Faith Healers—Their Origin and Continued Influence

Updated on November 23, 2016
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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You just know that someone called Phineas P. Quimby is going to be interesting, and the one with that name born in Lebanon, New Hampshire in 1802 doesn’t disappoint. The son of a blacksmith, he had little formal education and started in the working world as an apprentice clockmaker.

Had he not fallen victim to tuberculosis he might have spent the rest of his life making and repairing timepieces. But medical practice of the time could do nothing for his TB so he began to work out a cure of his own.

Biographers are unclear about how the cure was achieved but his followers maintain it was through the power of thought.

Phineas P. Quimby
Phineas P. Quimby | Source

Phineas Quimby Investigates Mesmerism

The German physician Franz Mesmer introduced his concept of animal magnetism to the world in the 18th century. Dr. Mesmer said that all animals possessed a life energy or magnetic force that could be mobilized to fight disease.

In 1836, Charles Poyen, a practitioner of mesmerism and self-styled Professor of Animal Magnetism, began a lecture tour in the United States. P. P. Quimby attended one of Poyen’s talks and immediately became intrigued. (Some accounts say Quimby’s inspiration came from a Dr. Collyer). Whoever the motivator, he left his clock-making career and learned from Poyen (Collyer?) how to become a mesmerist.

Quimby began working with a young man, Lucius Burkman, who he would place in a mesmeric trance (hypnosis). Then, as the Cult Awareness and Information Library notes, “Quimby soon realized that Burkmar, while in a trance, could diagnose disease and prescribe remedies. They traveled throughout New England and gave their own exhibitions - the mesmeric faith-healer and his talented clairvoyant.”

One R. B. Allyn of Belfast, Maine wrote (1843) to a couple of physicians enthusiastically of Burkmar’s powers: “I have good reason to believe that he can discern the internal structure of an animal body and if there be anything morbid or defective therein, detect and explain it.

“The important advantage of this to surgery and medicine is obvious enough.”

The Intervention of God?

As the traveling roadshow moved across New England cures were reported and P. P. Quimby’s reputation as a healer soared. Unsure what was the cause of his success, the healer put it down to the power of the mind, but also to the action of God.


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No doubt some recoveries were the result of the placebo effect, others a temporary improved state brought on by the excitement of the healing show and the desire to feel better. Quimby came to suppose that it was divine intervention that was behind what he was achieving. New Thought History says “Quimby believed that he had rediscovered the healing method of Jesus.”

It does not appear that Quimby was a charlatan who knew his so-called powers were phoney. Plenty of swindlers were to follow who made a lucrative living out of claiming miraculous healing powers – more of that later.

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The Start of Christian Science

The miracle man opened a clinic in Portland, Maine where, according to the Phineas Parkhurst Quimby Resource Center he treated more than 12,000 patients. One of these was Mary Baker Eddy.

She had suffered debilitating illness for years and had tried numerous therapies. In 1862, she went to see Quimby, and a website dedicated to her life notes that Mary Eddy’s “health initially improved radically under his treatment, which included a combination of mental suggestion and what might now be called therapeutic touch, but she soon suffered a relapse.”

Despite the apparent failure to provide a permanent cure, Mrs. Eddy was intrigued by Quimby’s methods. She studied with him and decided his “technique depended largely on his vigorous personality and his training in hypnosis rather than on some divine principle, which she sensed lay behind Jesus’s healing work.”

Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy | Source

Mrs. Eddy was gravely ill after a fall and believed she was dying. As she read her Bible she came on the recounting of one of Jesus’s miraculous healings. She suddenly realized that healing comes not from internal bodily processes, or from the power of a person’s mind, but from the Divine Mind, God. She was instantly cured!

From this revelation, Mrs. Eddy developed the theories that form the beliefs of the Church of Christ, Scientist; more widely known as Christian Science.

The primary emphasis of the church is on moral and spiritual regeneration, although its most distinctive belief is that disease and injury can be healed by purely spiritual means.

Mrs. Eddy taught that her ideas do not represent an “add-on” to the Bible; she had discovered the science of the scriptures, she said. Through a spiritual interpretation of the Bible she had rediscovered its original truths as believed in and practiced by the early Christian church.

She practiced and taught spiritual healing until her death at 87 in 1910.

