FSU professor documents Christianity’s history of healing

The concept of healing, both physical and spiritual, has been a central theme of Christianity going all the way back to the time of Jesus Christ. In her new book, "Healing in the History of Christianity," Florida State University religion Professor Amanda Porterfield examines the ways in which this theme of healing has evolved over Christianity’s 2,000 years. In so doing, she shows how the appeal of this message has helped Christianity grow into one of the world’s major religions.

Starting with the Gospel texts of the biblical New Testament, "Healing in the History of Christianity" examines Christ’s actions as a healer and exorcist, and documents how the early church cared for the sick in a conscious emulation of Christ’s ministry.

"Christianity might not have survived in the first centuries if not for the vigorous nursing that was done (by the early church) during epidemics," Porterfield said. "And in medieval times, medical care existed primarily in Christian hospitals and monasteries. Christianity’s central theme—that illness and suffering are linked to sin, but that healing can be brought about through repentance and divine forgiveness—made the religion tremendously appealing to outsiders, and contributed mightily to its growth."

Porterfield’s book also examines the interplay between Christian healing and medical practice from ancient times up to the present. In addition, it looks at recent discoveries about religion’s biological effects, and considers what these findings mean in light of ages-old traditions about belief and healing.

"There is a great deal of interest these days in the relationship between religious faith and physical healing," Porterfield said. "With this book, one of the things I tried to illuminate was how Christianity may work to make people feel better.

"For example, stress and its role in affecting our brain chemistry and overall health is well documented," she said. "What is less understood is the role that religious faith plays in helping to reduce the effects of such stress. With my book, I sought to offer some insights into how religious faith, and Christian faith in particular, help this to occur."

Porterfield notes that religious faith—especially when practiced within a community of believers—provides "transformative events or experiences that reconfigure people’s relationship to their world and to their suffering. It puts them in touch with their ‘larger’ selves."

For Christians, such transformative events "aren’t necessarily as dramatic as Paul being struck blind on the road to Damascus," she said, referring to the religious epiphany experienced by one of Christ’s disciples. Transformative experiences can take the form of more routine events, such as receiving the sacraments in a Catholic Mass or singing hymns in a Protestant church service.

"Religion brings you in touch with a community of people—a support system," Porterfield said. "Christianity is particularly effective in this regard. It consolidates and stabilizes communities through manifestations of transcendence that invigorate the participants."

Already, "Healing in the History of Christianity" is earning praise for offering a new way of looking at the world’s largest religion. (An estimated 2.1 billion people—approximately 32 percent of the world’s population—identify themselves as Christian.)

"As well as documenting the changing conceptions of healing throughout Christian history, Professor Porterfield’s book shows how healing is in fact a defining element of the religion and a major contributor to its endurance, expansion and success," said John Kelsay, chairman of FSU’s religion department. "’Healing in the History of Christianity’ may emerge as a seminal work in our understanding of one of the world’s great faiths."