Stephen J Pullum. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
They are as much a part of the American culture as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, baseball, and Barbie dolls. They have given rise to movies such as Leap of Faith, starring Steve Martin, and pop songs such as Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), and other comedians have frequently used them as subjects of religious parodies (Haferd 1987). Bart Simpson even played the role of one in an episode of The Simpsons. Faith healers, as they are popularly called, though it is a label they generally despise, are a cadre of male and female Christian evangelists who have crisscrossed this country throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, preaching spiritual and physical deliverance from sin, sickness, and disease, on the condition that individuals have the necessary faith in God to heal them.
Historically, many well-known faith healers in the United States came from foreign countries. One of the earliest faith healers in America, for example, was Alexander Dowie, who arrived from Scotland via Australia in 1888 before settling in Chicago. Smith Wigglesworth, who preached in America in the 1920s and 1930s, was English. Aimee Semple McPherson, who was enormously popular before her death in 1944, was born in Canada. She eventually obtained U.S. citizenship when she married her second husband, Harold McPherson, in 1912 (Blumhofer 1993; Harrell 1975).
The end of World War II brought with it an explosion of American-born independent healing revivalists. For example, tent-toting Oral Roberts, who was born near Bebee, Oklahoma; Asa Alonzo Allen, who was born in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas; and Jack Coe Sr., who was born in Oklahoma City; took center stage. William Branham, another post-World War II faith healer, who was born in Burkesville, Kentucky, before eventually establishing his headquarters just over the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana, was one of the most popular traveling evangelists of his day. Perhaps more of the world would have known him were it not for his premature death in 1965 as the result of a car wreck near Amarillo, Texas (Harrell 1975).
Ernest Angley, a prominent, contemporary faith healer, who was born in Mooresville, North Carolina, in 1922 and who began his illustrious career in the early 1950s, is currently headquartered in Akron, Ohio. Although born Palestinian in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 3, 1952, Benny Hinn, one of the most well-known faith healers in the United States today, is headquartered in Grape Vine, Texas, near Dallas (Frame 1997). Gloria Copeland, wife of well-known televangelist Kenneth Copeland, is another prominent healing evangelist in her own right whose base of operation since 1967 has been Fort Worth, Texas. These are only a handful of the many faith healers who have preached, and who continue to preach, in the United States.
Throughout their careers, these men and women, and many others like them, have been enormously influential, amassing large followings and millions of dollars. Throughout each decade, thousands upon thousands have turned to them, seeking miracles of one type or another. Why? Perhaps an even more interesting question is, how? In other words, how have faith healers been able to sustain such large followings throughout their lifetimes? What was it about their preaching that endeared them to so many people, that caused multitudes to flock to them? These, I believe, are worthwhile questions, especially given the fact that faith healers have been so successful economically, socially, and religiously.
Using a sales metaphor, I will address three separate but related questions in an attempt to account for such a popular phenomenon: (1) Exactly what were these faith healers selling? (2) To whom were they selling? Or more to the point, who was buying? (3) How was it that they were selling it? Simply put, what rhetorical strategies did they consciously or unconsciously employ as a group of preachers to persuade individuals to accept their message? In examining this last question, I will attempt to demonstrate that there exists a body of faith healing discourse, a genre of faith healing rhetoric, crucial to this enterprise. While there may be subtle differences in each individual’s preaching and method of operation, in general one will find that they made similar types of promises, preached to comparable types of audiences, and relied primarily on the same types of proofs.
In attempting to answer the above questions, I analyzed books of printed sermons, magazine articles, and other primary literature produced by faith healers Branham, Roberts, Allen, Coe, Angley, Copeland, and Hinn. Additionally, I examined countless hours of audio and videotapes of these men and women. Chronologically, these artifacts ranged from shortly after World War II to the present day. In a number of instances, I was personally able to attend the actual healing services themselves, most notably those of Ernest Angley, Gloria Copeland, and Benny Hinn.
