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Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity / Edition 1

Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity / Edition 1

by Pamela E. KlassenPamela E. Klassen
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Spirits of Protestantism reveals how liberal Protestants went from being early-twentieth-century medical missionaries seeking to convert others through science and scripture, to becoming vocal critics of missionary arrogance who experimented with non-western healing modes such as Yoga and Reiki. Drawing on archival and ethnographic sources, Pamela E. Klassen shows how and why the very notion of healing within North America has been infused with a Protestant "supernatural liberalism." In the course of coming to their changing vision of healing, liberal Protestants became pioneers three times over: in the struggle against the cultural and medical pathologizing of homosexuality; in the critique of Christian missionary triumphalism; and in the diffusion of an ever-more ubiquitous anthropology of "body, mind, and spirit." At a time when the political and anthropological significance of Christianity is being hotly debated, Spirits of Protestantism forcefully argues for a reconsideration of the historical legacies and cultural effects of liberal Protestantism, even for the anthropology of religion itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520270992
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/14/2011
Series: The Anthropology of Christianity , #13
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Pamela E. Klassen is Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America.

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Spirits of Protestantism

Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity

By Pamela E. Klassen


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95044-3


Anthropologies of the Spiritual Body

There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. —1 Corinthians 15:44–45, King James Version

The joy of Easter is the joy of a progressive life, ever adapting itself to its new environment in a more spiritual body. —Frederick Du Vernet, Out of a Scribe's Treasure, 1927

The most famous Canadian medical missionary, one might argue, was not ultimately filled with the spirit of Jesus, but was instead emboldened by the spirit of communism. Dr. Norman Bethune, the son of an Ontario Presbyterian minister, met with international renown for his frontline medical work in two twentieth-century revolutionary hotspots—the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese communist battle against the Japanese occupation. Bethune became truly legendary after his 1939 death on the front in war-torn China, when Mao Tse-Tung lionized him as a communist martyr, praising him for his selfless embodiment of "the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism, from which every Chinese Communist must learn." In the end, Mao argued (at least in English translation), it was spirit that counted: "A man's ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people." Although Bethune held the Christian elements of his spirit at some ironic distance, it is clear that something of the spirit of Jesus—the Jesus construed as a laboring man of the people, if not an outright revolutionary—was an early spark for his activism. As a nineteen-year-old medical student Bethune spent 1911 working with the Protestant based Reading Camp Association, during which he taught immigrant lumberjacks to read by evening while working with them by day. Between this early Christian-inflected mission and his later communist one, medicine remained at the heart of his public witness: after struggling with tuberculosis in a sanatorium in his hometown of Gravenhurst, in Muskoka's cottage country, Bethune became a champion of publicly funded Canadian health care.

But Bethune's spirit was not necessarily so far from that of some of his countrymen who stayed in the church, such as Salem Bland (1859–1950), the renowned Methodist (and later United Church) minister who argued in 1920 that public ownership of state infrastructure was the most "divine" of all movements in the modern world: "To discredit and attack the principle of public ownership is to discredit and attack Christianity. It would seem to be the special sin against the Holy Ghost of our age. He who doubts the practicability of public ownership is really doubting human nature and Christianity and God." Bland's colleague Grover Livingstone (1887–1966), offered a less fervent, but no less spirited anthropology, as a United Church minister and chaplain. In 1926, the same year that Bethune had journeyed to the curative climate of Muskoka to relieve his TB, Livingston became chaplain to another Gravenhurst tuberculosis sanatorium, where he had once been a TB patient himself. Blind and deaf in one ear due to a childhood illness, Livingstone took an approach to the spirit not marked by the same fiery decisionism and internationalism as Bethune's communism.

