Sep 5, 2012

Exorcists in America

How many Christian exorcists are there in America?

A new study, which bills itself as "the first of its kind to empirically investigate the practice of Christian exorcism in North America," identified 316 exorcists in the U.S.

Of those, 170 filled out a questionnaire for the psychometrics study, 140 were willing to be interviewed, and 15, randomly chosen, were interviewed.

The study is really interesting, and as far as I know the first of its kind. The findings are difficult to evaluate, though, if one doesn't know if the subjects of the study are representative of the field of exorcists as a whole. And it's difficult to know if the 170 studied in the article published by the Journal of Christian Ministry are representative if one doesn't know how many there are total. How the question of representativeness is answered dramatically changes the claim this study can legitimately make for its findings. The stronger possible claim -- i.e., that this is "how Christian exorcism is practiced in America today" -- depends on this sample of 170 being representative. A weaker version -- e.g., this is how some Christian exorcists practice exorcism -- would still be really interesting, though obviously much more circumspect.

So how many exorcists are there? What do we know about the number?

There are at least 316. This seems like a fair start.

In the study, Kenneth D. Royal reports that he found these 316 through the method of "snowballing," which means identifying someone involved in exorcisms, and then asking them if they know anyone else similarly suited to the study, then asking those people who they know, and so on. This means that the exorcists Royal found are networked, possibly in two or three or four groupings. Whether this is only because of how he did the study or actually represents the way Christian exorcists in America are at the moment is hard to say. It would be good to know if he simply stopped at 316, taking that as a large enough sample, or if at that point people were only giving him names he already had, and there was some sense that this was more or less all the Christian exorcists in America. Even if it is the case he exhausted his networks, it could still be that there are other networks out there, which just don't happen to have connections to the groupings Royal discovered.

There is a bit of variety, though, in the denominations these exorcists belong to, which would lend support to the idea that Christian exorcists aren't isolated, but are generally known to other exorcists. The exorcists he spoke to apparently aren't connected only strictly to other exorcists in their respective denominations. Exorcism looks like a very ecumenical enterprise. Twenty different denominations were represented in the study, including some I wouldn't have expected, such as Mennonite and Lutheran.

That denominational variety gives us an angle on the question of the total number, too.

Royal found four Catholic exorcists, for example. They account for 2.3 percent of his 170 respondents. The Catholic Church in the U.S., however, has been reported to have between 30 and 40 official exorcist-priests in operation right now. It seems unlikely, if Royal found four of 30, that he found all the exorcists in American Christianity with his snowball-style search, and that the total number is somewhere around 300. It is possible, though, that the percentage of Catholic exorcists he found is more or less right, and Catholics account for 2.3 percent of the exorcists in the U.S. If that's assumed, the picture that emerges is of a much larger field.

If there are, say, 30 Catholic exorcists, and 30 Catholic exorcists amounts to 2.3 percent of the total number of exorcists -- which would mean Royal's study is representative -- that would mean there are roughly 1,300 exorcists in America.

Is it possible that there are 1,300 Christian exorcists at work in America?

That would be one exorcist for every approximately 240,000 Americans. So: 11 for a city the size of Chicago; 34 for New York City; two each for Indianapolis, Ind.; San Jose, Calif.; and Jacksonville, Fla. It seems strange but not unthinkable that there are two Christians in Jacksonville who have ministries casting out demons. There could be 34 in New York City. It seems like a lot, but not so many as to be dismissed out of hand.

There's at least anecdotal evidence that there's enough demand for, say, two exorcists in Indianapolis. Fr. Vincent Lambert is the designated exorcist for that diocese of the Catholic Church, and he has said he has consulted with hundreds of people who suspected they were possessed by demons in the few years he's had the job. Lambert has, by his own account, performed less than one rite of exorcism per year. But lots and lots of his time is taken up with counseling, and exorcists are apparently very much in demand even if they don't ultimately do exorcisms. If one priest in Indianapolis is meeting with this many people who want to talk to a religious leader about their possible demons, one could certainly imagine enough work for two exorcists in a city that size.

