How Faith Healing Works

What do faith healers claim to do?
Twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson speaks in front of a crowd in 1935. Bettmann/Getty Images

One type of faith healing, known as intercessory prayer, is simple. The idea is that the prayers of the patient, and those of the patient's friends and family or of total strangers, can positively affect the outcome of an illness, injury or disease. Sometimes the prayers appear to inspire an outright miracle, like a patient with advanced cancer suddenly going into remission. Sometimes the supposed effect is subtler, like a patient with a spinal injury regaining the ability to walk, or a commonplace operation going smoothly.

The other kind of faith healing, where a single charismatic preacher claims to have the divine power to cure disease and heal injuries, is a bit more complex. These faith healers maintain that they have a variety of supernatural powers. Some, like the evangelical preacher Todd Bentley and late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, perform by laying their hands on their followers, and thousands of people attend their services. They may charge a fee or ask for donations to attend an event and have a chance to be healed. Other faith healers claim the ability to heal at a distancem or without personally meeting the followers who come to them for healing. John Alexander Dowie, for instance, set up healing ministries in San Francisco and Chicago in the 1890s and early 1900s, offering to pray for the healing of anyone who offered a sufficient tithe to his church [source: Harlan].

The types of healing available from faith healers also range from more modest cures to seemingly miraculous recoveries. Eyewitnesses have recounted seemingly impossible feats of healing, like when a man missing an arm regrew it in front of a crowd [source: Barrett]. Multiple faith healers, including Benson Idahosa and Frank Sandford, have claimed they can "heal" death and bring a deceased person back to life. A few faith healers, such as Dowie and Rua Kenana Hepetipa, even claim to be Jesus Christ or some other divine being.

While faith healers differ in their specific methods, many of their services revolve around building energy in the crowd, which the healer may refer to as the Holy Spirit, faith energy or some other supernatural force. This excitement can be created with a high-energy sermon, musical performances or chanting and dancing. In the 1920s, faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the first preachers to hold highly produced religious services with all the drama and excitement of a stage show. Among her show props were giant ships, Trojan horses and a motorcycle [source: Grimley]. Healers who lay their hands on people frequently incorporate a push or even a physical blow that seemingly causes the person to collapse, faint or simply fall down.

There are complex cultural reasons that so many people believe faith healers really can heal the sick, and they depend partly on the type of religion one believes in.