One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
Religions, in almost every case, are concerned with healing the sick and the broken. Of course, healing is not the sole feature or function of religion, but for many people, restoration of wellness and wholeness is a central component of their religious experience. Religious healing comes in many forms, from miraculous supernatural intervention, to the manipulation of metaphysical energies, to the proper ordering of healthy human relationships and societies. Some religions rely on the ministrations of healing specialists such as shamans, parish nurses, or gifted miracle workers. Others focus on therapeutic modes of self-help, while yet others link healing with redemption from iniquity. In many cases, various kinds of religious healing overlap, all in service of that which is most efficacious in providing relief and recovery. The history of religions in the United States is likewise full of instances and varieties of religious healing. Americans of many creeds and diverse heritages have often sought healing within their religious traditions, and they have innovated new religious movements that focus primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Moreover, the attention to healing within American religions predates the rise of scientific biomedicine, evolves alongside of it, and endures through the present. Finally, recurrence to religious healing has often played a role in ethnic identity construction and maintenance in this largely immigrant nation. Given the scope and impact of healing on U.S. religious history, it is imperative to consider how the idea of healing has captivated and motivated religious actors. Of particular interest is the complex and sometimes violent process by which religious ideas and practices related to healing have been exchanged, modified, and even appropriated. Throughout the course of American history, religious healing—in its many expressions—has been characterized by ongoing competition, collaboration, overlap, and constant change. Ultimately, it bears little fruit to look for a common thread that might run among all the various traditions and formulations of American religious healing. Rather, it is more rewarding to consider carefully the interactions and evolutions of healing in the ever-changing American religious scene.