In critiquing the discourse of faith healing, I proceeded inductively, looking at a number of specific instances before drawing conclusions. Foss (1996), for example, advises that when taking this approach, the critic should follow four steps: First, one determines if “similar situations, removed from each other in time and place, seem to generate similar rhetorical responses” (229). Second, one collects several samples of rhetoric that may be indicative of the genre. Preferably, these artifacts should come from various periods of history. Third, the critic seeks to discover shared “substantive or stylistic features” in the samples. In doing so, the critic need not follow any prescribed methodology. Instead, he or she merely allows the rhetorical artifacts to speak to the critic or “ ‘suggest’ … important similarities and differences” (230). Finally, the critic should “formulate the organizing principle that captures the essence of the strategies” that the rhetorical artifacts share. Foss notes that “labeling the organizing principle actually may occur simultaneously with the delineation of substantive and stylistic strategies since the elements identified may come to the critic’s attention grouped around an obvious core or principle” (231).
There are at least two important reasons for doing generic criticism: First, it “provides a history of communication rules” (Cali 1996, 12). As will become evident, I am not advocating that we emulate the communication rules and patterns of faith healers any more than I would advocate that we emulate the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, recording the rhetorical history of faith healers in and of itself is a worthwhile goal. Second, and perhaps more importantly, generic criticism “serves as an index to social and cultural reality” (Cali 1996, 12). That is, it helps us to understand how groups and subgroups view the world around them. As in the case of faith healers, sometimes this reality is intriguing. At other times it can be frightening, with an entire set of consequences often overlooked by both the faith healers themselves and an unsuspecting public. In saying this, I am not suggesting that faith healers are inherently evil people. To the contrary, most of the faith healers in this study were fine, upstanding individuals who were and are very sincere about doing good. Ostensibly, they truly believed in what they practiced. In spite of their sincerity, however, their realities lacked much to be desired, as I will demonstrate later. Let us turn now to an examination of their discourse.
What Are Faith Healers Selling?
A close look at what faith healers have taught throughout the years reveals the preaching of two types of deliverance, assuming one had the necessary faith in God: (1) deliverance from sin and (2) deliverance from bodily afflictions, diseases, and addictions. The fact that faith healers preach deliverance from sin raises no eyebrows. Within Christianity, the idea that humans are in sin, that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile them to God, and that all they need to do is accept him in order to avoid eternal punishment and enjoy the bliss of heaven, is really no different from what is taught in most Protestant, conservative, Evangelical churches. While there may be differences in how the sin was obtained or what an individual must do to be forgiven, generally what faith healers teach regarding deliverance from sin would be accepted by many religious people in the broader culture of American Christendom, Catholic and Protestant. Indeed, this common teaching may account for part of faith healers’ appeal.
In addition to preaching deliverance from sin, faith healers teach that one can receive bodily healings as a result of the atonement of Jesus on the cross. Or, to use the words of Ernest Angley (1988), “Come right on. Whatever it is, God will heal.” Post-World War II faith healer A. A. Allen (“Allen Exhorting” n.d.) stated this idea as well as any: “At Calvary something happened that will be beneficial not only for your soul but also for your body… Jesus not only died for the sins of the world but before he ever died … they placed the stripes on his back and the scripture says, ‘whereby ye were healed.’” The scriptural allusion is to Isaiah 53:5, and faith healers interpret this passage to mean that one can be healed physically as well as spiritually because of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Faith healers believe that many—not all, but many—physical afflictions and addictions to bad habits such as cigarette smoking and drug addiction are caused by demons possessing people. Perhaps Oral Roberts (1954a) illustrated this best when he suggested that “deaf and dumb demons do take the hearing and speech of some people.” Roberts contended that there are numerous types of demons, such as epileptic demons, lying demons, and sex demons. Jack Coe once quipped, “I think if there’s anything that’s of the devil, it’s a cancer” (1989b).
Roberts (1954a) often told stories about casting demons out of people. Whenever this occurred, one would likely hear him yell something like, “Thou foul tormenting demons, I adjure thee in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, come out of this woman! Loose her and let her go free!” (113). When laying his hands upon those in his healing lines, A. A. Allen would often yell, “Thou devil of deafness I rebuke you” (“It Is Finished” n.d.). On one occasion, I witnessed Benny Hinn (personal observation, Nashville, October 23-24, 1997) attempt to convince a woman, and over twenty thousand people in attendance, that he cast out a cancer demon from the bottom of her foot and that it wiggled off the stage. I have also watched Ernest Angley (personal observation, Akron, OH, February 19, 1988) lay hands on individuals in his prayer lines and scream in their faces, “Loose her, thou foul, tormenting spirit! Yeaaaaaha, come out!”
