The promise of healing is everywhere. Biomedical researchers and charitable foundations race for the cure, self-help books assure their readers that the answer lies within, and a host of alternative therapies channel the energies of the universe to reconcile the traumas of the modern self. The balm of healing is also liberally applied to the wounds of history—be they genocide, apartheid, or racism—when invoked in processes of “truth and reconciliation.” It is, in fact, the ubiquity of the term ‘healing’ that forces it carry such heavy burdens—mending the body, psyche, and spirit, fending off ever-changing viral and bacterial threats to life, and restoring justice and right relations. A potent tonic of futility and necessity, the promise of healing—whether of mortal bodies or tragic histories—always seems just out of reach.

Nevertheless, hopeful people of all sorts continue to invoke the possibility (or providence) of healing, whether through medical or metaphorical means. At the heart of early movements for public health care in North America, liberal Protestants became agents of medicalization. They sought to modernize the call of Jesus to his disciples: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8, NRSV). To be sure, liberal Protestants shied away from taking all of Jesus’s words literally. They often condemned as quacks those Christians who did attempt to cast out demons or raise the dead. Along with this more “rational” version of Christian modernity, however, liberal Protestants nonetheless practiced a version of spiritual healing by imagining a space in the human body and the body politic which invoked the flow (from without) of supernatural spirits and energies.

For these practitioners, the supernatural was not obliterated by the discoveries of naturalistic science, but neither did they argue the existence of a spiritual power that knew no earthly or natural bounds. Instead, as Canadian Anglican theologian Eugene Fairweather contended in “Christianity and the Supernatural,” a 1956 lecture he delivered at the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary in New York City, the supernatural was the path by which God “elevates human creatures to a true participation in the divine life—an indwelling of God in man and man in God.” Like most liberal Protestants, Fairweather argued for a supernaturalism that could find its way around both atheistic materialism and Pentecostal miracle-workers: “[I]t repudiates the pretensions of secular humanism without doing violence to the structure of nature and reason, and sees the true greatness of man in his natural openness to fulfillment in the ‘new being’ of grace” [1]. Under the rubric of healing, liberal women and men came up with many ways to “open” themselves to divine life while simultaneously articulating political goals.


Healing, like disease, is a question of communicability.


This supernatural liberalism enabled an imaginative shift whereby liberal Protestants went from viewing themselves as modern Christians—who combined biomedicine and evangelism to effect “conversions to modernity”—to understanding themselves as complicit in a Christian, scientific, and often racist imperialism that was (in the end) pathology dressed as progress [2].

Consider, for example, Dr. Belle Choné Oliver (1875–1947), a medical missionary working in India on behalf of the United Church of Canada, who began her career as a young woman dedicated to the double tasks of converting Indians to Christianity and treating their ills with modern medicine. Living in the midst of the Indian colonial struggle, and learning a great deal about the diversity of Indian cultures, by the end of her career she had become a champion of medical education for Indian men and women, as well as as a critic of missions focused on conversion. Her “modern” perspective, however, contained within it an abiding interest in the possibility of “spiritual healing” through a growing diversity of channels. Across the globe—in a less prominent corner of the British Empire—the northern British Columbia Anglican Diocese of Caledonia, Archbishop Frederick Herbert Du Vernet (1860–1924) practiced his own blend of science and the supernatural, in which he argued that radio waves could be harnessed as God’s healing energies. Drawing from the latest in psychic research and living amidst the traveling spirits of the Northwest Coast’s First Nations, Du Vernet pronounced “spiritual radio” or “radio mind” as an effective therapy attested to by both experiment and theology.

Many of these claims to healing within “supernatural” liberalism turned on the question of how the natural human body came to be inhabited by forces and spirits both good and ill—the question of what could be called an anthropology of the spiritual body. Anthropologies of the spiritual body underlie the ways people make sense of the mysteries of transmission, equally baffling from the vantage point of either biomedicine or religious faith: How does a virus pass into or over one person and not another? How does healing come to this patient and not that one? How can a mother cradle her feverish child all night and escape the flu, or one cancer patient emerge from his agony into remission just as another patient succumbs? Healing, like disease, is a question of communicability. Some anthropologies contend that the spirit of God transmits healing power, whereas others understand the medicines, therapies, and persuasive scientific authority of the doctor to bring about healing. Many liberal Protestants, such as Oliver and Du Vernet, combined these two theories of transmission, viewing the tools of medicine and technology as pathways by which the spirit of God was communicated to the vulnerable, imperfect human body.

