Review: Spirit Cure
Joseph W. Williams. Spirit Cure: A History of Pentecostal Healing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xiv+ 222 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-976567-6.
Spirit Cure is a welcome addition to a burgeoning field of scholarship on pentecostal divine healing. Two decades ago, few academics paid much attention to spiritual healing practices. But then observers caught wind of the extraordinary growth of pentecostalism as a global religious movement. Scholars began to recognize that divine healing practices are a characteristic feature of pentecostalism and, moreover, provide a crucial explanation of the movement’s success.
Prior to Joseph Williams, most scholars had restricted their purview to pentecostalism’s formative decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Spirit Cure stands out in importance because it traces the story all the way up to the 2000s. Whereas other books have treated either pentecostal healing or metaphysical “nature cure” movements, this book is distinctive in teasing out the complex relationships among divine healing, modern medicine, and metaphysical healing movements. Williams accurately notes in the introduction that “the history of pentecostals’ shifting attitudes toward more scientific and natural healing methods provides a particularly valuable vantage point for assessing pentecostals’ evolving relationship to mainstream U.S. culture” (1). Williams elaborates that he attempts to “straddle sharp differentiations separating the ‘pentecostal’ from the ‘metaphysical,’” demonstrating that “individuals representing them were never quite as far apart as it may have appeared” (23). Indeed, one of Williams’s key contributions is in clarifying the nature and progression of pentecostal interactions with other philosophies of healing.
The book is organized roughly chronologically, beginning in the introduction by indicating nineteenth-century precursors of early pentecostal healing theology and practice, and by outlining the contours of metaphysical nature cures that arose in the same cultural context. Chapter one examines the early twentieth century. Dissatisfied with modernizing medicine—in part because of its materialistic theories and unwanted side effects—pentecostals sometimes denounced metaphysical healers as heretical, yet also felt drawn to their more “natural,” spiritual, results-oriented approaches.
The book becomes ever more interesting as the chapters unfold and the narrative increasingly features pentecostals who have received less academic attention, and as Williams examines connections with, and growing accommodation to, consumer and self-help, therapeutic culture. Chapter two moves to the mid-twentieth century. Some pentecostals shed their earlier anti-medical stance as they became more comfortably situated within mainstream American culture. But the mid-century also birthed new divine healing revivalists who reinforced pentecostals’ sense of conflict between divine and medical healing. Of note, some mid-century pentecostals rejected modern medicine, yet “appropriated unorthodox healing paradigms to articulate visions of healing that in practical details differed little from certain forms of alternative healing in their attempt to bring the power of natural substances and the power of the mind into unity with divine power” (65). In addition to borrowing from New Thought, pentecostals also became increasingly open to spiritualized psychological approaches to healing. Chapter three carries the story forward, considering rapprochements with medicine and acceptance of developing holistic healing paradigms. Chapter four works up to the 1980s, highlighting psychological, inner healing, and Word of Faith approaches. Chapter five examines pentecostal appropriations of metaphysical approaches to diet and exercise, and commodified therapeutic cultures. The conclusion and epilogue consider where pentecostalism is and is heading in the twenty-first century.
The book is thoroughly researched, logically organized, and clearly written. It tells a fascinating story of linkages among diverse approaches to healing. Its major accomplishment is in connecting pentecostal (and especially denominational pentecostal) divine healing practices with other medical and metaphysical healing practices prominent in twentieth and twenty-first century American culture.
The book necessarily treats metaphysical healing with a broad brush. It would be revealing—in future studies—to provide a more nuanced discussion of similarities and differences among various alternative therapies. It would also be fruitful to give further consideration to how different pentecostals have addressed the theological questions raised by integrating such diverse philosophies of healing.
The combinative practices observed by Williams are really quite remarkable and merit additional explanation and analysis. To simplify, modern medicine reflects a materialistic and monistic worldview focused on the role of material factors in causing and treating disease. Complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, presumes a holistic and monistic worldview in which material and spiritual factors lie along a continuum and are of essentially the same substance. Pentecostal healing expresses a holistic and dualistic worldview that gives play to spiritual as well as material factors, but sharply distinguishes between a personal Creator and that which is created.
From a holistic/monistic worldview, the fundamental human dilemma is loss of harmony or blockage in the flow of universal, life-force energy (sometimes referred to as qi, ki, prana, vital force, or innate intelligence). Touch-oriented CAM healing practices involve the manipulation of impersonal, spiritual energy to remove blockages and restore harmony. From the holistic/dualistic worldview of pentecostal Christianity, the human dilemma of broken relationship between humans and God can only be reconciled through divine initiative and human response. Prayer for healing often involves touch, but healing comes through the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, rather than through human manipulation of impersonal spiritual energy. Integrating such diverse concepts involves logical tensions that have received relatively little attention either from pentecostals or the scholars who study them. Williams makes an important start to deeper reflection and analysis.
This book also raises questions about the repercussions of pentecostal therapeutic combinations. Do pentecostals who employ medical and/or CAM healing methods change their theologies as a result of their combinative practices? Does participation in CAM change pentecostals’ understanding of who God is, who humans are, or how they relate? Sociological research suggests that performance of symbolic bodily practices can affect religious beliefs—and in particular that employing CAM techniques can lead practitioners to embrace holistic/monistic worldviews. In demonstrating the dense intermingling of therapeutic practices in pentecostal practice and American culture, Spirit Cure invites further study of the implications.
In sum, this is an excellent book that will be of interest to scholars of pentecostalism and divine healing, and more broadly to those interested in the history of modern medicine and complementary and alternative medicine, and America’s commercialized, therapeutic culture.