Exorcisms: The Centuries-Long History of Expelling Evil

Since its theatrical release in 1973, The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, served as a cultural touchpoint for an otherwise mysterious religious ritual. In reality, this is only part of the most recent chapter in the long history of spiritual practice that involves much more than a spinning head and green projectile vomit.

“Exorcism is a prayer or ritual intended to remove the influence of demonic and evil power from a person,” says Stephen Okey, theologian and assistant professor of philosophy, theology, and religion at Saint Leo University in Florida.

Many religious traditions believe that there are evil forces that can negatively influence a person’s life. But according to Okey, the term “exorcism” is most often associated with Christianity, especially Catholicism, in part because of the many explicit references to Jesus casting out spirits in the Gospels.

Below is a timeline highlighting episodes in the history of exorcism, beginning with its biblical roots.

AD 70: Jesus Casts Out Evil Spirits in the Gospel of Mark

Christ driving out the evil spirit, as depicted by Georg Penca (circa 1500-1550).

Christ driving out the evil spirit, as depicted by Georg Penca (circa 1500-1550).

The first four books of the Bible’s New Testament, known as the Gospels, tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet whose life and teachings became the basis of Christianity. The first mention of Jesus casting out evil spirits appears in the Gospel of Mark, which is believed to have been written around AD 70, about 40 years after his death.

“In the New Testament, Jesus’ exorcisms were evidence of his authority over the devil,” says Rob Haskell, ThM, New Testament theologian and former minister. “They showed he had spiritual power.” In addition to describing human exorcisms, the Bible also includes at least one reference to animals possessed by demons, he adds.

These biblical mentions serve as an introduction to the practice. “Since our understanding of exorcisms in the modern world comes from the Christian worldview, the New Testament sets the stage for everything that follows,” Haskell explains.

WATCH: The Unexplained: Exorcisms on HISTORY Vault

1526: Martin Luther adds exorcism to baptismal rites

Martin Luther, second from left, with fellow German reformers Melancthon, Pomeranus and Cruciger.

Martin Luther, second from left, with fellow German reformers Melancthon, Pomeranus and Cruciger.

Angry and disillusioned with the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church – marketed to believers as a way to hasten their way through repentance of their sins in purgatory – a German theologian named Martin Luther wrote a list of his complaints about religion, which he may or may not have nailed to the door of his college church in 1517. His act of defiance sparked the split in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation and, in 1521, had him excommunicated from the Catholic Church by the Pope himself.

Although Luther was not the only reformer of the time, he was the most prolific, taking full advantage of the printing press and the written word to spread his ideas about what Christianity should look like. This included the publication of his Order of Baptism in 1523, followed by a 1526 revision which added exorcism to Protestant baptismal rites. In this situation, the infant exorcism was done to help the baby cast off the devil, sin, and evil throughout his life, rather than to cast out a demonic presence.

Not all Protestant denominations embraced the practice of exorcism, but for a time during the Renaissance it was enough to make the question of how exorcisms were to take place a controversial topic, says Katherine Walker, Assistant English teacher specializing in history. of magic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

At that time, exorcism was well-trodden ground for Catholics, who had writings, teachings, and rituals to guide them. Protestant exorcisms, by contrast, were primarily conducted through prayer and fasting, and often involved entire communities, resulting in a public affair that could border on performance.

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“In early modern England we have many records of fantastical exorcisms carried out by clerics or sometimes by professional exorcists,” says Walker. “Some of these have been exposed as frauds.”

Along with these theatrical events, exorcisms became even more prominent when writers like William Shakespeare began to reference them in their work (in his case, “King Lear” and “Twelfth Night”).

But amid all this attention, skepticism has also arisen. “Protestants increasingly viewed the set of rituals surrounding exorcism with hostility,” says Walker. And although this change led to the extinction of exorcism among Protestants by the early 1600s, its presence in the literature of the time helped form its enduring cultural legacy.

Early 1900s: Evangelicals quickly take up exorcism

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Protestantism continued to spread through parts of Europe, eventually making its way to North America in the 17th century, via British settlers. Puritanism was the dominant Protestant denomination in America in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but changed during a series of revivals known as the “Great Awakenings” in the 1730s and 1740s, the 1790s, and the end of the 1850s to the beginning of the 20th century.

The Baptist and Methodist denominations grew significantly as a result of these revivals, especially in the newly settled western parts of the country, as well as in the south. Simultaneously, the 1800s also saw a rise in evangelicalism: an umbrella term applied to Protestant groups who believed in strict adherence to the Bible, to be “born again”, the need to convert others, and that the crucifixion of Jesus will lead to the salvation of mankind.

In the early 1900s, the Pentecostal movement emerged among American evangelicals. Pentecostalism focused on the Holy Spirit and included supernatural elements like glossolalia (better known as “speaking in tongues”), faith healing, miracles, and exorcism.

While exorcisms had continued in the Catholic Church throughout, they were not as prevalent in Protestant denominations throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But the high-energy worship services of Pentecostalism and the allure of the possibility of receiving supernatural gifts from the Holy Spirit caused the movement to attract new members and continue to grow throughout the first half of the 20th century. .

1960s-1970s: Charismatic Christians revive exorcism

President Dwight D. Eisenhower visits religious leader Billy Graham at the White House, 1957. (Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower visits religious leader Billy Graham at the White House, 1957. (Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

From the 1950s, evangelical Protestantism embarked on a period of rapid growth. Evangelicals like the Reverend Billy Graham took to the airwaves, reaching into the homes of Americans through radio and television appearances, and became even more influential when he served as spiritual advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The following decade, an increasing number of Protestants (mainly Presbyterians and Episcopalians) and some Catholics began to embrace Pentecostal-style worship and a renewed focus on the Holy Spirit, a movement known as Charismatic Christianity. . Like their Pentecostal counterparts, Charismatic Christians also performed exorcisms, sparking renewed interest in the ritual in the late 1960s and 1970s in the United States, as well as in Africa and Latin America.

It wasn’t long before exorcisms once again became entrenched in popular culture, as they had during the Renaissance. Novel by William Peter Blatty from 1971 The Exorcist– based on the true story of a 14-year-old boy who underwent Catholic exorcisms in Maryland and Missouri in 1949 – started the trend, reaching #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and stay there for 17 weeks.

The film version of Blatty’s book was released in 1973, at a time that Okey says was transitional for both film and Catholicism. “The Exorcist had a huge influence on the rise of the horror genre, and 1970s films in general often had a grittier or grittier side to them than films of earlier decades,” he explains. “At the same time, the Catholic Church was working on the first effects of Vatican II and its effects on the liturgy, relations with other religions and relations with the modern world.”

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