Pagan Practice or Christian Tradition? Roots of Herbal Medicine

herbal medicine Jun 14, 2024
Pagan Practice or Christian Tradition? Roots of Herbal Medicine

Today, herbal medicine is frequently associated with witchcraft and the New Age movement. Yet, what were its origins in antiquity? Could herbal medicine actually be rooted in Christian tradition? Judson Carroll explores in this excerpt from Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice.

"Flowering Monastery Garden" by Leopold Munsch (1826-1888)

Is Herbal Medicine Christian? The simple answer is, yes.

Anyone of any religion, or none at all, can use herbs medicinally. If you believe in a loving God who created the earth and everything on it including humans, there is certainly no reason why anyone of any religion should be prohibited from using herbs or find using those herbs evil.

I even know Christian Scientists, who hold as a matter of their doctrine that they should not go to doctors or use modern medicine, who use herbs for the very reason that God created them for our good.

I know of no mainstream Christian denomination that has ever made a blanket prohibition against herbal medicine. Yet, one frequently hears people say, "The Church forbade the use of herbal medicine." They usually mean either the Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran Church, but they rarely specify. It is just a broad, general statement - no edict is cited, or date given for such a proclamation.

The reason for that is that none exists. It is a myth repeated so often that people believe it. Its origins are scurrilous and deliberate lies propagated by people who hate Christianity and especially the Catholic Church.

There have been specific edicts at certain times prohibiting witchcraft, necromancy, alchemy and other occult practices, but never has there been a prohibition against herbal medicine. Herbs were the only medicine for many centuries and no doctor would have been able to practice medicine in a Christian country had there been such a rule. Even the medical dispensatories and pharmacy manuals up to the early 1900s contained almost exclusively, plant-based medicine.

However, this mythology is what is most often taught in herbal schools and even college classes. This very recent phenomenon has poisoned many minds, creating bigotry against Christianity and what is called the "patriarchy".

The reason is that many herbalists of the Baby Boomer generation embraced herbalism as a revolt against modern western culture. This included a feminist ideology and a rebellion against the structures of society in the belief that a so called "patriarchy" and Christianity had subjugated women and minorities. These herbalists rejected history, embracing instead the occult and neo-pagan movements that began in Victorian England and flowered in America at about the time traditional herbal medicine was being displaced by modern "allopathic" medicine through rule of law - not a church edict or "toxic masculinity". In fact, many of the champions of those laws were determined to stamp out religion, "superstition" and tradition - those were the so called Progressive (socialist) heroes of Leftist ideology.

The heroic herbalist and priest: Johannes Künzle (1857-1945)

Traditional, usually Christian men and women in remote areas such as the Appalachians continued to practice herbal medicine. In Germany, where the Progressives were particularly powerful during the rise of the National Socialist Worker's Party, the brave Catholic priest, Fr. Künzle sued and won in court to keep herbal medicine legal and practiced by both mothers and fathers in their own homes.

Such facts of history are inconvenient to those who believe in witches, fairies and New Age mythology.

History is a mixed bag. The Jesuits who were thankful to learn of the use of Chinchona bark against malaria from the natives were under no obligation to approve of their human sacrifice and cannibalism. Nor should the natives have been forced to swear allegiance to Spain or to abandon the non-murderous aspects of their culture.

No culture or ethnicity should have condoned or practiced slavery, but all did.... every race and people on earth practiced slavery and subjugated others in many ways. There have been both good and bad women and men, good and bad Christians and pagans, good and bad political ideologies. Herbal medicine is neutral and need not be politicized - the plants are here for the good of all.

But many in the Baby Boomer generation may be likened to one who inherits a grand home that took generations to build... and then burns it down one room at a time, denying its worth, feeling very wise in how they warmed themselves through the winter... leaving nothing of value for future generations.

In truth, not only is Herbal Medicine compatible with Christianity, but it was the Christian monks, nuns and priests of the Catholic Church who preserved the herbal knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome.

St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547)

Benedict of Nursia, founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino in 529 AD promoted the first official monastic medical gardens. These would become the Physic Gardens that supplied the official herbs for the apothecaries. We now recognize those herbs by their Latin names ending in "officinalis". Saint Benedict's rules for the religious communities under his authority emphasized care for the sick as an essential element of Christian charity, “Before all things, and above all things, special care must be taken of the sick.”

The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, ordered the religious orders to plant physic gardens and to further the study of herbal medicine so that free medical care could be available to all. Charlemagne, born in 742 AD, was king of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 AD to his death in 814 AD.

The tutor of Charlemagne's' family was a brilliant monk, who would become the Abbot, Walafrid Strabo. Abbot Strabo authored the first herbal book written after the fall of the Roman Empire. His delightful and clever book, written entirely in verse explains how to grow a variety of herbs and use them medicinally.

There are at least two Patron Saints of Herbal Medicine:

Saint Fiacre of Breuil (600-670)

The Irish Saint Fiacre who was born in 600 A.D. was a famous herbalist and healer.

St. Gertrude, born in 626 A.D., was a Benedictine abbess at a monastery in Nivelles, Belgium.

By far though, the saint most associated with Herbal Medicine is Saint Hildegard von Bingen born in 1098, in Germany.

Saint Hildegard was a visionary who received knowledge of herbs and healing from angels and "The voice of the Living Light." She authored numerous works on theology, music, a play, a unique language she seems to have invented and two books on herbal medicine and healing. She is a Doctor of The Church and was a very popular figure in her time, traveling extensively to speak in churches and receiving dignitaries seeking her counsel from throughout Europe. Quite contrary to the belief that the Church forbade Herbal Medicine, she was a favorite of popes and bishops in the 1100s and her works were widely promoted by the Catholic Church.

