Modern American Faith Healers
By Catie Caldwell
Religion 195B – Professor Lubin
March 28, 2003
Modern Christian Faith Healing
Faith-healing Health and Wealth gospel
Alternative Medicine Positive Confession
Word-Faith Movement Televangelists
Miracle Modern Christianity
Some segments of modern American Christianity consider faith healing an acceptable and integral part of their worship and religious practice. Faith healing, as a system, attempts to merge two fields: the religious and the scientific. This merging uses supernatural forces to produce a natural, physical result. Faith healing is a charismatic movement that claims the “spirit of God” is present and actively moving in the settings they create. Participants claim to perform or experience “modern-day miracles” equivalent to those performed by Jesus and his disciples in the writings of the New Testament. This paper will examine modern American faith healers. It will address the purposes of their actions, the sources of their knowledge, methods of inquiry, institutions and structures, history, and argumentation.
II. Scope and Purpose
This paper addresses Christian faith-healing in modern America. Many medical doctors report people with a religious faith sometimes heal faster than those without. This is most often attributed to their attitude of hope and optimism. Some segments of society reject any medical attention altogether and hope to be healed by their faith alone. Belief in faith healing takes many forms. This paper will address a very specific variety: those who believe God miraculously cures those who “truly” have faith, bypassing modern medicine, rather than those who believe that faith works in cooperation with modern medical science or that today’s advanced technology is a gift from God. For them, healing is not a process, but instantaneous. The power of God is “spoken” or “commanded” or “claimed,” and the afflicted are miraculously healed. In this respect, they resemble Christian Science. They are sometimes referred to as the “word faith movement” or “positive confession movement.”
These charismatic faith-healers have a huge following and are centered around very powerful and wealthy individuals who claim to have special power and anointing from God to heal any affliction. These leaders travel the nation, attracting hundreds, even thousands, to their revival-like events. People flock to these events seeking healing and deliverance from their visible and invisible ailments. The atmosphere at these events is extremely emotional and the participants claim the “spirit of God” is present and actively healing them. The denominational representation at these events and among the leaders is diverse; it is a very inter-denominational movement.
III. Authority Structure:
A. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge
Looking at this instantaneous faith healing as a system, its primary source of knowledge is the Christian New Testament. Several Gospel and Pauline passages referring to miracles of healing, performed by Jesus and his disciples, as well as the event of Pentecost, serve as evidence and justification for these practices.
While the Bible is the most official source of knowledge, several secondary sources also exist. Magazines, such as “Believer’s Voice of Victory,” “Charisma,” and “Word of Faith” are popular literature widely read by this segment of the Christian community. Additionally, there is a cable television network called the “Health and Healing Channel,” which airs shows about how to improve your health naturally (including both home remedies and faith practices), and also testimonials and video coverage of actual faith-healings. Each of the popular evangelists, in addition to traveling the country healing people, also run major ministries that market numerous books, resources, and complex web sites all designed to teach people how to heal and be healed.
The sages or prophets in this tradition are these popular faith-healing evangelists. These men have celebrity-like status and are believed to possess special supernatural healing powers. The most prominent ministers in this tradition are Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Charles Parham, Rex Hubbard, Benny Hinn, and Oral Roberts. The specifics of how these men run their ministries varies, but they are all in the “business” of healing the sick who profess belief in God and his power to heal. This “business” is a full-time professional endeavor for these evangelists, and economically profitable as well.
B. Methods of Inquiry
The methods of inquiry in this system require two theological assumptions. The first is that God still performs healing miracles today similar to those performed by Jesus and his disciples. This contradicts the views of many other Christians who maintain a more dispensationalist theory of the gifts of the spirit. Leonard Sweet reports that faith healers “claim that Christians should expect to do those things depicted in the Gospels. ‘Power encounters’ are necessary steps in the process of soul making. Healing is a normative life process” (152).
The second assumption that this system makes before inquiry begins is that health and illness are direct results of either purity or sin in one’s life. Health means a “right relationship with God that expresses itself in a state of holistic balance among mind body and spirit” (Sweet 136). Illness, similarly, is either the result of or consequence for iniquities and un-confessed sin.
Given these assumptions, knowledge is acquired in this system through two sources: the afflicted and the healer. First the afflicted: A believer in this system who has an illness is convinced that he or she has sinned against God. He then begins a process of introspection, searching his soul for their sin. Then, normally with the help of a minister/healer, they pray and confess their sin, “believing” that God has the power and desire to heal and forgive them. If they are healed, they rejoice. If they are not healed, it means that they are not truly believing in God’s power or not truly confessing their sin. This inquiry process shows they believe “a cure will come if the seeker will appropriate a radical faith in God’s desire or ability to heal” (Goff 19). This ‘pray and confess’ idea is reflected in Hagin’s famous slogan “Name it—Claim it” (Goff 18). Name what you have done, and claim God’s power to heal you.
