Friday, April 20, 2012

God Doesn't Have a Medical Degree

By all accounts, Austin Sprout (right) was special. "He's one of those students you love to have. Never a discipline problem, always on time, always gets his work done. You know, asks questions, always real polite. Just a great kid," said his math teacher Gary Jones said.

Until his parents killed him, of course.

The Oregon teenager died at home from a treatable illness because his parents, Brandi and Russel Bellew, decided prayer was a better option than medication.  The family has made that choice before: Austin’s father, Brian Sprout, Brandi Bellew's first husband, died in 2007 of sepsis in his leg.  He had a direct interview with God soon after refusing to have the injury properly treated.

Why would the family choose to ignore modern medicine? The family belongs to the General Assembly Church of the First Born, which practices faith healing.

It’s a small Pentacostal sect – not affiliated with the Mormons; that’s a group with a similar name -- with “a few dozen, independent, loosely affiliated congregations,” according to a website devoted to providing information about it.  Members believe they will be saved by adhering to biblical laws and following four basic rules: faith in Jesus; repentance from sin; baptism by immersion; and the laying on of hands.

Pentacostal religious services, like the one seen above, often feature emotional outbursts.

Faith healing, the view that God can heal anyone, is just one part of that.  That’s not particularly unusual.  Christina Scientists believe that the real world is spiritual, and therefore disease is an illusion caused by faulty beliefs.  As a website on the subject noted:  “Devout Christian Scientists do not use medications and usually eschew medical aid. They are opposed to vaccination, immunization, and quarantine for contagious diseases, although official church policy advises members to comply with state laws.”

Christian Science has its own famed newspaper and an estimated 50,000 members.  Although numbers are declining in recent years, it’s still much bigger than the General Assembly Church of the First Born. 

One of many such sects, General Assembly Church of the First Born wouldn’t seem likely to garner much publicity, but the members of the sect do get in the news occasionally. For example, in 2012, one leader, Terrill Dalton, was found guilty of “raping his daughter and allowing a friend to rape her, too,” according to published reports.

More commonly, however, children die.  For example, in 2010, an Oklahoma woman who was a member of the church was charged with child neglect because her 9-year-old son died when she opted for prayer instead of medical assistance.  Susan Grady (left) told police: "I was trying to live by faith and I felt like God would heal him.”

Online reports of such deaths go back to 1994.  That’s when an Oregon man who was a church member was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of his 7-year old son.

“If the parent's failure to be aware of a substantial risk that the child will die is a gross deviation from the standard of a reasonable person, and if as a result the child dies, the parent is guilty of the offense," the Oregon Court of Appeals court said when it got the case several years later.

It’s not as if pray isn’t a nice thing.  Or that prayer is reassuring.  It’s just not a cure.  It’s definitely not even adequate treatment.

That doesn’t mean people can’t be cured by non-medical means.  Such miracles happen.

For example, an Arizona native, Charles Burrows, had inoperable liver cancer that suddenly disappeared. "I won a lottery, and I don't understand why," he told reporters. "I would like someone to explain to me what the heck happened."

In Denmark, Ole Nielsen Schou found out that the cancer that had spread throughout his body had almost vanished after he took a daily “cocktail of 17 vitamins and supplements, including shark cartilage pills, and imagined the metastases were rats and he was chasing them with a club.”

There are several hundred attested cases of spontaneous remission in the medical records and probably many more not recorded. 

All of the patients prayed.  It probably helped reduce stress.

However, doctors believe more that that was involved.  They already knew that cancer – and many other diseases – can be overwhelmed by the body’s immune system outside the body.  However, something prevents that from happening inside the body – except in a small number of cases.

Maybe God is involved; maybe it’s natural.  Scientists hope to find out.  They can ask God for help.  Mostly, though, they plan to reply on testing and study, the old-fashion and more-effective way to find a solution.

Meanwhile, parents who decline to seek medical assistance can consider a question raised some 2500 years ago by the Prophet Jeremiah (as depicted, right): “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?”  (8:22)

In Austin’s case, there were doctors available.  His parents chose not to use them.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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