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Cautious Co-belligerence? The Late Nineteenth-Century American Divine Healing Movement and the Promise of Medical Science


The Notable Exception: John Alexander Dowie

John Dowie
Image courtesy of the Clendening History of Medicine Library, Kansas University Medical Center

Those acquainted with the late nineteenth-century Divine Healing movement will note the conspicuous absence of one leading figure. John Alexander Dowie, the founder of the International Divine Healing Association, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, and the settlement of Zion, Illinois, was one of the best-known, if not notorious, figures in the late nineteenth-century Divine Healing movement.66 Dowie echoed many of the denials made by the other Divine Healing advocates. He, like the others, denied that there was scriptural precedent or prescription to employ medical science.67 He staunchly opposed the assertion that the age of miracles was past.68 He believed, too, that the root of disease was ultimately spiritual69 and that science’s excessive naturalism disqualified it from being able to diagnose the ultimate cause of sickness and disease.70

Dowie is distinct from the other figures, however, in his outright and vitriolic rejection of even the limited good of medicine and the medical profession.71 First, he strongly and repeatedly denied that there was anything that could legitimately be called “medical science.”72 Quoting numerous figures within the medical community for support,73 Dowie claimed that medical practice had no scientific method and was nothing more than an on-going and disconnected series of guesses on the part of the practitioner.74 There was no real science to it. Consequently, the concept of medical advance was an “ILLUSION” established by the medical community solely to establish its own reputation and power.75 The whole business was, actually, an “infamous humbug.”76

Dowie denied that physicians and medicine were in any way manifestations of the grace of God.

Dowie also denied that medical “science” could alleviate symptoms. He believed that there is no cure in medical science77 and that it was, therefore, of “no value.”78 Rather, Dowie asserted that the means employed by medical “science” did far more harm than good. He labeled the drugs administered by physicians “poisons”79 and surgical procedures “butchery.”80 Hospitals were “murderous vivi-section holes from which the victims rarely escaped with either money or life,” and were institutions wherein physicians practiced “prolonged and nameless tortures.”81 Most, if not all, medical patients were worse off after their treatment than they were before. Worse still, Dowie charged that medical practice was responsible for “hundreds of thousands of deaths,”82 more than “WAR, PESTILENCE AND FAMINE COMBINED.”83 Not only were people physically poorer than they were before, Dowie contended that many were driven into poverty paying their medical bills, as well.84

It will come as little surprise, then, that Dowie denied that physicians and medicine were in any way manifestations of the grace of God. Rather, Dowie boldly alleged that their source was diabolical. Physicians, “AS A PROFESSION, ARE DIRECTLY INSPIRED BY THE DEVIL” and, in their medical practice, are the Devil’s servants.85 Dowie described these “MONSTERS” as worse than either Herod, who killed the children of Bethlehem, or the pagan Druids, who offered up virgin sacrifice.86 The diabolical character of the medical community was manifest in the performing of abortions, the murder of patients, the doctors’ addiction to drugs, and their insincerity regarding the legitimacy of their practice.87

The diabolical nature of the practice of medicine, however, is most clearly seen in its desire to stop the practice of Divine Healing, attempting to remove Christ from his rightful place as the Healer.88 Consequently, Dowie would contend “DOCTORS AND DRUGS ARE NECESSARILY THE FOES OF CHRIST AS THE HEALER.”89

The Popular Reputation of Late Nineteenth-Century Medical Science

From an early twenty-first century perspective, we can see that the late nineteenth century, undoubtedly, was a time of great and monumental change in medical practice. The late nineteenth century saw the advancement of microbiology under Louis Pasteur, the vast improvements to an antiseptic surgical context resulting from the work of Joseph Lister, and the development of x-ray technology by Willhelm Röntgen. The implementation of these advances vastly improved not only medical diagnosis and practice but, perhaps more importantly, the chances of full recovery from medical and surgical procedure. Despite these very significant advances, however, medical science and medical practitioners in the late nineteenth century were held in low esteem by the general public and the denigration of the American physician was common.90

Medicinal mercury: well intentioned, well accepted, but ultimately harmful. The use of mercury during the “heroic age” of medicine—along with other aggressive treatments like bloodletting, purging, and induced sweating—stressed already weakened patients. Although most of these practices were abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century, calomel (Mercury[I] chloride) continued to be used in medicines until the mid-twentieth century when it was discovered that ingesting the compound caused heavy metal blood poisoning.

Scholars of the history of medicine have pointed out no fewer than four separate though related reasons for this low view of medicine in late nineteenth-century America. First, during this period, the licensing requirements of government for those practicing medicine was rather low.91 This afforded various practitioners no level of civic endorsement and, consequently, no level of civic respect. Practically, many physicians operated on the fringes of society and were, for the most part, not accountable to the magistrate or anyone else for their methods.

