Healing, Miraculous

Healing, Miraculous

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

No religious phenomena have proved as important as the many extraordinary healings that have occurred in various religious contexts from around the world. Such healings, due to their instantaneous nature, the nature of the disease that is cured, or the connection of the healing with specific religious events, are deemed to have occurred by means over and above ordinary healing efforts.

While such healings occur in all religious traditions, they have played a particular role in Christianity, which emerged from the healing ministry of Jesus and continued through the first century of the Common Era by his apostles. Within the Christian tradition, healings have been associated with particular saintly church members, and healing miracles, in fact, are a necessary part of the phenomena surrounding anyone whom the Roman Catholic Church would elevate to sainthood. Healing has also been associated with particular sites, frequently places where water is available, such as wells and springs. Increasingly in the modern ages, healings have been associated with sites where apparitions of the Virgin Mary haveoccurred. Healing sites have often been the destination of pilgrims, and sites of pilgrimages not originally associated with healings have often become healing sites over the centuries.

The Protestant movement was critical of much within Roman Catholicism that it saw as superstition and unbiblical accretions to the faith. In its disparagement of such phenomena as purgatory and the use of indulgences to grant souls relief from sufferings in this realm (nowhere mentioned in the Bible), Protestants also abandoned much of the Catholic Church’s tradition concerning miraculous healing.

In the eighteenth century, secular skeptics added their voices to the initial Protestant critique of much of the naïve supernaturalism of medieval Catholicism. The children of the Enlightenment have attempted to explain all miracles in terms of mundane natural processes and have had faith that, where some mystery remains, science will eventually explain what has occurred. Relative to healing, science has begun to make progress in curing disease with the development of sanitation, the development of surgery, and, at the end of the nineteenth century, the discovery of germs followed by discoveries of various germ-destroying substances. In the twentieth century, the rise of the several psychological disciplines has further expanded the reach of secular healing arts.

Paralleling the development of modern medicine has been a succession of movements built around beliefs, practices and claims of extraordinary healings. A new era began with the activity of Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmers (1734–1815), who emerged to prominence in Paris, France, at the end of the eighteenth century. Mesmer proposed the existence of a universal cosmic energy that could be concentrated in various devices or in some human beings and could be passed to the sick, leading to their cure. A mesmerist could send this same energy into another person, causing him or her to go into a trancelike state. The belief in this underlying cosmic energy spawned a variety of movements in the next century. In the United States, through the 1840s mesmerists toured the country giving demonstrations of mesmerism (later to be called hypnotism). The thrust of the mesmerist movement was absorbed into Spiritualism at mid-century.

A wide variety of alternative healing movements emerged in Europe and America, from homeopathy to hydrotherapy (the water cure). Not unimportant was an advocacy of natural whole foods, especially associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Most seekers and practitioners in these movements sought healing outside the practices of mainstream medicine and found their healing agents in rather mundane sources. Within Spiritualism, however, a number of healing mediums arose who claimed to facilitate the passing of healing energies from the spirit world. Such mediums might or might not be in direct contact with one or more spirit entities. Such healing became institutionalized in Spiritualism, though always taking second place to demonstrations of life after death in spirit contact.

Out of the chaos of healing practices, three new movements arose as the nineteenth century came to a close. First, in Massachusetts, a woman named Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) experienced a sudden healing following her realization that God was the only reality and that in God there was perfect health. Her healing in 1866 led to the founding of the Christian Science movement in 1875 and was eventually embodied in the Church of Christ, Scientist. One of Eddy’s students was Emma Curtis Hopkins (1853–1925), whose own healing efforts, a variation on Eddy’s work, led to the formation of the New Thought movement, which is now manifest through several metaphysical denominations such as the Unity School of Christianity, the United Church of Religious Science, Religious Science International, and the Divine Science Federation International.

