The Use of Holy Scriptures in Faith-Healing and Superstitions by J. Lewis Andre, F.S.A. 1896
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Among many nations, and from the earliest times, the books containing the principles of the religious creeds of the people have been made the instruments of supposed supernatural power, either by the oral employment of them, or by their use as amulets or written talismans. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, have, each of them, been more or less addicted to the belief that their sacred books were endowed with a power not naturally due to them, and therefore their credence in this respect has been a superstitious one.
From a very short period after the introduction of Christianity, the books, or rolls containing the four Gospels began to be treated with especial reverence, as was only natural from the fact of our Lord being “the Word” Himself; and, as time wore on, this veneration developed into a belief that these books, and, in a lesser way, the other sacred Scriptures, were endowed with supernatural powers. This perverted reverence took several forms, the principal one being a conviction that the Bible could be used in curing diseases, in foretelling the future, and in detecting witchcraft and sorcery. Besides these miraculous powers, it came to be credited that the wearing of the Gospels would act as a preservative against disease and dangers.
The talismanic use of the Christian Scriptures probably arose from the practice of the Apostles and early missionaries bearing these writings constantly with them, and in some cases causing these beloved objects to be interred in their graves, as was the case with St. Barnabas, on whose body, at its discovery in 485, there was found a copy of the Gospel of St. Matthew, written on wooden tablets. As amulets sacred books have been used from the remotest ages in the East, and hence the custom was the more readily adopted by the Christians. It was severely denounced by many early bishops and councils, and was alluded to as dangerous by the English Royal Commissioners in 1547. Several methods of using the Bible in a talismanic manner will be found in the Reliquary, vols. vii. and viii., new series; article “Talismans.”
In early and mediaeval Christendom, the portions of the Bible chiefly used for supernatural purposes were the Psalter of the Old Testament, and the Gospels of the New. Great prominence has always been given to the book of Psalms in Christian ritual, and I need hardly notice one instance of this—the saying or singing the whole of it once a month, as directed in the Book of Common Prayer. The entire Psalter was recited daily at Lincoln Cathedral for the living and the dead, and each prebendary is still reminded at his installation of his obligation to recite his allotted portion “daily if nothing hinders.” In earlier times, Roger of Wendover tells us that St. Swithun ordered fifty psalms to be sung every Wednesday by the monks and nuns of his diocese, for the King and his nobles. F. Thiers, in his exhaustive work on Superstitions qui regardent tous les Sacraments, gives many instances of the employment of the Psalter for superstitious purposes.
Copies of the Ten Commandments are still worn as talismans by some persons for bringing good luck; but besides these and the Psalter, I only know of one passage in the Old Testament used superstitiously. It is a charm against bleeding, from Ezekiel xvi. 6, and runs as follows: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” (Folk Lore, vol. ii.,p. 294.)
As before noticed, the four Gospels have always stood out prominently before the rest of the books of the New Testament. It has been so in ritual and also in superstition. At the present day oaths are taken on the book of the Gospels—-not on the whole Testament-—and, till recently, so great was the reverence for this volume, that the miners in the Forest of Dean took their oaths in the Forest Court whilst touching the Gospels with a stick of holly kept for the purpose, lest the miners’ hands should soil the sacred volume.
But although the book of the four evangelists inspired great veneration, the portion written by St. John the Divine was the Gospel which, above all the others, was reverenced and used in ritual, faith-healing, and superstition; and from an early date the first chapter of St. John assumed a prominence accorded to no other part of sacred writ. Le Brun notices that, according to a large number of ancient sacramentaries and rituals, the ceremonies of baptism finished by its recitation; and Thiers says: “The same thing is practised with respect to women who present themselves to be churched, according to several French rituals.” For ages it has formed part of the priest's thanksgiving after Mass, and in the Sarum Missal the celebrant is directed to say it whilst leaving the altar. According to the same ritual, it is to be said at the blessing of bread on Sundays, and Dean Stanley, in his [Memorials of Westminster (p. 410, n.), relates that at Christ Church, Oxford, when the dean and chapter dine, a single verse is recited in Greek from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is cut short by the Dean saying, “Tu autem.” Seeing thus the prominence given to St. John’s Gospel, and more especially to the first chapter of it, we are not surprised to find that it is extensively employed in faith-healing and superstition. The dying words of our Lord, “It is finished,” from chap. xix. 30, in the same Gospel were extensively used in charms. The Lord‘s Prayer, from St. Matthew and St. Luke, and the last part of the final chapter of St. Mark, verses 14 to 20, conclude the list of the passages in the New Testament most frequently availed of for superstitious purposes, and it now remains to describe the manner in which the above were used in faith-healing, bibliomancy, and witchcraft.
