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Chiropractic and Christianity: The Power of Pain to Adjust Cultural Alignments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2010


Daniel David Palmer (1845–1913) reputedly “discovered” chiropractic in 1895 when he performed the first “adjustment,” using spinal manipulation to restore hearing to an African American janitor named Harvey Lillard. Relegated to the fringes of American medical and religious orthodoxy for most of the twentieth century in part because of its metaphysical philosophy, today chiropractic is mainstream: its offices can be found in strip malls; medical insurance plans cover adjustments; and, in a dramatic readjustment of traditional cultural alignments, conservative Christians embrace chiropractic as a God-given method of pain relief.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2010

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15 Conversation with Vern Gielow (1982) reported by Albanese, Nature Religion, 151; Martin, Steven C., “‘The Only Truly Scientific Method of Healing’: Chiropractic and American Science, 1895–1990Isis 85, no. 2 (1994): 213CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wardwell, Walter I., Chiropractic: History and Evolution of a New Profession (St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1992), 180–81Google Scholar, uniquely among the sources I have studied, denies that Palmer considered chiropractic a religion. After quoting a lengthy passage from Palmer that identifies the “religion of chiropractic” as belief in Universal Intelligence, “segmented into as many parts as there are individual expressions of life,” Wardwell summarily protests: “If this is religion, it certainly is not Christian. Basically, D. D. did not consider chiropractic a religion”; Wardwell's word choice suggests that Palmer's explicitly “religious” views did not strike Wardwell as “Christian” and that Wardwell considered theistic religions such as Christianity to be the only genuine religions.

16 Moore, Chiropractic in America, 23; Martin, “Only Truly Scientific Method,” 213.

17 Palmer, Chiropractor's Adjuster, 446, 642; Palmer, D. D., The Chiropractor (Los Angeles: Press of Beacon Light Printing, 1914), 10Google Scholar, published posthumously by Palmer's wife through a spiritualist publishing house (see Donahue, “Metaphysical Movement,” 26), and qtd. in Wardwell, Chiropractic, 180.

18 Palmer, Chiropractor's Adjuster, 491, 691, 493.

19 Fuller, Alternative Medicine, 72.

20 The Chiropractor 5 (1909): frontispiece (Davenport, Iowa: Palmer School of Chiropractic Publisher, 1909), qtd. in Fuller, Alternative Medicine, 72.

21 Palmer, Chiropractor's Adjuster, 492, 8.

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24 Palmer, B. J., The Bigness of the Fellow Within (Davenport, Iowa: Chiropractic Fountain Head, 1949), 65Google Scholar; cf. B. J. Palmer's reflections on declaring chiropractic a religion, Lecture Notes, October 21, 1908, 4, Archives, Palmer College of Chiropractic, qtd. in Martin, “Chiropractic and the Social Context of Medical Technology,” 813, 816; Martin, “Only Truly Scientific Method,” 213.

25 B. J. Palmer, Do Chiropractors Pray? 27.

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28 See, for example, Wardwell, Chiropractic, 180, discussed above in note 15.

29 Moore, Chiropractic in America, 49–50.

30 McDonald, William P., How Chiropractors Think and Practice: The Survey of North American Chiropractors (Ada, Ohio: Institute for Social Research, Ohio Northern University, 2003), 2021Google Scholar; this survey is further discussed below.

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32 Steven C. Martin, “Chiropractic and the Social Context of Medical Technology,” 831, concurs that scholars such as Fuller (Alternative Medicine, 71, 76) underestimate the persistence of spirituality in modern chiropractic.

33 See, for example, Whorton, Nature Cures, 17, 285; Moore, Chiropractic in America, 130; Wardwell, Walter I., “Before the Palmers: An Overview of Chiropractic's Antecedents,” Chiropractic History: The Archives and Journal of the Association for the History of Chiropractic 7, no. 2 (1987): 30Google ScholarPubMed.

34 Wilk v. American Medical Assoc., 671 F. Supp. 1465, 1473 (N.D. Ill. 1987), aff'd, 895 F.2d 352 (7th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 982, 111 S. Ct. 513 (1990).

35 Whorton, Nature Cures, 17.

36 Alternative Medicine: An Objective Assessment, Journal of the American Medical Association 280, no. 18 (November 11, 1998): 1551–640, qtd. in Whorton, Nature Cures, x.

