Faith Healer

I watched the Little House on the Prairie episode “Faith Healer” last night.  What’s ironic is that Nick Norelli had a post this morning about how he used to judge people as not having enough faith if they were not healed of their sickness.

The pieces of the episode’s plot that I want to highlight went like this: A charismatic faith healer named Reverend Danforth has come to Walnut Grove, and he has been conducting tent-meetings in which he heals people.  A woman gets out of her wheelchair at his first service, for example.  A resident of Walnut Grove, Matthew Dobbs, has a son named Timothy, who has problems with his appendix.  Doc Baker tells Matthew to take his son to Mankato to see a surgeon as soon as possible, but Matthew instead opts to take his son to Reverend Danforth.  Reverend Danforth does a ritual in which he pulls the pain out of Timothy’s body, and Timothy then feels better.

Later on, however, Timothy dies of a ruptured appendix, and so Matthew and Doc Baker interrupt Reverend Danforth’s meeting.  Doc Baker accuses Reverend Danforth of taking away Timothy’s pain, which could have saved Timothy’s life by warning Timothy to get medical help.  Reverend Danforth responds that he cannot circumvent the will of God—-that God wanted Timothy to be with God in heaven, and Timothy is happy right now in the presence of his maker.

Charles takes a trip to Sleepy Eye, and he notices that Reverend Danforth is conducting a prayer meeting there.  Charles goes into the tent and notices that Reverend Danforth is “healing” the same woman in the wheelchair whom he healed in Walnut Grove!  Charles then realizes that Reverend Danforth is a fraud and that the suspicions he has had about him are correct.  Charles does not want to interrupt that particular service, however, but he wants to show Mrs. Oleson—-who has supported Reverend Danforth in Walnut Grove—-that the guy is a fake, allowing her to see that with her own eyes.  Charles learns where Reverend Danforth’s next appearance will be.

Charles talks with Reverend Alden, the pastor in Walnut Grove, whom Reverend Danforth is about to replace.  Charles asks Reverend Alden why a faith healer would conduct fake healings.  Reverend Alden responds that the faith healer was probably trying to boost people’s confidence by showing them fake healings, and then they would have enough faith to be truly healed themselves.  Reverend Alden says that belief is powerful, whether God is behind the healing or not.  Reverend Alden also states that he has observed healings at the hands of faith healers (which, by the way, contradicts what he said in a later episode, “He Was Only Twelve, Part 2”, where Reverend Alden tells Charles that he never saw a miracle in all his years of ministry).

Charles takes the Olesons and Matthew to Reverend Danforth’s tent meeting, and, sure enough, Reverend Danforth is “healing” the same woman of paralysis!  Charles confronts Reverend Danforth, as he shows that the man with crutches does not really need them and that the “blind” woman is not actually blind.  As the people walk out of the meeting, Reverend Danforth pleads with them to return, telling them that he only used fake healings to build up their faith so that they could be truly healed.

I sympathized somewhat with Reverend Danforth.  I used to think that he was a fraud who was conducting fake healings to get money, but some questions lingered in my mind: if he was a fraud, why did he believe that he could heal people who were actually sick, such as Timothy?  Why would he invite anyone to come forward at his meetings and be healed?  Wouldn’t he be afraid that someone would randomly come forward, and he would not be able to heal that person, since he was a fraud?  I doubt it.  I think that he believed that he could heal, and that his fake healings could build people’s faith and set the stage for them to come forward for true healing.

Belief can be powerful.  The power of suggestion can make a person’s pain go away.  That’s why placebos are so effective.  But there is a difference between “mind-over-matter” and actual healing.  Timothy’s pain may have gone away, but his appendix was still rupturing, and so, technically-speaking, he was not healed.  He should have seen a doctor.

I found Reverend Danforth’s explanation for Timothy’s death to be intriguing, though I fully understand why many would consider it to be a cop-out: Reverend Danforth claims that God heals through him, and, when God doesn’t do so, he chalks that up to God’s will.  That is a cop-out, but could there be something to it?  In my opinion, if I am sick, I should have faith in God’s love and goodness, and I should hold on to hope that God will heal me.  But if God doesn’t, God doesn’t.  What more can one do?

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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