Healer n:   according to the Fourth Edition American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language the latter is 'one that heals or attempts to heal, especially a faith healer'.  Faith healing has been around for many years, but with the advent of modern medicine it has tended to become the domain of sorcerers, astrologers and assorted quacks.  These people did not necessarily refuse to recognise the Church, however the Church did tend to repudiate them.  The Renaissance saw the development of a more materialistic attitude towards health and disease and as a result belief in the effectiveness of faith healing began to diminish. This was except among the pitifully poor.  Below are some examples of history's better known 'faith healers'.

Two individuals who kept the practice alive around the 17th century were Valentine Greatrakes and Johann Gasner.  In Ireland Valentine Greatrakes made his name by the alleged drawing of illness from the body by stroking it, like a form of magnetism drawing out the illness from the body.  He attributed his powers to God, but was shortly rebuked by an ecclesiastical court who were wholly unimpressed by him.  However he did manage to impress the diarist John Evelyn and the chemist Robert Boyle and his techniques were widely imitated.  Eventually some of his followers even came to the conclusion that: 

'just as an iron bar is magnetised by stroking with a magnet, the healing force involved must be not simply faith, but faith supplemented by magnetism'.

Around a hundred years later a man called Johann Gasner was born in Austria.  He found that after becoming a priest, and having many wrestling matches with the devil, he developed a form of exorcism which he allegedly could use to cure diseases.  he would put his patients into a trance like state.  His patients exhibited convulsions, dissociation and coma, which were also typical of the effects produced by Shamans.  During the trance like state of his patients Gasner discovered that he could except some degree of control over his patients.  He found more surprisingly that when he used an unfamiliar language such as Latin to talk to his patients they would still follow his instructions even though they did not understand.  Like Greatrakes before him, the Church was unimpressed and after falling foul of the Church authorities he was told to cease his healing activities.

Following on from Greatrakes and Gasner was a man called Franz Mesmer who fused together the techniques of 'magnetising' and shamanism.  Mesmer practiced in Paris and his technique was to:

'Bring his patients together in a room where there was a tub filled with iron filings, into which rods were stuck.  The patients held the rods, or held each others' hands; music played; they went into trances, dissociated, had convulsions, sank into comas - and felt better.  Or so several of them told a committee of enquiry on which were some distinguished scientists of the period - Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier, Pinel and Dr. Guillotin.'

Although the scientists were in agreement that the technique actually worked the consensus was that it only worked in the minds of the patients and as such was little more than another form of faith healing.

Mesmer, however disagreed:

'The universe, he claimed, was held together by what he described as an 'aetheric continuum', of which the stars and planets were a constituent part:  and from them flowed 'animal magnetism', which his apparatus was designed to transmit to people who were ill - illness being the result of failure to draw sufficiently on their aetheric  continuum reserves.'

Sadly the French revolution interrupted his career and after ending his days in obscurity in Switzerland his name is now synonymous with quackery and occultism.  See also: acupressure, acupuncture, healing, faith healing and laying on of hands.

Source: Information and excerpts for this article: Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, edited by Richard Cavendish.  Consultant: J.B. Rhine Publisher: Penguin Group 27, Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ England ISBN: 0 14 019190 9


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