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Anyone who has ever heard of John Wesley (1703 – 1791) probably knows him as the prominent theologian who, along with his brother Charles, is credited with being one of the founders of the Methodist branch of Christianity. What few people are probably aware of is that Wesley wrote about tea, most notably in his Letter to a Friend, Concerning Tea. Though it dates from 1748, it was later reissued in 1825 and survives to this day thanks to the miracle of online digital archiving.
One of the first things the reader is likely to notice about Wesley’s letter is that he’s not exactly singing the praises of tea. Nowadays, when there seems to be a new report every other day trumpeting one or another of tea’s newly discovered health benefits it’s probably hard to imagine that it was not always considered to be a panacea for all ills.
Tea was still a comparatively new item by the time Wesley wrote about it, though its popularity had grown considerably from the days when it was first introduced to England. By most accounts this took place about eighty years earlier. Though it was already starting to push coffee out of the limelight and there was no shortage of people who were bullish about its many alleged benefits, there were also many others, some of them rather learned, who were not so convinced of tea’s merits.
Back in the day, depending on who you asked, tea might be a miracle elixir or downright poisonous, though there might actually have been a few moderates who placed tea somewhere between those two extremes.
The friend Wesley writes to is not named, but in the letter he recounts how, nearly three decades earlier, he found himself suffering “Symptoms of a Paralytick Disorder.” Wesley decided it might be his tea intake that was the cause of this malady and, though he varied his tea drinking habits in a variety of ways, only cutting out tea altogether provided relief. He later began to observe that various other people he encountered on the streets of London seemed to be suffering from the same condition.
Wesley decided to kick the tea “habit” altogether in August of 1746 and, by the time of his letter, he had apparently embarked on a campaign to persuade others to do the same. The rest of his letter is mostly consumed with his arguments against tea, though quite frankly it is rather convoluted and tricky for modern-day readers (or at least this modern-day reader) to follow.
But certain statements seem to jump out from the text, and there’s no ambiguity about some of Wesley’s comments about tea, such as this one, “You have need to abhor it as deadly Poison, and to renounce it from this very Hour.” Fortunately for those of us who actually like to drink tea nowadays and who don’t consider it to be poisonous, attitudes toward the beverage have changed since Wesley’s day.
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