In 1954 Livingstone wrote a little book called Through Sickness to Life based on the sermons he delivered over the loudspeaker of the Muskoka hospital, housed in a region where wealthy Canadians and Americans built their summer homes on the rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield. With the tonic of Muskoka's sparkling waters as his backdrop, Livingstone offered "techniques of devotion" that would bring spiritual equilibrium: ministers and the patients under their care should cooperate with medical doctors and accept the inevitability of suffering and the finitude of human embodiment, while also cultivating an active faith. Livingstone's book offered an anthropology of the spiritual body inspired by the Bible, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Adam Smith, Marcus Aurelius, Aldous Huxley, Rabindranath Tagore and deeply indebted to liberal Protestant ministers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Elwood Worcester. His cosmopolitan citations helped him to counsel that with the right techniques of devotion—such as Bible reading and memorization, reading of good literature, meditation, and prayer—sickness could be the "bearer of life" even in the absence of bodily healing. Such techniques could effect the "secret processes of the spirit" without crossing over into what he considered questionable modes such as "sacramentalism," "faith healing," or "magic." Fully committed to biomedical care, Livingstone, like many liberal Protestants, tacked between asserting that illness was an inevitable part of human experience that could bring one to greater empathy with others and cautiously suggesting that sickness itself carried the fertile potential for a kind of healing that could lead to "strange places of the spirit."

Livingstone's therapeutic loudspeakers, remedial Bible reading, and restorative meditation were devotional techniques that put a great deal of faith in the written, spoken, and read word. His cultivation of language practices was part of what anthropologist Webb Keane has called a "semiotic ideology," or a set of historically particular convictions about what counts as a sign and what effects such signs can have in the world—about how spoken or written words, bodily gestures, images, and material things communicate across both distance and difference. The concept of semiotic ideologies is so powerful precisely because everybody participates in (at least) one—even anthropologists. Rooted in convictions about and practices of the body, semiotic ideologies have everything to do with how people understand the interactive power of particular forms of communication to transform, harm, and heal. Livingstone's citations showed him to be a citizen of the world grounded in the Christian Bible, who thought that reading could clarify the mind and heal the body; he was an experimentalist mystic with faith both in biomedical and spiritual explanations for human embodiment. Liberal Protestants, with their faith in the word, are often described by anthropologists, their evangelical and Pentecostal critics, and even by themselves, as wooden in their ritual practice (if considered to have "ritual" at all), or as hopelessly rational in their approach to the workings of the spirit. With the tool of semiotic ideologies, the study of healing provides a lens through which to see how liberal Protestants, revolutionary doctors, and even anthropologists of Christianity have participated in ideologies of the spiritual body deeply infused by assumptions and convictions about what counts as the spirit and what we can know of the body.


Events of sickness and healing were experiences in which liberal Protestants contended directly with how they understood the "spirit" of God to be felt, sensed, and adjudicated in modern bodies. Questions of healing brought liberal Protestants face to face with what anthropologist Matthew Engelke has described as the "problem of presence," or the discernment of how "certain words and certain things—defined as such according to specific semiotic ideologies—become privileged channels of divine apprehension." How could bodily sickness or its resolution bring one closer to God? To use another conceptual frame, healing forced the consideration of what anthropologist Birgit Meyer has called sensational forms: the rituals, material culture, and media by which "religious practitioners are made to experience the presence and power of the transcendental." Sensational forms, Meyer writes, work by "invoking, framing and rendering accessible the transcendental," thus both producing the very notion of the transcendent and enabling religious practitioners to experience it. Livingstone recommended his techniques of devotion as pragmatic ways to make intellectual sense of illness, but at the same time he advocated Bible reading and prayer as sensational forms by which one could experience the "unseen presence" while also leaving oneself in the hands of medical (and ministerial) professionals.

The problem of presence and the concept of sensational forms are framing devices developed by anthropologists to make sense of contemporary religious practice. Not surprisingly, looking around, or behind, these frames reveals a background of older convictions about human nature and intercourse with the spirits. The anthropological act of framing the spirit, the unseen presence, or the transcendent has a long past that dips into the less well-known, theological version of the term anthropology. All versions of Christian healing— Frederick Du Vernet's vibrational prayers of "radio mind," faith cure, pastoral counseling, exorcism—have based their therapeutic approaches on particular understandings of what it is to be a human being in relationship to God, or what could be called anthropologies of the spiritual body. These anthropologies are intimately tied to ontologies—theories and convictions about what "being" is in and of itself. Ontologically rooted, theological anthropology has provided a language, whether implicit or explicit, for Christians to articulate how they understood spiritual forces to have physical, and sometimes healing, effects on human beings.