Before going any further, we need to address a question that occasionally arises. What is wrong with faith healers praying for the sick? After all, is this not taught in almost all Christian churches today? It is true that just as faith healers believe that one could be healed through prayer, so do many churches throughout America. The difference, however, in what faith healers teach and practice and what many other Protestants believe—and this is a big difference—is that faith healers believe God will heal miraculously exactly as miraculous healings were recorded in the Bible. What is being sold is not so much prayer for the sick but belief that the one prayed for will be healed wholly and instantaneously, that is, miraculously, of whatever ails him or her. Unlike other Christian groups, faith healers fail to make a distinction between the providential, wherein it is believed that God acts behind the scenes to heal through the laws of nature, and the miraculous.
One is left to conclude that faith healers really do not understand what a miracle is in the first place. Both the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume and the twentieth-century theologian C. S. Lewis (Swinburne 1970) agree on this point. Each suggests that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. To borrow Lewis’ words, miracles “interrupt the orderly march of events, the steady development of nature according to her own interest, genius, or character” (quoted in Swinburne 1970, 70). To illustrate this principle, Lewis (1947) suggests that if a virgin were to conceive without a man, the conception would be miraculous because it violates the laws of nature regarding procreation. Once the conception occurs, however, the birth itself would not be miraculous. Lewis argues, “If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born” (1947, 59).
In the New Testament, the source faith healers appeal to as proof that what is happening in their revivals is miraculous and, hence, God-ordained, one can read that dead people were made alive (Matthew 9:18-25; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:17-46). What is ironic about these examples is that these individuals had no faith whatsoever. How could they when they were dead? Also in the New Testament, one reads that withered hands were instantaneously made whole (Matthew 12:9-14). The deaf and dumb were made to hear and speak immediately (Mark 7:31-37). These are just a few of the more than 30 examples of miraculous cures one can find in the New Testament. All of these healings involved a violation of the laws of nature. What is more, these miracles were visually verifiable, while the so-called miracles performed throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not been.
Faith healers in our day most often call out ailments such as backaches, diabetes, sinus problems, heart conditions, nerves, addictions, and other similar healings (personal observations, Angley, Akron, OH, February 19, 1988; Copeland, Nashville, TN, October 17, 1992; Hinn, Nashville, TN, October 23-24, 1997). The problem is, one cannot see these types of cures. They simply are not empirically verifiable like those recorded in the scriptures. Moreover, because they are not empirically verifiable, they are nonfalsifiable, which is advantageous to faith healers. One must simply take the word of the individual with the affliction as to whether he or she was really healed. This is also problematic because often the individual thinks he or she is healed when in reality no healing has occurred at all. Certainly nothing miraculous occurred. Medical doctor William Nolen (1974) looked at dozens of cases of so-called miraculous healings that supposedly occurred during the ministry of Kathryn Kuhlman during the 1970s and concluded that he could not find a single case of the miraculous. While some individuals who claimed a cure gradually became better over time, only to relapse, others showed no improvement at all. In fact, some whom Nolan interviewed, who claimed to have been healed at a Kathryn Kuhlman crusade, died shortly after his interview with them.
Moreover, contemporary audiences of faith healers who witness miraculous healings really do not know to what extent the person who claims a healing is sick or ailing in the first place. Perhaps the person him or herself does not even know. Audiences simply have to take the word of the person onstage, if they want to know how sick or ailing a person is. While we cannot and should not accuse an individual of lying about his or her disease, one has to wonder to what extent an individual is dramatizing his or her physical problems. After all, there is a certain expectation for these people who are standing under the spotlight in front of thousands of onlookers, to perform in the heat of the moment so as not to disappoint both the faith healer and the audience. Of course, the more dramatic the story told, the louder the applause one will receive. Everyone goes away happy as if something miraculous had indeed occurred.
