Laying on of Hands

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Laying on of Hands

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The laying on of hands is a ritual symbolic activity used primarily in the Christian tradition for a variety of purposes that are tied together by a belief that the Holy Spirit is active in the process. Two purposes are foremost: that of commissioning a church member for service in the church or world, and the healing of an individual’s body, mind, or soul. The practice of the laying on of hands derives from the Bible. For example, the ordination of church leaders is derived from passages such as Numbers 27:18–23, in which God commands Moses to lay his hands on Joshua in a ceremony before the priest, and Acts 6:6, where the church’s first deacons are set apart for service.

Over the centuries, as the sacramental system developed, the church’s ministerial leadership defined Holy Orders as one of the seven sacraments. Future priests passed through a set of minor and two major orders (deacon and priest). Ordination to each level of the priesthood was accompanied by the laying on of hands, whichalso was integral to the consecration of a bishop (considered a third major order of ministry). The practice in the Roman Catholic Church was passed to the several Protestant churches. Although the Protestant churches went about the task of reexamining all aspects of the tradition as developed within Roman Catholicism, the many biblical references to laying on of hands made the practice quite acceptable. The laying on of hands for ordaining leadership remains one of the most ubiquitous practices throughout the many denominations of Christian churches.

It was also noted that the laying on of hands frequently accompanied prayer for healing. Jesus laid his hands on those brought to him for healing (Luke 4:40), and in the days of the early church, Ananias was sent to lay his hands on Paul, who had been struck blind following his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:17). This practice became common in the church, though often done in a perfunctory manner.

An emphasis on prayer and healing had a marked revival at the end of the nineteenth century. Early exponents included Episcopal layman Charles Cullis (1833–1892); German pastor Johan Christoph Blumhardt (1805–1880); A. B. Simpson (1843–1919), founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance; British Holiness minister William Boardman; and Australian evangelist John Alexander Dowie (1847–1907), the founder of Zion, Illinois. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Rev. Elwood Worcester launched the Emmanuel movement from his parish in Boston, which gave birth to a continuing interest in spiritual healing in the Episcopal Church.

In the twentieth century, the laying on of hands as a practice accompanying prayer for healing has been most noticeable within Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal movement was centered upon the life in the Spirit as pictured in the biblical book of Acts. Members were expected to manifest one or more of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, among which healing was most prominent. The exercise of the healing gift has usually been accompanied with the laying on of hands, a practice with which the general public had become familiar through its widespread presentation on television, beginning with the healing services of evangelist Oral Roberts in the 1950s.

Pentecostals also use the laying on of hands in prayers for individuals to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The biblical support for this practice is found in many passages in Acts, such as Acts 8:17, which mentions Peter and John placing their hands on some Samaritans who subsequently received the Holy Spirit.

The laying on of hands, especially in healing situations, is frequently accompanied by physical sensations of heat and the passing of energy from one person to the other. The sensations are experienced more often by the one praying for healing than the one for whom prayer is offered. Such experiences are not limited to Christians but are common to most people who practice healing by the laying on of hands, notably in the modern Western Esoteric tradition. This had led some to search for a more mundane explanation for both the experiences of the laying on of hands and the subsequent experiences of healing. Parapsychologists, for example, have run experiments that seek to discover a healing power common to humankind.

The most authoritative experiments in healing were conducted by Bernard Grad, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who conducted a series of experiments with Oskar Estabany, a Hungarian immigrant who professed to have healing powers. In an effort to take the effects of human psychological responses out of the picture, Grad had Estabany attempt to affect the growth rate of plants and the healing rate of laboratory mice that had been wounded by the removal of a patch of skin. In these double-blind experiments Estabany produced spectacular results. Estabany was later able to produce similar results in experiments with biochemist Justa Smith.

Contemporaneous with Bernard Grad’s work, Dolores Krieger, a nurse and member of the Theosophical Society, conducted studies in what she termed therapeutic touch. Therapeutic touch is a form of laying on of hands, but practiced in a very different environment than that of most Christian churches. Krieger offered it in a scientific setting, and the method has subsequently been taught in courses for the training of nurses.

The healing done by people such as Estabany and the nurses trained by Krieger does not appear vastly different from that done in Christian circles, although some Christian healers take great effort to separate themselves from any spiritual healing done in any context other than Christian.


Blomgren, David K. Prophetic Gatherings in the Church: The Laying on of Hands and Prophecy. Portland, OR: Bible Press, 1979.
Krieger, Dolores. Accepting Your Power to Heal: The Personal Practice of Therapeutic Touch. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1993.
O’Connor, Edward D. The Laying on of Hands. Pecos, NM: Dove Publications, 1969.
Prince, Derek. Laying on of Hands. Seattle, WA: The Study Hour, n.d.
Shepherd, M. H., Jr., “Hands: Laying on of Hands.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2. Nashville, TN: Cokesbury, 1962.
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