While the faith of the recipient is always required for a successful cure, the special healing ministers are another important method through which this system operates. These healers are said to have special gifts based on I Corinthians 12:9: “The healing touch was granted to one specific individual, endowed with an extraordinary power” (Goff 20). These healers lay their hands upon the sick, command them to confess and believe, and command them to be healed. Once healed, they present the cured individual (i.e. the “proof”) before the audience and offer glory to God for his miracle.
This system does not even come close to meeting the standards of modern science. In fact, miraculous faith healing defies science completely. The deaf can suddenly hear, the blind can see, and tumors simply disappear according to this tradition. Without any medical treatment, bodies are transformed. Additionally, it violates medical science because negative results are always “explained away” by attributing them to personal defects.
In James Randi’s book The Faith Healers, he devotes a whole chapter to the question “Where is the Evidence?” He says that all the evidence the evangelists provide of healings do not stand up to investigation, and yet people still believe and the system maintains a huge following (270-81). The only proof is the testimony of those healed, which is not really proof because it is based solely on a subjective experience.
C. Institutions and Professional Structure
This system has a very loose organization. There is no central authority, official form of accreditation, leadership hierarchy, means of recognition, standards, or control over community of participants. Each sect of faith healers appears to be independent. Each healing evangelist works independently; they run their own separate healing ministries. No common organization associates them.
These evangelists play a huge role in the system. Without their large-scale events and publicity efforts, the system would certainly exist on a much smaller scale. The well respected sociologist Max Weber “defined the role of the charismatic leader in terms of the ability to galvanize people into pursuing a transcendent mission…and could only be successful in the long run if he created a structured social order and an attendant body of tradition” (Galanter 178). The charismatic leaders of this movement have established their own mega-ministries to ensure the transcendence of their mission. These ministries are an attempt to add structure and organization to a very diverse and decentralized movement. Examples of web-sites of these ministries are available in Appendix A.
The roots of the faith healing movement are clearly biblical. According to Joe Nickel, “In Christianity, Jesus became a source of restorative power, bringing a healing ministry and effecting miraculous cures of both mind and body wherever he went…the gospels record more that forty healing acts—representing in some instances the cure of an individual, and in others the healing of an entire group” (Nickell). In addition the miracles performed by Jesus, the disciples (Jesus’ closest followers) were empowered to do the same. In Mark 16:15-18 Jesus tells the disciples they will have gifts, including healing, to go out and spread the gospel (Nickell 133).
Beyond the Bible stories, various churches throughout history have believed God would heal his sick children. Even before the Protestant movement, faith healing was a common belief in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, “Vatican II made it quite clear to Catholics that healing is to be expected in the Church…and directs the use of gifts received from the Holy Spirit” (Kelsey 241).
While there is no clear originator of the modern faith-healing movement, E.W. Kenyon was the first modern theologian to begin exploring doctrines of this nature in the early 1900s. Kenyon, a Methodist turn Pentecostal, combined “eastern mystical and New Age elements with Christian teaching” (Hux 1). The concept that sickness is a symptom of un-confessed sin or lack of faith began to gain popularity. However, this faith-healing system did not become a defined and popular practice until the 1970s. The evangelist Kenneth Hagin is often credited with the exponential growth of the faith-healing movement. Kelsey also says, “This new emphasis in the Christian churches is anything but an isolated phenomenon. It is world-wide, extending to places like India and Japan” (242). On an international level, groups in many of these other countries that parallel faith-healing practices predate the influence of Christianity.
While many of the participants in this tradition could be categorized as evangelical Christians, it is interested that the main focus and purpose of this ministries is healing. Sociologist Mark Galanter says, “The healing group directs its emphasis primarily at change in its own members, while the religious groups promote an ideology ostensibly intended to transform the world” (176). Granted, these individuals use their transformation testimonials to legitimate and promote their faith, but the focus of the healing meetings is only to cure the afflicted believers.
V. Representative Examples of Argumentation:
This system conflicts with numerous other systems. Medical science discredits all the healing claims of this tradition. Other Christians say this system is characterized by unorthodox theology and fraud. For example, theological problems occur when the faith-healers say that all illness and strife are a result of un-confessed sin. This makes it difficult to explain why Christian greats like Bill Graham suffer from Parkinson’s disease, or why God allowed Job to endure unwarranted suffering. Compared to the overall Christian tradition, faith healing is an extreme, fringe movement. The beliefs and teachings of the faith healers are not considered mainstream.
