Many, perhaps most, faith groups recommend prayer as a supplement to medical care.
However, some religious groups go further: they teach teach that certain medical
procedures are not allowed, or that members should generally reject medical attention in
favor of prayer. A sampling of the latter are:
Followers of Christ: This is a Pentecostal church in Portland, OR that is estimated to have from 1,200 to 2,300 members. It was organized by Rev. Walter White in the early 1900's. He
believed that God appeared to him in a dream and selected him to lead the group. He taught
that illness must be cured by prayer, and anointing with oil, not by medical treatment. If
the individual dies, then it is God's will. Members of the church have testified that they would not go to a doctor or hospital even if it meant the difference between life and death. They prefer to put their faith only in God's power to heal. Women in the congregation give birth at home
with the help only of a midwife. No medical care is provided, no matter what the
emergency. Members have full faith in the power of prayer and anointing oil to heal
themselves and their children. The church owns a "cemetery on the outskirts of
town...[in which] dozens of children are buried...in tiny graves." 1 Medical experts have stated that the lives of many of them could have been saved if they
had received routine medical attention. "Over the past decade, 18 children have
died—a 4-year-old who suffered from an infection for 46 days, babies and mothers
dying together in childbirth." The Oregonian reported that 3 children
of Followers of Christ children died needlessly between 1997-JUL and 1998-MAY. 2 According to Dr. Larry Lewman, Medical Examiner for the state, all could have been saved.
The Oregonian newspaper has stated that of the "78 minors buried in the graveyard
over 35 years, 21 'probably would have lived with medical intervention.'" 3
"Larry Lewman, a former medical examiner in the state, alleges that during a ten-year period twenty-five children perished due to the lack of medical intervention—a death rate 26 times higher than among the general population. An investigation by The Oregonian claimed that at least 21 out of 78 minors found to be buried in the church cemetery died of preventable causes, including simple infections which would be easily treated with routine antibiotics. The high death rate among church children attracted national media attention, including coverage of the church by Time magazine, ABC News newsmagazine 20/20, and the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.4
According to a former member, the congregation believes that they are chosen people,
and that everybody else (over 99.998% of the human race) will go to Hell. Members who
leave the church or challenge its teachings are shunned by everyone else, including members of their own family.
One needless death raised the profile of the church in Oregon. Bo Phillips, an 11 year old
boy, developed childhood diabetes - a disorder which is routinely treatable. He was given
liquids, prayer and oil, but no insulin. He died a slow death. "Christian Science
spokesman Gary Jones describes as 'terrible' the prospect that public rage at the Oregon
deaths might 'stop the inquiry into more effective means of treatment' by spiritual means. 5
During 1999, a bill was passed in the Oregon Legislature to eliminate the ability of parents and other caregivers to use a religious beliefs defense to charges of manslaughter, homicide and child abuse. The first application of the bill occurred in 2008-MAR when a Ava Worthington died of untreated pneumonia at the age of 15-months. Manslaughter charged were filed against the parents. In 2009-JUL, the parents were acquitted of manslaughter, but the father was found guilty of a lesser charge, and served only two months in jail. On 2008-JUN, Ava's 16-year-old uncle, Neil Beagley, died of an easily treatable condition involving a long term bladder blockage. His parents were charged with criminally negligent homicide and were sentenced to 16 months in prison on 2010-MAR. This is the first case of a mother being convicted in this type of case. Previous juries had acquitted mothers because they felt that all decisions in Followers of Christ families were made by the husbands, and that the wives had no decision making power.
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote attempted to convince church members to give their children adequate medical care. Unfortunately, they cannot easily do this, apparently because they feel that seeking medical attention would thwart God's will. They believe that In some cases, medical care would save the life of a child that God wants dead.