37 Whorton, Nature Cures, x, 243, 295; Herron, M. and Glasser, M., “Use of and Attitudes Toward Complementary and Alternative Medicine Among Family Practice Patients in Small Rural Illinois Communities,” Journal of Rural Health 19, no. 3 (2003): 279CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

38 U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1965), qtd. in White, Marjorie and Skipper, James K. Jr., “The Chiropractic Physician: A Study of Career Contingencies,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 12, no. 4 (December 1971): 300CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Wiese, Glenda, “Chiropractic History and Trivia,” in Chiropractic Secrets, ed. Gardner, Seth and Mosby, John S. (Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, 2000), 242–45Google Scholar.

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43 Whorton, Nature Cures, 245–49.

44 Martin, “Only Truly Scientific Method of Healing,” 224; Fuller, Alternative Medicine, 90, 92; Whorton, Nature Cures, xii, 4, 246, 24. The South African philosopher Jan Smuts coined the term “holism,” from the Greek holos, or whole, in a book entitled, Holism and Evolution (New York: MacMillan, 1926), that practitioners of holistic medicine had revived by the 1980s.

45 R. Laurence Moore, “The Occult Connection?: Mormonism, Christian Science, and Spiritualism,” in Occult in America, ed. Kerr and Crow, 151; Martin, Steven C., “Chiropractic and the Social Context of Medical Technology, 1895–1925,” Technology and Culture, Special Issue: Biomedical and Behavioral Technology 34, no. 4 (October 1993): 831Google ScholarPubMed.

46 Boyner, Peter, “Isn't It Time to Abandon Anachronistic Terminology?Journal of the Australian Chiropractors’ Association 17, no. 2 (1987): 53, 54, 56, 57Google Scholar.

47 American Chiropractic Association, “Policy Statement” (1994), qtd. in Chapman-Smith, Chiropractic Profession, 58.

48 Whorton, Nature Cures, 184.

49 Association of Chiropractic Colleges, “Position Paper” (1996), qtd. in Chapman-Smith, Chiropractic Profession, 57, 60.

50 World Chiropractic Alliance, “Practice Guidelines for Straight Chiropractic” (1993), qtd. in Raso, Jack, “Alternative” Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994), 150Google Scholar.

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52 Raso, “Alternative” Healthcare, 148.

53 National Association for Chiropractic Medicine, official website, (accessed August 20, 2007; emphasis in original).

54 Keating, Joseph C. Jr., Charlton, Keith H., Grod, Jaroslaw P., Perle, Stephen M., Sikorski, David, and Winterstein, James F., “Subluxation: Dogma or Science?Chiropractic & Osteopathy 13, no. 17 (August 10, 2005)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, (accessed December 13, 2007).

55 Personal communication to author, June 30, 2009.

56 Brochures promoted the chiropractor's mentor, Stevens Chiropractic and Wellness, whose patient-directed literature lists a variety of health resources; Stevens Chiropractic and Wellness, “Health Resources,” (accessed July 7, 2009).

57 McDonald, How Chiropractors Think, 15, 16, 35, 49, 55, 60, 89, 90, 91, 101.

58 Interestingly, the study discussion (p. 59) suggests that acupuncture garners less support than acupressure because it is more “invasive,” not because respondents question the vitalistic theory upon which it is based.

59 Ledermann, E. K., Philosophy and Medicine (Brookfield, Vt.: Gower, 1986), 43Google Scholar.

60 Chapman-Smith, Chiropractic Profession, 69–70, 135.

61 For the shared vitalistic premises of many CAM therapies, see Whorton, Nature Cures, 10.

62 For instance, a 2009 Newsweek poll found 30% of Americans identified themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” up from 24% in 2005; Meacham, Jon, “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek (April 13, 2009)Google Scholar, available at (accessed April 7, 2009). Surveys conducted by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion with the Gallup Organization in 2005 and 2007 found that 57% of Americans self-identified as both spiritual and religious, but only 10% identified as spiritual but not religious. Although much attention has been paid to recent polls finding that 11–12% of Americans have come to identify with “no religion,” the Baylor surveys shed light on what people mean when they self-identify as such. The study concludes that “the percentage of atheists hasn't changed at all,” found to be 4% by a 1944 Gallup poll and 4% by the 2007 Baylor survey. Instead, “what ‘no religion’ seems to mean to most who give this response is that they reject conventional religions, but not supernaturalism of more exotic sorts—two-thirds of them can be classified as New Agers … [who are] very likely to accept occult and paranormal beliefs”; Stark, Rodney, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008), 117, 141, 144Google Scholar. On seeker spirituality, see Wuthnow, Robert, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roof, Wade Clark, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 67, 259Google Scholar.

