Wesley and Depression

Published in the Free Methodist Magazine "Light and Life" and used by permission of the author
Dr. Tony Headley

Tony Headley is a professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, a licensed psychologist and author of Achieving Balance in Ministry (Beacon Hill Press, 1999


The “age of depression” rings true for our times. Each successive recent generation has grown more susceptible to its impact. For example, 1%  of those born before 1905 had experienced major depression by age 75. In contrast, 6% born after 1955 have suffered from depression by age 30. Three- percent males and 6% females require hospitalization because of its severity. Furthermore, men’s rates are quickly catching up with women’s rates of depression.

Wesley’s day resembles ours to some degree; he perceived his generation as more “nervous.” By “nervous”, he primarily meant depression. He also used terms like “lowness of spirits,” “sinking of the spirits” and “a deep depression of the spirits.” What did he think about the realness of depression? How compatible is it with Christian faith? What are its sources? How does one bring about change? I base my initial answers to these questions primarily on two works: “Thoughts on Nervous Disorders” and his sermon “Heaviness through Manifold Temptations.” Some secondary thoughts will be gleaned from “A Letter to a Friend, concerning Tea.”

Nervous Disorders are Real

Wesley clearly accepted the reality of “nervous disorders.” He did admit an imprecise use of the term. For him, physicians sometimes used it to cover ignorance; some of their “nervous disorders” stemmed from “the hand of God upon the soul,” or from conviction of sin. However, he did not consider these instances true nervous disorders.

Over against these misdiagnoses, Wesley affirmed “nervous disorders which are purely natural.” In the three works noted earlier, several mental health diagnoses appeared. In “Thoughts on Nervous Disorders,” Wesley implied a delusional disorder, somatic type and some sort of somatoform disorder. Here too we find a mood (affective) disorder described as “lowness of spirits.” His concept “heaviness” may also belong in this latter category. Caffeine-Induced disorders appeared in his letter on tea. He associated heavy tea consumption with depression and a “paralytic disorder.”

Clearly from these references, Wesley accepted nervous disorders as real. He largely used the term “Nervous Disorders” as an umbrella category covering various mental problems. However, his work on nervous disorders focused on “lowness of spirits.”

Wesley’s Understanding of Depression

Wesley’s “lowness of spirits” would now be called depression. It is classified as a mood disorder. His description demonstrated remarkable insight. He described the low-spirited in the following terms.

We sometimes say, “A man is in high spirits;” and the proper opposite to this is, “He is low spirited.” Does not this imply, that a kind of faintness, weariness, and listlessness affects the whole body, so that he is disinclined to any motion, and hardly cares to move hand or foot? But the mind seems chiefly to be affected, having lost its relish of everything, and being no longer capable of enjoying the things it once delighted in most. Nay, everything round about is not only flat and insipid, but dreary and uncomfortable. It is not strange if, to one in this state, life itself is become a burden; yea, so insupportable a burden, that many who have all this world can give, desperately rush into an unknown world, rather than bear it any longer.”

The following features stand out:

1. Loss of energy affecting the whole body.

2. Loss of interest in pleasurable activities and the capacity to enjoy them.

3. Overall depressed approach to life

4. Suicide or suicide attempts.

Elsewhere in the article, Wesley mentioned indolence, intemperance and “irregular passions” as related to depression. By these, he meant lack of exercise, problems of appetite and sleep and unregulated emotions. His description bears striking resemblance to DSM 1V criteria for a depressive episode. In fact, of the nine criteria, Wesley clearly covered seven. The missing two criteria are those related to the ability to think and feeling of worthlessness.

Christian Faith and Depression

Wesley saw depression as compatible with Christian faith. Several pieces of evidence suggest this. First, one must remember that he wrote “Thoughts on Nervous Disorders” for a Christian audience. He intended it as the key to eradicating “lowness of spirits” within the Christian community.

Second, Wesley believed that faith did not overrule natural susceptibilities. In his sermon on heaviness, he wrote the following about nervous disorders:

“This is eminently the case with regard to those which are termednervous disorders. And faith does not overturn the course of nature: Natural causes still produce natural effects. Faith no more hinders thesinking of the spirits (as it is called) in an hysteric illness than the rising of the pulse in a fever.”

Third, his sermon on heaviness revealed a similar position. At the outset of the sermon Wesley made some clear assertions: Heaviness is common even among believers; all children of God experience it to some higher or lower degree; one can experience this problem and still be a believer who retains peace, hope, joy, love and holiness.

One might argue that Wesley did not discuss “heaviness” as depression. That is true. However, for him, they seemed related: Lowness of spirits (depression) like “heaviness” consists of a deep sorrow. Additionally, like nervous disorders, it can be produced by chronic illness. Similar to depression it bears constitutional links. Wesley also related heaviness to situational events like disease, poverty and loss.  His description fits situational depression; one brought on by events in the person’s life. If not entirely equated with depression, heaviness certainly appears a kind of mood problem.

These pieces of evidence suggest Wesley accepted depression as consistent with faith. This does not mean he embraced it as unsolvable. By his writings, he evidently meant to free the Christian community from this problem.

