Why did Medical Licensing Boards prosecute Christian Scientists for practicing medicine during the 19th Century
In the United States during the second half of the Nineteenth Century, states passed a series of laws that slowly established a medical licensing system. Elite Regular, Homeopathic and Eclectic worked to together to eliminate medical practices that they found ridiculous. After medical licensing boards were established, they began to target marginalized medical practitioners for illegally practicing medicine. Interestingly, one of the groups targeted by these boards was Christian Scientists even though they did not practice medicine in the traditional sense. Instead, they used religion and metaphysics to fight illness. While they did not act as doctors, they often accepted money from the people that they were treating. By the end of the 19th Century, medical licensing boards began aggressively filing criminal actions against Christian Scientists.
The Theory and Beliefs of Christian Science
Christian Science was described by Mary Baker Eddy as a “medicoreligious hybrid” that combined physical well-being with religious beliefs. In 1875, Eddy published a book titled Science and Health. This widely read text started the Christian Science movement and created a unique example of faith healing in the United States. While Christian Science initially was perceived as simply another type of faith healing, over time it acquired notoriety and acclaim unusual for spiritual healing. During the 1880s and 1890s, the movement picked up steam and became a legitimate challenger to scientific medicine. By the 1890s, state courts and legislatures debated whether Christian Scientists practiced medicine under state licensing laws.
Despite widely exaggerated claims by members of the medical press that there were more than one million Christian Scientists practicing medicine in the United States in 1890s, it was likely that there were no more than fifty thousand Christian Scientists in the entire country. Additionally, few of these adherents worked as faith healers. Regulars, Homeopaths, and Eclectics were not overrun by a horde army of faith healers despite their repeated assertions to the contrary. Christian Science was a small religious community, but physicians were outraged by the religious beliefs espoused by Mary Baker Eddy and her adherents.
Christian Scientists dismissed the traditional remedies of Homeopathic, Eclectic, and Regular medicine. They argued that Louis Pasteur’s germ theory was fabricated. Instead of medicine or physical manipulation to cure illnesses, Christian Scientists relied on religion and metaphysics. Historian Rennie Schoepflin argued that faith healers appealed to Progressive-era Americans because their central claim was that disease was caused by the “fallen human nature.” As the United States rapidly changed during the Gilded Age, many Americans were concerned that society was becoming increasingly immoral. Christian Science offered an intriguing alternative to people who were concerned about the constantly changing understanding of science and medicine. The central belief of Christian Scientists questioned whether physicians were even necessary. The dramatic shifts by the three major medical sects away from their traditional understanding of disease and to new theories such as germ theory also might have alienated Americans. Even if earlier medical practices were ineffective, patients might have found them more comforting than the new alternatives. Paradoxically, even though Christian Science rejected the existence of disease, patients paid Christian Scientists to cure their illnesses.
Attacking Christian Science
Just as Regulars had demonized Homeopaths and Eclectics in the past, licensed physicians from the three medical sects worked together and relentlessly attacked these new medical specialists. Licensing united the three sects against these new interlopers. While the sects still viewed medicine somewhat differently, their differences were not nearly as great as those between them and these new medical apostates. Additionally, Regulars, Eclectics, and Homeopaths dominated medical licensing, and they did not want these specialities to flourish unchallenged. Licensed physicians directed their state organizations to prosecute Christian Scientists.
Christian Scientists were never able to acquire the same type of legislative protections for their practice rights as other groups such as Osteopaths. Arguably, they did not need protection from medical licensing laws because state courts were less willing to rule that they practiced medicine. Unlike Osteopaths who did everything in their power to look, act, and behave like traditional doctors, Christian Scientists’ practices were dramatically different. As Osteopathic medical schools began to teach students about surgery and obstetrics during the first decade of the twentieth century, Christian Scientists still focused on religion and metaphysics. Osteopathy quickly began to adopt aspects of Regular medicine, and it was even wryly noted by a Regular medical journal that the American School of Osteopathy recommended a book list to its students where one-hundred-and-twelve of the one-hundred-and-eighteen books were written by Regulars. Even more problematic was that when Christian Scientists treated patients, they did not behave as doctors and their practices did not resemble traditional medical care. Even though Osteopaths did not utilize drugs, they physically performed active services such as manipulating limbs, joints, and muscles. The differences between the two specialities were stark.
