Life and Times of Rev. John Wesley, M.A. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1870), p. 162.

4Hill, A., Schiller, F., "Reverend Wesley, Doctor Marat and Their Electrical Fire. Clio Medica (1981): 115, 159-176, Tyerman, L.

5Hunter, R. A., "A Brief Review of the Use of Electricity in Psychiatry with Special Reference to John Wesley. British Journal of Physical Medicine (1957): 20(5), p. 99.

6Wesley, J., Primitive Physick: Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. (London: J. Palmar, 1751).

7Hackman, W. D., The History of the Frictional Electrical Machine 1600-1850. (Alphenaan den Rijn: Sizthoff and Noordhoff, 1978).

8Hunter, p. 100.

9Ibid., p. 100.

10Stainbrook, E., "The Use of Electricity in Psychiatric Treatment during the Nineteenth Century. Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1948): 22(2), pp. 156-177.

11Rogal, S. J., "Electricity: John Wesley's `Curious and Important Subject.' Eighteenth Century Life (1989): 13, pp. 79-90.

12Wesley originally published A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation; Or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy in three volumes in 1763 and in five volumes in 1777. The 1809 edition was a republication of the 1777 edition.

13Hunter, p. 99.

14Collier, F. W., John Wesley among the Scientists. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1928). pp. 33-34.

15The Works of The Reverend John Wesley: Thomas Jackson, Ed. Third edition, fourteen volumes, (London, Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 2:388 (This was the journal for the ninth of November, 1756.).

16Collier, p. 133.

17Hill, A., p. 105.

18Woodward, M. W., "Wesley's Electrical Machine. Nursing Mirror (1962): 114(Suppl. 2978), 10, 16. p. x.

19Rogal, p. 79.

20Wesley, J., The Desideratum: Or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense. (London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1760), p. 1.

21Hill, O., "J. P. Marat's Use of Electricity in the Practice of Medicine. British Journal of Physical Medicine (1957): 10(5), 100-102. p. 101.

22Dunlop, R., "John Wesley: Medical Missionary to the New World. Today's Health (1964): 42(12), 20-23, p. 72.

23Hill, A., p. 99.

24Lovett, R., The Subtil Medium proved: or the wonderful power of Nature, so long ago conjectured by the most ancient and remarkable philosophers, which they called sometimes Aether, but oftener Elementary Fire, verified: showing that all the distinguishing and essential qualities ascribed to Aether by them and the most eminent modern philosophers, are to be found in Electrical Fire, and that, too, in the utmost degree of perfection. London: (1756).

25Wesley, J., (1760), p. 3.

26Ibid., p. 10.

27Ibid., p. 29.

28Hill, A., pp. 94-95.

29Wesley, J., (1760), p. 41.

30Ibid., p. 42.

31Ibid., pp. 42-43.

32Ibid., p. 43.

33Ibid., pp. 46-47.

34Ibid., p. 53.

35Ibid., pp. 68-69.

36Ibid., p. 64.

37Ibid., p. 57.

38Ibid., p. 30.

39Ibid., p. 48.

40Turrell, W. J., John Wesley: Physician and Electrotherapist. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1938), p. 19.

41Wesley, J., (1760), p. 66.

42Ibid., p. 71.

43Hill, A., p. 89.

44Wesley, J., (1760), pp. 71-72.

45Turrell, p. 7.

46Hill, A., p. 92.

47Ibid., p. 93.

48Rogal, p. 81.

49cf. Vanderpool, H. Y., "The Wesleyan-Methodist Tradition. In R. L. Numbers & D. W. Amundsen (Eds.), Caring and Curing in the Western Religious Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 317-353.

50Turrell, p. 24.

51Ibid., p. 6.

52Stainbrook, pp. 157-158.

53Ibid., pp. 158-159.

54Hill, A., Schiller, Tyerman.

*ASA Fellow