The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland

The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland

The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland

The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland


Chiropractic is by far the most common form of alternative medicine in the United States today, but its fascinating origins stretch back to the battles between science and religion in the nineteenth century. At the center of the story are chiropractic's colorful founders, D. D. Palmer and his son, B. J. Palmer, of Davenport, Iowa, where in 1897 they established the Palmer College of Chiropractic. Holly Folk shows how the Palmers' system depicted chiropractic as a conduit for both material and spiritualized versions of a "vital principle," reflecting popular contemporary therapies and nineteenth-century metaphysical beliefs, including the idea that the spine was home to occult forces.

The creation of chiropractic, and other Progressive-era versions of alternative medicine, happened at a time when the relationship between science and religion took on an urgent, increasingly competitive tinge. Many remarkable people, including the Palmers, undertook highly personal reinterpretations of their physical and spiritual worlds. In this context, Folk reframes alternative medicine and spirituality as a type of populist intellectual culture in which ideologies about the body comprise a highly appealing form of cultural resistance.


To force people to choose a doctor they do not want is to interfere with their
liberty and individual rights. When human liberty is restricted for any pretext whatever,
there is danger and trouble ahead. It brings the majesty of law into disrepute, demoralizes
the community in which unjust laws are enforced, and incites a rebellious spirit.

—D. D. Palmer

The intent of this book is to treat chiropractic as a case study to explore a persistent overlap of beliefs and practices found in many American subcultures. It is neither possible or desirable to adjudicate the scientific status of something as heterogeneous as alternative medicine; regular and alternative medicine are not scientific descriptors, but socially defined categories with differing criteria for authoritative knowledge but much other content in common. “Regular” and “alternative” capture cultural attitudes toward health beliefs and practices.

I hope to persuade readers of the importance of reconstructing the lineage for ideas often rendered “eternal” or “perennial” by participants in the Metaphysical movement—new religions that emerged in nineteenth-century America and Europe and shared a Neoplatonic idealist orientation. (In this text, the Metaphysical traditions are distinguished from the philosophical branch of metaphysics by their different capitalization.) Today, Holism is popular around the world, and wherever literacy, technology, and global culture have spread, Western types of alternative medicine appear to have growing appeal. Alternative medicine and spirituality have rich intellectual histories behind them, though the language applied to these movements has changed over time. Thus my goals are both to relate the chiropractic narrative and put it into historical context. I will document the progression of a set of ideas through many health systems. in this way, I hope to offer an interpretive framework for alternative medicine and spirituality.

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