A Review of
A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith
William Guerrant, Jr.
Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert
Over the last thirty years, from roughly 1990-2016, the world has seen a veritable explosion of new—or renewed—social, political and spiritual movements that have sought to reclaim and rejuvenate ideas about the intersection of health, fitness, environmental sustainability and spirituality. Most of them are centered on centuries old models that have been resurrected and updated with new information and research combined with technological advances that have allowed us to share information on a mass scale—we can communicate across the globe in a matter of seconds and what a contrast from the18th century of John Wesley and his ministry as recounted in William Guerrant, Jr.’s delightful book, Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming and Faith. One can only wonder at John Wesley–the Anglican cleric who founded the Methodist movement—on foot or on horseback, traversing the far corners of England promoting his message of personal holiness that included a powerful belief that a Christian had an obligation to preserve and maintain their physical health and well being through a healthy and simple diet, ample exercise, appropriate rest and recreation “in the open air” and all the better to be fit to serve and minister to others.
As he went from place to place, Wesley, realizing that the common people did not have access to physicians or information about diet and exercise, wrote his own “Physik” or health manual, pricing it at one shilling to make it affordable for all and adding personal counsel and continued help to those who were needing to take steps to improve their health. John Wesley was a living testament to healthy living– adopting a vegetarian diet, eschewing wine—which was considered a tonic by physicians of the time–walking for many miles each and every day without fail and thriving into a vigorous old age, dying well advanced in years at 87. Gentle of spirit yet forthright in his advice, Wesley lived what he preached and started a movement that continues to inspire and instruct to this day. For those of us who struggle, as Christians, with questions of how best to care for both body and soul and who have concerns about climate change and creation care as well as social justice concerning food scarcity and the health disparities caused by poverty and lack of access to healthy food, Organic Wesley is an eminently useful and quite fascinating manual for examining these issues within the context of the modern food movement and in the light of faith, offering not only a history of a little known aspect of John Wesley’s ministry, but real guidance about how to live out our concerns in these matters both personally and corporately within our religious communities.
The book examines the admittedly secular ethics of the modern food movement in comparison and contrast to Wesley’s own belief in the indivisibility of health from mature spirituality while it also questions whether Wesley would have approved and participated in the movement. Would he have aligned himself with, say, Wendell Berry in shared concerns about land use or the humane treatment of farm animals? Would he have endorsed the “local food” aspect of the movement and how would he have addressed issues of “food deserts” in urban areas? The close and careful examination of these and other questions develop from a thoughtful and readable structure commencing with a history of the industrial food system and the consequent loss of diversified family farms and moving on to the treatment of farm animals, local foods and the environmental impact of modern industrial farming methods and all of it interspersed with Wesley’s own writing on and ideas about diet, exercise and the spiritual life and how these ideas co-exist with attention to physical well-being. It is, of course, impossible to know whether Wesley would have affirmed the food movement but the author makes an excellent case that with small exceptions—and with the addition of a connection to a more holistic human health and wellness that must, then, include the spiritual life—he would indeed have approved much of our current thinking on the topics of nutrition and exercise as essential for human thriving when motivated by a desire to live a life of robust Christian service to the world and he certainly would have affirmed the focus on humane treatment of animals and care of the earth through sustainable and organic farming methods. Wesley’s intellectual and spiritual prowess is everywhere present in this beautifully expressed book, informing both structure and content—information and anecdotal evidence offered with academic precision and humility both—while providing a series of questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter such that any small group or community can read, question and discuss the ideas towards personal and corporate goals—makes it a perfect book for various liturgical seasons such a Advent or Lent given its focus on self-examination relating to how we respond to issues of social justice related to food scarcity, environmental concerns and our personal choices related to nutrition and wellness.
John Wesley is considered the founding father of the Evangelical movement of the 18th century with his focus on personal holiness and in his free and fervent sharing of the Gospel wherever he found people willing to listen whether in the village marketplace or in a field of wildflowers—wherever “two of three” were gathered together he attempted to show them that Christ was in their midst. His devotion to saving the souls—and bodies of the faithful, to offer guidance in all areas of life, including physical health, added a dimension of compassion and caring not seen in the reformed churches to that point. While caring for the sick and dying was long a concern of the Roman Catholic theology, especially within the monasteries amongst the vowed religious, the Protestant church had focused almost exclusively on saving souls through “faith alone” so Wesley’s expansive view of ministry, encompassing as it did his idea that the Kingdom of God was intended for man in the here and now and that the body, as the Temple of the Holy Spirit was—as God named all creation—good, and worthy of care.
Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming and Faith offers an illuminating examination of John Wesley’s life and ministry with so many implications for our own time. The issues related to food security, nutrition and health from land and water use, organic and sustainable farming and how we might best restore and maintain the health of ourselves, our families and communities are pressing concerns requiring our focus and prayer so that we might follow John Wesley’s example, so beautifully explored in this fine book, to “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
Michelle Wilbert: spiritual director, poemcatcher, farmwife.