A psychedelic story about American faith healers.
I want to tell you a story.
Many years ago, so long ago it’s been nearly forgotten, faith healing became increasingly popular in American Christianity. It was especially prominent among Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, and Mormons, though others had at least occasionally practiced it for millennia. They held fervent altar calls, tent revivals, and other ecstatic worship infused with transcendent music. To its practitioners, everything felt so wildly spiritual that it was undeniable true healing was taking place.
There once was a fundamentalist Christian non-profit, Faith Assisted Internal Therapeutics House (FAITH) International. FAITH's mission passionately advocated for faith healing as a cure for mental illness plaguing society. FAITH rose to prominence decades after the last faith healing movement of the 19th century, composed of the remaining embers of true believers from that era.
Everyone in FAITH had personally experienced faith healing, so they remained devout despite the long-held mainstream opinion that they practiced pseudoscience and questionable spirituality. They knew the public was wrong, and so they were determined to “correct” public opinion by any means necessary. After all, faith healing had radically transformed their lives from living in sin into an enlightened life in Christ. Charismatic leaders in their midst spoke with such smooth passion and scriptural ease, musing in Biblical truisms like, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!”1
Besides the grand festival-like revivals, FAITH’s core members had long attended underground churches that performed controversial exorcisms and experimented with polygamous communities out of sight of the law. Faith healers insisted it was the key to the ancient Christian past.
At this time in American history, scientific materialism was on the rise, and along with it, creeping spiritual malaise. The burgeoning psychotherapy field was growing more attractive to Americans, pioneered by primarily upper-class devotees, who all seemed wise as wizards. With the public enamored by scientific progress, FAITH knew that if they could medically “prove” faith healing worked, their views would gain mainstream acceptance. As astute strategists, they also saw that the public’s growing interest in therapy created a political opportunity. At last: this moment in history could be vital to transforming the world to reflect God’s love.
While it was initially hard to get funding, their evangelical zeal pushed them through all sorts of adversity and skepticism. One by one, they secured the backing of wealthy philanthropists, even one of the younger Rockefellers. As they pitched their dream to more and more of the elite, they found that if they talked more about groups like orphans, domestic abuse victims, WWI veterans with “shell shock,” and elderly patients, they got a few more dollars and a little less resistance from their American Psychiatric Association gatekeepers.
Once they secured enough funding and trained enough pastors—initiated into the healing doctrine by being faith-healed themselves—FAITH launched an exciting series of studies. Could faith healing cure lockjaw? What about rheumatism? In their savvy, FAITH created protocols and tracking methods that they knew would get the most promising results. They didn’t need to find out what was true; they already knew it was true. So cutting corners wasn’t a big deal. They were careful not to let people who might complicate the results into their studies, and they made sure to dress up the data with spiritual metaphors when it was often ambivalent: “new study shows faith healing cleanses the sin-sick mind!” There were also many whispers of healing pastors fudging results, coaching patients into answers, and loading questions with enough Christian theology to nudge follow-up survey responses in a particular direction.
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Everybody in FAITH was evangelical-adjacent, but some pastors sought to prove their religion was scientifically superior to other religions. Sometimes, this group of pastors would keep in touch with their patients, evangelizing them until they became congregants at the pastors’ local churches.
Healing pastors each had unique techniques, making it hard to know exactly what worked. But this was of little concern because there was a much deeper shared faith in the movement. It was only natural, then, that the treatment protocol allowed for leeway from pastor to pastor. But the genius part of the treatment was that, as the pastors loved to say, it was all about the “Inner Christ.” “Jesus lives in you,” as one faith healer said, “and he will heal you if you just ask him.”
For years things seemed to go well, in fact, so miraculously well that it felt like they were recreating the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Pastors who had once never gotten public attention beyond tiny Christian magazines became oft-quoted in secular newspapers, even landing a giant New York Times feature. Many new converts proudly witnessed their healing to anyone who would hear, including a former baseball star. With each celebrity radio interview, the stigma against faith healing gradually decreased.
But it didn’t always go well. Some people never got the healing they came for, though most of those folks didn’t want to discourage others from trying it. Some people who tried faith healing only worsened, suffering psychological damage for months and years, but these stories never managed to make their way to the press.
