Traditional Christian Treatment of the Sick
…whatsoever your sickness is,
know you certainly, that it is God's visitation.
Book of Common Prayer, Order for the
Visitation of the Sick
Christian doctrine held that illness was caused by sin. This
belief was exactly in linewith the gospels1
and was specifically confirmed by the Lateran Council in 1215.
So it was that for centuries the sick and dying could safely
be shunned and ignored. They must have deserved their condition,
and attempts to help them were attempts to defy God's will.
Monstrous human births were caused by the Devil having corrupted
infants' souls, even before birth.
The belief was universal in Christianity, and carried over
from Catholicism into Protestant sects at the Reformation. Here
are a few examples from Martin Luther:
A large number of deaf, crippled and blind people are afflicted
solely through the malice of the demon. And one must in no
wise doubt that plagues, fevers and every sort of evil come
and it was not only physivcal problems, mental problems were
also attributable to Satan.
As for the demented, I hold it certain that all beings deprived
of reason are thus afflicted only by the Devil.
and anyone who doubted demonic causes for illness were ridiculed
(and iwhere possible tried as heretics)
Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb, are men in whom the
devils have established themselves: and all the physicians
who heal these infirmities, as though they proceeded from
natural causes, are ignorant blockheads....
disease causing demons were God's punishment for sin, it was
clearly a pious duty to accept that punishment. To minimise
it or seek to avoid it would be further sin. This attitude led
to a form of fatalism still widespread in the East and once
common in Western Christendom too. If God wants a person to
suffer or die, it is plainly blasphemous for that person to
try to avoid their fate. Since the victims of plague were destined
to die by God's decree, the disease could not really be contagious
in any conventional sense , and there was no point in taking
precautions against catching it. Many thousands of devout Christians
thus suffered avoidable death and suffering. For example, during
the Black Death in Britain in 1665, pious Christians declined
to take precautions for the protection of their families, claiming
that they did not wish to pervert God's will. As Daniel Defoe
noted, places where this fatalistic attitude was common suffered
significantly higher mortality rates than elsewhere. Well into
the twentieth century, devout Christians relied on Psalm 91,
which they said clearly confirmed that God would protect them
from pestilence and other evils. The devout were held to be
immune from epidemics, whatever the evidence might be. To be
inoculated against disease was to doubt God's word, and therefore
plainly sinful. So it was that many of the devout, and their
trusting children, died unnecessarily in epidemics following
the advice, or the orders, of their religious leaders.
Lepers were treated as God required in
the Old Testament:
He is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce
him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head. And the leper
in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his
head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip,
and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.
God had condemned lepers to a living death, so Christians behaved
accordingly. A ceremony was performed for the living dead parallel
to that for the fully dead. When someone was thought to have
contracted the disease, a neighbour would denounce the unfortunate
person to the Church. An investigation would then be undertaken
on behalf of the Church, often without medical assistance. If
leprosy was established the parish priest would perform the
"Office for the Seclusion of a Leper". He would go
to the afflicted person's house, sprinkle the person with holy
water, and offer him or her the chance to make confession for
the last time. The afflicted person was then taken to the local
Church where he or she was made to adopt a pose "in the
manner of a dead man" before the altar, beneath trestles
covered by black cloth. The idea was that the leper should resemble
a body in a coffin. During the service, lepers were informed
that their disease was God's punishment for sin, and sometimes,
paradoxically, that this was a special divine favour. According
to the ritual used at Vienna, the priest would say: "My
friend, it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected
with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of
Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for thy iniquities
in this world"2.
After a ceremony the leper was dragged backwards or otherwise
escorted out of the church. Earth was cast at his or her feet,
as into a new grave, while the priest said "Be thou dead
to the world, but alive again unto God". The person was
then admonished never to enter a church or other public place
again, and was banished from the community. Lepers were dead
not only spiritually and socially but also legally. They could
not inherit property. At the Council of Westminster in 1200
they were forbidden to make wills or appear in court. The Church
taught that the exterior physical body reflected the interior
soul, so anyone with such a dreadful disease must have been
excessively sinful. Leprosy was believed either to be a venereal
disease or to be caused by lustful thoughts. Either way, leprosy
was the visible sign of a soul corroded by the vitriol of sexual
lepers were by definition given to sin, and excluded from the
community of good Christians, they provided convenient scapegoats.