On 2009-SEP-27, a child was born to Dale and Shannon Hickman, both 25, who lived only nine hours before dying of staph pneumonia and complications from prematurity. David was born about six weeks premature, without the assistance of anyone with medical training. He weighed only 3 pounds, 5 ounces, and had underdeveloped lungs. The parents were charged with second-degree manslaughter on 2010-JUL-30. 8 At a bail reduction hearing, Michael Regan, a senior deputy district attorney, clamied that the Hickmans and their friends withheld video and photos taken about the time of David's birth. 11
On 2010-JUL-27, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland pleaded not guilty to charges of first degree criminal mistreatment of their 7-month-old daughter, Alayna. She had a large mass growing over her left eye that was threatening her vision. Dr. Thomas Valvano, a pediatrician at Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University testified:
"This was medical neglect." He said that Alayna could lose vision in her left eye and probably will need surgery. The parents had never considered getting medical attention for their daughter. Timothy said that he puts his faith in God. If his daughter did not improve, "that's his will." When Rebecca was asked why she didn't take the child to a doctor, she said: "Because I believe in God and put my faith in him." 9,10
Within 24 hours, the JUL-31 article in The Oregonian collected 75 comments from readers, essentially all very negative towards the parents. One posting stated that Timothy Wyland's first wife died of untreated breast cancer. Another said that girls in the church are usually married before they graduate from high school. Since no new members are allowed to join the church, the membership might start experiencing genetically-related diseases. Several postings mentioned that Shannon sought medical advice on her eyesight: she is shown wearing glasses.10
Grace Baptist Church: A couple and the pastor from Aberdeen, MS,
pleaded guilty in 1994-MAY. They were charged because of the couple's 13 year old daughter's
death from complications associated with untreated diabetes.
Home in Zion Ministries: Carol Balizet, formerly an emergency
room nurse, now heads this Fundamentalist Christian ministry, centered
in Tampa, FL. She promotes what she calls "Zion Births:"
home births without any input, assistance or backup from the medical
system. They rely only on prayer. According to the West Australian
newspaper, "Ms Balizet has interpreted the Bible to mean that
humans should not interfere with the will of God. She claims birth is
a chance for a woman to have a close encounter with God and that no
doctor should be allowed to participate in the process. She believes
that God will heal people if they pray to Him and there is no need for
humans to interfere by taking medicine. In 2001-APR, a 31 year-old
woman in western Australia suffered complications in the birth of her
fifth child, who was delivered without medical attention, following
Zion Birth principles. For three weeks after the birth, she was in
agony. She finally died. 5,6
Snake Handling Sects: George Went Hensley, a Church of God pastor founded
a Pentecostal religious group in 1909 which is now called Church of God with Signs
Following. Adult members occasionally practice what they call "preaching the
signs": the drinking of strychnine or other poison, and exposing themselves to be
bitten by poisonous snakes. They allow their natural defenses to battle the poison; they
do not seek medical attention. Their belief is that if they have sufficient faith, they
will not die or be permanently harmed by the poison. This belief is based on a Biblical
passage: Mark 16:17-18:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe. In my name...they will pick
up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at
Hensley interpreted this passage as a command to believers to use these methods to test
their faith. It is interesting that this passage is believed by many to be a forgery, written later by an author different from the one who wrote the rest of the Gospel
By the start of World War II, these practices had become widespread throughout the Church
of God, although only engaged in by a small minority of its members. The church
interpreted these tests of faith to be one more indication of the outpouring of the Holy
Spirit in the last days before Christ's second coming. Motivated by some deaths and near
deaths, the practice was denounced by the Assembly of the Church of God in 1928.
However, some congregations left the denomination and continued their snake handling
The State of Tennessee banned the practice and suppressed the group after the death of
member Lewis Ford in 1945. Hensley himself died of snakebite in Florida in 1955 in his
mid-70's. After two additional deaths from drinking poison, and other near deaths, court
cases led to a decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court to uphold the state's ban.
Independent congregations of "signs people" are still found from Florida to West
Virginia and west to Ohio. J.G. Melton estimates that between 50 to 100 "signs"
congregations exist with a total of several thousand members. 7
People have continued to die in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and West
Virginia at the rate of about 5 a decade. Many believers handle snakes, but few are
A second church, the Original Pentecostal Church of God, also believes in testing
themselves with poisonous snakes. However they do not "tempt God" by bringing
snakes into their services. Members have been known to pick up poisonous snakes and risk
being bitten when they come across them in the wild.
