Neil Beagley died last June in Oregon. He had a urinary tract blockage that could have been corrected by a fairly simple catheterization. It wasn’t corrected though, because Neil’s parents had taught him that God, not man, should cure disease if it is to be cured at all. So Neil died of heart failure as urea poisoned his organs. He was sixteen years old. (In October his parents turned themselves in to face charges of criminally negligent homicide. Their trial is scheduled for June 23.)
Neil’s cousin, Ava Worthington, also died in Oregon, just a few months before he did. Ava had bronchial pneumonia, which her parents refused to treat with medication. They, along with Neil and his family, are members of the Followers of Christ Church. They also were charged in her death and face trial. Ava was fifteen months old.
Shortly before Christmas 2007, Dennis Lindberg died of leukemia in Washington State. Treating leukemia is more complicated than treating bronchial pneumonia, but a blood transfusion would at least have extended his life, giving doctors the opportunity to try some other things to give Dennis a fighting chance. Dennis was raised by his aunt, though, who as a Jehovah’s Witness taught him the evil of worldly medical treatment. Dennis was fourteen years old.
We know a few more details about Dennis because the state intervened to try to save his life. The law in the United States regards people who are fourteen years of age as incapable of making decisions like electing a Republican or a Democrat, signing an enforceable contract, or choosing a spouse–with good reason, as most parents of teenagers can attest. Yet Dennis was found to be wise enough to decide whether his own life should be terminated or not. This conclusion was reached not by a hospital administrator looking to clear a bed, but by a Washington State Superior Court judge, who allowed Dennis to end his own life because he didn’t want to interfere with the young man’s religious convictions.
If a fourteen-year-old walks into court and seeks permission to kill himself because he has acne and his dream girl gave him the brush-off, the answer would be an abrupt no. But the court found that religion makes it all okay. So did the judge kill Dennis? To some extent, yes; it’s hard to imagine anyone with an ounce of sense allowing a fourteen-year-old to make a decision like this. But the judge wasn’t making up the rules; his decision was based on sound precedent, ultimately leading back to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Had he ruled the other way, it’s likely the decision would have been stayed and appealed–which would have produced exactly the same result, since Dennis died the day after the decision was announced.
Alternatively, we could blame his aunt for Dennis’s death, with some justification. But she didn’t dream up the ideas she imposed on Dennis herself. They all came from somewhere, and their ultimate source lies in early (and not so early) Christian teaching on medicine.
Before the Christians took over Europe, Greeks and Romans were proceeding apace to develop the science of medicine. As is well documented in Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, the early Christian fathers put the kibosh on all that, insisting instead that disease is either the punishment of God or the work of demons. The early Christian scholar Origen wrote: “It is demons which produce famine, unfruitfulness, corruptions of the air, pestilences; they hover concealed in clouds in the lower atmosphere, and are attracted by the blood and incense which the heathen offer to them as gods. According to Augustine of Hippo, “All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guiltless, newborn infants.” –(Like little Ava Worthington.) Nilus the Elder of Sinai and Gregory of Tours stressed the sinfulness of resorting to medicine instead of trusting to the intercession of saints.
When bubonic plague broke out in Rome in 540, the church declared that it would be heretical to rely on medicine rather than prayer to try to stop it. Andrew Cunningham, in Medicine and Religion in Enlightenment Europe, tells us of a medieval proverb: “Where there are three physicians, there are two atheists.” Bernard of Clairvaux warned the Benedictine monks that to seek relief from disease in medicine was contrary both to their religion and to the rules of their order. God experts never tired of citing the Old Testament story of King Asa, who trusted to physicians rather than to the priests of Yahweh, and died as a result.
God is so great; humanity is so small. Next to God, humanity is worthless and vile. How better to express appropriate humility before God than by living a life of degradation and filth? So thought some of the most admired saints in the early centuries of Christianity. Athanasius gushes that Anthony “neither bathed his body with water to free himself from filth, nor did he ever wash his feet, nor even endure so much as to put them into water, unless compelled by necessity.” His follower Hilarion was glorified for never washing his clothes or changing his shirt; his entire holy body was covered with scabs. Euphraxia joined a convent of 130 nuns who never washed their feet and shuddered at the mention of a bath. For fifty years Abraham the Poor refused to wash either his face or his feet. Rounding out the list is Simon Stylites, who, William Lecky tells us in A History of European Morals, lived on top of a pillar and bound a rope around himself so that it became imbedded in his flesh, which putrefied around it.