By marginalising them, Christendom made them into targets for
unwholesome fantasies. Like all other minority groups they were
accused of unlikely crimes. In 1321, for example, they were
accused of poisoning wells in France. Lepers in Périgueux
were rounded up and tortured until they confessed their guilt,
and were then burned at the stake. The confessions prompted
a terror similar to that more usually generated by Jews and
witches. A story grew that a huge network of lepers, funded
by the Muslims and aided by the Jews, had planned to poison
all water supplies in the land. Forged letters turned up confirming
the foul plot. King Philip V ordered the arrest of all lepers
in France. Those who failed to confess were to be tortured.
Those who did confess were to be burned alive, their goods being
forfeit to the King. No records were kept of how many lepers
died as a result3.
No Christian thought to try to find a cure for leprosy. It
would be presumptious to do that. For the holiest Christians
Blessed Angela of Foligno, the nearest one could get to
being useful was to drink from the suppurating sores of a leper.
sin with illness is now widely considered absurd, though it
is has been confirmed even by liberal denominations even in
recent times. A report of the Anglican Church from the Lambeth
Conference in 1958 confirmed the principle while shifting ground
to avoid the traditional implications, so that the blame did
not need to be pinned on any individual: "It is cruel and
false to brand every sufferer as a sinner: much suffering and
sickness is due to the sin either of other persons or of society
in general". Since then the whole subject has become an
embarrassment, except to a few sects that continue to hold to
the traditional teaching. Mainstream clergymen go to extreme
lengths to pretend that the biblical passages that confirm the
link between sin and illness do not exist, or else mean something
quite different. It is left to fringe Christians to uphold the
traditional line and use exorcism to cast out sin and so cure
so long ago Christians accepted the views of St Augustine that
deaf mutes were debarred from the faith4.
Like Augustine, they cited St Paul's assertion that "faith
cometh by hearing" (Romans 10:17). The deaf were thus incapable
of becoming Christians. For centuries they were marginalised,
rejected and persecuted by all right-thinking Christians. The
Church would not allow them to marry, nor to inherit. The deaf
were not the only ones persecuted in this way so were
those with other disabilities, since disabilities were also
evidence of God's unfavourable judgement. As late as the 1970s
Roman Catholic priests were protesting publicly about Communion
being given to disabled children. God had no use for the physically
impaired. Physical handicaps were, along with servile birth
and illegitimacy, bars to ordination. Canon 1029 of the Roman
code of canon law still requires those to be ordained to have
appropriate physical qualities.
idea propounded by the Church, and explained in Malleus
was that God allowed demons to steal children and substitute
subhuman infants, called changelings, in their place.
This was likely to happen to children before they had been baptised,
or before their mother had been churched. Such stories were
used to encourage baptism and churching, and also to explain
the existence of weak and sickly children. Sometimes children
had withered limbs, or were deaf, blind, backward or crippled.
Roman Catholics and Protestants alike imagined that these handicapped
children these changelings were not human beings
at all. Martin Luther, for example, advised that they be drowned.
They were he said only lumps of flesh lacking a soul6.
He could vauch for their existence from his personal experience:
"I myself saw and touched at Dessay, a child of this sort,
which had no human parents, but had proceeded from the Devil.
