Growing up in a Faith-Healing Cult

This is a guest post by Rachel Holierhoek. Rachel is a Secular Humanist living in Canada with her partner, Roy, and their four children.

We were different. We were the only ones in our small town who belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, a church founded by Herbert W. Armstrong; a self-proclaimed apostle and prophet. Armstrong was a fundamentalist, end-times-are-coming Sabbatarian who also taught strict dietary restrictions and commanded the keeping of Old Testament holy days, forbidding Pagan holidays like Christmas and Easter. Ours was the only family in our school district who had to annually provide a letter from our minister about the Feast of Tabernacles to explain our week-long absences from school every fall. Sure, we’d get our school work to take with us but when you had three-hour church services daily (six hours on high days at the beginning and end of that Festival) along with nightly special sessions (like those on the demonic influence in modern rock music) you really didn’t have much time for homework.

We were also different because we didn’t see doctors. We didn’t get immunized. To do so was a clear display of a lack of faith in God. God would heal us if we really believed he would. If we were righteous, we wouldn’t even get sick!

In 1952, Herbert W. Armstrong published the booklet “Does God Heal Today?” (PDF) In this booklet he laid out his doctrine for faith-healing. His doctrine taught that sickness, disease, even injury were the result of sin. They were a person’s punishment for sin and faith healing was nothing but God’s forgiveness for those sins. According to Armstrong, people wouldn’t get sick if they weren’t sinning and they wouldn’t get healed, either, if they weren’t really faithful. Many members of the Worldwide Church of God canceled their health insurance and wouldn’t see a doctor for anything other than childbirth (which wasn’t considered an illness) and even then the necessity of a Cesarian Section indicated unrighteousness in the woman needing it.

In 1968, Armstrong’s own wife, Loma, died of a bowel obstruction because Armstrong refused medical interventions and instead annointed and prayed over his wife. Despite this, the doctrine against medical care stood unchanged from its 1952 position. Armstrong equated dependence on the medical professionals with Pagan idolatry and a breech of the commandment to “have no other gods before me.” Armstrong equated modern, science-based medicine with ancient ritualistic healing practices that had no scientific basis.

When I was ten years old, my younger sister became increasingly ill. She had always been frail; pale, thin, and lethargic — even her hair was thin and dull. This time my sister Missy (not her real name) was much worse. My older sister (who was then a teenager) tells me that my younger sister was too weak to walk to the bathroom and my father would carry her there frequently. My older sister would barrage my father with demands that Missy be taken to the doctor. My little sister was too weak to even attend Saturday church services where she might have been anointed by a minister in a ritual called the “laying on of hands.” The minister would take the sick person, and the parents if the person was a child, and go into a coat closet and close the door. There, everyone would kneel and the minister would take a small bottle of olive oil out of a pocket and place a dot of oil on the sick person’s forehead. He would hold his hand on the spot where the oil was placed and begin to pray. Everyone would bow their heads as the minister beseeched God to forgive this sick person of the sins for which she was being punished. When a person was too ill to attend services (which for us were an hour drive away from our hometown) the minister would send home an anointed cloth. It was a piece of gauze with a drop of oil on it that the minister had prayed over. The small square of guaze was ceremoniously placed in a small manilla envelope for safe keeping. At home, our parents would take us into their bedroom where we would all get down on our knees and one would hold the oiled cloth to our forehead and all heads bowed, praying that God would heal us. Some people take a spoonful of medicine. Not us. We got down on our knees and put oil on our foreheads and prayed. Sometimes we got better. Sometimes we did not.

My mother has often told the story of how she nursed me to health, along with anointing and prayer when I was all of five months old. I had measles and was severely dehydrated with fever and chills. She would tell how she would rock me for hours on end in a rocking chair dribbling broth from a spoon into my mouth because I was too weak even to nurse. Obviously, I had not received my infant innoculation against measles.

Prayer and anointing were not working for my little sister. In her six years of life we couldn’t imagine what horrible sins she had committed to be so drastically ill. Armstrong explained, however, that “you might not have been guilty of any wrong, yet nature’s laws were violated or you wouldn’t be sick!” How’s that for double speak? Sickness and injury are the result of sin. Unless they’re not. But, hey, something caused it!

So my mom searched herself for what sin she must have committed to cause her daughter to be so deathly ill. I heard her murmered prayers from her room (Armstrongists go behind closed doors to pray in private) asking God to forgive whatever she has done to make my little sister sick. She always emerged from those sessions wiping tears from her face having sobbed the entire time.

