Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life
The late 1980s have seen an explosion of interest in an unconventional, and sometimes bizarre, set of practices and beliefs commonly called the New Age movement. Led by such visible figures as Shirley MacLaine, thousands of Americans have turned to a wide range of self-help methods and philosophies geared toward spiritual fulfillment and, particularly, healing of the body, including acupuncture, channeling, and crystals. What all these methods seem to have in common is an attempt to eschew conventional medical treatments, to move beyond the mysteries of the body to those of the psyche and soul. But as Robert C. Fuller demonstrates in this fascinating and surprising new book, such "alternative" forms of healing are nothing new in American culture.
Going back to the early nineteenth century, Fuller asserts, Americans have relied on a bewildering assortment of unorthodox medical systems that represent a characteristically American strain of religious thought--a belief that spiritual, physical, and even economic well-being flow from an individual's rapport with the cosmos. Drawing on a wealth of historical, psychological, and sociological information, Fuller's story begins with such early health reforms as homeopathy, hydropathy, and Thomsonianism (which held that all disease was caused by cold and could be cured by heat). Though fairly conventional in outlook, they signalled the appearance of metaphysical elements that were destined to erupt in later movements. Fuller then looks at mesmerism and Swedenborgianism, which sprang up in the 1830s and 40s. Both of these movements were extremely popular in America, promising a triumph of piety and spirituality over the weaknesses of the body and mind, and changing the way thousands of Americans looked at modern medicine. Fuller traces this increasing metaphysical dimension, first in the early practices of osteopathic and chiropractic medicine, and then throughout the twentieth century in such varied and colorful systems as crystal healing, rolfing, spirit channeling, holistic health, and even Alcoholics Anonymous.
Fuller argues that these healing movements have played an important role in American religious life, offering people a more vivid experience of a "sacred reality" than do most organized religions. His fascinating and sympathetic look at this thriving, and peculiarly American, mode of religion will interest a wide range of readers interested in American religious, cultural, and medical history.
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