Even the "father of toxicology", to whom many anti-Catholic writers would point as a heretic who was "persecuted" by the Church, the brilliant physician known as Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), not only had roots in Catholic Monastic Medicine, but reconciled with the Church, as evidenced by his burial in a Catholic cemetery (proving he was in communion with the Church) and his statements that he would not "burn with Luther."

"Father of Toxicology" Paracelsus was taught by his father, the physician at Einsiedeln Benedictine Abbey

The father of this great physician, chemist and alchemist who would be known as Paracelsus, was a physician at one such Catholic monastery. Dr. Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim was the physician at Einsiedeln, a church and town famous during its era as a place where religious pilgrims found both spiritual and physical healing. It was a place of miracles and natural beauty. The young Theophrastus was his father’s constant companion and protegee, his mother having died soon after his birth. The child was instructed in identifying and using all the medicinal herbs of the gardens and the woods long before studying chemistry and medicine in the universities and taking the name Paracelsus. His adult life was one of great controversy, but as he wandered far and wide seeking knowledge and acting as a physician, his reputation for being able to cure even the most difficult diseases was legendary, and very likely due to his foundation in herbal medicine.

The British herbalists of the 1500s, Parkinson and Gerard, made frequent mention in their works of their strong faith in God and adherence to Church doctrine, while strongly denouncing witchcraft and superstition. Even Nicholas Culpepper, writing in the 1600s, who was an astrologer and was himself accused of sorcery by the medical establishment of the time... although a virulently anti-Catholic Anglican, was certainly a practicing Christian as evidenced by such passages:

"Wild clary is most blasphemously called Christ's eye, because it cures diseases of the eyes. I could wish from my soul that blasphemy, ignorance, and tyranny were ceased among physicians, that they might be happy and I joyful."

Even the thoroughly reprehensible American Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, who was fond of accusing innocent Catholic women of witchcraft and encouraging their execution, was a plant breeder with a strong interest in medicine - not only the plant-based medicine of the time, but the new science of inoculation.

I continue to search, in vain, for this banning of Herbal Medicine by the Church. The only relevant edicts I can find were prohibitions of priests practicing medicine at various times, the concern being that the priest should minister to the soul primarily. The schools administered by the Church then taught medicine to those who would become professional doctors, instead of priests who would hold dual roles.

This continued to be a tension well into the 1900s, as even Father Künzle was eventually told that he had to choose either the priesthood or medicine. That did not exclude monks from teaching and often practicing medicine, nor nuns from nursing... and very often during those centuries, priests would also practice medicine with Vatican approval. Indeed, the entire history of medicine in England has its foundation in those very Benedictine monasteries and abbeys, which is why the English still often refer to nurses as, "sister" even though they have no religious affiliation. Now, priests are encouraged to earn degrees in psychology... for better or worse.

The Nursing Nuns of Saint-Joseph de Montréal

Anyone who researches the subject will have to acknowledge that as nearly all medicine was plant based prior to 1920, to ban herbal medicine would have been to ban almost all medicine. Yet, people who know better continue to repeat such obvious lies with gleeful invective.

Even Stephen Harrod Buhner, a man who should certainly know better, includes in two of his otherwise excellent herbal books a statement that in 1200 people were instructed by religious officials not to use "pagan herbs" but to rely exclusively on prayer. How could that be, when every Catholic Bible includes the Book of Sirach (as should all Bibles... around 1500, people began cutting out books that disagreed with their new ideas).

Sirach 38, 1-15 states:

1. Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him;

2 for healing comes from the Most High, and he will receive a gift from the king.

3 The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired.

4 The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.

5 Was not water made sweet with a tree in order that his power might be known?

6 And he gave skill to men that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.

7 By them he heals and takes away pain;

8 the pharmacist makes of them a compound. His works will never be finished; and from him health] is upon the face of the earth.

9 My son, when you are sick do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.

10 Give up your faults and direct your hands aright, and cleanse your heart from all sin.

11 Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and a memorial portion of fine flour, and pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford.

12 And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; let him not leave you, for there is need of him.

13 There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians,

14 for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

15 He who sins before his Maker, may he fall into the care of a physician.

A Cloister in Palermo with a Franciscan Monk

The simple truth is that yes, Herbal Medicine is very Christian - it is using the herbs God gave us with the knowledge and wisdom He created and encourages us to learn to heal people.

There is a concept in propaganda called "The Big Lie". The Big Lie is a lie told so boldly and with such confidence that no one could doubt the liar to be so bold as to tell it. Historically, such techniques have been used to convince people that the reality of great massacres and genocides should be questioned and denied, even in face of evidence that one can see with his own eyes. It is a lie told so often that people begin to believe it... even the person being lied about.

A Christian should look with skepticism and be wary of anything that hints of New Age spirituality or witchcraft. But, the truth is that the vast majority of herbal books have been written by orthodox and devout Christians; and the history of Herbal Medicine should be proudly Christian. By believing the big lie, we are allowing people who hate us to take our history and legacy from us.

As Christians, it is our duty to oppose lies, as Satan is the "Father of Lies". We should not only study and practice Herbal Medicine, but we should do so with boldness, taking back what is both right and rightfully ours.

I will close with the following quote from Saint Hildegard von Bingen:

“Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, think. What delight God gives to humankind with all these things. All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. For without we cannot survive. ... With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life sustaining.”

Judson Carroll is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack. Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at southernappalachianherbs at

I'm Mary Fernandez, a Catholic mom of five with a passion for history and ancient remedies. Here at Humble Housewives, I dive into the world of holy saints and healing plants. Want to stay in the loop about new blog posts?