My older sister could take it no longer. She said our little sister would die if she couldn’t get to a doctor. My mother took Missy to a local emergency room on the weekend where she was treated for the flu. By Monday, Missy was much worse so my mother called the local doctor’s office and scheduled an appointment. While there, the doctor took some of Missy’s blood and examined it at the office. He returned to the exam room looking quite grim and saying only, “I don’t think it’s leukemia.” He was puzzled but Missy’s condition was dire. Her heart was too weak for her to even walk. The doctor carried her to my mother’s car and they met again at the hospital. Overnight at the local small hospital her doctor realized they were not able to address my sisters’ illness and moved her to the nearest children’s hospital. He also instructed my mother to allow no blood transfusions — in my sister’s severe state where her heart was weakened, a transfusion could overwhelm the system and bring about heart failure.

My sister was gone for weeks. She was so sick I wasn’t even allowed to visit her. No children could visit her. I spent many afternoons alone. I spent many afternoons taking my sister’s most recent school photo down from the wall and crying over her image. I looked at my sister’s school portraits on the walls. She had been a pain in my ass as long as she had been alive but only now did I see how frail and weak she had always been. I was wracked with guilt. Maybe my sin had made my sister sick. She was always such an annoying pest, telling mom every little thing I did and some things that I never did! I’d wished such horrible things on her. Had I caused this illness? Was it me? I’d take that picture and head into my bedroom, get down on my knees and beg god to let me be the sick one. Let me take this punishment, she didn’t deserve it! I was sure she would die.

I overheard my parents and older siblings talking about how weak she was and how the doctor had already saved her life by refusing a blood transfusion before he knew what was wrong with her. There was something wrong with her blood, but he didn’t know what yet. She was experiencing a severe aplastic anemia crisis but at the time, the doctor did not know why. He was poring over enormous books on diseases of the blood attempting to diagnose her. Her heart was very weak. A team of ten doctors, along with the one we originally saw in our hometown, worked diligently to figure out what was causing Missy’s aplastic crisis.

In the midst of all this activity, my mother had church elders come into the hospital and anoint Missy.

As it turned out, Missy had congenital spherocytosis. It is a disease that affects the outer membrane of the red blood cells and causes the cells to be sphere-shaped. The spleen, which helps the immune system by filtering impurities out of the blood will filter and hoard the spherical blood cells. People with spherocytosis have enlarged spleens because of this constant filtering and hoarding. They also have thicker bones than others as their marrow is continually trying to replenish the blood supply because spherocytes have a shorter lifespan than normally shaped blood cells. People with this blood disorder are at heightened risk of complications from childhood illnesses that are often trivial to others. The Fifth Disease (parvovirus) most often appears as bright red marks on the faces of children affected by it. Children with spherocytosis (and other blood disorders such as sickle-cell) often end up in aplastic crisis. The doctor suspected my sister had contracted the Fifth Disease as it was making its rounds through school that year and her weakened immune system made a sick little girl that much sicker.

The threat of aplastic crisis in a person with spherocytosis is eliminated by removal of the spleen. Missy was not well enough for the surgery for several weeks. When finally she could have the surgery she was left with an enormous scar; a testament to how enlarged her spleen actually was. Though Missy weighed barely 60 pounds, her spleen was the size of a quart jar!

When Missy finally emerged from the crisis and her body began to recover, the doctor told my mother, “I can’t explain it. She should have died. That girl is a miracle.” The doctor gave my mother confirmation that God — not this doctor or any of the ten others or the surgeon — saved Missy’s life. I asked my mother, “Could God have healed Missy if she were not in the hospital receiving the treatment that would bring her out of aplastic crises and end the threat of aplastic crisis for the rest of her life?” Although she said that God could not have healed Missy unless she received the medical treatment, she still insists that the healing was God’s will. She also clarified that “sometimes God doesn’t heal at all. Sometimes he doesn’t heal right away.”

Although Armstrong’s church has reversed all of its doctrines and become a mainstream evangelical Christian church and my mother’s beliefs have followed suit, her 30-year indoctrination by Armstrong holds firm. She quotes the same scriptures Armstrong did to support faith healing. When I asked if she believed that sickness was the result of sin, she said “Well, sin is a lot of things. It can be eating things that are not good for us, or pollution, or contaminants in our water — those are sins, too.” And genetic disorders? “Who has a hand on that code?” She asks.