Theological anthropology is a field of study that dates back at least formally to the seventeenth century, but reflection on Christian understandings of how God relates to different aspects of human personhood, whether body, soul, spirit, or mind has always been part of Christian thought (as well as that of its contributors, such as Hellenistic philosophy and Hebrew scripture). Whether Platonic-influenced dualisms of body and soul still at play in the nineteenth-century Protestant health movements described by Marie Griffith, or what Dale Martin has called early Christian and Greco-Roman "hierarchies of essence" distinguishing psyche, soma, and pneuma, Christian anthropological speculation has long grappled with the question of how best to understand embodied being in relation to divine agency. As a technical theological term, anthropology is distinct from the current reigning understanding of the word as "intrinsically a secular discipline" that is focused on the study of "culture" and not tied to theology—this distinction, however, is less clear-cut than most anthropologists of religion have usually assumed. Several anthropologists have recently demonstrated the complicated indebtedness of many anthropological and theoretical categories to Christian theology—including Fenella Cannell's discussion of "genealogical ontology," Joel Robbins's provocative critique of the "social ontology" of power and conflict that lies at the heart of much anthropological analysis, or Talal Asad's account of the Christian grounds for the formation of secular liberalism itself. These recent critiques, however, have not gone so far as to interrogate the implications of the Christian theological lineage of the concept of anthropology itself, or, for that matter, how "theological anthropology" continues as a core aspect of Christian theological practice today. Taking Kevin O'Neill and William Garriott's suggestion that anthropologists take a dialogical approach when asking "Who is a Christian?" I ask in turn, who is an anthropologist? Acknowledging how the category of anthropology has contained, if repressed, the overlap of theological and secular ontologies is particularly important for the study of liberal Protestants, who share with cultural anthropologists the realization that their mid-twentieth-century cosmopolitan ideals were partly formed in complicity with colonial power.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English uses of "anthropology" in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries denoted the consideration or study of the human "body and soul." In the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant, renowned for his critiques of metaphysical ontologies, also pioneered the vision of anthropology as an academic discipline separate from theology by publishing his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Based on his popular lectures to university students, Kant's Anthropology remained in part a prescriptive, if not conventionally theological, project both as a study of the empirical principles of human nature as a universal condition and as a pragmatic disquisition on how best to cultivate a universally grounded cosmopolitan "virtue ethics" in the young men who were his audience. By the nineteenth century theological anthropology was aware of its enlightened competition but still considered itself as part of the conversation: an 1883 biblical encyclopedia described anthropology as a "scientific theology" that "distinguishes itself from physiological anthropology by viewing man not as a natural being, but in his relation to God." Confident in the necessary and close relationship of theological and physiological anthropology, the entry fit the study of "body and soul (or according to the Trichotomists, body, soul, and spirit)" firmly within the task of anthropology.

The overlap between anthropology as an academic discipline and as a space of theological inquiry into human nature is not as seamless today, of course. Whereas academic anthropology has come to understand its task to be "denaturalizing" what is taken as natural by questioning cultural categories and norms, theological anthropology denaturalizes the empiricism of secularity itself, insisting on the (Christian) supernatural as a matter of course. These twin versions of anthropology, however, are closer than they may appear. Theological anthropology's task of investigating the relationship of human nature to God, and the task of anthropologists of Christianity who study the ways human beings experience and assess "God's simultaneous presence and absence" are distinguished largely by their intended audiences and by the differently normative repercussions of their work. Whereas theologians often advise how Christians should best encounter the spirit of God, anthropologists make arguments for how other anthropologists should best interpret Christian claims of encountering the spirit of God. Although this normative difference matters, it becomes less stark when anthropological critique is compared to the "prophetic" critique of power endorsed by liberal Protestants, those Christians most closely aligned with paradigms and ontologies of scientific modernity and most affected by the same kind of chastened postcolonial awareness that has shaped cultural anthropology.