He was twelve years old, and, in outward form, exactly resembled
ordinary children". The Devil often exchanged sickly imps
in place of healthy children. As he pointed out "The Devil,
too, sometimes steals human children; it is not infrequent for
him to carry away infants within the first six weeks after birth,
and to substitute in their place imps...". Of course, murdering
Satan's imps did not constitute murder. Luther's view was not
an isolated exception. Walter Bachmann, who made a study of
Christian attitudes to changelings, summed up the position as
It is doubtful if the handicapped have ever, in any other
cultural domain in human history, been more wronged and despised
or treated with greater intolerance and inhumanity, than in
Changelings were sometimes regarded as half-breeds, the offspring
of a human woman and an elf or other supernatural being. In
other cases, unwanted children were regarded as Cambions. According
to theologians, demons would adopt female form to seduce sleeping
men and obtain their semen, then adopt male form to seduce sleeping
women, and impregnate them with their ill-gotten semen. The
offspring of such a union was a Cambion. The demon in female
form was a succubus, and in male form was an incubus.
St. Augustine in De Civitate Dei affirmed that there
were too many attacks by incubi to deny them. Saint Thomas aquinas
also affirmed their existence, as did the Inquisitors' handbook
Nightmare (1800) by Nicolai Abraham
Abildgaard (1743 - 1809) .
Oil on canvas, 35.3 x 41.7 cm. Vestsjaellands Art Museum,
An incubus sits on a the chest of a sleeping woman, her
husband unaware, next to her.
Since Christian shrines healed worthy Christians of their sins
and illnesses, it followed that if no healing was forthcoming,
then the sufferer cannot be a worthy Christian. Countless incurable
children were therefore left to perish if no saint saw fit to
heal them - since by definition such children cannot have been
of value to God. Others survived by being adopted into less
religiously rigorous families. In the thirteenth century, Margaret
of Citta-Di-Castello, also known Margaret of Metola, was abandoned
by her rich Christian parents when a cure for her blindness
was not granted at a shrine. She was raised by a poor family,
even though she was blind, dwarfed, hunchbacked and lame, and
survived to become a notable visionary in the Catholic Church.
Christian priorities are made clear in its surviving buildings.
Almost every ancient village in Europe has a church, but almost
none had a hospital before the Enlightenment and the
hospitals that were built before then were usually to ensure
the segregation of lepers.
Vestiges of traditional Christian attitudes remain - many Churches
still disriminate against the handicapped in a variety of ways
- emloyment, marriage, rights within the Church, etc although
secular laws are slowly eliminating the ways they are allowed
to discriminate. For example it took an anti-discrimination
suit by the American Civil Liberties Union againt the Oral Robets
University before disabled people were allowed on the campuses
of all God-inspired evangelical American universities. 9
It is notable that the worst excesses were particularly Christian.
Before the Churches' rise to power, non-Christians had formed
rational explanations for illness and infirmity. Socrates (in
Plato's Cratylus) recognised that the deaf were just
as intelligent as everyone else. When the Church was most powerful,
the only people effectively exempt from its rules rich
and influential nobles were able to teach their deaf
children to read and write. In this way they circumvented Church
restrictions, and such children were permitted to marry and
inherit. If churchmen had thought about this, they could easily
have reached the same conclusion as Socrates.
More social issues:
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1. See for example
Matthew 9:2-7, Mark 2:3-12 and Luke 5:17-25.
2. Cited by Foucault,
Madness and Civilization, p 6.
3. Richards, Sex,
Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages,
4. St Augustine,
Contra Julianum, 3, 10.
5. Kramer and Sprenger,
Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q2, c8 also Pt II, q1,
6. Uta Ranke-Heinemann,
Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 212, citing Walter
Bachmann, Das unselige Erbe des Christentums: Die Wechselbälge.
Zur Geschichte der Heilpädagogik (The Baneful
Legacy of Christianity: Changelings. On the History of Therapeutic
Training) 1985, pp 183, 191 and 195.
7. Walter Bachmann,
Das unselige Erbe des Christentums: Die Wechselbälge.
Zur Geschichte der Heilpädagogik (The Baneful
Legacy of Christianity: Changelings. On the History of Therapeutic
Training) 1985, p 442 translation from Uta Ranke-Heinemann,
Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 213.
8. Saint Augustine of
Hippo, (354-430 A.D.):.
