- The Lord for the Body: Religion, Medicine, and Protestant Faith Healing in Canada, 1880-1930
In 1988, a San Francisco cardiologist, Randolph Byrd, published the results of an experiment in which he asked born-again Christians to pray for people hospitalized in a coronary care unit, comparing them with patients not targeted for prayer. He concluded that those who were prayed for needed fewer drugs and less help breathing. His research on the medical effects of 'intercessory prayer' provoked a firestorm of scientific debate and international media attention, striking, as it did, at the heart of scientific evidence and the nature of healing. This controversial episode in medical science comes to mind when reading James Opp's The Lord for the Body. Throughout the nineteenth century, as medicine began to rise in prominence and marginalize divine explanations for ill-health, disease, and death, devout Christians attempted to show the practical importance of prayer in an increasingly secularized world. One of the attempts to bridge the medical and miraculous was the faith healing movement. [End Page 170]
Opp details how faith healing appeared to take off in the 1880s and 1890s in Protestant, anglophone Canada. Adherents varied in their background and religious affiliation, but there were fascinating, if ephemeral, connections to the Salvation Army, Christian Science, and medical sects such as homeopathy and hydropathy. As the author demonstrates, the early practice of faith healing was highly gendered and spatially circumscribed. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, women ministered to other women in private domestic spaces, recounting and framing their spiritual and bodily transformations in healing narratives. The publication of such faith-healing tracts facilitated the development of informal networks in the northeastern United States, networks that ultimately cascaded into Ontario and the Maritimes. The coalescing of groups into the Christian Alliance formalized faith healing as a movement, even if the expressions and practices were diverse and often obscured from public attention. At this time, many 'respectable' members of society were drawn to this apparent attempt to reconcile contemporary scientific advances with traditional beliefs in the power of prayer.
By the 1920s, however, the social geography and culture of faith healing had changed dramatically. Prominent evangelists took faith healing on the road, engaging in huge public spectacles of divine invocation, replete with raucous music and mass audience participation. This very public rendering of faith healing in large indoor arenas across North America elicited greater criticism from mainstream clergy than the more private and restrained practices extant a generation earlier. Moreover, the insistence of the later generation of faith healers to forego most types of conventional medical intervention – including vaccination and drugs – would lead, in tragic circumstances, to court cases of negligence for failing to provide the 'necessaries of life.' The new medical surveillance of the state, the author argues, dared not condone the flagrant non-participation of its citizens in the new public health agenda of the twentieth century.
The Lord for the Body contributes as much, if not more, to our understanding of the history of health and medicine as it does to our knowledge of ecclesiastical debates about atonement theology and the rise of Protestant denominations such as Pentecostalism. Opp's examination of 'healing narratives' and 'narrative networks' provides a rare, if fleeting, glimpse into domestic health care in the late nineteenth century. He argues that faith healing stood increasingly marginalized as the germ theory of disease moved the cultural understanding of illness from the bedroom into the laboratory, just as medical technologies were shifting birth, death, and surgery into the [End Page 171] formal hospital. New ways of seeing illness and the body introduced new medical truths that could not easily be reconciled with the often mystical tropes of healing narratives or the onstage theatre of divine healers. It is not surprising, then, that the author insists that the ultimate goal of his book is to 'analyse the cultural practice of divine healing within the context of a broader...