63 Brian Keene, review of Jacob's Ladder, directed by Adrian Lyne, Carolco Pictures, (accessed February 17, 2006); “Jacob's Ladder,” The Internet Movie Database, (accessed February 17, 2006).

64 Donahue, “Trouble With Innate,” 23.

65 Burgess, Michael M., “Chiropractic Informed Consent,” Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 34, no. 1 (1990): 2426Google Scholar; Steinecke, Richard, “Informed Consent,” Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 40, no. 1 (1996): 4346Google Scholar. Since the civil rights and consumer revolutions of the 1960s, “informed consent” has become a watchword as Americans insist upon their moral and legal rights to make autonomous choices based on the principles of personal autonomy and self-determination. According to theorists of informed consent, the ability to make choices autonomously requires substantial understanding of all material information—not only medical risks and benefits, but also factors bearing upon patients’ “long-range goals and values,” including religious commitments; Faden, Ruth R., Beauchamp, Tom L., King, Nancy M. P., A History and Theory of Informed Consent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 303Google Scholar.

66 Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 5–6.

67 Platt, John R., “Strong Inference,” Science 146, no. 3642 (October 16, 1964): 347–53CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Barnes, Linda L. and Sered, Susan S., eds., Religion and Healing in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 22Google Scholar.

68 Palmer, Chiropractor's Adjuster, 19; American Chiropractic Association, “Policy Statement”; International Chiropractors’ Association, “11 Common Questions about Chiropractic” (n.d.), qtd. in Raso, “Alternative” Healthcare, 148–49. The Palmers taught that subluxations are behind every disease; although modern chiropractors have backed away from the theory of singular causation, according to the Ohio survey (p. 50), 10.9% of chiropractors believe that subluxations contribute to 100% of visceral ailments; the mean response was that subluxations contribute to 62.1% of diseases.

69 Moore, Chiropractic in America, 148.

70 Gay, Timothy J., “Why Are You where You Are?The Chiropractic Journal: A Publication of the World Chiropractic Alliance (June 2007)Google Scholar, (accessed December 14, 2007); Harper, David, “The Chiropractic Story,” Natural Health Education Journal 11, no. 3 (winter 2007): 19Google Scholar (emphasis in original).

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73 Reid, Mike, “The Seven Laws of the Power of Attraction,” The Chiropractic Journal: A Publication of the World Chiropractic Alliance (August 2007)Google Scholar, (accessed December 14, 2007; emphasis in original).

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75 Passalacqua, Christopher, “Advancement or Decline? Still Untold, Yet Ever Telling,” The Chiropractic Choice: A Publication of the International Chiropractors Association 5, no. 2 (April 2006): 21Google Scholar.

76 For the capacity of religions to proscribe as well as prescribe practices, see Thomas A. Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 6.

77 Moore, “Occult Connection?” 136.

78 Kerr and Crow, introduction to Occult in America, 6, argue that “chiropractic, now covered by medical insurance and federal income tax deductions, grew out of the same nineteenth-century ‘occult-metaphysical tradition’ that fostered transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought.”

