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Spiritual Healing

Healing by spiritual and religious as distinct from scientific and medical means; also called “faith- healing,” “divine healing.” The means, as well as prayer, sometimes are sacramental, viz., unction, imposition of hands, Eucharist. It is a matter of dispute how far suggestion and psychological influences are involved—e.g., some regard cures at Lourdes* or Holywell as due at least partly to suggestion.

It was the oldest form of healing, and early medical practice grew up alongside it. It was known in Greece in the Dionysiac mysteries, and at the temple of Aesculapius, Epidaurus, and the healing gods (e.g., Apollo, Aesculapius, Zeus) were entitled Soter. The OT miracles of Elijah and Elisha foreshadowed the healing miracles of Jesus, which were a prominent feature of His ministry, and the apostolic healings in Acts.

During the patristic period the practice continued unbroken, the churches rivaling the pagan temples as places of healing. Tertullian wrote of Christ, “He reforms our birth by a new birth from heaven; He restores our flesh from all that afflicts it; He cleanses it when leprous, gives it new light when blind, new strength when paralyzed, when possessed by demons He exorcises it, when dead He raises it to life.” Cyprian said that from the indwelling Spirit “is given power that is able to quench the virus of poisons for the healing of the sick, to purge out the stains of foolish souls by restored health.” Irenaeus argued that the Gnostics, though they can produce miraculous effects, cannot perform works of healing like Christians, who “heal the sick by laying their hands upon them.” Hermas said that those who know the sufferings of men, yet do not relieve those sufferings, commit great sin. A famous healer was Gregory Thaumaturgus* (c.213-c.270).

Though declining after the third century, the transition being marked by a growing veneration of relics,* the phenomenon recurred during the Middle Ages, healings being reported of Francis of Assisi,* Bridget,* Charles Borromeo,* Cuthbert,* Patrick,* among others. English monarchs of the eleventh through eighteenth centuries touched numerous people to cure them of “the King's Evil.”* Spiritual healing proper reappeared among the Waldenses* and Bohemian Brethren.* Cures were recorded of Martin Luther and other Reformers.

In the seventeenth century, healings were effected by English Baptists (e.g., Hanserd Knollys, William Kiffin, Vavasor Powell); by Quakers (e.g., instances recorded in George Fox's Journal); and in other Puritan sects. A notable healer was Valentine Greatrakes (1629-83), who healed many in Ireland and England between 1662 and 1666 by laying on hands with prayer. In the eighteenth century John Wesley recounted several instances in his Journal, and the German Pietists also practiced healing. A famous nineteenth-century German healer was Prince Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst, canon of Grosswarden, and in Russia there was Father John of Kronstadt (1829-1909).

The Peculiar People* in sickness relied on oil, prayer, and nursing. Groups like the Irvingites and Mormons* practiced healing, and Christian Science* promoted it by teaching that pain and disease are an illusion. The Pentecostal churches* have always advocated healing; it came to the fore, however, in the campaigns of George Jeffreys between 1925 and 1935, and in America with Aimee Semple McPherson.* Recently there has been a revival among the older churches, e.g., “the Guild of Health” and “the Guild of St. Raphael” in Anglicanism, and in the Iona Community in the Church of Scotland. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have always retained a service of healing in their regular work. Their seventh sacrament is “Holy Unction” which, however, unlike the Roman practice in recent centuries, is the anointing with oil of the sick for recovery, in accordance with James 5:14f.

P. Dearmer, Body and Soul (1909); J.M. Hickson, Heal the Sick (1924); G.G. Dawson, Healing, Pagan and Christian (1935); A.G. Ikin, The Background of Spiritual Healing (1937); E. Frost, Christian Healing (1940); L. Weatherhead, Psychology, Religion and Healing (1951); The Church's Ministry of Healing (report of the Church of England Archbishops' Commission on Divine Healing, 1958); B.E. Woods, The Healing Ministry (1961); M.T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity (1974).