The concern for the welfare of the whole man weighed heavily on John Wesley in eighteenth century England. He studied medicine in his spare time, practicing preventive and curative medicine and earned the right to be called a physician. He saw a growing need to provide medical help to the poor and opened dispensaries in London, Newcastle, and Bristol. His well known and widely read Primitive Physic or The Easy and Natural Way to Cure Most Diseases published in 1747, went through thirty-two editions. Years before the discovery of the germ theory, Wesley perceived the relationship between disease and poor hygiene and preached good hygiene as a means to good health. The saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is from one of Wesley’s sermons. Wesley was also among the first to consider the connection between pain and emotional distress and the need to treat the whole person.
The First “Orphans House” in America
The first health and welfare agency in America dates to the mid-eighteenth century. Thirty years before Francis Asbury, the Father of American Methodism, was sent to the American Colonies and forty-three years before the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, George Whitefield saw the crucial need for the care of children in the early colony of Georgia. Out of his efforts the first welfare agency in America was established in the Bethesda “orphans house,” in 1741.
The First Home for the Aged in America
The first home for aged persons under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in New York City in 1850. That year it opened its doors in a rented house to twenty-three elderly people who paid $1.00 per week for their care.
The Turn of the Century
In the late 18th century, numerous agencies were springing up across the nation caring for old people and orphans, but the biggest boom did not occur until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the nation moved from an agricultural rural society to a more urban industrialized population. Houses were no longer built to care for multi-generational families. Adult children became overburdened with care of elderly parents who found little to occupy their time in the crowded urban households. The decade of the 1890’s was a period of large growth in construction and development of hospitals, homes for the aging and dependent children. Between 1875 and 1919 over 800 benevolent homes to care for the elderly alone were formed. Many United Methodist agencies trace their history to this period.
Methodist Board of Hospitals and Homes
Through the years the Methodist Episcopal Church divided over such issues as slavery and interpretation of the doctrine. Among branches which separated were the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1787, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1796, the Methodist Protestants, 1830 the Free Methodist Church, 1860, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 1870. Perhaps the most devastating split of all came in 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church was bisected to form two churches, the Methodist Episcopal Church, was the northern body, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.It was to be many years before branches of this church would begin coming together again. In May 1939, in Kansas City, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church united to form the United Methodist Church. This merger was significant to health and welfare interests of the church for in Chicago, in 1940, the new body established the General Board of Hospitals and Homes, the organization to which the United Methodist Association of Health and Welfare traces its origin.