Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Health and healing in the Methodist tradition

by Arun W. Jones*

Healing has been an essential part of the Christian tradition since its beginnings. Not only did Jesus of Nazareth undertake a dynamic ministry of healing, but his example has spurred his followers down through the centuries to engage in healing ministries. Of course, as Christian contexts and cultures have changed and multiplied, so have the philosophies and methods of Christian healing changed and proliferated. Yet the fundamental impulse to bring wholeness to humanity in its many dimensions—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—has been a hallmark of our faith.

John Wesley, who, with his brother Charles, founded the Methodist movement in the 18th century, was himself deeply interested in healing ministries. He is best known for his propagation of spiritual healing through preaching, worship, and small groups. Yet he also promoted physical, emotional, and mental health using the latest medical remedies of his day. Some of these (such as electroshock therapy) have, over time, been shown to be ineffective or even harmful. This is to be expected, looking at it from the other side of more than two centuries of increasing scientific knowledge. What is important to remember is Wesley’s concern for the whole person, and not just the human soul.

Wesley’s most famous book, very popular in his day, was Primitive Physick: An Easy and Natural Way of Curing Most Diseases, which went through 23 editions just in his lifetime. He urged his preachers to distribute the book as widely as possible. Primitive Physick was not simply a medical intervention into the lives of the 18th century British population. It was also an ideological intervention. Wesley purposely wrote this book for poor people; his recommendations for healing were low-cost, “easy and natural.” Moreover, they were meant to avoid the need for medical doctors, whom the poor could not afford. For this reason, Wesley’s healing methods (including spiritual healing) were revolutionary: he intended to bypass the usual expensive means of healing and make wholeness available to all people in his society, especially the impoverished.

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Miss Dora Jane Armstrong, Woman’s Division of Christian Service, and the peanut milk babies, MECS, Wembo Nyama, Congo, 1930s. Miss Armstrong later became the Secretary of the Southeastern Area of The American Mission to Lepers, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO: GCAH AFRICA #15, P. 5

Healing and missionaries

John Wesley died in 1791, but the movement that he and his brother Charles started continued to grow and expand, reaching into the far corners of the earth. As Methodist missionaries made their way into the world, they continued to bring a concern for holistic healing wherever they went. In the first half of the 19th century, the medical knowledge of such missionaries was rudimentary according to contemporary standards. Modern anesthesia, for example, was not known until the second half of the century. For generations, missionaries distributed pills, potions, and powders with varying degrees of success. In fact, in the early 19th century, missionaries were often not any more effective (and sometimes were less effective) than local healers in curing diseases. However, because healing was closely tied to religion in many parts of the world, missionaries told their followers and converts to shun “pagan” medicines and remedies. While local Christians nodded in agreement with foreign missionaries, many of them quietly continued to resort to native cures behind the missionaries’ backs. Of course, this still happens today—some of us add on our own remedies and cures to what our doctors tell us to do!

After about 1850, however, western medicine became much more reliable in dealing with ailments in various parts of the world, and the medical dimension of Christian mission grew in importance. The Rev. James L. Humphrey and his wife, Emily J. Humphrey, went in 1857 from upstate New York to North India, where they spent more than 20 years working as Methodist missionaries. Indians frequently asked Rev. Humphrey for medicine, which he distributed as he was able, regardless of the religious or social background of the people. The Humphreys quickly realized the importance of medical knowledge and remedies for ailments such as fevers, dysentery, skin diseases, rheumatism, and liver problems. Medicines not only helped missionaries fulfill Christ’s law of compassion to neighbor; they also gave them a good name among the local people, many of whom were not too happy about foreign preachers criticizing their native religions.

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This photograph, taken in India in 1912, shows Dr. and Mrs. J. L. Humphrey and Mrs. Clementina Butler, older missionaries who had come to work in India in the mid-1800s. PHOTO: GCAH PORTRAITS # 3, P. 90

When the Humphreys went back to the United States for a furlough in 1864, James Humphrey immediately began reading medical texts under the supervision of a physician, and then attended medical lectures in Albany, New York. He finished a prescribed medical course in January of 1866, when the Humphreys started back to India. Back at their mission station, a Hindu village headman, Pandit Nand Kishore, approached James Humphrey and asked him to establish a nursing school that would train Indian Christian women as nurses. The Pandit promised to pay for all the costs of the school. Humphrey, with the backing of Kishore, established a nursing school for young Christian women who, licensed by British government physicians, went to work in hospitals and homes around the country.

While Kishore and Humphrey were planting a nursing school, Methodist women in New England were forming their own missionary society. In 1869 they sent Dr. Clara Swain to North India as one of the first two missionaries of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Dr. Swain was soon busy treating the women in the city of Bareilly, where she was stationed upon her arrival. She also started a medical class for women. The year after she started work, she and other Methodist missionaries approached a local ruler, the Nawab of Rampur, to ask for a large mansion he owned, which they could convert into a hospital. The Nawab donated the building and the 40 acres of land that went along with it, outright, to the Methodist Mission for its hospital. In this way, by the early 1870s, the Methodists had a mission hospital operating in North India.

