“Faith Healing” and “Faith Healer” are a couple of those terms that have developed a bad connotation over the years. It brings to mind fervent preachers in expensive suits knocking over old ladies before they turn around and empty their pockets into a collection plate. It’s a sore subject for me, as I consider myself a faith healer of sorts. I’ve had to change the term I use to “Spiritual Healer” which, when you think about it means pretty much the same thing but somehow doesn’t manage to scare people off. Now, I will say that a lot of the people I work with have no problem calling me a Faith Healer because for them it’s identifying me with a certain type of healing, one that isn’t necessarily physical, as most of the time I recommend people go to a licensed medical professional first before coming to me, but connects with them on a spiritual level. That’s the whole point of the Faith Healer, to connect with the other half of the healing process, the spiritual/mental side.
The Ozarks, and most of the South to be honest, have had their fair share of traveling quacks and money-grubbing preachers. They’re not a thing of the past either. Just looking at the news we see cases of kids dying because their parents chose to use faith healing instead of taking them to a doctor. I think it’s because of this long association with faith healing and quackery that it’s hard to find any information about folk healing practices that don’t involve some form of herbalism. In the world of Ozark folkways Vance Randolph does a wonderful job of recording some of these non-plant based healing practices, but he’s pretty much the only one. Looking around for resources on Appalachian or Ozark healing and you notice pretty quickly that the majority of the information out there is on the healing power of plants. This is good information, don’t get me wrong, but where’s the information on traditional healing charms and prayers? Or the use of trance in mountain healing? Or the use of the Bible? It’s not really there, and that’s a problem for folks like me who are trying to dig up these old traditions and practices.
I firmly believe in the power of modern medicine. I’ve seen it do wonders for people. That’s why I always recommend my clients see a licensed medical professional before coming to me for help. What I do represents the spiritual side of the healing process. It’s not for everyone, which is why I’m not out on the street corner hocking my wares. But for those who feel like they need some kind of spiritual comfort after having gone through an illness or trouble in their life what I do, and what mountain healers have done for centuries, really works.
We can divide the old country doctors in the Ozark and Appalachian Mountains into two categories, those who come in with a machete, chopping down this tradition and that tradition, and those who come in with the intention to heal people. The doctor who comes in with the machete usually didn’t last very long among mountain people. He was either shunned, run out of town, or killed. There’s a reason why Ozark hillfolk have had a deep-seated fear of the country doctor. He was often the last stop before death. Now, this is mostly due to the fact that hillfolk were (and still are) notorious for going to the doctor at the very last minute, when to be honest the doctor probably has no chance of saving the person. The doctor then became associated with death.
Now, there are cases where hillfolk and doctors have gotten along pretty well. We can see in the healer profiles I posted the past couple of days instances where doctors would often turn to traditional faith healers for help with patients, especially, it seems, in cases where a bloodstopper is needed. These would be the second category of country doctors, the ones that try and integrate modern medical practices with the old ways. These doctors are often people who are from the culture they are healing, people who have gone away to school then come back to the mountain. They know the culture, and by knowing the culture they know how to get people to come to the doctor when they need to. If you can make someone feel comfortable enough to take a life-saving vaccine or medication by also incorporating in some local folkways, then why wouldn’t you? It comes down to whether you’re healing diseases or healing people.
Used to the plant-based and non-plant-based healing practices were not mutually exclusive, they were all a part of the healing process. We can argue the effectiveness of the non-plant-based healing practices all day, but the fact remains that we don’t fully know all the facets of the placebo effect, so to say that these practices “don’t work” is doing a great disservice to the people who believe strongly in these practices.
Part of my goal with the work I do is to educate people about Ozark folk healing as a whole, including both herbalism and the use of non-plant-based healing practices. The information (what little is actually there anyway) has been one-sided for so long because of the bad associations of these folk practices with greedy and corrupt quack doctors and faith healers. I think it’s going to take showing these practices in a much better light, such as highlighting the fact that most traditional healers in the Ozarks don’t charge and have never charged money for their services, to help create a need and want for this information among folklorists and the generally interested population.