As regards faith-healing, it appears that in the days of St. Augustine there was a practice of placing the Gospel of St. John on the heads of diseased persons for the purpose of inducing supernatural cures. The saint mentions the custom with a kind of qualified approbation, stating that it was better to do this than have recourse to the heathen superstition of using ligatures or talismans.
From what St. Augustine says, the book appears to have been placed on the head of the sick individual as he lay in bed. Le Brun, noticing this ceremony, adds that Pope Paul V., who reigned from 1605 to 1621, orders in his ritual that the clergy when visiting the sick should place the hand on their heads whilst reciting the Gospel of St. John. In the Middle Ages a variation in this custom took place, the invalid repairing to a church, where the priest placed his stole on the sick man‘s head, who knelt before the cleric, whilst he read passages from the evangelists. Thiers states that in no ancient missal, ritual, or ceremonial, had he seen any description of the manner in which this ceremony was to be performed.
John of Gaddesden, in his work written in the thirteenth century, and entitled The Medical Rose, recommends a person suffering from epilepsy to fast and hear Mass; then on Sunday, he continues, let a good and religious priest read over the head of the patient in the church the Gospel from St. Matthew, xvii. 21-—“This kind goeth not forth but by prayer and fasting.” After this let the same priest write this Gospel out devoutly, and let the patient wear it about his neck, and he shall be cured.
At the commencement of the Books of Hours, so commonly in use by the laity in the Middle Ages, immediately after the calendar there are generally, if not always, found four passages from the Gospels—-namely St. John i. to the end of verse 15; then St. Luke i. to verse 38, ending “be it unto me according to Thy word”; next follows St. Matthew ii. to verse 12 inclusive; and finally St. Mark xvi. 14 to the end. As far as I am aware, this sequence never varies, neither do the passages above cited. The Gospels, it will be perceived, do not follow the usual order of our Bibles, but commence with the universal favourite—-the first chapter of St. John—-and the last is the conclusion of St. Mark’s Gospel with its promises of miraculous gifts, including that of healing the sick through the laying on of hands. Occasionally an antiphon and prayer to St. Roch, invoking his protection against the plague, is introduced almost immediately after these Gospels, and I think there can be little doubt that these were the portions of Scripture generally read over the heads of the sick.
If the number of cautions against superstition given by F. Thiers is any guide, the custom of thus reciting parts of the Gospels was extensively used in France in the seventeenth century. For this purpose the Gospels read on various saints’ days appear to have been selected by some persons, such as those appointed for the feasts of SS. Giles, Leonard, or Panteleon; and he mentions cases in which dogs were led to church to be cured of sickness, and the owners, whilst holding the animals, had the Gospels read over their own heads.
Traces of the custom above described may still be found recorded, for a writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1867, says: “I have, moreover, been assured by respectable persons that there was formerly a man in Hadleigh (Suffolk) who charmed away the ague by pronouncing, or rather muttering, over each child a verse of Holy Scripture, taken, they believed, from the Gospel of St. John.” Again, at St. Tegla’s well, Llandegla, Wales, sick persons in the evening recited the Lord’s Prayer, and then lay down under the Communion-table with the Bible beneath their heads, and covered with a cloth, so remaining till daybreak, expecting a cure. In Notes and Queries, vol. x., p. 321, it is mentioned that in 1864 a gipsy in Devonshire, to cure a consumptive patient, mumbled out a few disjointed texts of Scripture, and promised that the child would be cured the following Friday.
In the reign of Charles 2., at the touching for the king’s evil, the Gospel from St. Mark, xvii. 14 to 20, was read, and after the healing ceremony the Gospel of St. John, i. to verse 15, was recited, whilst the coin given to each patient bore the words of verse 9, “That was the true light,” etc. These coins were not considered mere mementos of the occasion, but true amulets. In Anne’s reign the last-mentioned Gospel was omitted.
The “triumphal title” of our Lord, Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum, or its initials, I.N.R.I., formed part of a charm used in child-birth noticed by Brand in his Popular Antiquities, and also by Thiers, so that its use must have been widespread. It was a favourite talisman against thieves, and I have discovered remains of it on the lid of the remarkably fine church chest at Dersingham, Norfolk. St. Luke iv. 30, “But he passing,” etc., occurs frequently in charms, and is found in one for helping childbirth. Thiers says that chap. xiii. 23 of the same Gospel, “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth," formed part of a toothache remedy. A talisman from Psalm xxvii. 2, 3 against worms is very quaint, “When the wicked came upon me to eat up my flesh,” etc.