Medical research was widely banned throughout the Middle Ages; dissection of corpses to learn how the body functions was a heinous sin. The medical school at Salerno was condemned by the clergy for advocating rules for a healthy diet and thereby suggesting that disease arises from natural causes rather than from the malice of the devil. The church’s thinking was not only theological but financial: people were urged to treat disease through the use of relics and special Masses, pouring money into church coffers. The last thing the church needed was competition from lay people using herbs or other medicines. There was a word for people like that: witches. Tens of thousands of these witches, who often tried to use natural substances to cure bodily ailments, were burnt or drowned, often after prolonged torture.
The pious of later ages were unable to match the earlier feats of the ascetics, but they tried. Guy de Chauliac, a French physician of the fourteenth century, recorded that certain Carmelite monks who repeatedly suffered from pestilence happened to be especially filthy. Part of the reason why Jews were blamed for causing the bubonic plague was that their death rate seemed to be lower; could their sanitary practices have had anything to do with this? Abasement of the flesh was strictly enforced by the Portuguese Inquisition, which, according to Harold V. Livermore’s A New History of Portugal, ranked “bathing the whole body” as a crime of the same magnitude as bigamy, denying the Virgin Birth, or witchcraft. The germs causing the Black Death and other plagues that periodically ravaged Europe owed much of their success to the devotion to holy filthiness fostered by the loving mother church.
Catholics were not the only ones assigning supernatural cause to disease. Martin Luther taught that “Satan produces all the maladies which afflict mankind, for he is the prince of death,” and witch-burning was most common in Protestant Germany and Scotland. In The Dark Side of Christian History, Helen Ellerbe reminds us that John Calvin, champion of predestination, cautioned that no medicine could change the course of events which had already been determined by God. The Anglican kings and queens of England helped maintain their popularity by using “The King’s Touch” to cure scrofula, a disease of the neck now treated with penicillin. King Charles II personally administered this cure to over 100,000 persons.
The Bible can be a little ambiguous sometimes, but when it comes to God’s intentions about childbirth it could not possibly be clearer: “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.’” The punishment for Eve’s sin has been endured by women ever since, as described by Barbara G. Walker in The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Not content with the lot accorded her by God, in 1591 the lady Eufame Macalyane sought the help of one Agnes Sampson for relief at the time of the birth of her two sons. For this blasphemy, she was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.
Whether Ms. Sampson could actually have done any good is open to question. But in 1847, James Simpson began using chloroform to help women endure childbirth, with great success. Simpson was reviled by innumerable male preachers, who thundered, “Chloroform is a decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble, for help.” Others quoted Martin Luther: “If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth–that is why they are there.” Among women, though, Simpson’s popularity was a little higher.
The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment weakened the stranglehold of religion on medicine, but did not end it. When doctors discovered that inoculating patients with a weak strain of smallpox could help the body fend off more deadly varieties, the Christian community rose in outrage. As late as 1798 an Anti-Vaccination Society was formed by clergymen, who called on the people of Boston to suppress vaccination as “bidding defiance to Heaven itself, even to the will of God,” and declared that “the law of God prohibits the practice.”
In 1885 smallpox broke out with great virulence in Montreal. The previously vaccinated Protestant population escaped almost unscathed, but the Catholic community, led by priests who refused to countenance interference with God’s will, was decimated. Abbé Filiatrault declared in a sermon that “if we are afflicted with smallpox, it is because we had a carnival last winter, feasting the flesh, which has offended the Lord . . . it is to punish our pride that God has sent us smallpox.” When city officials discussed plans to mandate vaccination, the Catholic press exhorted the faithful to take up arms rather than to submit.
So the next time you have a serious illness, daydream for moment about how much closer to a Star Trek-level of medicine we might be today had not two millennia of Christianity gotten in the way. (Stem cells, anyone?) But don’t single out the Christians alone. Mohandas Gandhi, the great Hindu whose zeal helped turn Muslims away from a Hindu-dominated India, allowed his wife to die in his arms rather than let her have a shot of penicillin. Herbert W. Armstrong, whose Worldwide Church of God was the most well-financed American evangelical sect of the 1970s and 1980s, followed in Gandhi’s footsteps when he allowed his wife to die rather than submit to surgery in 1967.
That’s who kills the Neils, Avas, and Dennises: Mohandas Gandhi, Herbert W. Armstrong, and every other expert who’s ever said: “I know what God wants, therefore you should do X–,” and every moral coward who lets them get away with it.