Still, the doctors took the time to educate my parents. They had nearly lost their daughter to a blood disorder and they too could face a fatal illness through her if she was not immunized against childhood diseases. Her body, without the spleen and after years of ill health, would never be able to fight infections the way healthy children might. Every illness would be cause for alarm and immediate action. She should probably take antibiotics for the rest of her life along with folic acid. My mother wouldn’t have her on prophylactic antibiotics, but would supplement her with folic acid. Every one of us got innoculated against all the common childhood illnesses. However, when it came time for booster shots, mom had to be threatened by the schools with removal of us kids from classes before she would actually go and get us our shots.

To this day, if Missy gets the flu she is usually hospitalized with pneumonia as well. Every illness is a severe illness. There is no such thing as ‘a little cold’ for Missy. Her own children have inherited the genetic defect that causes this disorder, but are much healthier than she had a chance to be. They were monitored and innoculated and kept out of school anytime the Fifth Disease made its appearance. Those with the severe form of spherocytosis had their spleens removed at age six, before they ever went into an aplastic crisis.

Despite my mother’s belief that prayer saved my sister’s life, I am positive that it nearly took it. God didn’t save my sister’s life. Science did. Do I worship science? No. I certainly have a healthy respect for it, though. Science at least admits when it is wrong.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    This is why you need to be careful with the word miracle!

    • Rich Wilson

      We should call them SUEs.  Statistically unlikely events.

      • Erik

        Do doctors say ‘miracle’ a lot? Is there a known reason for it? Maybe they need some sort of hope in such a depressing job, or find the large amounts of gratitude overwhelming and try to deflect it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    “His doctrine taught that sickness, disease, even injury were the result of sin. They were a person’s punishment for sin and faith healing was nothing but God’s forgiveness for those sins.”

    What a weak god that allows puny doctors to interfere in his infinitely just punishments.

    “When I asked if she believed that sickness was the result of sin, she said ‘Well, sin is a lot of things. It can be eating things that are not good for us, or pollution, or contaminants in our water — those are sins, too.’ “

    … and perhaps sin can be  following Armstrong (and not taking your kid to the doctor).

  • Trace

    Nice post!

    I recently found a discussion group that attributes Autism to demons and sin (sigh).

    • snoofle

      Trace – I knew a woman who believed that all mental illness was caused by demons.  I was particularly shocked as she had been a practicing mental health nurse for a number of years.  Fortunately, by the time I spoke to her she had left the profession.

      • Heatheremme

        While in hospital being treated for depression (a misnomer as it is a symptom and not really a condition in itself) I had a nurse offer to cast out my demons. Since I am an atheist who was raised by fundamentalist pentecostals, I was rightly outraged by her religious diatribe at a time when what I needed was medication and rest. When I took it to a doctor, she denied it, until I asked her what her god thought about people who lie about their faith. I still wasn’t able to get off her rotation, however.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    “Her own children have inherited the genetic defect that causes this disorder”
    And now those children have to make a painful decision about the ethics of having children that may carry this defect.

  • Tom

    Doctors should be trained to never, ever use the word “miracle,” especially not in front of patients and those concerned for them, but instead to say what they actually mean by it: “statistical fluke,” “she’s tougher than we thought,” or “just plain lucky.”

    • Anonymous

      Doubtful. Doctor’s have their biases as does everyone else. You are going to have your religious docs along with the secular.

      Hypothetically, if I were a doctor, I would continue to the use the phrases “miracle (from god/heaven)” as I saw fit. When you have a family that has nearly lost their child you that is religious I would believe that they would be comforted more by “miracle from god” vs. “statistical fluke”. The latter sounds a tad cold doesn’t it?

      Hence the reason why many med schoolers take empaty courses, but I digress.

      • Tom

        On the contrary, anonymous, when someone is emotionally fragile is absolutely the worst time to start banging on about wonderful gods and miraculous healing.  No competent doctor has any business invoking gods or the supernatural during their working hours, to anyone, anyway – modern medicine is built exclusively on sound science, and gods are antithetical to that.  Such a doctor who would do that is announcing to the world that he suffers from compartmentalised thought and selective irrationality, and that he maintains doubts about the validity of his own profession.

        Besides, you present a false dichotomy.  Abandoning one’s rational integrity and pandering to nonsensical delusions is not the only alternative to presenting unpleasant facts coldly; there are tactful ways of doing it and showing compassion without resorting to lies.  The second example I gave would be a good place to start.