Firmly committed to the mutuality of biomedicine and Christianity, liberal Protestants thought about “religious healing” in ways that went beyond the miracle (a miracle being an exception to the laws of nature, one that cannot be explained through rational or technical means). Healing miracles have more often been associated with Roman Catholic or Pentecostal versions of spiritual healing, an association that many twentieth century Protestants saw as evidence of the “superstition” of such Christians. But they had their own version of supernaturalism, even if they were convinced that it was not superstition. For liberal Protestants, healing could be communicated quite literally through new technologies. These might include biomedical techniques of surgery and drugs, but also encompassed the therapeutic effects of the written word and the spiritual telecommunication of healing radio waves. All of these spiritual technologies were bound together in a supernatural liberalism thought to be made effective by that most mysterious of currents, love, which stretched across universal humanity despite any differences in cultures, religions, and locales.


The coworkers and forebears of such humanitarian medical organizations as the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, liberal Protestants were just as adept at emergency surgery as at prophylactic prayer.


The Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada (the latter church included Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist influences)—to which Du Vernet and Oliver belonged—offer an ideal site for the construal of liberal Protestantism as a movement at once medicalized and enchanted, both cosmopolitan and local. On the one hand, Canadian Protestants were inhabitants of a settler colony eagerly establishing the political, economic, and educational institutions that would make it a modern nation. On the other, in the realm of healing in particular, they were deeply shaped by their encounter with First Nations’ peoples; also influential were American and British healing movements and a global network of influences stemming from missions to China, India, and to a lesser extent, Africa. These global networks led liberal Protestants across North America and Europe to understand their commitment to human health as transcending nationality—precisely because of the psychic and spiritual unity that they considered to bind all human beings together in a holistic and divinely infused cosmos. The coworkers and forebears of such humanitarian medical organizations as the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, liberal Protestants were just as adept at emergency surgery as at prophylactic prayer. They combined political analysis with religious experimentation to insist that health care was a human right owed by the state to its citizens and sanctioned both by the best models of political economy and by the healing works of Jesus.

Accompanied by the rhetoric of love and universal humanity, liberal Protestants moved from medical evangelizers to holistic contemplatives, taking on practices such as yoga and Reiki, a Japanese, energy-based form of healing touch. Their medical missions are no longer rooted in eager evangelism but in a desire for “cross-cultural experience”: the three remaining United Church hospitals in northern British Columbia, supported by both church and public funds, focus on “encouraging community in dependence” while they provide culturally sensitive medical care to largely First Nations’ clients [3]. Their definitions of healing have taken on a much broader compass: in the Anglican Church’s recent plan for new relations among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans, “holistic healing” has become a primary goal, along with self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans, historical reparation, justice, and what has been called “A New Agape” that would encourage local and national partnerships [4].

With traditions of socialist critique, scientific spirit, and a sense of Christian agape firmly in place, Canadian liberal Protestants came to question how both biomedicine and Christianity were based on claims to exclusive forms of knowledge and particular modes of the modern. In so doing they realized that modernity was a project with which they were intimately, if uncomfortably, engaged. Tracing anthropologies of the spiritual body inside and outside of medical realms reveals a tradition of supernatural liberalism—one which has animated both biomedical and spiritual healing practices,and has shaped diverse sensibilities of critique surrounding ongoing debates about the role of religion in public life, even today [5].

Pamela Klassen is Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and is cross-appointed to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. She also directs the Religion and the Public Sphere Initiative. Her book, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (University of California Press, 2011), from which this piece is adapted, won a 2012 American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence. Her current project focuses on storytelling and mediation in encounters between Christian missionaries and First Nations in Canada in the early twentieth century.


[1] Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural I. The Meaning of the Supernatural” Canadian Journal of Theology 9, no. 1 (1963), 15; Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural II. Historical Notes on Christian Supernaturalism” Canadian Journal of Theology 9, no. 1 (1963), 102. Fairweather was referring to Paul Tillich in this last quote, and is described as a Anglo-Catholic (or High Church) Anglican in Alan Hayes, Anglicans in Canada: Controversies and Identity in Historical Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 149.

[2] Peter van der Veer, Conversions to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[3] United Church Health Services web page (accessed June 25, 2010); Bob Burrows, Healing in the Wilderness: A History of the United Church Mission Hospitals (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004), 230.

[4] “Plan of Anglican Work in Support of a New Partnership between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Anglicans: A New Agape,” Report 2003, General Synod 2001 (accessed June 25, 2010).

[5] Judith Butler, “The Sensibility of Critique: Response to Asad and Mahmood,” in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, ed. Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, and Wendy Brown (Berkeley: The Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California, Berkeley, 2009), 101-136.

Image of Canadian Anglican church from Flickr via Elf-8


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