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83 Moore, Chiropractic in America, 189–90. Since no comprehensive survey data exists, Moore pieces together several studies. A series of biographical sketches of Oklahoma chiropractors published in 1930 gives the religious affiliations of 50 out of the 112 practitioners listed: 11 Baptists, 11 Methodists, 8 Christian/Church of Christ members, 8 Presbyterians, 4 Methodist Episcopals, 2 Catholics, 2 Quakers, 1 Lutheran, 1 Nazarene, 2 from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and 2 who attended Phillips Christian University “preparatory for Evangelistic work.” Moore notes that many of the same individuals also “belonged to the Masons, Shriners, and other fraternal bodies.” A study of the religious affiliations of chiropractors in Missouri for 1972 concluded that out of 58 practitioners, 40 (70.7%) identified themselves as Protestant, 10 (17.2%) as Catholic, 2 (3.4%) claimed other religious backgrounds, and 5 (8.7%) had no religious affiliation. Who's Who in Chiropractic (1980) includes 875 entries: no religious affiliation is listed for 310 (35.4%) of the individuals; Catholics number 103 (11.8%); Protestants account for 421 (48.1%); 23 (2.6%) are identified as Jewish; and 18 (2.1%) identify other religious backgrounds, including 1 self-described “Unitarian Atheist”; Gallagher, Harry, History of Chiropractic: A History of the Philosophy, Art and Science of Chiropractic and Chiropractors in Oklahoma (Guthrie, Okla.: William E. Welch & William H. Pattie, 1930), 107–76Google Scholar; Lin, Phylis Lan, “The Chiropractor, Chiropractic, and Process: A Study of the Sociology of an Occupation” (PhD diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 1972), 54Google Scholar; Lints-Dzaman, Fern, Scheiner, Sidney, and Schwartz, Larry, eds., Who's Who in Chiropractic, 2nd ed. (Littleton, Colo.: Who's Who in Chiropractic International Publishing, 1980), 23265Google Scholar. These findings are consonant with surveys of the religious identities of the total U.S. population; for example, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that 76% of Americans self-identify as Christians, down from 86% in 1990; Kosmin, Barry A. and Keysar, Ariela, ARIS 2008 Summary Report (Hartford, Conn.: Trinity College, March 2009)Google Scholar.

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86 Christian Chiropractors Association, “Statement of Faith” (Fort Collins, Colo.: Christian Chiropractors Association, [1988?]), qtd. in Moore, Chiropractic in America, 190; Christian Chiropractors Association, “Statement of Faith and Mission Statement,” (accessed Sept 19, 2005).

87 Smidt, Corwin E., Kellstedt, Lyman A., Green, John C., and Guth, James L., “The Spirit-Filled Movements in Contemporary America: A Survey Perspective,” in Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism, ed. Blumhofer, Edith L., Spittler, Russell P., and Wacker, Grant A. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 120Google Scholar.

88 Glenn M. Hultgren, “Alternative Therapies: Making a Difference through Spiritual Evaluation,” (Christian Chiropractor's Association, n.d.), 7, 2, 5–6, (accessed September 16, 2005).

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91 Morris, Culture of Pain, 5.

92 Early resistance to the use of anesthesia (introduced in 1846, but not used universally until the 1880s) came not only from clergy who envisioned pain as sent by God, but also from advocates of nature cures who worried that artificial insensitivity to pain would impede the restoration of harmony between individuals and nature.

93 Fuller, Alternative Medicine, 80; see also Leavitt, Judith Walzer, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 117Google Scholar.

94 Glucklich, Ariel, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 62Google Scholar.

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96 Whorton, Nature Cures, 168.

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104 Smith, Christian, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley: University of California, 2000)Google Scholar.

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121 Herron, M. and Glasser, M., “Use of and Attitudes toward Complementary and Alternative Medicine Among Family Practice Patients in Small Rural Illinois Communities,” Journal of Rural Health 19, no. 3 (2003): 280CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

122 Wahner-Roedler, Dietlind L., Elkin, Peter L., Vincent, Ann, Thompson, Jeffrey M., Oh, Terry H., Loehrer, Laura L., Mandrekar, Jayawant N., and Bauer, Brent A., “Use of Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies by Patients Referred to a Fibromyalgia Treatment Program at a Tertiary Care Center,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 80, no. 1 (2005): 55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

123 See, for example, Benson, H., Dusek, J. A., Sherwood, J. B., Lam, P., Bethea, C. F., Carpenter, W., Levitsky, S., Hill, P. C., Clem, D. W., Jain, M. K., Drumel, D., Kopecky, S. L., Mueller, P. S., Marek, D., Rollins, S., and Hibberd, P. L., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal 151, no. 4 (2006): 934–42CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

124 This study received IRB approval from Saint Louis University (#13946) and Indiana University (#06–11383). The surveys were added to the registration packets distributed by the sponsoring organization to all conference participants. Each survey packet included a Study Information Sheet. The surveys were completed anonymously, but informants were given the option of completing a contact card if they wished to participate in a follow-up telephone interview. Demographic information collected through the survey indicated that participants represented diverse gender, age, racial/ethnic, educational, and income groups; most self-identified as Charismatic, Pentecostal, and/or evangelical Protestants or Catholics.