Amongst almost innumerable forms of divination employed by the ancients were the Sortes Homericae and the Sortes Virgilianae, which consisted in opening at random the pages of either of these poets, and accepting the first passage that presented itself as foretelling the future lot of the inquirer; and some of the early Christians considered that instead of the heathen poets, the Bible could, without superstition, be applied to the same purpose, and hence arose the form of divination called “Bibliomancy,” or “Sortes Sanctorum,” the “Lots of the Saints.” Forbidden by several councils, it was, nevertheless, much practised in nearly every age, and in both Eastern and Western Christendom. Strange to say, although denounced by the Church, it was used in the twelfth century as a means of discovering heresy; and Peter of Toulouse was condemned by its means. Among numerous Bishops who forbade the practice was Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in his Penitential sentenced those of his clergy who used the Sortes Sanctorum to a three-years’ penance, whilst laymen so offending had to submit to a penance of a year and a half. Chaucer also makes his “Poor Parson” inveigh against divination, though he does not mention this form of it. Different as were the opinions of the two men, both St. Francis of Assisi and Archbishop Edwin Sandys are reported to have resorted to it.
In early times there appears to have been a custom of electing bishops by lot, after which the elected prelate, taking the book of the sacred Scriptures, opened it to divine whether his future career would be prosperous or otherwise, and, as might be expected, in some cases bishops of unexceptional holiness and orthodoxy read out most unpropitious sentences, notwithstanding which the practice obtained in France till 1744 in the case of newly-elected canons of the cathedral chapters at Boulogne, Ypres, and St. Omer.
Brand describes how bibliomancy was practised when he composed his well-known work. “It,” he says, “is usually set about with some little solemnity in the morning before breakfast, as the ceremony must be performed fasting. The Bible is laid on the table unopened, and the parties who wish to consult it are then to open it in succession. They are not at liberty to choose any part of the Book, but must open it at random. Wherever it may happen to be, the inquirer is to place his finger on any chapter mentioned in the two open pages." It was thus used to prognosticate good or evil fortune during the ensuing year. The Suffolk Garland says that in that county “persons will take the Bible to bed with them on New Year’s Eve, and as soon as they are awake after twelve o’clock they open it at random in the dark, mark a verse with their thumb, or stick a pin through a verse, turn down a corner of a page, and replace the Book under the pillow. That verse is supposed to be a prophecy of destiny (good or had) during the ensuing year.”
This form of divination is still common in the East. Sometimes the Koran is employed, and occasionally the Persian poet Hafiz is consulted; and it is said that the late usurper in Persia, Nadir Shah, was twice led to besiege cities by referring to this author‘s works. In England at the present day the Bible and a key are associated together as instruments of divination, and I know of a Berkshire woman who now and then takes her Bible and ties it up with the street-door key tightly bound up in it, then, whilst she holds the key by its bow on the tip of a finger, a person present repeats the letters of the alphabet, and the key is expected to move the Bible when the letter reached is the initial of her lover’s name, if he is still true to her. Forby, in his Vocabulary of East Anglia, gives two examples of this species of divination as being used in Suffolk to ascertain by a kind of ordeal if a person suspected of theft is guilty or not. In Rutland the key is placed in the Bible over the Song of Songs viii. 7, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it," etc.; this is also to be recited by the woman holding the key. “If the Bible turns, the one who holds it will marry; if it continues stationary, she will remain single.” (See Folk-Lore of Rutlandshire and Leicestershire, p. 58.)
Finally, there was a kind of bibliomancy, which consisted in prognosticating good or evil from chance passages heard in a place of worship, and this found much favour amongst Jews and Christians. An instance is reported in the history of Clovis 1., King of France, who in 507 marched to Tours, where he sent messengers to the shrine there of St. Martin, enjoining them “to remark," says Gibbon, “the words of the psalm which should happen to be chanted at the precise moment when they entered the church. The words most fortunately expressed the valour and the victory of the champion of heaven, and the application was easily transferred to the new Joshua, the new Gideon, who went forth to battle against the enemies of the Lord.” (Decline and Fall, etc., vol. iii., p.491)
In witchcraft and sorcery the sacred Scriptures have been made to play a prominent part. Witches were supposed to be quite unable to read or recite them without stumbling over the words, and the persons they bewitched were in the same plight. The Lord’s Prayer was a frequent test, and in 1594 a woman accused of bewitching the Earl of Derby, “never could repeat that petition, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’——no, not altho’ it was repeated unto her." So says the report on the case.