Outside the studies, some issues were becoming more visible in churches that practiced faith healing: tiny fundamentalist sects splintering off, pastors having affairs with congregants, and an increasingly cynical focus on donations. But most of these issues avoided the close attention of the mainstream press, and the momentum of faith healing marched on.
Healing pastors had a few guidelines in the studies, but could mostly practice their faith as they understood it. After all, FAITH was an ecumenical, non-denominational group, and the pastors each had a unique theology; trying to get uniform beliefs, much less practices, just wasn’t gonna happen.
After learning about a few cases of pastoral abuse, FAITH quietly decided that faith healing teams needed to work with partners. This included the Rev. Norman Smith and his wife, Sandra Bayer. Like many of their colleagues, they had been taught controversial therapies by a faith healing legend that, unknown to the public, were based on torture techniques. One day, a patient came to them having suffered sexual abuse. The pastor team thought the proper way to treat him was through “exposure," sexually abusing and brainwashing the patient. When the victim failed to heal, Smith and Bayer invited the victim to live on their farm in Maine, where the abusive “treatment" continued.
Once the abuse was fully uncovered, Smith and Bayer were quietly dismissed. But like many healing pastors, Smith did not belong to a denomination and thus could not face further professional accountability. And because FAITH was non-denominational and the treatment experimental, it fell outside any larger accountability group. By that point, FAITH had built such a stellar reputation in the press that journalists either didn’t believe the story's details, didn’t think it raised issues about faith healing practices, or didn’t want to touch it at all.
Secular America prided itself on being rational, but skepticism in the mainstream quickly gave way to human desperation for hope. More and more newspaper articles discussed the great benefits of this promising treatment, which was somehow both new and old. It had scientifically-minded people involved, but they were also people of faith. They seemed so happy and cured, even if sometimes they seemed a little off, too. A famous, formerly-atheist author wrote a book, The Healing Mind of Christ, which explained how faith healing worked. Claiming to be a “no-nonsense” book to match the tenor of the times, it quickly reached the New York Times bestseller list and spawned reading groups across the country.
FAITH continued doubling down on Christian dogma in response to critical questions, accusing their critics of being “divisive,” sometimes questioning whether they cared about Christianity. Eventually, the Atlantic Monthly magazine ran a story covering the abuse by Smith and Bayer and the backstory of FAITH’s practices. The story garnered significant attention in the faith healing world, but its allies refused to amplify the story. Meanwhile, FAITH continued publicly undeterred. Privately, they were bemoaning poor morale and the drop in donations.
Many FAITH staff members were unnerved. But they stayed silent because they couldn’t fathom quitting. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but FAITH was the place to work if you were a Christian interested in healing, and most of them had experienced it personally. Plus, the early faith healing results were so positive, and the rest of the Christian world was counting on them. So in response to the Atlantic piece, the FAITH Board decided to release a few statements, do a couple of select interviews with sympathetic press members, and close ranks. It was for the greater good of their gospel.
So FAITH’s stonewalling-with-a-smile continued to extol Christian principles of faith healing. But after the Atlantic story, other Christians began quietly having concerns. Still, they didn’t want to make a fuss about it. After all, when they saw FAITH members speaking at Christian conventions, they had such a sincere belief. They spoke so much about the light of Christ.
The Atlantic piece also featured another patient who had a rather traumatic experience in a FAITH trial. Rather than being healed, her mental health had gotten intensely worse, and she became suicidal. When she told her faith healer, he advised her not to go to traditional psychiatric facilities that wouldn’t understand. After climbing out of the hell of a falsely promised heaven, this patient was shocked to discover that the study data did not include the traumas of her experience at all.
Slowly, more people who initially felt healed began to wonder what other religious worldview they signed up for during the rush of the altar calls and laying on of hands. As they started mustering the courage to ask questions, they began to find the old Biblical answers unsatisfactory. “Don’t believe the lies. The truth shall set you free,” murmured FAITH’s sympathizers. But this no longer felt true nor free.
When we look back at interviews of ordinary people from the period who weren’t directly involved, we see statements like, “Non-Christians abuse people all the time,” or, “Well, what was FAITH supposed to do? They can’t control everything.”