Second, within the Holiness movement that emerged in Methodism in the years just prior to the Civil War, a new healing emphasis developed around several people who had themselves experienced a miraculous healing. Leading the way was former Presbyterian minister Albert Benjamin Simpson (1843–1919), who would create a new denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, around what he termed the Four-fold Gospel that emphasized the work of Christ as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and coming King.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Holiness movement provided the context through which the Pentecostal movement emerged. That movement, based as it was on the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), not only continued the emphasis on healing but developed it far beyond anything imagined by Holiness leaders. Most of the well-known healing evangelists of the twentieth century—Aimee Semple Mcpherson, John Graham Lake, Gordon J. Lindsey, William Marion Branham, Oral Roberts, Kathryn Kuhlman, Benny Hinn—were or are all Pentecostals.

Third, also in Boston (where Mary Baker Eddy located her headquarters), Episcopal ministers Elwood Worcester and Samuel McComb launched a new spiritual healing within the larger Protestant churches that not only drew on a tradition of healing prayer but sought to be responsive to insights from the emerging discipline of psychology. The Emanuel Movement took its name from the Boston congregation that Worcester pastored. The movement spread an interest in healing through the Episcopal Church that, in 1955, found a new embodiment in the still-existent International Order of Saint Luke the Physician.

The different segments of the modern healing movement in the West have been divided by both terminology and their understanding of the extraordinary healing activity in which they are involved. Christian healers have generally been informed by a worldview that emphasized a world that runs according to a natural law established by God. Extraordinary healings are seen as the immediate activity of God who, for various reasons, including in response to someone’s fervent prayer, chooses to set aside his own laws for the moment and heal someone. The essence of the idea of miracle is that God breaks in on his own creation to act in a supernatural manner.

Within Christian circles several names were used to describe such healings and the ministry that promoted them. Divine healing has been the most popular name, in which the emphasis is on the role of God through the Holy Spirit as the healer. As the movement developed through the twentieth century, the term faith healing was often used, with some emphasizing the role of the ill person’s faith as an element in healing. That idea has largely been abandoned, however, following too many cases in which people of great faith remain ill while some people with no faith are healed. The movement recognizes the importance of healing evangelists and their ministry of prayer as catalysts, but affirms God’s primary role in each individual healing.

Many across the spectrum of Christian and non-Christian healing ministries use the term spiritual healing. This ambiguous term can carry a variety of meanings, the essence being that the healing has a source in the invisible spiritual work rather than the mundane physical world. Christians can affirm the role of the Holy Spirit as God’s healing agent, while Spiritualists can affirm the healing power from the realm of spirits. Others can affirm healing from a variety of invisible levels of existence.

Within the Christian Science/New Thought tradition, practitioners see healing in a somewhat different perspective. They affirm that God is the sum total of what is metaphysically real, and humans are created in the image of God. Illness, according to this thought, is the result of an erroneous view of our separation from God; it is metaphysically unreal. Healing comes from a change in perspective, a realization that God is All-in-All. Practitioners work to bring about the realization of Truth as a step in bringing about healing.

Most healers working in the Esoteric/Spiritualist/New Age tradition operate with a variation of mesmerist thought. They understand the cosmos to be infused with a universal energy that is intelligent and a source for healing. Healers are particularly capable of focusing that energy and directing it to where it is needed. In doing their healing work, they may or may not experience a flow ofenergy through and out of their own body. As part of their healing, they may also clairvoyantly come to an understanding of what is wrong with the person they are attempting to assist and how they are to direct the healing energy.

In the modern world, some Esoteric healers have also picked up much from Oriental methods of healing. For example, in Chinese medicine there is an understanding of a universal energy called chi, which many healers identify with the healing energy with which they work. In different Chinese healing arts, such as acupuncture, chi is seen as flowing through the body along a set of meridians. Illness comes from a blockage of the flow of chi, and healing comes from stimulating its normal movement. Movements such asreiki combine insights from Eastern and Western understandings of spiritual healing.

In the 1960s many Westerners became interested in a form of healing that had developed in the Spiritualist churches of the Philippine Islands, psychic surgery. A variety of spectacular healings were reported from the ministrations of healers who reportedly opened people’s bodies, removed pathological materials, and closed the bodies without leaving any sign that the bodies had ever been opened. Films of the healers at work seemed to confirm the early reports. Closer examinations of the healers, however, proved they were in fact engaging in an elaborate sleight of hand, usually involving the palming of chicken parts.