On rare occasions, audiences do not even know what the ailment is. The minister merely lays hands on the individual and he or she walks off the stage leaving the audience wondering what just happened (Branham, “Deep Calleth unto the Deep” n.d.). Nonetheless, audiences clap in approval because they know what is expected of them, regardless of what they have just witnessed.
As I have argued elsewhere (Pullum 1999), it matters little whether one believes the New Testament accounts of miraculous healings. The fact is faith healers themselves do. Further, they believe that these types of miracles are still occurring today, just as they were recorded in the Bible. However, by the standard that they set for themselves, namely, the Bible, they fail to show similar authentication as indicated in the biblical miracle narratives.
Jack Coe, who is typical of the faith healers in our study, illustrates the point well. A young man with “old deaf ears” came into his healing line with a friend who served as an interpreter. Coe laid his hands on him and supposedly healed him of deafness. To demonstrate to the thousands in attendance, Coe whispered three words in the man’s ear, “baby,” “boy,” and “mama.” When asked to repeat these words, the young man could not. Instead, he often muddled “mama” when Coe wanted him to say “boy” or “baby.” Out of resignation, Coe turned to the young man’s interpreter and said, “Somebody’s gonna have to teach him” (1989a). I have witnessed similar incidents with Benny Hinn (personal observation, Nashville, TN, October 23-24, 1997) and Ernest Angley (personal observation, Akron, OH, February 19, 1988). Obviously, no healing took place, let along anything miraculous; unless, of course, the deaf man had always been deaf and consequently had never been able to talk—a common condition in deaf mutes. Now the man was speaking, which would have been miraculous. If this truly were the case, why did Coe not emphasize the wonderful fact that this man was even talking? Instead, Coe disappointedly said that someone was going to have to teach him. Moreover, why didn’t Coe just obviate the need for a teacher altogether and miraculously cure the man of his inability to speak? If the man could be healed of deafness, why could he not also be cured of his inability to talk?
The main point to be understood throughout this discussion is that faith healers believe that a divine, miraculous healing could and would occur upon their praying for a person, just as they occur in the Bible, provided one had the prerequisite faith. For faith healers, prayer for the sick involved more than just a healing. It was intended to provide a miraculous cure, and here is the proverbial rub. This, in part, was what was being sold to the public, and many were buying.
To Whom Are Faith Healers Selling?
If one were to ask the faith healers in our study “To whom are you preaching?” no doubt they would respond, “To anyone who is listening.” Ostensibly this may be true, but the reality is that faith healers are acutely aware of who their predominant audiences are. They know that not just anyone accepts their kind of message. Rather, it is the physically afflicted, or their relatives, who in many cases have exhausted all hopes of being cured by medical doctors, who have sought and seek them out. For these people they are in business. Most audiences are composed of Pentecostals or Neo-Pentecostals, those who already believe that the nine spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 are normal occurrences for Christians today.
William Branham (1957a) once relayed the story about “a fine [non-Pentecostal] brother” who had just finished preaching to about eighteen hundred “nice, well-dressed [non-Pentecostal] people, intelligent-looking people” before Branham took the stage of the same auditorium. Contrasting that audience to his own, Branham sullenly continued, “I thought, ‘My that’s very nice.’ But here come [sic] my group in. Mine come [sic] in on crutches, wheelchairs, [and] straight jackets.”
Oral Roberts believed his audiences were “incurably ill” (1954c) who “in most cases have exhausted the resources of medical science and now their only hope is faith in God” (1954b). Frequently he made these types of statements. He also believed his partners were primarily “hard core Pentecostals” who had “fallen on hard times” economically. Roberts once described them as “the simple, uneducated, uninhibited, with few sidelines, to whom God means all and who worship with their hands, feet, and voices” (quoted Harrell 1985, 90, 110, 256).
