Book Review

Medicine and Religion

A Historical Introduction

reviewed by Mary Boland

Gary Ferngren’s intriguing book, Medicine & Religion: A Historical Introduction, may have the potential to turn away even the most formidable of readers with a laden title and a dark cover suggesting a heavy academic read. This assumption, however, proves inaccurate as Ferngren creates a historical, informative, and wholly accessible text for any interested reader.

The author’s introduction sets the tone and presents the topic in a clear, concise way, defining seemingly simple terms such as medicine, religion, health, and disease within deeper contexts in order to provide a thorough understanding of the terms in relationship to one another. His diction is conversational, informative, and systematic, and he plainly outlines the reason for his research. “The history,” he writes, “of the intersection of religion and medicine does not provide us with ready-made solutions to contemporary problems, but it does provide a broader context … for understanding the complexity of illness and suffering.” These complexities are spelled out in a chronological and organized manner, providing an easy map to follow as medicine and religion evolve in different cultures during various historical periods, from ancient civilizations to the present day.

Ferngren begins with the Ancient Near East, focusing on the religiously influenced Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures that integrated their religious beliefs into every aspect of life. Harmony between humanity and the gods was paramount, with sickness being an intrusion of maleficent spirits or cosmic forces rather than a symptomatic, treatable disease. While he at first outlines the general practices and beliefs of these ancient peoples, Ferngren then provides a more detailed panorama, starting with basic history, and moving to the development of healing methods and societal roles of healers who often dealt with both the treatment of physical symptoms and the cosmic force that was believed to have caused the illness. His research is extensive and well-traced, always pulling from directly translated sources of ancient medical texts. He is quick to point out any possible flaws in the translation, whether it is a lack of comprehension of the ancient society’s worldview, or simply some missing manuscripts. Whatever the case may be, Ferngren always offers the reader an intelligent explanation, for both its cause and its correction.

After addressing the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and then the Hebrews and their unique monotheistic religion, Ferngren moves on to the deeply influential cultures of Antiquity—the Greeks and Romans. He approaches these topics with the same prudence as the previous chapters, outlining their secular and religious customs, their medicinal knowledge, and the intersection of religion and medicine in their unique worldviews. He designates separate chapters for each of these great civilizations, encompassing the wide breadth of their contribution to the modern world.

In establishing the foundational ancient cultures for Western civilization, Ferngren then tackles the emerging Christianity that began to spread through much of Europe. Christianity, with its deeply philanthropic beliefs, was the first to foster the budding concepts of hospitals, which at that time served mainly as poorhouses, aiding those who could not afford a physician.

The following chapters touch on subjects from the growth of hospitals in the Middle Ages, to the unique approach of Islam to medicine and religion, and to the dissenting Christian groups that spurred the Reformation, such as Lutheranism and Calvinism, born out of the Church’s corruption in the Early Modern period. Finally he brings all that history has to offer into the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries and our present day, integrating the changing views of religion and medicine of the past into our modern thinking.

With every past civilization, Ferngren emphasizes struggles in balancing medicine and religion as well as coping mechanisms for illness, noting that issues were not so different from those we face today. The reasons for suffering still manage to perplex us, and the means for relieving illness still sometimes fail us. As medicine has grown from simple folk remedies, often imbued with magical qualities, to the elaborate surgeries and drugs of today, religion too has grown. It weaves in and out of medical practice sometimes as an integral piece of healing, and sometimes as nothing more than a consoling component. While medicine today focuses on healing and prolonging life, often no matter what the cost, in the past it was primarily used to offer comfort, with healing being a supplementary blessing. This notion of comfort is what Ferngren hopes we can implement into our medical practices today, so that we can all—doctor, pastor, nurse, clergy, and patient—practice more faithful compassion in regard to the treatment of suffering.


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