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October 2021

Soc Hist Med. 1998 Aug; 11(2): 197-212.

Physical puritanism and religious dissent: the case of John Young (1820-1904), Sunderland chemist and druggist and Methodist lay preacher.

Clement M.

"Physical puritanism", the name given to the popular medical reform movements of early Victorian Britain by the Edinburgh academic Samuel Brown, nicely evokes their links with religious dissent. While historians have examined the formal organization, leadership, and membership of several of these movements, we know very little about the ways of thinking of their ordinary adherents. The diary of John Young (1820-1904), a Sunderland chemist and druggist and local preacher of the Wesleyan Methodist Association, affords unrivalled insights into the mind of one "physical puritan". In particular, Young's reading of the Edinburgh physician and phrenologist Andrew Combe's influential work Principles of Physiology (1834) can be examined in detail. Virginia Smith has argued that such advice books are valuable in providing access to lay ideas about health. Their readership, however, has not been studied. This article offers a case study which calls into question Smith's assertion that the new utilitarian popular physiology of the 1830s and 1840s was valued principally for the physical benefits offered by its therapies, so distinguishing it from its more spiritually-oriented eighteenth-century antecedents. I argue that the natural theology which marks Combe's work was important in helping dissenters like Young to appropriate new ideas (in particular ideas derived from the popular science of phrenology) not only to promote physical health, but also to assist in attaining spiritual goals. For some of their readers, Combe and Wesley were not so far apart.


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