The missionary careers of the Rev. James Humphrey and Dr. Clara Swain show how the advances in western medicine in the late 19th century deeply affected Christian mission. Healing of the body went from being an add-on to regular missionary work of preaching, teaching, and pastoring, to a full-time missionary vocation by itself. By the end of the First World War, western missions had established hundreds of clinics and hospitals, staffed with full-time missionary doctors and nurses, all around the world. As the examples of the Rev. Humphrey and Dr. Swain demonstrate, medical training and schools went hand-in-hand with medical missions, so that by the early 20th century, Christian missionary organizations were sometimes running complete medical schools as well.

New Approaches in Christian Healing

In the 1950s and 1960s, as previously colonized areas of Asia and Africa gained independence from their western colonial rulers, the operations of medical mission facilities often were taken over by the governments of the new emerging states. After all, the responsibility for the population’s health care now lay squarely on the shoulders of these governments. Since mission hospitals and clinics were by far the most deeply involved and widely spread when it came to the provision of medical care in many emerging countries, the governments of those countries saw them as the logical centers for health care. This secular take-over of religious medical mission created somewhat of a crisis of identity for Christian healing ministries. What was their role in the new world order emerging after World War II?

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The legacy of mission medical work was not just in lives saved by missionary doctors but in generations of indigenous medical professionals who graduated from Methodist medical schools and served their communities. Above: Dr. Ida Kahn, Dr. Li, and Dr. Daue, Chinese physicians who graduated from Methodist schools and worked in Chinese Christian hospitals. PHOTO: GCAH PORTRAITS #3, P. 233

At consultations in Tübingen, Germany in 1964 and 1967, Christians concerned with medical missions—mostly medical professionals—gathered to discuss the future of such healing ministries. They concluded that the healing of the body had, because of pressures from a rapidly developing medical profession and industry, become quite autonomous from the general life of the church. This is what made it possible for secular governments to take over mission medical facilities with ease. The Tübingen consultations concluded that medical healing needed to be reclaimed, both in thought and practice, as a ministry of the church.

Over the next few decades, the Tübingen vision resulted in a number of new initiatives. One was to think of Christian medical healing not simply—or even primarily—as curative, but as preventive. Rather than focusing all resources in giant facilities, medical missions began a push to offer basic health programs to rural and urban poor throughout the world. The emphasis on outreach to the poor, rather than on those who could afford medical treatment, was a second feature of the new thinking about Christian medical missions. Third, healing of the body was envisioned as part of congregational ministry, rather than the ministry of highly trained specialists. The healing congregation became a focal point for various kinds of medical ministries. Fourth, physical healing was once again conceived as part of a much larger economy of healing. Physical healing was part of God’s multifaceted work of bringing wholeness and shalom to the world.

Reclaiming the ministry of healing

Over the past several decades, what has emerged in the thought and practice of Christian healing ministries is not so much a complete repudiation of the older, professional models of medical outreach, but a supplement to them. Medical healing is now thought of as part of a much broader mission of healing, to be carried out both by ordinary people as well as trained professionals, in facilities that can range from a state-of-the-art hospital to a humble village pastor’s home, and more and more as part of the life of local congregations. Here in The United States, it is not uncommon to have everything from exercise and yoga classes to nutrition lessons to addiction treatment sessions located in congregational settings. While we still think of health as being divided into physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realms, these are not seen as clearly separated as they were before. What happens to one part of the human affects what happens to the human as a whole.

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Mothers bring their babies for routine checkups and vaccinations during a maternal clinic at the United Methodist Mangobo Health Center in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2015. The center was revitalized using funds from the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria campaign. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS 

It is in this spirit that The United Methodist Church, through its Global Ministries, has entered into the campaign of “Abundant Health.” The aim is to promote the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health of people, especially children, worldwide. It is not by accident that some of the promotional literature for Abundant Health starts with a quote from John Wesley, who wrote about “the Great Physician” who heals “soul and body together.” In a way, The United Methodist Church, along with many other Christian bodies, has returned to a more holistic view of health than was prevalent a century ago. And, as Dr. Olusimbo Ige, director of Global Health has said, the church will have an increasingly crucial role to play in offering radically different visions of health to the world, as medicine in general becomes intensely commercialized and loses its soul to the forces of greed. Methodists, in conjunction with their sisters and brothers in the faith, will need to be acutely aware of their calling as ministers of Jesus Christ, who came to bring holistic salvation to all of creation.

*Dr. Arun W. Jones is the Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism with Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.