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Black Healers and their Healing Rituals --Part 1


I grew up in a 'working poor' African American family and attended a protestant fundamentalist Black church where the worship style was evangelical and highly emotional. I attended revivals and healing services and witnessed miraculous healing. Visiting healers were evangelists, both male and female. Our community respected and revered healers as instruments used by God to heal physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual illnesses, and improve financial and relational circumstances. They spoke in unknown tongues and prophesied while preaching, and while ministering to people in the prayer line.

Healers ministered during church-sponsored revivals, meeting Monday through Friday nights from 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm or later. Services continued past midnight when the spirit was high. Adults went to their place of employment the next day and we went to school. I was tired as I dragged my way to class. My parents took me back to church each night. Several of my homework assignments were either finished in a rush or turned in incomplete during revival season. 

Healers traveled across the United States to lead revivals and participate in religious gatherings, called "conferences." They maintained secular jobs and traveled on weekends and during vacations. A miniscule percentage of African American healers broadcast their ministries on television, radio, or the Internet. 

A typical healing service was as follows: congregational singing, preaching, and prayer at the altar. In healing services, the healer or another minister led congregational singing, anticipating the anointing of the Holy Spirit to fall on the congregation. Preaching occurred after the songfest. The third portion of a typical service was faith healing.

To prepare worshipers for the healing services, healers preached about healing occurring in biblical times, using Scripture to substantiate. They shared stories of healing and prophecies in which they were involved. During storytelling of how God used them, they often digressed to prophesy, saying "Thus saith the Lord..." Their prophecies revealed either possession of ministerial gifts or a change in personal circumstances for those who they called out.

Music waxed louder and more energetic as the healer commanded the audience: "Lift your hands high and praise the Lord. If you believe God is in the house, and you are convinced God can heal your body and your circumstances, shout ‘Yes, praise God!’ The audience shouted, ‘Yes, praise God!’ Faith healer: "God resides in your praises, so let's give Him all the praise. Shout loud!" The music grew louder and fast-paced. People in the audience shouted praises to God and danced in the spirit. The atmosphere was electric with spiritual emotion as the healer persuaded the audience to "worship radically". People cried, spoke in unknown tongues, danced, prayed aloud, clapped their hands, and sang. Healers led a short testimony period to give worshipers opportunities to testify about what God did for them.

In the highly charged atmosphere, healers laid hands on people and prayed for deliverance. Some people fell backward when touched (caught by assistants) and lay on the floor shouting praises, or lay quietly as though unconscious. Whenever the healer shouted, "Thus saith the Lord...," the audience suspended activity, quieted down, and listened. At the conclusion of the prophecies, the audience returned to enthusiastic praises to God. The anointing energized many to stand, cry out praises, sing, and clap. 

I designed this qualitative study to describe the lived experiences of eighteen African American faith healers. I interviewed participants via Skype and by telephone. The initial question: "What were the components of your healing ritual?"

There are three distinct styles of praise and worship: evangelical, devotional, and spiritual. Evangelical: Healers: "We always open with prayer. We give honor and praise to God for all he has done for us. The scripture said, 'honor him with the fruit of your lips.'" Loud singing with loud instruments was commonplace in evangelical-style worship. Musicians played the organ, synthesizer, piano, drums, and tambourines. The praise leader and praise team led congregational singing.

Worship leaders set the tone for the service. They declared, "Let's get our minds off our problems, on what you left at home, and bring your minds in and let's praise the Lord for what he has already done. Let's lift the name of Jesus. Think about last night, how the Lord has been merciful unto you to give you another day--another chance. The scripture says, because of the Lord's mercy, we are not consumed. The Lord is faithful. Every day he is faithful. You know the song, Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One. Each time you count a blessing, you remember another one. We have so much to be grateful for." It is almost like being cheerleaders. Praise leaders asked, 'What's his name?' And the audience yelled, 'Jesus!' Soon the audience waved their hands, stood on their feet, clapped, and cried. They also broke out in a dance."

Devotional Service: A primary characteristic of traditional devotional service was the call and response method of singing. Healers: "
In a typical traditional service, deacons opened with prayer and a scriptural passage. Then, a deacon 'lined' a song (recited a line of a hymn, followed by the audience's response of singing the line in long meter). For example, the deacon recited, 'A charge I have to keep, a God to glorify.' The congregation responded by singing, 'A--charge-----I---have ------to --- keep, --------a --- God------ to ---glo—ri—fy---.' It is the music of the Black church. Those old hymns like Guide me thy great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land lifts my spirit and serves as an avenue of healing. What a feeling of excitement. It ushered me in a spirit of prayer. Those old sisters got on their knees and hummed and prayed together. Everyone hummed the hymn as someone sang their prayer: ‘I come to you, Lord God, this morning without any form or fashion. I come to you, Lord, to say thank you for waking me up this morning. And I thank you, Lord God, because I have a reasonable portion of health and strength...’

A sister in the audience started a hymn, and everyone joined in. They harmonized preferably without musical accompaniment. They came into the sanctuary filled with joy and expected the Holy Spirit to be in the mix. And the Holy Spirit always came because they anticipated being revived, to have a good time in the Lord—not out of duty."
Spiritual Praise and Worship Service: Healers: "Church members regularly came to church an hour early on Sundays to pray. This helped us to join together in corporate worship to think, pray, and seek the same. We put our hearts and minds on the same page, making our worship all about God.

After we opened the service, the congregation spent thirty to forty minutes praying, asking God to bless them, help them to forget about what happened in the past week, and help them realize the reason for gathering.

Someone started a hymn. Another person prayed, and another read a scripture. The praise team led the congregation in singing hymns from hymn books. The praise team performed their duty of ushering the congregation into the presence of the Lord. Their worship manual explained their purpose and responsibilities.

The worship leader took charge and spoke between songs. If the spirit moved, he led the song a little longer. Our church is multi-cultural and our style of music is different from other congregations. Our praise and worship service may appear to be less energetic than others."
Preaching: Preaching prepared congregants to participate in the faith-healing portion of the worship service. It raised expectations of healing through stories told of miraculous healing during biblical times, and in contemporary times. The worship service also benefited the preacher who followed. The anointing provided a favorable atmosphere for preachers, making it easier for them to engage the audiences.

Preachers prepared to be effective leaders and conduits of the Holy Spirit. They maintained a close relationship with God through a lifestyle of prayer, fasting, and meditation. Preachers are equipped to engage in spiritual warfare, to be supportive of God's people, and to teach and preach about having faith in God.

When preachers invited people to the altar for prayer, one of their prayers was for seekers to receive not only mental, emotional, physical healing, but also receive rebirth, the power to change their entire lives. Some healers cast out demons, and took authority over illnesses and negative conditions, and rebuked them in Jesus' name using scriptural passages. They believed they connected with the Holy Spirit when they prayed; and the Holy Spirit granted deliverance to those for whom they prayed.

Blog 2 will describe the three types of African American healing rituals.

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© Herman Fountain