There is, too, a very general rumor, which many have verified
by their own experience, or which trustworthy persons who
have heard the experience of others corroborate, that sylvans
and fauns, who are commonly called incubi, had
often made wicked assaults upon women, and satisfied their
lust upon them; and that certain devils, called Duses by the
Gauls, are constantly attempting and effecting this impurity
is so generally affirmed, that it were impudent to deny it.
From these assertions, indeed, I dare not determine whether
there be some spirits embodied in an aerial substance (for
this element, even when agitated by a fan, is sensibly felt
by the body), and who are capable of lust and of mingling
sensibly with women
(St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, Book 15, Chapter 23)
saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) [whose teachings have
been adopted as the official philosophy of the Catholic Church]:
Still if some are occasionally begotten from demons, it is
not from the seed of such demons, nor from their assumed bodies,
but from the seed of men taken for the purpose; as when the
demon assumes first the form of a woman, and afterwards of
a man; just as they take the seed of other things for other
generating purposes, as Augustine says (De Trin. iii), so
that the person born is not the child of a demon, but of a
man (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Part 1, Question
51, Article 3)
Malleus Malficarum (The Witches Hammer):
But it may be argued that devils take their part in this
generation not as the essential cause, but as a secondary
and artificial cause, since they busy themselves by interfering
with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining
human semen, and themselves transferring it
bodies which are assumed in this way cannot either beget or
Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body
not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they
may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass
the semen on to another body
.Secondly, it is true that
to procreate a man is the act of a living body. But when it
is said that devils cannot give life, because that flows formally
from the soul, it is true; but materially life springs from
the semen, and an Incubus devil can, with Gods permission,
accomplish this by coition. And the semen does not so much
spring from him, as it is another mans semen received
by him for this purpose (see S. Thomas, I. 51, art. 3). For
the devil is Succubus to a man, and becomes Incubus to a woman.
In just the same way they absorb the seeds of other things
for the generating of various thing, as S. Augustine says,
de Trinitate 3
(Malleus Malficarum, Part 1, Question 3).
Ludovico Maria Sinastri (1622-1701 A.D.) a noted demonologist
and Franciscan priest, advisor to the Inquisition:
In the above case, as well as in others that may be heard
or read of occasionally, the Incubus attempts no act against
Religion; he merely assails chastity. In consequence, consent
is not a sin through ungodliness, but through incontinence.
Now, it is undoubted by Theologians and philosophers that
carnal intercourse between mankind and the Demon sometimes
gives birth to human beings; that is how is to be born the
Antichrist, according to some Doctors, such as Bellarmin,
Suarez, Maluenda, etc. They further observe that, from a natural
cause, the children thus begotten by Incubi are tall, very
hardy and bold, very proud and wicked. Thus writes Maluenda;
as for the cause, he gives it from Vallesius, Archphysician
in Reggio: What Incubi introduce in uterus, is not qualecumque
neque quantumcumque semen, but abundant, very thick, very
warm, rich in spirits and free from serosity
testimony of various Authors, mostly classical, that such
associations gave birth to: Romulus and Remus, according to
Livy and Plutarch; Servius-Tullius, the sixth king of Rome,
according to Dyonisius of Halicarnassus and Pliny the Elder;
Plato the Philosopher, according to Diogenes Laertius and
Saint Hieronymus; Alexander the Great, according to Plutarch
and Quintus-Curtius; Seleucus, king of Syria, according to
Justinus and Appianus; Scipio Africanus the Elder, according
to Livy; the emperor Caesar Augustus, according to Suetonius;
Aristomenes the Messenian, an illustrious Greek commander,
according to Strabo and Pausanias; as also Merlin or Melchin
the Englishman, born from an Incubus and a nun, the daughter
of Charlemagne; and, lastly, as shown by the writings of Cochlceus
quoted by Maluenda, that damned Heresiarch Martin Luther
(Ludovico Maria Sinastri, De Daemonialitate et Incubis
9. The Indepentent
(Oral Roberts Obituary) 17 December 2009 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/oral-roberts-evangelist-who-pioneered-the-charismatic-style-that-came-to-dominate-american-christianity-1842819.html