Michael W. Cuneo, a sociologist of religion, has pointed out that there is lots of demand for exorcists, however many there actually are. He attributes this volume of demand to the many popular media representations of demonic possession since the 1970s. "In a sense," Cuneo wrote in his book American Exorcism, "the real curiosity isn't that exorcism is practiced in contemporary America, but that it isn't practiced more widely."

So perhaps 1,300 active Christian exorcists isn't an unreasonable estimate.

On the other hand, if one takes the Catholics as representative and the study as basically right -- which is just an assumption made of the sake of experiment -- and then extrapolates for the other groups, things seem less plausible.

If there are 1,300 exorcists and Royal's sampling of 170 is accurate, that would lead to the conclusion there are also around 30 Mennonite exorcists, for example. Royal found four Catholic exorcists, and it's known that there are about 30. He also found four Mennonites. If we accept the parity of Mennonite and Catholic exorcists, that would mean there are another 26 or so Mennonite exorcists Royal didn't find in his snowball-produced sample.

Is it really the case, though, that there are an equal number of Catholic and Mennonite exorcists? Mennonites -- both the more conservative and less conservative varieties -- aren't generally known for being involved in these sorts of engagements with the supernatural.

But maybe it's plausible. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, a project of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, reports that at least one man was ordained to do exorcisms in the Indiana-Michigan area in the 1970s, so they do exist. According to the encyclopedia, there is also "a growing body of literature worldwide, from biblical, historical, theological and psychiatric perspectives, [which] has brought this agenda into the forefront of the church's theological reflection and evangelistic-pastoral practice." There are at least some Mennonite theologians who believe Mennonites should be "Continuing Jesus' Ministry of Deliverance," as the subtitle of a collection of essays published in 2006 has it. At Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Virginia, there has been a least one class on exorcism with 15 students, several years ago, though it doesn't appear to be a regular part of the curriculum.

Mennonites aren't exactly homogeneous, either. There are lots of varieties. The largest denomination has more than 110,000 members, and another 240,000 or so in total. If there are 1,300 exorcists in America and Royal's study is representative, so 2.3 percent of those exorcists are Mennonites, that would only mean there is approximately one Mennonite exorcist for every 12,000 Mennonites.

That's not impossible.

All of this is obviously very speculative, and based on some assumptions that can't be supported beyond just determinations they could be true. But it seems at least possible that Royal's study is right and that it could be the case, as deduced from Royal's study and what's known about Catholic exorcists, that there are about 1,300 Christian exorcists in America.

Similar extrapolations, using the same assumptions, would lead to the conclusion there are 37 or so Presbyterians, 84 Baptists, about 14 Episcopalian and 46 Methodist involved in ministries of exorcism.

On the one hand this seems like a lot. On the other, it is possible to find scholars supporting the credibility of such numbers. While Methodists, for example, don't generally seem like they're that involved in battling demons, one can find Methodist scholars such as J. Gordon Melton, a minister who also works for the Institute for the Study of American Religion, reporting that exorcism is "a big phenomenon." Asked by ABC News, Melton said "There is a lot of exorcism going on." So maybe there are more than 40 Methodist exorcists.

The only real conclusion that can be drawn, here, is that more and better studies are needed.

It may well be the case that there are 1,300 or so Christian exorcists and Royal's 170 are representative, so the study can be taken as legitimately making the stronger claim of being about "how Christian exorcism is practiced in America today." It's safer to be tentative at this point, though. The study certainly shows how some Christians practice exorcism today, which seems like a solid starting place for inquiries into contemporary methods of exorcism, as well as interpretations of those cultural practices.

Hopefully Royal's work will encourage others to attempt to ascertain the range and extent of the practices of exorcism in contemporary American Christianity. The one thing that's really known, here, is how much is not yet known. It's just not clear how many Christian exorcists are out there, though it's clear they are out there and there might be lots and lots of them.