Meanwhile, the victims of faith healing continued to be horrified as the movement captivated mainstream America’s fascination. Soon, just as FAITH had predicted, there were countless faith healing centers across the country. Emboldened by having survived the scandal, FAITH leaders continued vocalizing their grandest dreams. “Our goal isn’t just to treat mental illness,” FAITH’s head pastor Nathan Palmer liked to boast, “It’s to heal this country spiritually. It’s to bring everybody to the Jesus that lives inside them. And if we keep at it, we can Christianize the world by 1970.” Palmer would then mention that, to accomplish this, there would need to be tens of thousands of healers trained by FAITH, at the cost of thousands of dollars per person.
Sensing how hungry the country was for this new religious energy, many unlicensed faith healers set up private practices with members of FAITH’s Board serving in an “advisory” role with a financial stake. Many of these were simply businesses with a thin veneer of Christian jargon. Patients would receive prayer books and prayer beads so that, if going in for a full-blown exorcism was too daunting, they could get little bite-sized healing throughout the week.
By now, there was also a parallel ecosystem of unofficial Christian groups living out of sight of mainstream society. They believed so fervently in this healing that they had scarcely become aware of how many people had developed more psychological issues than when they came to church. Clandestine, ecstatic worship services continued, more altar calls were made, and more new believers said, “Yes Lord, I’m healed!” Who was anybody to doubt that? After all, that popular “no-nonsense” Christian author had just adapted The Healing Mind of Christ into a television series, delivering “scientific” faith healing education straight to every American’s home.
The faith healers scarcely recognized the high turnover rate among the flock. It was easy to miss; many were spiritual seekers that came and went, trying other churches before moving on with their lives, some not seeing the big deal, and nobody knowing where anybody ended up.
Sometimes abuse from these churches would make the news, but none of the healers really wanted to look into it. When it happened in their community, they committed to keeping it private out of “compassion” for the abuser. Often the abuser kept their pastoral role. “Jesus loves them too, after all.” They got so practiced at ignoring and justifying abuse that this became codified as a new article of faith. When people would later discuss how a church had hurt them, they would hear, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Or, “Just keep praying.” Or, “There’s no such thing as a bad faith healing.”
Some people who received faith healing during this time remained diehard believers for the rest of their lives. Others were grateful for the movement of the Holy Spirit that led them to Jesus, but traded in the altar calls for stability. Faith healing never did get scientifically proven.
Eventually, most faith healing churchgoers forgot most of the abuse. But the survivors never forgot. A few others tried to bring sanity to the madness, but the madness could not integrate truth at the expense of their gospel. Some would muster up efforts to write op-eds in local papers to raise attention, but most of the press didn’t want to wade into religious matters.
Because who can argue with healing?
Of course, if you have not figured it out by now, there was no FAITH International. While faith healing was a very real and popular religious movement last century and attempts to scientifically prove faith healing have been made for ages, the details of this story are all fictional. But when it comes to the modern psychedelic therapy medicalization movement, the story is still true.
I imagine some people might take offense at comparing faith healing with psychedelic therapy (hell, some of the offended might be Pentecostals). A psychonaut might argue they know people who genuinely healed through psychedelics, or that their spirituality is more inherently material and less superstitious. They might point to Indigenous use, or protest that faith healers are still allowed to practice their religion without scientifically proving it.
But maybe the problem is that the medicalization movement isn't arguing for its religious freedom; it’s just manipulating the levers of power and the public mind to get it and profit from it. So if the implications of this allegory disturb, then perhaps the literal truth of psychedelic history should disturb more.
Granted, I would not say the analogy is perfect. There are a few key differences between that fictional world and ours. In this story, Christian hegemony protected faith healing. In our time, the psychedelic medicalization movement is protected from scrutiny by capitalism.
It’s also not a totally perfect comparison because the fictional FAITH International wasn’t giving highly-suggestible drugs. It didn’t have video-taped evidence of abuse. And it was consciously a religious movement.
Rest assured, whatever we have today is not something terrible like religion. In fact, it doesn’t have much of a theology of evil at all.
John 8:32, also the name of my undergraduate “420 Bible study”