A suspected witch, who was tried before Judge Arden in 1657, is said to have gone over this prayer readily till she came to the petition “Lead us not into temptation,” when she said “And lead us into temptation,” or “Lead us not into no temptation.” She was therefore condemned and executed. See Gentleman’s Magazine Library, vol. Superstitions, p. 240. Mr. Nasmyth, in his Autobiography, p. 13, mentions the burning of a witch through her keeping four black cats and reading her Bible through two pairs of spectacles. Finally, in 1712, Thoresby saw a reputed witch who could not repeat the Lord’s Prayer, and therefore he considered her “a fit instrument for Satan.” The ability to read this prayer was one of the tests employed by the arch witch-finder Hopkins.
Several instances are recorded of bewitched or possessed persons being unable to read sacred writings or recite them; neither could they pronounce sacred names. Thus, in 1664, some bewitched children brought before Sir Matthew Hale, could read the New Testament until they came to the name of Lord or Jesus, when they would fall into their fits. Later, in New England, a girl acting, as was supposed, under the influence of the devil, could read the Scripture passages contained in the Prayer Book, but went into fits if she attempted to read the same Scriptures from the Bible.
Thiers records a case in which the devil was unable to say the psalm Miserere when cited to do so; but although Lucifer and his witches and sorcerers could not read Scripture properly, they produced dire effects by reciting it backwards, and Fabyan records a terrible instance of the consequences of this reversing of holy writ. After the martyrdom of St. Kenelm, he tells us, his sister, Quendreda, when his body was carried past her, leant out of the window, and, he continues, “I note by what sorcery she ment, there she rad the Psalme of ye Sauter begynnyng Deus Laudem (109), backwarde: but whatso hir entent was she there incontynently fell blynde." (Chronicles, p. 147.)
A book on magic, published in 1727 by J. Roberts, informs us that the devil can be raised by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Divination by the Bible and key, as before described, was also considered effectual in detecting the innocence or guilt of a supposed witch, and an instance of its proposed application in a case occurring in the present century is recorded in Folk-Lore, vol. vi., p. 118.
But the great test in which the Bible was employed in the detection of witchcraft consisted in weighing the sacred volume against the presumed witch. Here, if the suspected party were the heavier, she was released, in some cases without further ordeal, but if lighter than the Bible, condemnation followed. It was one of the five tests used by the “expert” Hopkins. The volume thus employed was usually the Bible from the parish church, and as most of the accused persons would outweigh any ordinary copy of the Scriptures, this practice by itself was seldom considered conclusive, and the ordeal by swimming was resorted to, as at Burlington, Pennsylvania, in 1735, when some men and women suspected of witchcraft triumphed over both tests. At Wingrave, Bucks, in 1759, one Susannah Hannocks was accused of bewitching a woman’s spinning-wheel, so that it would not go round, on which the husband of the accused woman insisted upon her being tried by the church Bible, and that the accuser should be present: she was conducted by her husband to the ordeal attended by a great concourse of people, who flocked to the parish church to see the ceremony, where she was stripped of her cloths (clothes) to her shift and under-petticoat, and weighed against the Bible," when “she outweighed it, and was honourany acquitted of the charge." (London Chronicle, February 27, 1759.) The reason for denuding this poor creature was probably a survival of the theory that written talismans or amulets could be concealed in the dress of a criminal submitted to any ordeal, an example of which is recorded in a duel fought in 1355 between the champions of the Earl of Salisbury and the Bishop of Salisbury, when it was found that the Bishop’s champion had several sheets of prayers and incantations sewn in his clothes.
Moreover, persons about to be put to “the question" are recommended by Dambaudere, an authority on the subject, not only to be kept fasting for some hours before being subjected to it, but to have their hair completely shaven off, for fear that they might carry on them some talisman fit to render them impervious to bodily pain.
Perhaps the last instance of the weighing test having been proposed to detect a witch occurred in 1792, at Bury St. Edmund's, but the clergyman very wisely refused to lend the church Bible for the purpose.
Superstitions nearly as gross as those recorded here are still to be met with; and some of the fortune-telling and dream-books published in London within the last few years contain charms and forms or talismans quite as ridiculous as any in use during past ages.
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