125 The telephone interviews followed a semi-structured format. I asked open-ended questions and listened to informants’ answers without comment. Most respondents who mentioned receiving chiropractic treatments volunteered this information before I asked about it. I asked informants who did not initiate a discussion of chiropractic whether they had ever tried any form of alternative healthcare, and I reminded them of a few of the approaches listed in question nine of the survey, including chiropractic. This question in several instances elicited lengthy responses to which I listened without commentary.

126 Cherkin, Daniel C. and MacCornack, Frederick A., “Patient Evaluations of Low Back Pain Care from Family Physicians and Chiropractors,” Western Journal of Medicine l50, no. 3 (1989): 351Google Scholar.

127 The quotation is from question six of the post-conference survey; question fourteen of the post-conference survey provides the identical list of alternatives given by question nine of the pre-conference survey.

128 Cherkin and MacCornack, “Patient Evaluations,” 351; Kane, Robert, Olson, Donna, Leymaster, Craig, Woolley, F. Ross, and Fisher, F. David, “Manipulating the Patient: A Comparison of the Effectiveness of Physician and Chiropractor Care,” Lancet 1 (1974): 1335–36Google ScholarPubMed.

129 Kaptchuk, Ted J. and Eisenberg, David M., “Chiropractic Origins, Controversies, and Contributions,” Archives of Internal Medicine 158, no. 20 (November 9, 1998): 2215CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; White and Skipper, “Chiropractic Physician,” 305. The sociologist Naisbitt, John, in Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner Books, 1982), 48Google Scholar, helps to explain the appeal of chiropractic by observing that the “escalation of high technology within a society creates a compensatory need for ‘high touch.’” As the historian J. Stuart Moore argues, in Chiropractic in America, 141, chiropractors win a loyal clientele in part because of their willingness to spend time “touching and listening, validating the often ambiguous pain associated with back ailments.”

130 Having classified pain as morally evil, Charismatics tend to classify practices as bad or good depending upon whether they are perceived as exacerbating or alleviating pain. Interestingly, Charismatics are quick to denounce other “nature cures,” such as freemasonry (Albanese, Nature Religion, 56, 186; Whorton, Nature Cures, xii), that they blame for causing sickness; see, for example, Cassada, Barbara, Unto Death: Freemasonry … Freedom in Christ or Bondage to Lucifer? (Maryville, Tenn.: Tome Publishing, 1998), 8Google Scholar, in which Cassada lists diseases that she claims occur more frequently among Masonic families—and explains that it was this discovery that made her aware of freemasonry's non-Christian religious beliefs.

131 Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 510.

132 Johnston, Politics of Healing, 4; see also Goldstein, Michael S., Alternative Health Care: Medicine, Miracle, or Mirage? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 1011Google Scholar.

133 Frohock, Fred M., Healing Powers: Alternative Medicine, Spiritual Communities, and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), viiGoogle Scholar.

134 Whorton, Nature Cures, 277; Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 508.

135 Illustrative of current debates over the meanings of alternative practices are popular publications like: Alexandra Alter, “Yoga Stretches Traditional Christian Boundaries,” Religion News Service (2003), available at (accessed March 10, 2009); Agnieszka Tennant, “Yes to Yoga,” Christianity Today Magazine (May 19, 2005), available at (accessed March 10, 2009); Holly Vicente Robaina, “Take a Pass on Yoga,” Christianity Today Magazine ( January 17, 2007), available at (accessed March 10, 2009); Ernst, Edzard, “Is Reiki Anti-Church and Is It Harmful?Pulse 63, no. 37 (2003): 96Google Scholar; Fuchs, Michael, “Reiki Is Not Religion,” Massage Magazine 121 (2006): 3435Google Scholar; Salladay, Susan Anthony, “Should Christians Use Therapeutic Touch?Christian Bioethics 8, no. 1 (2002): 2542CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Westbrook, W. Michael, Baptizing Alternative Medicine: A Guide for the Curious but Cautious Christian (New York: Writer's Club Press, 2003)Google Scholar.