The Religion of Chiropractic

Populist Healing from the American Heartland

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Holly Folk
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , May
     366 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are today some 60,000 chiropractors in North America, and the profession is accepted and regulated by law in most Western countries. The flourishing of chiropractic practices in the United States was greatly favored by the 1990 Supreme Court decision Wilk v. AMA, where the American Medical Association was told that it should stop its campaigns against chiropractic or face the consequences of the anti-trust Sherman Act. Since that decision, most chiropractors would maintain that their discipline is an accepted field of science, and emphatically deny that chiropractic is a religion.

Holly Folk’s remarkable book The Religion of Chiropractic proves that this issue is much more complicated. The phrase “Chiropractic Religion,” or the “religion of chiropractic,” coined by its founder, Daniel David Palmer (1845-1923), known to his followers as “D. D.” Palmer insisted that “the basis of Chiropractic” was “a new theology,” whose key element was “the identification of God with Life-Force” (169). He also recommended to chiropractors to “build a boat similar to Christian Science and hoist a religious flag,” and claimed to “have received chiropractic from the other world” by revelation (186). Folk underlines the dual context of these comments: first, during Palmer’s lifetime, chiropractors were often accused of illegally practicing medicine, and many went to jail. Opponents suggested that, by presenting chiropractic in religious terms and asking for “the right to practice our religion” (186), he was simply trying to escape laws allowing only medical doctors to practice medicine. Second, Palmer’s authority within chiropractic practitioners was challenged by a number of rivals, including his own son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer (1881-1961), in turn referred to as “B.J.,” who had a very complicated relation with his father, and in 1923, would even be accused by some of his father’s loyalists of having killed him. If chiropractic is a religion, Palmer argued, “we must have a religious head, one who is the founder, as did Christ … and others who have founded religions. I am the fountain head [of chiropractic]” (186).

But was this switch to religion purely opportunistic? Folk cautiously emphasizes that “it is very important not to overplay the religious dimensions of D. D.’s changing project” (172). At the core of Palmer’s “discovery” of chiropractic was a theory that illness is caused by “subluxations,”—misalignments of vertebrae that disrupt the nervous system. By “adjusting” the vertebrae, the chiropractor is able to cure most ailments. This theory does not seem particularly religious, but Folk shows that it also did not arise in a vacuum. Palmer cannot be understood without examining the decades of “metaphysical” healing before him, from animal magnetism to healers associated with Spiritualism, New Thought, and Christian Science. Palmer’s claims were grandiose from the very beginning, and included the promise that, while curing the illnesses of this life, chiropractic would one day also “lift the veil of superstition which has obstructed our vision of the great beyond” (168).

After Palmer’s death, his son tried, in turn, to assert his sole authority on the chiropractic movement, which experienced divisions into a number of rival associations that persist to this day. They oppose, in particular, a “straight” camp that asks practitioners to offer to their patients chiropractic alone, and a “mixer” that combines chiropractic with other forms of alternative healing.

Today, most chiropractors regard Palmer and his son as an embarrassment. Their private lives were far from exemplary, and Folk concludes that they “were both selfish, dishonest, and unnecessarily provocative in their dealings with people” (235).  Bartlett Palmer attracted controversy when he made considerable money by restricting certification by his faction to chiropractors who would rent an apparatus from him called “neurocalometer,” invented by one of his students and allegedly identifying subluxations by measuring difference in temperature among various sites of the body. The machine was denounced as “device quackery” (205), and led several prominent chiropractors to leave Bartlett Palmer’s Universal Chiropractic Association [UCA], until he backed off and resigned his post as secretary of UCA in 1925.

Bartlett Palmer had, in the meantime, rented enough neurocalometers to support a lavish lifestyle, which included collecting rare Indian artifacts illustrating the Kama Sutra and branded by his opponents as pornography. In fact, as Folk noted, such a collection is explained through both Palmer’s lifelong interest in esoteric proponents of sex magic such as Paschal Beverly Randolph and Hargrave Jennings. Both during and after the Palmer’s era, chiropractic maintains some connections with Western esotericism, including with its sexual magic wing. Both Israel Regardie, one-time secretary of Aleister Crowley, and prominent Rosicrucian leaders, including Reuben Swinburne Clymer and George Winslow Plummer, were graduates of chiropractic colleges.

Bartlett Palmer wrote, in 1949, that “chiropractic is not a religion in the ordinary, accepted, and usual understanding of that term,” and “cannot be made into a religion” (232). This statement reflected his critical attitude towards organized religion and should not, Folk insists, be constructed as a radical departure from his father’s ideas. Bartlett Palmer, in fact, also maintained that “certainly Chiropractic is all that any religion is” (186).

Today, Folk notes, the chiropractic tradition benefits from a wider alternative healing fashion, and even the industries’ historical opposition to mandatory vaccination of children resonates with the positions of radical social movements in several countries.

This leads to what may well prove to be the most controversial part of Folk’s study. The book’s title itself refers to “populism,” and the author notes that chiropractic is part of an American tradition, claiming for “the people” the right to decide, inter alia, what therapies they want to use. What leaves Folk “intrigued and surprised” is that previous scholars of chiropractic failed to notice its historical association with right-wing varieties of populism (264). In the 1920s chiropractic developed a long-lasting relationship “with [the] Ku Klux Klan” (219). Today, “chiropractors form a sizable contingent of the Tea Party, and also of the Sovereignty and Tax Protest movements” (263). How statistically relevant this connection is should be measured by a sociological investigation that would go beyond Folk’s historical study, and the category of populism remains controversial in both social and political science.

Folk’s book, however, is by no means hostile to chiropractic. It exhibits an impressive command of obscure archival sources, and tells a very complicated story in a passionate and often entertaining way. This brilliant and easily readable book may well become the standard for the treatment of the origins of chiropractic and its relationship with religion and spirituality for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and managing director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Holly Folk is associate professor of liberal studies at Western Washington University.


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