Many doctors criticize the miraculously cured people and attribute it to “Psychosomatic illness—those which demonstrate the interrelationship of the mind and body—are most amenable to ‘miraculous’ healing” (Nickell 134). According to these doctors, many disorders are very responsive to the power of suggestion Doctors also criticize that the testimonials are contrived and dishonest, “some of the most dramatic evidence offered by faith healers is actually the result of trickery—conscious deception on the part of the alleged miracle worker…fraud performed in the guise of holiness is much more common than many people are willing to believe” (Nickell 137).
The response of the faith healers to all these criticism is almost always the same, and comes in the form of a personal attack on the criticizer. They say that if you disagree with the believers in this system, it simply means you do not have enough faith. If you really believed you would see things differently. Their defense is a classical insider/outsider separation. Unless you are an insider and have experienced the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you cannot understand. They also maintain, against medical criticisms, that these cures are physical and real.
VI. Suggested Position in Comparative Scales:
The following is an analysis of the faith healing tradition on a variety of scales. The range is numeric, from 1-10.
On this scale faith healing is given a 9. The testimony of experience is the primary emphasis. Healers are given credibility in this tradition by their success rate and testimonials, not by traditional means of church endorsement or ordination. These groups do not follow traditional ecclesiastical structure or doctrine, but are more based on practice and feelings. Authority in this system is result driven. And while it is linked to traditional Biblical healing and the miracles of the first followers of Christ, the legitimacy of leaders are not checked by such biblical standards, but by the healing powers they claim and demonstrate. Thus modern and current experiences, not traditions, receive emphasis.
Instantaneous faith healing is given a 10. It is a highly decentralized system. While there are several different churches and evangelists who practice this healing, they are not linked in any official way. Only common beliefs link them together; there is not organizational structure or common authority. The only forms of accountability are their results and popularity. Each individual charismatic group or evangelist does things its own way. They all claim the “authority of scripture,” but this is not a centralized authority because their interpretation of scripture varies from group to group.
On this scale faith healing is given a 7. While the emphasis is predominantly material: physical restoration and transformation, the “gift of the Holy Spirit,” which is clearly an invisible reality, is also emphasized. The physical act is the primary focus, and it is material. But the process that causes the healing, the transforming through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a spiritual infusion process that is unobservable and immaterial.
The aims and objectives of healing are pragmatic. Cures of ailments are the primary purpose. Moral and spiritual elements, namely faith, are seen as the end goal of such practices. While this system strongly emphasizes faith, a spiritual attribute, it is not an objective. Faith is the means, not the end, of this system.
On this scale, Christian faith healing must rest in the center with a score of 5. No healer claims to be performing miracles by their own power, the result is always attributed to the glory of God. However, an individual is always used as the vessel to deliver this healing. So the power is of God, but it is carried out through the hands, prayers, and confessions of humans.
Benny Hinn Ministries
Oral Roberts Ministries
Kenneth Copeland Ministries
Brand, Paul. “A Surgeon’s View of Diving Healing.” Christianity Today 27 (November 25, 1983): 14-21.
Copeland, Kenneth. Kenneth Copeland Ministries. www.kcm.org
Hagin, Kenneth. Kenneth Hagin. www.rhema.org
Hinn, Benny. Benny Hinn Ministries. www.bennyhinn.org
Roberts, Oral. Oral Roberts Ministries. www.orm.org
All Biblical references taken from the New International Version available at www.Bible.com
Baruch Brody. “Faith Healing for Childhood Leukemia.” Hastings Center Report 11 (February 1981): 10-11.
Boggs, Wayne H. “Bible and Modern Religions: Faith Healing Cults.” Interpretation 11 (January 1957): 55-70.
Bruce, Baron. “Faith Healers: Moving Toward the Mainstream.” Christianity Today 31 (July 10, 1987): 50-52.
Gallanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Goff, James R. “The Faith that Claims.” Christian Century 34 (February 19, 1990): 18-21.
Hux, Clete. Word-Faith Movement. Arlington, Texas: The Watchman Fellowship. Database on-line. Available from http://www.watchman.org/profile/wordpro.htm. Accessed 4 March 2003.
Kelsey, Morton. Healing and Christianity: In Ancient Times and Modern Thought. San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, 1973.
Mahnke, Edward H. “Faith Healing: A Discussion.” Concordia Theological Monthly 30 (April 1959): 260-270.
Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993.
Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1987.
Rubin, Julius. Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Sweet, Leonard. Health and Medicine in the Evangelical Tradition. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994.