Sickness, Healing, and the Church of God
By David Neidert with Dr. Michael Stephens
COVID-19 and the 1918 Influenza have drawn many parallels. Various historians have written about these comparisons and lessons learned for the general public. CHOGnews offered “Still in God’s Grip: The Church of God and the 1918 Influenza” for connecting the movement’s history with a pandemic. As noted in that article about the Gospel Trumpet Company and its newspaper, “A highlight streaming from all these editions were testimonies of healing. Readers shared their personal experiences of being “healed from influenza” that had taken them to health’s darkest state.” Church of God adherents praised God for his work in their lives and healing from the influenza devasting the 1918 world.
Dr. Michael Stephens, a leading academic researcher on healing in the Church of God, was invited to share his thoughts on the movement’s history and where it is today. A conversation with Stephens offers hope in a world looking for peace from this disease.
David: Michael, what does the Church of God historically believe about healing?
Michael: “The Church of God has historically believed that health and healing are intertwined with holy living and salvation. Salvation leads to outward visible changes in a person’s life. Exactly what that means has changed over the years, but there has always been the belief that God answers prayers and wills health and holiness for the saints.
From the very beginning of the movement, there was an emphasis on following God’s plans for life: getting exercise, avoiding the poisons of alcohol and tobacco, eating in moderation (some vegetarianism). Leaving the world behind included behavioral changes, and those were associated with good health. Growing in health was related to the idea of growing in sanctification. There was also the idea of instantaneous healing that was parallel to instantaneous sanctification. This happened typically in two ways. Either it happened through claiming the promise in James 5:14–15, where healing comes when the elders gather and pray, or it came through a person who had the gift of healing. In all three of these, the Church saw that God was doing a new thing and the promises of the New Testament for holiness and healing were coming true as proof that the Evening Light was dawning at that moment.”
David: How might national leaders like E. E. Byrum or other reformation pastors have responded or given guidance to the wider church in 1918?
Stephens: “Reformation leaders responded by emphasizing prayer. There are many, many reports in the Gospel Trumpet newspaper about camp meetings and revival meetings that had to be cancelled because of the influenza. As far as I can find, everyone was obeying laws about not gathering in public. There are no complaints in the Trumpet newspaper suggesting that the attempts to stop the spread of the virus were wrong or an overreach by the government. There are plenty of testimonies from people who report that they got well from praying and note that those who called the doctor had not fared as well.
For example, in the February 6, 1919, Trumpet edition, there are two testimonies about healing from the influenza. One reported relying on prayer and one on E. E. Byrum’s healing ministry. In the first, T. M. Odom of St. Augustine, Florida, reports that the Lord was their only family physician ever since his salvation. In October his children got the sickness. In every other home—he reports—the doctor was called, but the Odoms “called on Jesus.” His children all became well sooner than any who called a physician. The second reports the testimony of O. E. Shelby of Linton, Indiana. It states his wife and three children had the flu, so they called E. E. Byrum to come. Byrum laid hands on the wife and the Lord gave evidence that she was healed. He also anointed the children. They got worse for a week but then were healed.”
David: What might be ways for people to think about healing in this time guided by our heritage? How has the Church of God possibly changed over the last 100 years?
Stephens: “The emphasis on health and healing has changed over the years within the reformation movement. For a while, divine healing was so important that a lack of healing or the use of medicine was evidence of a lack of faith. Now most people believe that prayer and medical means support one another, and that it is too narrow an understanding of healing to say that God can only answer a prayer for healing in one way.
I think it is important to note that the Church of God understanding of health and healing has grown and adapted over the years. It is also important to note that the seeds of the current position were in the church from the very beginning, when the Trumpet newspaper ran articles about healthy living and exercise. Finally, one of the great movement’s teachings is that all of us in the church are connected and are called to relieve one another’s suffering and struggling, spiritual and physical.”
Week after week, CHOGnews reports how congregations are “relieving one another’s suffering and struggling, spiritual and physical.” Some things may have changed, but being the Way of Jesus has not lapsed in these one-hundred years.
Michael S. Stephens received his Ph.D. in American Religious History from Vanderbilt University. His dissertation is “Who Healeth All Thy Diseases: Health, Healing, and Holiness in the Church of God Reformation Movement.” He is the editor of the CEB Study Bible (Common English Bible, 2013) and The Wesley One Volume Commentary (Abingdon, 2020). Stephens works in Christian publishing and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and two children.
David Neidert, born and raised in the Church of God, serves as a contributing writer and editor for Church of God Ministries. He worked at Anderson University for thirty-eight years and served the Historical Society of the Church of God as editor for one year. His published works include curriculum, numerous articles, and two books.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
*Feature (top) photo: Enoch (E. E.) Byrum with testimonies to divine healing (file photo).