Faith Healing Turns to Fake Healing

Science and the medical profession say that faith healing is claptrap. There is no evidence faith healers can produce cures beyond what the placebo effect might deliver. However, believers in the phenomenon are quick to challenge science, so too are many practitioners of faith healing.

This latter group has within its ranks swindlers who make money from the desperation of people seeking relief from disease. One such is Peter Popoff.

Born in Germany, Popoff held revival meetings in the United States at which he called on God to burn out the illness afflicting the sick. He astonished audience members by talking about personal details of their lives and medical conditions. This led the faithful to believe he was in heavenly communication with God; an impression he was keen to encourage.

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Paranormal investigator James Randi exposed Popoff as a fake in 1986. Mr. Randi notes that Popoff was raking in more than $4 million a month from his Miracle Crusade and the information about audience members was relayed to him by his wife through a radio earpiece. Where did she get these personal details? From furtive interviews with people in the lobby before the show and from prayer cards they filled out requesting healing from various maladies.

After Mr. Randi’s revelations, Peter Popoff went bankrupt.

Miracle Spring Water

But, you can’t keep an expert confidence trickster down. Popoff revived his ministries and he’s still peddling his supposed divine skills through television broadcasts. In addition, he’s into the “miracle spring water” business. Send Popoff your name and address and you get a free – Yes Siree Bob, not a copper penny, not one thin dime, FREE - package of his miracle water (analyzed as tap water with a little added salt). Here’s the bonus: the miracle water will cancel all your debts.

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Popoff tells the faithful “Debt cancellation is part of God’s plan. That’s why God sent me to you. How would you ever know about miraculous debt cancellation, erasure of your debts if someone didn’t tell you about it?” Numerous testimonials come from people who have miraculously found money deposited into their bank accounts.

Despite the impossibility of heavenly debt cancellation happening, Popoff still gets takers. By giving up their name and address in exchange for “free” miracle water people go onto Popoff’s mailing lists and then receive solicitations for donations so he can continue his important work.

There are plenty of other Popoffs around relieving the gullible, vulnerable, and desperate of their cash on the promise of something they know they can’t produce. At least Phineas Parkhurst Quimby seems to have believed he had a gift to bestow.

Bonus Factoids

Mariah Walton is severely disabled by pulmonary hypertension, a condition that makes it very difficult to breathe. Her parents are fundamentalist Mormons who believe that illness can be cured through prayer and faith. Mariah could have been treated as an infant by repairing a small hole in her heart but her mother and father refused to allow her to be operated on. Now 20 years old, Mariah Walton will soon be down to a risky heart/lung transplant as her only option for continued life. In April 2016, she spoke to Jason Wilson of The Guardian in her home in Boise, Idaho. She told the reporter “I would like to see my parents prosecuted.”

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1944 that a child’s welfare supersedes parental authority even in cases of religious expression. However, some states, Idaho is one of them, allow parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds.

In 1998, Drs. Rita Swan and Seth Asser studied the cases of 172 children who were denied medical care and died because of religious beliefs. They determined that 140 of these youngsters had a 90 percent chance of surviving if they had received proper treatment.

Sources

  • “Oprah Winfrey, New Thought, ‘The Secret’ and the ‘New Alchemy.’ ” Cult Awareness and Information Library, undated.
  • “Letters of Introduction Carried by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby & Lucius Burkmar.” True Acupuncture, undated.
  • “Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1803-1866).” Rev. David Alexander, New Thought History, undated.
  • “Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910).” Mary Baker Eddy Library, undated.
  • “Controversial Televangelist Peter Popoff Hawks ‘Miracle Water.’ ” Leonardo Blair, The Christian Post, April 4, 2013.
  • “Scam Everlasting: After 25 years, Debunked Faith Healer Still Preaching Debt Relief.” Christopher Haag, Credit.com, September 21, 2011.
  • “Letting them Die: Parents Refuse Medical Help for Children in the Name of Christ.” Jason Wilson, The Guardian, April 13, 2016.
  • “Child Fatalities From Religion-motivated Medical Neglect.” Seth M. Asser, MD, and Rita Swan, PhD, PEDIATRICS Vol. 101 No. 4 April 1998

Questions & Answers

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      • Joanna Pilatowicz profile image

        Joanna Pilatowicz 

        23 months ago from Germany

        Well done research! I am impressed! Thanks

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