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  • The Lord for the Body: Religion, Medicine, & Protestant Faith Healing in Canada, 1880-1930
  • William Westfall (bio)
James Opp . The Lord for the Body: Religion, Medicine, & Protestant Faith Healing in Canada, 1880-1930. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2005. 288. $65.00

Faith healing presents a considerable obstacle for the historian of religion. In film and cable television it appears as all hoax and hokum - the psychologically enfeebled routinely victimized by the hucksters, charlatans, and other bottom feeders of religious life. This popular image is in turn reinforced by the ingrained teleologies of modern medicine. Medical science, we all know, provides the only true path to bodily health. One may acknowledge the sincerity of the (misguided) believer - perhaps even the apparent success (no doubt for other reasons) of some of the cures. But the movement by its nature is fraudulent and those who choose the Lord for the body are doomed to failure. Like those who prove their faith by grasping onto snakes or await the coming of the Lord on rooftops, faith healing is one of the backwaters of religious history. While the mainstream of Protestant religion in Canada flowed majestically towards liberalism, bourgeois respectability, and accommodation with the modern world, faith healing moved to the margins of Canadian society and culture - irrational, primitive, and just plain weird.

James Opp's masterful study of Protestant faith healing in Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only moves faith [End Page 594] healing towards the very centre of Canadian social and cultural history, it also enlarges in a number of important ways the scope of religious history itself. Three themes stand out. First of all he draws out the deep historical roots and theological complexity of the movement. Christ healed the sick and made the blind see; all Christian churches pray for divine help in times of pain and sickness; and the history of Christianity is filled with miraculous cures and attendant thanksgivings. More significantly, in the nineteenth century the movement developed a well-articulated theology of atonement. Christ's sacrifice, according to the fourfold gospel, was both spiritual and physical so that through prayer and faith we could become both spiritually saved and physically healed. Given some of the other orthodoxies of the age, such a doctrine does not seem to entail such a large leap of faith. Second, like so much of Protestant religious life, faith healing was deeply gendered. It relied upon women who built and sustained its institutional structure, became the objects of its ministrations, and provided some of its leading practitioners. In effect, the history of faith healing is a fascinating case study in the interplay of women's health and religion: their needs, their faith, and their power. Finally, the history of the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed a fascinating cultural geography. As official religion seemed to become increasingly privatized within the middle-class family and the bourgeois churches, faith healing followed a very different course. What had begun largely in the bedchamber moved out of the house and in time filled major public sites, such as Massey Hall, with elaborate religious spectacles. In sum, the faith healing movement was theologically grounded, sustained by a strong and active female membership, and increasingly public and popular in its appeal.

All this, however, still leaves us with the rather gnawing question of truth. No matter how rich and complex, no matter how many insights such a careful analysis reveals, did faith healing work or was it a fraud? Should the historian write a testimony or an exposé? Here Opp skilfully turns such longstanding debates into a fine cultural analysis of the very object the movement set out to heal. Drawing upon Foucault's insights, especially The Birth of the Clinic, he argues that what was really at stake was not the efficacy of faith healing but a contest between two ways of constructing the body. While the medical gaze saw the body as a number of discrete elements that could be measured, analyzed, and manipulated by the practitioners of medical science, the faith healing movement treated the body as a physical and spiritual unity that was...


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pp. 594-596
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