Christian Scientists claimed “that the work of healing through Christian Science is accompanied by religious instruction or spiritual teaching which is calculated to destroy the foundation of disease.” Following Mary Baker Eddy’s teaching in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, they argued that Jesus “demonstrated the power of Christian Science to heal mortal minds and bodies.” Eddy believed that she rediscovered Christ’s healing powers after analyzing the Bible. Essentially, she contended that the “mind govern[ed] the body, not partially but wholly.” Christian Scientists stated it was a sin to take drugs to alleviate suffering or to cure a disease. Because the mind governed the body, medicines were unnecessary. Instead of medical treatment, Christian Scientists offered their patients a unified “system of medicine” and a “system of ethics” that promised a complete “system of healing.” Christian Scientists never pretended to be physicians because they believed that doctors were completely unnecessary.
Prosecuting Christian Science in the Courts
Medical licensing authorities were concerned about the spread of Christian Science and began actively to prosecute them for violating licensing laws. Even though they did not behave like traditional physicians, Christian Scientists made it clear that their methods could cure human ailments. Like physicians, they also readily accepted payment for their services. Christian Scientists argued that their system of healing was as valid as any other, and defended themselves from overzealous licensing boards by alleging that any interference with them was a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Clifford Smith, a judge and Christian Science advocate, argued that medical regulations discriminated against other healing practices “create[d] a monopoly, and in effect establish[ed] a state system of healing” that unfairly discriminated against Christian Scientists. State licensing boards in several states actively pursued Christian Scientists. Historian Rennie Schoelpflin combed through state courts records and identified several cases where Christian Scientists were prosecuted for practicing without a medical license. In most of the cases Schoelpflin found these practitioners were ultimately exonerated by lower level courts or appellate, but this was not universally true. Some states courts did find that Christian Scientists were practicing medicine.
In Nebraska, a Christian Scientist, Ezra M. Buswell, was charged with violating the Nebraska medical practice act. Buswell was acquitted by the district court after it ruled that he was not practicing medicine. The Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion and found that Buswell was a physician. Buswell had studied with Mary Baker Eddy at the Metaphysical College in Boston. Buswell was convinced that Christian Science was valid system because he was cured of his ailments after his conversion. Buswell stated that he had never administered any medicine to his patients. Instead, his treatment centered on reading the scriptures and prayer. Buswll stated that when a person “request[ed] aid and c[a]me to us for and assistance we treat them as a mother treats her child that is frightened of objects it fears…we seek to dispel the fear by showing them the presence of love…Perfect love casts out fear.” Buswell admitted treating as many as a hundred patients in the previous eighteen months this way.
Buswell stated that payment was not mandatory and he would “leave the question to them and God.” Still, Buswell hoped his patients would compensate him for his services. He informed his patients that, “[i]f they are not willing to part with the sacrifice themselves, it is not expected that those should reap the benefit.” The expectation of a fee or a gratuity prevented Buswell’s actions from being classified as either “an act of worship” or “the performance of a religious duty,” according to the court. The court found that the payments were exchanged for services rendered. The court also found that Buswell believed that he was similar to a physician. The court was convinced that Buswell “engaged in treating physical ailments of others for compensation.” It should be noted that the Nebraska Supreme Court found that both Osteopaths and Christian Scientists were practicing physicians and held an expansive notion of the “practice of medicine.”
In 1898, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island disagreed with the Nebraska Supreme Court and found that Christian Science was not a medical practice. Walter E. Mylod was adjudged “probably guilty” by a district court based on the complaint of the secretary of the Rhode Island State Board of Health. Mylod was convicted after a witness testified that he sought Mylod’s help to treat malaria. Mylod informed the witness that he was a doctor and continued to pray for ten minutes during their meeting. After praying, Mylod stated “I guess you will feel better” and gave the witness a book titled A Defence [sic] of Christian Science. The witness then paid Mylod one dollar for his services and left his office. Another individual also sought treatment from Mylod and received a prayer and copy of a different book, A Historical Sketch of Metaphysical Healing. The second patient also paid Mylod one dollar for each of his visits. Mylod told his patient that he needed to look on the bright side of life because “thought governs all things.”
The court found that Mylod did not practice medicine. Even though Mylod referred to himself as “Dr. Mylod,” the court argued that claim did not prove he was actually a physician. Mylod neither attempted to ascertain what ailed the witnesses nor took any actions to treat them except praying for them and giving them a book. Even though the secretary of the board of health testified that “physicians often cure disease without the use of drugs or medicine,” the court held that “prayer for those suffering from disease, or words of encouragement, or the teaching that disease will disappear and physical perfection be attained as a result of prayer” did not constitute the practice of medicine.
In another Christian Science case, the Supreme Court of Ohio was faced with determining whether a Christian Scientist who was paid for his services by patients was practicing medicine under the Ohio Medical Practice Act. Unlike the Osteopath in Liffring, the Christian Scientist in this case was subject to the 1902 medical practice act, not the 1896 version. The 1902 law expanded the definition of the practice of medicine. The new law invalidated Liffring and brought into question an earlier lower court decision stating that under the 1896 law, Christian Scientists were not practicing medicine.
