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  • Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing and Liberal Christianity by Pamela Klassen
  • Mary-Lee Mulholland
Klassen, Pamela, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing and Liberal Christianity, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011, 348pages.

Perhaps one of the most popular areas of study under the rubric of the anthropology of religion, to students and faculty alike, is healing. Interestingly, much of the research in this area focuses on either evangelical or charismatic Christian traditions or syncretic non-Western communities. Although there is no shortage of nuanced, theoretically sophisticated, and rich ethnographic research in this area, as an instructor of an undergraduate anthropology of religion class, I am always looking for ethnographic research that undermines student’s perceptions of exotic religious practices situated with the Other. With this I turned to read Pamela Klassen’s Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing and Liberal Christianity. Combining historical and ethnographic methods, Klassen gives readers a rich and detailed study of the connections between healing, Protestantism, liberalism, anthropology, and modernity in twentieth-century North America. Focusing primarily on members and groups within the Anglican and United Churches of Canada, she examines how they pursed a “supernatural liberalism” that, at first, led to a combination of “biomedicine and evangelism to effect ‘conversions to modernity’ “ (xiii). In particular, she details the influence of Protestant liberals in the fields of medicine and mission work. The intimate experiences of missionaries as agents and witnesses to modernity and colonialism led to a self-critique of the ethnocentric imposition of Christianity on non-Western people and a new openness to non-Western healing practices. As a result, many liberals began to embrace syncreticism and various holistic notions of healing contextualised in a reflexive and critical understanding of the place of liberal Protestants in modernity, imperialism, and racism (xiii).

Klassen begins her analysis by situating healing and supernaturalism in a history of liberal Protestantism by challenging the stereotype and critique of liberal Protestants as being devoid of these practices. Here, she points out the importance of “experience and reason” as liberal Protestants contributed to, and were influenced by, a close relationship with science, particularly medicine and anthropology. Specifically, in the first chapter entitled “Anthropologies of the Spiritual Body,” she demonstrates the commitment many liberal Protestants and missionaries had to biomedical care. It is also in this chapter she argues that before the academic understanding of anthropology there was also a “theological anthropology” and that the former is grounded in the latter. Drawing on the literature (by Talal Asad and others) that argues that anthropology, and, specifically, anthropology of religion, is grounded in a deeply Christian ontology and epistemology, Klassen maintains that it is difficult to fully separate academic anthropology from its theological kin.

In Chapter 2, Klassen draws on examples of well-known church figures who worked as medical specialists (nurses and doctors) in missionary work, combining, with little or no anxiety, the principles of Western biomedicine and the Bible. For many of these healers, including Anna Henry who was a medical missionary in China, the text was central to the healing process. In the following chapter, “Protestant Experimentalists and the Energy of Love,” she examines the “experimentalists” who combined the knowledge of non-Western healing practices experienced through missionary work, supernaturalism, and an interest in “techniques of psychology” to develop different methods of healing (102). These healers include Fredrick Du Vernet and Belle Oliver, both of whom had worked as missionaries (one in Canada, the other abroad) and had become disenchanted with the missionary project and critically reflexive of the role of missionaries in the broader colonial endeavour. Whereas Fredrick Du Vernet combined science, technology, and supernaturalism to create “spiritual radio” (“radio waves as channels for divine energy”), Belle Oliver introduced Protestants to healing through prayer. Other experimental healing practices covered here include various advocates of “Christian Yoga.” In the next chapter, “Evil Spirits and the Queer Psyche in an Age of Anxiety,” Klassen turns her attention to the emergence of charismatic renewal and psychology as major influences on healing in the mid-twentieth century. Whereas some liberal Protestants were drawn to charismatic healing (including exorcism) in the 1960s, others were drawn to psychology and, influenced by a broader movement in...