Unidentified Florida religious group: The two-year old son of
Wylie and Kelly Johnson of Tampa, FL was stung by wasps and died. His
parents were reported by Associated Press as equating medical
treatment with sorcery. The couple allegedly gave the boy an oatmeal
bath and rubbed lotion on his skin. They were charged with child
abuse, but were acquitted.
Unidentified New Zealand religious group: Herman and Trijntje Jongkind, both 34, were tried on a charge of neglecting to provide the necessaries of life to their 17-month-old son,
Jesse. His parents knew that he was suffering from meningitis, but treated him at home using a combination of Bible reading and prayers. They
believed that they were giving their son the best possible care. They felt that if they needed to change their approach, that God would show them.
Jesse was in a moderately deep coma and at risk of being put on a ventilator. When he was taken to hospital, he had to undergo emergency
surgery to drain fluid from his brain. He was in a mild coma, and had to be tube-fed. Two-thirds of his body fluids had to be replaced.
Other American religious groups:Time Magazine reviewed the rising death toll of children in the U.S. due to the
refusal of their parents to obtain medial assistance. In an article
titled "Freedom of Rellgion or State-Sanctioned Child Abuse,"
"At the center of controversy are Congregants of Church of Christ, Scientist, along with members of other, smaller
sects, including the Followers of Christ Church and the General Assembly and Church of the First Born. All are staunchly
opposed to medical intervention in the case of illness, preferring instead to depend upon prayer to do the healing. Their devotion to what
they call "God's will" has, according to their critics, led to the deaths of more than 172 children between 1975 and 1995 all because
their parents refused to seek medical treatment for their children's illnesses. According to autopsy reports, many if not most of the
children could have been saved easily with simple antibiotics."
Massachusetts Citizens for Children mentions other groups which have had children die, probably because of medical conditions that could have
been cured: No-Name Fellowship in Spokane, WA; Church of God in Loranger, LA; Christ Miracle Healing Center, AZ; and
Traveling Ministries Everyday Church in Spanaway, WA. There are undoubtedly many dozens of additional faith groups in the U.S. and
Canada whose children have needlessly died.
First Century Gospel Church religious group in PA: Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that teaches faith healing and discurages medical attention. In early 2009, their son Kent got sick. The parents treated him with prayer and Bible reading, but no medical attention. Kent died of bacterial pneumonia. The couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter, found guilty, and given ten years probation.
In 2003, another son, Brandon, died after having suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for a week without medical attention. Again, he was treated by his parents with prayer and Bible reading. He had stopped eating and died. According to Mythri Jayaraman, Catherine Schaible's attorney:
"There are way more questions than answers at this point. We haven't seen the autopsy report. We don't know the cause of death of this child. What we do know is Mr. and Mrs. Schaible are distraught, they are grieving, they are tremendously sad about the loss of their most recent baby."
Their other seven children have been placed in foster care.
Their church's web site contains a sermon titled "Healing — From God or Medicine?" According to USAToday:
"It quotes Bible verses purportedly forbidding Christians from visiting doctors or taking medicine. 'It is a definite sin to trust in medical help and pills; and it is real faith to trust on the Name of Jesus for healing.' says the message, from last May." 12
Eagle Mountain International Church in TX: Someone contracted measles overseas and visited the 1,500 member church operated by Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Newark, TX.The individual infected 21 members, most of whom had never been vaccinated. The church reacted quickly by organizing vaccination clinics during 2013-AUG where 220 people received immunization shots.
It is unclear whether the church had previously recommended against vaccinations for their membership. Former church member Amy Arden said that:
"To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear — that you doubted God would keep you safe. ... We simply didn’t do it."
Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based religious watchdog group Trinity Foundation, said that while there might not be specific guidance on topics such as vaccinations, the views of the leadership are clear.
Copeland's daughter and senior pastor at Eagle Mountain Terri Pearsons posted a sermon online after the outbreak which encouraged members to get vaccinated. However, she added that if:
"... you’ve got this covered in your household by faith and it crosses your heart of faith, then don’t go do it."
However, the risk manager for the ministries, Robert Hayes, said that the church’s teachings never advised against immunizations.
Fortunately, there are no reports of any fatalities from the measles outbreak.13