In the case, the justices admitted that they did not know anything about Christian Science. They relied on evidence presented at trial that Christian Scientists considered their practices to be “treatment.” “If the defendant prayed for the recovery” of the patient and cured the patient, then the Christian Scientist “was practicing healing or curing disease.” The medical practice was designed to regulate “the public health and the practice of healing,” and it was irrelevant how medical specialists achieved their results. In other words, the court found it was “the conclusion of disease” and “not the method of treatment” that was subject to the medical law. The court also rejected the defendant’s contention that the law discriminated against his religious beliefs.
These cases demonstrated the difficulty courts had in defining whether Christian Science was the practice of medicine. William Purrington, the legal counsel for the New York State Medical Association at this time, was forced into the uncomfortable position of both agreeing that Christian Science was the practice of medicine and disagreeing with the principle that praying for patient was barred by licensing laws. Unlike the Ohio Supreme Court in Marble, he believed that it was the method of treatment that was regulated and the intent to treat disease that triggered licensing laws. Purrington was opposed to prosecution of Christian Scientists under licensing statutes. Purrington’s views most likely were contrary to the beliefs of most of the physicians in the New York State Medical Association.
Avoiding Prosecution through Legislation
Ultimately, Christian Scientists sought protection from state legislatures. Christian Scientists pursued two different paths with state legislatures. In some cases they attempted to argue that they deserved to be licensed professionals. Some leaders of Christian Science movement in the 1890s and 1900s sought to professionalize its ranks by establishing orthodox practices, creating medical journals and societies, and building Christian Science medical schools. These efforts were controversial and did not draw support from Eddy.
Other members of the church took an alternative path and argued that they should be exempted from licensing laws because they were practicing their religion. After several states “prohibited Christian Science practice or forced practitioners to comply with medical practice acts” and others exempted Christian Scientist from medical practice acts and protected their rights, Christian Scientists began to favor lobbying for exemptions from licensing laws. These two different approaches to legalization represented a split within the Christian Science community between healers who made a living treating patients, on one hand, and religious adherents, on the other.
Christian Science struggled to acquire legal recognition in the early twentieth century. Schloepflin identified thirty-eight states between 1900-1915 that attempted either to ban the practice or force all Christian Scientists to comply with medical licensing laws. But over the twentieth century, many states gradually carved out limited exemptions for Christian Scientists. As licensing and examining boards continued to apply pressure to Christian Science, leaders within the Christian Science community shifted away from the professional practice of Christian Science medicine. Christian Science leaders later recognized that “healing the sick [was] a consequence of Christian Science practice and not its prime object.” Still, Christian Scientists continued to ply their trade and charge patients for their services into the 1980s.
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Updated August 1, 2021.
- Portions of this article are published here with the permission of the copyright holder, Sandvick, Clinton (2016)Defining the Practice of Medicine: Licensing American Physicians, 1870-1907., unpublished manuscript.
- Rennnie, B. Schoepflin, Christian Science on Trial: Religious Healing in America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003), 5-7, Kindle edition.
- Schoepflin, 112-114
- Schoepflin, 119-121, 127
- Martin Kaufman, Homeopathy in America: The Rise and Fall of Medical Heresy (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1971), 141-142.
- Gevitz, Norman, The DOs: Osteopathic Medicine in America, 2nd edition, (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982, 2004), 69-70.
- “Another Phase,” California State Journal of Medicine, Vol. V, No.2, (1907): 20, http://books.google.com/ebooks.
- Clifford Peabody Smith, Christian Science, Its Legal Status: A Defense of Human Rights (Boston, 1914), 8, http://books.google.com/ebooks.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health: With Key to the Scriptures (Boston, 1916), 110, http://books.google.com/ebooks.
- Eddy, 110.
- Nebraska v. Buswell 58 N.W. 728, 730 (1894).
- Clifford Peabody Smith, Christian Science, Its Legal Status: A Defense of Human Rights (Boston, 1914), 12.
- Schoelpflin, 149, 151, Appendix.
- State v. Buswell, 40 Neb. 158, 58 N.W. 728.
- Buswell, 731.
- Buswell, 731.
- Buswell, 732.
- Buswell, 732.
- State v. Mylod, 20 R.I. 632, 40 A. 753, (1898), 754- 758.
- Mylod, 757-758.
- State v. Marble, 72 Ohio St., 21; 73 N.E., 1063 (1905): 25-28.
- Marble, 29-40.
- Schloepflin, 156-157.
- Schloepflin, 164-166.
- Schloepflin, 161-166, citing Farlow, Relation of Government, 6.