As several scholars of religion have shown, liberal Protestant categories of analysis have shaped, consciously or not, the academic disciplines that have sought to explain religion, including anthropology. Partly because of their influential positions in higher education in North America, in which many universities have Protestant roots, liberal Protestants—including Paul Tillich and many others whom I discuss in the following chapters—played a disproportionate role in setting the terms for the social scientific study of religion. Protestant categories of human nature and Nature writ large, along with, in Murray Murphey's words, "the sharp distinctions we make between 'science' and 'religion,' 'normative' and 'empirical,' 'verifiable' and 'metaphysical,'" have been unwittingly applied as universal categories in the "scientific" study of religion, when they are in reality a "particular, highly parochial way" of dividing up the world. Liberal Protestant projects of theological anthropology are still embedded and often unmarked in the methods and theories of "academic" anthropology, especially when it comes to the study of Christianity.

Consider the example of Anthony F. C. Wallace's 1966 book, Religion An Anthropological View. An eminent ethnohistorian of First Nations peoples in Canada and the United States, who often testified as an expert witness for Iroquois and Sioux land claims, Wallace is best known for his work on "revitalization" movements in which he combined his interests in psychiatry, native peoples, and religion. Wallace declared that religion was on the path to "extinction" both because science was making "supernatural beings and forces" unbelievable and because ritual, as the real active force of religion, was being successfully secularized. In the wake of the loss of supernaturalism, Wallace argued, came the risk of fascism, in which people would transfer their "masochistic longings" from religious figures to political leaders. To avoid this Wallace argued, a "secular faith" was required, "a non-theistic theology" that, like that found in "desupernaturalized" and "liberal" religious groups, would not abide supernatural forces or contradict science but would carry on with psychoanalytically appropriate rites of passage and ecclesiastical organizations. A secular faith "must include the accomplishment of these ideological, salvational, and revitalizational transformations which are deemed to be essential for the creation and maintenance of healthy personalities in a healthy society." Although Wallace did not fully explicate it, he emphasized the need for "a fairly specific theory of what constitutes a healthy personality in our society." Wallace's theory of health would have not been far from that of many liberal Protestants in 1966, who themselves valued science, were supporters of First Nations land claims, and engaged with psychiatry to question the pathologizing of homosexuality (as did Wallace). Whether either Wallace or liberal Protestants had successfully de-supernaturalized—or secularized in Wallace's terms—was debatable. In the same issue of Zygon in which a short version of Wallace's book appeared was an article by a Unitarian minister, Donald Harrington, who made an appeal to "modern man" that was quite parallel to Wallace's:

... he wanders a wasteland, waiting a spiritual summons worthy his reasoning spirit— in tune with the present, unsundered from the past. That call, when it comes, will reach out to the world's wide circle and bring all men at last to freedom and brotherhood and peace with justice under God's universal law. Those who call themselves liberal religionists, have, I believe, the possibility of becoming a channel for such a call, to make a scientifically renewed and reinforced religion a redemptive power once again in this rapidly changing contemporary world.


Excerpted from Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxv

Introduction: Healing Christians 1

1 Anthropologies of the Spiritual Body 30

2 The Gospel of Health and the Scientific Spirit 58

3 Protestant Experimentalists and the Energy of Love 100

4 Evil Spirits and the Queer Psyche in an Age of Anxiety 137

5 Ritual Proximity and the Healing of History 169

Conclusion: Critical Condition 209

Notes 219

Archives Consulted 283

Selected Bibliography 285

Index 305

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"A courageous and balanced treatise. . . . A nuanced call for the careful analysis of the seemingly familiar."—Somatosphere

"A rich portrait of 20th century Protestant liberalism."—Religion

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