        One could perhaps also make a case that there is nothing immoral about “coldly” presenting facts to people.  To be a responsible adult is to be able to accept reality when it’s not necessarily pleasant or the way you would wish it to be; if I recall correctly, Piaget reckoned a properly developing human should be starting to be able to do this by the onset of puberty.  Unless your clients have been severely sheltered from the world or are mentally deficient, one could reasonably expect they have encountered and had to deal with unpleasant truths most of their lives; might it not even be construed as a sign of disrespect to imagine they need reality sugarcoating when you happen to be the one who has to tell them?  Is it not, in fact, presumptive, demeaning and arrogant for an adult doctor to assume his adult patients cannot handle reality without mollycoddling, unless he has determined that they are actually medically unfit to do so?

        This is not to say that one should not be supportive, that one should not show compassion.  But being supportive when someone has a harsh reality to face should never be conflated with obscuring that reality from them, or distorting it, and far too many people do conflate them, because the apparent end result (lower stress to that person) seems the same.  The difference is that in only one case have you also damaged their perception of reality.  

        Much the same problem is seen at sectarian funerals – instead of helping the bereaved to handle their natural grief and come to terms with the harshest of all realities, the object mistakenly becomes to eliminate that grief altogether, and since grief is actually the natural and healthy reaction to bereavement, the only way to do that is to deny the reality of the bereavement itself; hence, all the nonsense about immortal souls and afterlives and better places.  They’re lies made with the very best of intentions, but they’re still lies, and what they’re all ultimately saying is “this bad thing isn’t really happening.”  And the fact that an awful lot of people still cry after hearing the well-meaning lies is telling – I wonder if they really, fully believe them.

    • http://stochasticscientist.blogspot.com/ KathyO

      The problem is, there just isn’t a good secular word for ‘miracle’.  Can anyone envision a smiling doctor telling tearful parents, “your child has had a statistically unlikely event!  It’s really quite a fluke.”  You just can’t get the sense of ‘wow, that was really wonderful and amazing’ that we all feel in these kinds of situations from “Gee, that was lucky.”

      • Drakk

        Why not appeal to the patient themself?

        “Your kid’s a real fighter” or something similar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000019835554 Patrina Chamney

    What an instructive and moving story.  Thanks, Rachel, for sharing it with us.  So many innocents suffer as a direct result of this type of delusional thinking, and it takes a story like this to open some people’s eyes.  I hope this one does.

  • Beadknitter

    Hi Rachel,
    Thank you so much for your post. I grew up in Armstrong’s church too. When I was 9 years old I fell out of a tree and broke my back. My parents refused to take me to a doctor. Instead they called the minister and he came over to our house and anointed me as you described. I remember being totally paralyzed for several hours and feeling such incredible pain. (no aspirin or Tylenol was allowed.) After awhile, feeling and movement came back and eventually the break healed, although it never healed quite right. I’ve always had an s shaped bend in my spine and life long pain and problems with my back.

    I know for a fact no God healed me. It was just my body doing what it does when injured. I am very lucky that the break took place in a spot that did not cause permanent paralysis.

    I left the church in 1997. It took me years to get over my fear of doctors and the medical profession. But I was determined to do so. Now I have a great doctor that I visit regularly for physicals. I have asthma and panic attack disorder (induced by stress from when the church split over doctrine) and he takes good care of me. Without science and the medical profession, my life would be miserable.

    I’m also an atheist now. I have had enough of religion.

  • Anonymous

    Germ theory was discovered in the 1860′s.
    How could anyone believe sin is the cause of sickness?

  • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com/ Tim Martin

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • http://twitter.com/antitheistangie ajackson

    I’m so glad your sister got medical care. I grew up in a faith healing home like yours, based on a different author’s similar theories. 

  • Gary Walsh

    I was a member of this cult back in the ’70s.  The author mentions that the WCG changed its doctrines to become a more “mainstream” evangelical church.  In fact, after Armstrong’s death, the church broke up into multiple competing cults with some maintaining Armstrong’s teachings while the much diminished  organization that retained the official church name did in fact change to an evangelical church.  Armstrong taught that Christians were required to keep the Saturday sabbath and the Jewish laws and festivals such as Passover.  He also had a strange devotion to British-Israelism, the idea that the British and by extension the Americans were descended from the “lost tribes” of Israel and were therefore more special than everybody else.