Related to this idea is the second reason for the low level of esteem: the relative lack of formal education that most physicians of the day had received.92 Prior to the late nineteenth century, the training in the practice of medicine was usually limited to an apprenticeship. New candidates would receive their training at the hands of an older practitioner and, consequently, be limited in their training by the opinions, practices, and resources of that particular mentor. Given this method of training, many of the great advances taking place in the wider medical community were not known, endorsed, or widely practiced, in some cases, for decades. Physicians and their apprentices simply continued to use those methods that had held sway for decades, which they knew best, or those that they personally felt were most effective and appropriate. While medical schools were present and enrolled large numbers of students, the quality of both the schools and students was suspect. Most medical schools of the day, since they did not need any type of sanction, were little more than “diploma mills.”93 Furthermore, it was possible, in those days, for one to be admitted to a medical school when that same person would not meet the most basic requirements of a good liberal arts school.94 The curriculum at most of these medical schools “required attendance at only two four-month lecture sessions. There was generally no clinical training sessions, no laboratories, and, for that matter, no admissions requirements. Even as late as 1870, only a very small percentage of medical students had earned a bachelor’s degree.”95 It was not until the 1890’s when American medicine would begin to come of age.96

Prior to the late nineteenth century, many of the great advances taking place in the wider medical community were not known, endorsed, or widely practiced.

A third reason that the medical community was held in low esteem in the public eye was due to the medical community’s constant, public, and often vitriolic internal disagreements on both the diagnoses and, consequently, the method of treatment of almost any illness.97 Part of the reason for this stems from the medical “doctrine that there was one cause and therefore one cure of disease.”98 Post-enlightenment healers, following the lead of Isaac Newton, sought to understand the single “fundamental force or principle responsible” for disease in all of its manifestations. This would lead to the various “sectarian” schools of medical science such as mesmerism, Grahamism, hydropathy, etc.”99 Disagreement, of course, rose over the nature of this singular and rudimentary cause of disease. Consequently, there were equally divergent opinions and practices concerning the mode of effective treatment. Having put all of their proverbial eggs in one diagnostic basket meant that if one were to disagree with a practitioner on any level, it would be understood to be a lethal attack on the whole of that practitioner’s medical understanding and ability. Such attacks could not be taken lightly if one wished to continue practicing medicine and attracting patients as the competition for business was great. This led to constant internal yet very public sniping and “professional quarrels.”100 This level of division did little good for the reputation of physicians or to instill the confidence of a watching public.

James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881, having become the 20th President of the United States less than four months before. After surviving the initial attack, the President’s doctors probed in his body with unsterilized fingers looking for a bullet that had probably lodged in his lung. Despite the prayer vigil of the nation, infection set in and slowly killed Garfield, who remained conscious through most of the long ordeal. His death on September 19, 1881, eleven weeks after the attack, severely hurt the reputation of medical practice in the United States.

Finally, the unpleasant, strange, and often fatally ineffective methods of many physicians did not help the profession’s reputation. “Bleedings, sweatings, blistering, and the use of drugs aimed at inducing vomiting or diarrhea were the most common therapeutic techniques.”101 Mercury, now widely known for its deathly effects, was used to treat a variety of diseases in the nineteenth century including tuberculosis, constipation, and headache. “Those hardy patients who did not die in the course of these largely futile endeavors were at the very least weakened by the ordeal.”102 The terms “butchery” and “stupendous humbug” were words used in the secular media to describe the medical profession.103

No single case brought more attention to the inability of medical science in the late nineteenth century than that of President James Garfield. The well-publicized and closely-watched case of Garfield’s ultimately ineffective medical care showed the inability of, assumedly, the nation’s best doctors and latest techniques to deal with something as straightforward and as common as a gunshot wound. Garfield succumbed to his wound after a number of days despite round the clock medical care. The failure of the nation’s leading physicians and their “medical science” to restore him shone clearly and brightly in the spotlight.104


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Category: Church History, Summer 2010

About the Author: Bernie A. Van De Walle, Ph.D. (Drew University), is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology and theology program convener at Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Heart of the Gospel: A. B. Simpson, the Fourfold Gospel, and Late Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Theology (2009), Rethinking Holiness: A Theological Introduction (2017), and contributor to other works including The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation (2009), Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011), and The Holy River of God: Currents and Contributions of the Wesleyan Holiness Stream of Christianity (2016). He has served as the President of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship and sits on the Steering Committee of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection. Amazon Author page

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