Depression: Spiritual or Natural?

What are the causes of depression? Are they spiritual or natural?  Wesley provided some answers to these questions. I reiterate that he did not consider “God’s hand upon the soul” or “conviction of sin” nervous disorders. However, he saw spiritual issues as related; for him, the supernatural and natural sometimes went together. Clapper has demonstrated that this certainly rang true of Wesley’s views on the affections (emotions).

How then are mental problems “spiritual?” I offer three suggestions. First, Wesley believed Satan sometimes used problems like depression to gain advantage over the believer. Second, he acknowledged that heaviness could affect the whole person: It could overshadow the whole soul, color the affections, affect behavior and influence the body. Such thinking reflects a systemic understanding of persons. Christians like others, are soul, mind and body. Therefore changes in one area could detract from one’s spiritual life.  Finally, he observed that God provided the ultimate power to produce change and victory over lowness of spirits. In my opinion, Wesley considered mental problems spiritual in these senses.

However, Wesley emphasized natural bases. His emphasis likely stemmed from his keen observation of people and their behaviors. His power of observation stands clearest in his letter on tea. Through observation, he diagnosed that drinking tea caused the shaking of his hands. He observed similar problems among his acquaintances. Wesley seems like Freud or Piaget who discovered clues to human problems on the basis of “in vivo” observation.

Wesley suggested several natural causes. From current knowledge, his list includes both predisposing factors and consequences of depression. They include:

1. Constitutional. By this, he meant one’s overall make-up. Our constitution makes us liable to various problems of body and mind.

2. Situational. He mentioned illnesses, poverty, and varied losses as prime sources of heaviness.

3. Personal Choices and Behaviors. These include alcohol use; heavy tea consumption; lack of regular exercise; appetite and sleep problems (hypersomnia).

4. Emotional. Wesley mentioned irregular passions and their inappropriate regulation.

In his understanding, Wesley was amazingly on target. Current understanding of depression include the following predisposing factors: “a family history of depression, a depressive episode in childhood … alcohol abuse, high negative stress, recent losses, chronic low self-esteem and any history of chronic illness.”

Treating Depression

Finally, I turn to Wesley’s approach to change. In “Thoughts on Nervous Disorders,” he betrayed a hopeful view on treatment. He believed his suggested interventions would successfully eliminate depression. Furthermore, he concluded that work with a positive scriptural quote: “But the peace of God which passeth all understanding, shall keep thy heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”(Phil. 4:7) In his vision, he saw God’s peace filling the heart and driving out lowness of spirits. This verse also gives clear insight into the basis for his positive outlook; for Wesley, God was the ultimate source of all healing including healing of the mind.  Thus, he wrote of overcoming depression: “But this cannot be done by your own strength; it can only be done by the mighty power of God. If you are convinced of this, set about it, trusting in Him, and you will surely conquer.”

However, persons must play a role in their own healing. Thus, he continued by emphasizing human motivation and action. He recommended abstinence from alcoholic beverages; minimizing use of tea (caffeine); exercise; moderation in eating; getting adequate sleep and moderating one’s emotional life. This emphasis suggests a spiritual-behavioral approach: "to overcome depression, Christians must trust fully in God and His power and do everything within their control". Successful change involves God and persons, spiritual and natural, God’s power and human responsibility held together in magnificent tension.

Wesley A Counselor?

As read these few pieces, I saw Wesley as a Christian healer; a sort of counselor. A counselor is one who gives professional guidance on personal problems. In these works Wesley sought to do just that. Judging by his example, he would approve the “ministry of counseling.” He would see it as another instance of human agency cooperating with divine power and grace. Wesley would approve for another reason: Healing of nervous disorders would open the door to greater growth in grace. This should not surprise the reader: For Wesley, persons were systems, combining body, soul and spirit, each affecting the other. Infirmities of mind and emotion can hinder one’s spiritual life. Likewise, growth in these areas would certainly enhance furtherance in grace and holiness.

See also Luther On Depression

Robert G. Meyer and Sarah E. Deitsch, The Clinician’s Handbook. (Needham, MA: Simon and Schuster, 1996) p. 75.

John Wesley, The Complete Works of John Wesley, Vol. 11: Thoughts on Nervous Disorders; Particularly that which is usually termed lowness of spirits (Albany, NY: Sage Digital Library, 1996), p. 606.

John Wesley, The Complete Works of John Wesley, Vol. 6: Sermon XLV11 - Heaviness through Manifold Temptations, (Albany, NY: Sage Digital Library, 1996).

John Wesley, The Complete Works of John Wesley, Vol. 11: A Letter to a Friend, Concerning Tea (Albany, NY: Sage Digital Library, 1996).

Wesley, Thoughts on Nervous Disorders, p. 603

See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - DSM-1V (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994), p. 327 for the criteria.

Wesley, Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations, p. 115.

Gregory S. Clapper, John Wesley on Religious Affections. (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1989), chap. 4 especially p. 70, 74.

Wesley, Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations, p. 117. 

ibid., p. 114.

Wesley, Thoughts on Nervous Disorders, p. 607.

Mayer & Deitsch, The Clinician’s Handbook, p. 75.