Faith healing may occur in relation not only to specially gifted persons, but also to specific places. Studies conducted by the medical office of the Catholic church have documented 36 “miracles” at Lourdes in which a person was cured of documented disease. Since 1800 a number of Protestant faith-healing groups have appeared, including that of John Alexander Dowie, the Emmanuel movement, and the Peculiar People (“chosen people”), a name applied to numerous Protestant dissenting sects such as the Plumstead peculiars. This group, founded in London in 1838 by John Banyard, refused medical treatment as an article of faith.There are a host of unorthodox religious groups in America—Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jehovah’s, and Pentecostals—who have all had a strong interest in faith healing, including using laying-on of hands and healing touch. Ellen Gould White (1827-1911) and Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) founded their religious group around healing experiences. Other women healers, including Maria B.Woodworth-Etter and Aimee Semple McPherson, were instrumental in forming groups of Pentecostals at the turn of the century.
Based on healing experiences, Mary Caroline (“Myrtle”) Fillmore (1845-1931) founded the Unity Church. As a spiritualist, Fillmore and others communed with the departed by passing hands over the body to unblock vital fluid. These healers are the direct forerunners of New Age trance channeling. Kathryn Kuhlman is yet another faith healer who held miracle services from the early 1950s until her death in 1976. Kulhman had a strong following across the nation and even held her famous miracle healing services in Carnegie Hall for 20 years, filling the great auditorium to capacity every time.
Miraculous recoveries have been attributed to a myriad of techniques commonly lumped together as “faith healing in the name of a greater power.” But what is this spiritual side of healing touch–a side that some claim as miraculous, yet that is controversial among many? Faith healing is a process through which someone is healed, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually, by what is said to be the direct intervention of divine or super natural power. Faith healing is unlike conventional medicine, which treats disease with specific therapies developed through observation and research, and from alternative medicine, which fights illness with remedies gathered from ancient or traditional lore.
While most Western scientists will tell you faith healing is no substitute for medication or surgery, the belief that prayer, faith or divine intervention of a healer can actually cure illness has been known since the beginning of recorded history. The efficacy of faith healing to effect cure of disease has not been scientifically proved, but the popularity and subjective potency of such interventions is indisputable.
The gospels contain many examples of Jesus (and even the apostles) healing the sick and lame. However, the healings of Jesus were given as a sign of the legitimacy of His claim of Messiahship, since the Old Testament said that the Messiah would heal the blind and the deaf. Jesus recognized the important roles of physicians in His time. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”
We have been unable to find references to any double-blind controlled studies which compare the effectiveness of faith healing in place of regular medical procedures. We located a few statements and surveys:
Jehovah’s Witnesses: In 1997-FEB, the writer of a book review in the American Medical Association’s journal estimated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief about blood transfusions has “led thousands to die needlessly.” 1The Watchtower periodical Awake once showed pictures of Jehovah’s Witnesses children who followed the churches ban on blood transfusions and died. 2 It is, of course, unknown how many would still have died even if they had transfusion(s).
Christian Science: William F. Simpson, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at Emporia State University conducted an exploratory study into the effectiveness of Christian Science healing. He compared alumni records from a Christian Science school (Principia College in Elsah, IL) with those from the secular University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. One would expect that if Christian Science healing is as effective as conventional medicine, then the graduates of Principia College would live longer than those from Kansas. This is because the Church forbids the use of alcohol and tobacco. But the results were in the opposite direction. The death rates among Principia graduates from 1934 to 1948 were significantly higher than those of the University of Kansas graduates. (26.2 vs. 20.9% for men; 11.3 vs. 9.9% for women).
A more realistic study was made later, comparing the mortality of Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists. Both denominations abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Even greater differences were found in the second test, again with Christian Scientists having higher mortality rates. 3,4 This type of study is fairly crude; its results should not be treated as precise or conclusive. Graduates at different universities may have, on average, been raised under different conditions, or might enter professions of differing danger levels, they might have entered military service at different rates, etc. However, the studies appear to indicate that Christian Science healing is significantly less effective than standard medicine. That is, choosing Christian Science prayer in place of conventional medicine causes additional, preventable deaths.
U.S. death toll among infants and children: In 1998-APR, Dr. Seth Asser, a critical-care pediatrician at Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, and Rita Swan, head of the advocacy group Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) authored a paper in the professional journal Pediatrics. Asser studied 172 reported deaths of infants and children between 1975 and 1995. Deaths were found in 34 states among members of 23 religious groups. They belonged to families of Christian Scientist, Faith Tabernacle, Faith Assembly and several other religious groups that practice faith healing. He compared the cause of death with the expected survival rates if the children had received routine medical care. They found:
140 children would have had a 90% chance of surviving if they had been treated medically.
18 children would have had a 50 to 90% chance of surviving
11 children would have received some benefits from medical care
3 would not have been helped from medical care
The 172 deaths are presumably some unknown fraction of the total deaths among children whose parents used faith healing in place of medical treatment.
Also unknown are the numbers of children who died after having received medical treatment who would have been saved by faith healing. As structured, the study only analyzes one side of the story.
Many of the conditions and diseases that killed the 172 children were “ordinary ailments seen and treated routinely” e.g. appendicitis, labor complications, dehydration, antibiotic-sensitive bacterial infections and vaccine-preventable disorders. They cited cases in which:
A 2 year old child choked on a piece of banana and died an hour later, while her parents frantically gathered other church members into a circle to pray.
Children with an infection who would have been saved with a single injection of penicillin.
Babies who would have lived if they received oxygen.
Five mothers died from relatively common and treatable complications during labor.
Several children died after long periods of terribly painful suffering. 5,6
The article concludes:
“The children of members of faith-healing sects deserve the same protections under the law as other children have. We believe that the repeal of exemption laws is a necessary step toward assuring such protection…before hundreds more children suffer needlessly and die prematurely.”
Robert Gilbert of the Christian Science Committee on Publication said the study was biased and misleading:
“The assumption here is that you can judge a religion only by its failures, when the fact is we have quite a good record in the 130-plus years of Christian Science healing. And it’s a tragedy whenever a child dies.”
Unfortunately, the denomination does not release its data to the public; the effectiveness of its healing methods remains unknown.