At the same time, healers with a theosophical background were bringing a more traditional form of Esoteric healing into hospitals under the label of therapeutic touch. Therapeutic touch was spiritual healing shorn of much of its metaphysical accretions but relying upon the affirmation of a form of healing power that could be transferred from a healer, usually a nurse, to a patient. Healing was seen as the result of a stimulation of the body’s own healing potentials.

The practice of healing in the Esoteric community is based on a century of research that has attempted to document the existence of a healing energy, the key evidence coming from a set of experiments conducted by McGill University professor Bernard Grad in the 1960s and 1970s. His experiments showed dramatic changes in mice and plants produced by healer Oskar Estabany. These experiments, which countered criticism that all spiritual healings are the result of the placebo effect, remain the bedrock of data on the efficacy of spiritual healing.

Critics have on occasion targeted spiritual healing. For many people, it constitutes a basic demonstration of a supernatural world. Critics have suggested that healings that do occur are due in large part to misdiagnosis of disease (that is, the patient was not ill in the first place) or the natural remission of a disease (noting that many people who claim healings will, in the future, die of the disease from which they had supposedly been healed).

Doctors have also done extensive results on the placebo effect. They have noted that people given a medicine with no healing properties will frequently respond as if they had received a potent medicine. Such results have often been noted in cases of pain relief, in which a sugar pill can produce the same result as popular pain killers.

Critics have also noted that many crippling conditions can be produced by the activity of a person’s own psyche. Under the impact of emotional stress, the human body will assume conditions, hysterical paralysis being a well-known condition, that mimic the experience of severe trauma. Such conditions can on occasion be relieved by spiritual healing.

In the light of the many mundane explanations for some of the dramatic results claimed by healers, scientists have set a high threshold of evidence for verifying any incident of miraculous or extraordinary healing. They seek medical records of the existence of the diseased condition prior to the healing, a relatively quick change in the body’s condition, post-event verification that the condition has disappeared, and later verification that it has not returned. Very few cases can provide such documentation, although some does exist, such as that acquired by the medical bureau at Lourdes. Most healers do not have the financial resources to conduct the kind of research necessary to verify the healings they see and are quite happy to continue their work as long as people profess being helped by it.

Skeptical attacks on the various forms of miraculous and extraordinary healing have done little to diminish the overall practice of spiritual healing, although the examination of several prominent healing evangelists in the 1980s revealed their engagement in significant fraud and led to their downfall. At the same time, merely questioning the efficacy of the healing work associated with the ministries of prominent healers such as Oral Roberts, Kathryn Kuhlman, or Benny Hinn has done little to diminish their popular support. In like measure, belief in the healing efficacy of the intercession of the Virgin Mary and pilgrimages to sites related to her remain a popular element in Roman Catholic piety.

The continuation of high levels of belief in the supernatural, including belief in miraculous healings, has been an enigma for many skeptics. At the beginning of the twentieth century, predictions were made of the demise of belief in religion and the enigmatic nature of the universe, but such beliefs have not wavered. There has been no manifest relationship between the rise of science and technology and any diminution of faith. In the field of medicine, successes have been countered by the vast redefinition of many social and psychological conditions that do not readily respond to traditional medical treatment as illnesses. At the same time, the spectrum of psychological practices fade into the various forms of spiritual healing. On a more practical level, the theoretical issues involved in questions of the relative efficacy of medicine or spiritual healing are somewhat distorted by the very real fact that many people are unable to access medical care due to the costs involved in its delivery.


Cherry, Reginald B. Healing Prayer: God’s Divine Intervention in Medicine, Faith and Prayer. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1999.
Grad, Bernard R. “Some Biological Effects of Laying-on of Hands: A Review of Experiments with Animals and Plants.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 59 (1965): 95–127.
Krieger, Dolores. The Therapeutic Touch: How to Use Your Hands to Help or Heal. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Nolen, William A. Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle. New York: Random House, 1974.
Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Paul mentions some of these charisms in his letter to the Corinthians: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 2:7-10).