A. A. Allen was also acutely aware of who his followers were. Among them were the “sick” and “suffering.” In stating the obvious, Allen once remarked how “hundreds of people are rolled under this tent on this ramp on stretchers in dying condition” (“Allen Exhorting” n.d.; “It Is Finished” n.d.). Regarding his followers’ educational level, Allen disclosed that his revival “isn’t breaking out among the intellectuals. The bible says much learning hath made thee mad. So we’re making no special effort to reach intellectuals” (quoted in Hedgepeth 1969, 29). Hedgepeth (1969) once described those in attendance at an Allen revival as “skeletal men in bib overalls, chubby matrons, scrawny teens, and septuagenarians.” Additionally, there were “blind ladies,” “lunatics,” and people with “faded eyes,” “varicose veins,” and “hook hands.” He further described these individuals as having “bottomless frustrations” and “unlabeled loneliness” (24, 28).
Jack Coe realized to whom he was primarily speaking when he once asked an audience, “How many believe he’s [Jesus] here to smite that old cancer, to heal that old tumor, to open them [sic] blinded eyes, to cause them [sic] old lame legs to leap for joy?” (1989c). Jack Coe Jr. reveals that “as a young man” he remembers “hundreds of people coming to my father’s tent revivals on stretchers and in wheelchairs” (1989d).
Even those in attendance at more contemporary healing revivals mirror those who flocked to the tents of post-World War II faith healers. These audiences included those with withered or malformed limbs, those hooked to oxygen tanks, and those dependent on crutches, stretchers, or wheelchairs. Further, while there appear to be at the revivals of Benny Hinn, Gloria Cope-land, and Ernest Angley a number of financially well-off people who dress in fine clothing and sport what appears to be expensive jewelry, the predominant picture is one of people in flannel shirts, tee shirts with various logos, sweat shirts, blue jeans, and causal footwear, such as tennis shoes and boots. In short, these individuals appear to be ordinary people. Moreover, judging by the number of people who close their eyes, look upward, stretch their hands toward heaven, and respond to the preaching with “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” “Thank you, Jesus,” “Praise the Lord” or some similar expression, these individuals are already highly religious and know the routine (personal observations, Angley, Akron, OH, February 19, 1988; Copeland, Nashville, TN, October 17, 1992; Hinn, Nashville, TN, October 23-24, 1997). Clearly these people are “true believers” (Hoffer 1965) in the first place.
Todd Lewis (1988) points out that the situational crises in which audiences find themselves serve as perceptual filters. “If audience members believe that their immediate context is hopeless, stress-producing, or threatening, their scope of perception narrows until they locate a leader/communicator who can remedy their exigency” (97). Similarly, medical doctor William Nolen (1974) suggests that once doctors admit that they can no longer help people, these persons “go looking for salvation elsewhere” (7). Certainly the crises that audiences of faith healers find themselves in contributed to their eagerness to “buy” the wares that faith healers were “selling.”
How Do Faith Healers Sell Their Message?
Having looked at what faith healers preach and who their primary audiences are, the next logical question is, how is it that they are able to persuade their followers to accept their message, despite evidence to the contrary or at least little confirming evidence? Simply put, what rhetorical strategies do they consciously or unconsciously employ in selling to their constituencies the idea of miraculous cures?
God Healed Me
In examining the discourse of faith healers, one of the first things that audiences hear them preach, as proof of miraculous cures, is that they themselves have been personally healed by God. Oral Roberts frequently reminded those in his healing lines that God healed him of both tuberculosis and stuttering (1955b). In fact, on one occasion Roberts told the once-popular talk show host Merv Griffin that “the greatest miracle I ever saw was my own personal miracle when God healed me of tuberculosis and loosed my stammering tongue” (1974, 7). Ernest Angley reminded audiences that God healed him of a bone disease in one of his legs “that almost destroyed me as a child.” After many nights of prayer, “King Jesus came and made me whole, made me well. I knew he could heal. I didn’t doubt his healing power” (1987). Although not specific about the nature of her illness, Gloria Cope-land reminded her audience that God healed her and that, because of this, “nobody believes in healing more than I do” (personal observation, Nashville, TN, October 17, 1992). Jack Coe told of how he was so sick that he weighed only 134 pounds and the doctors had given up on him. They “folded their hands and shook their heads.” Then “Dr. Jesus came into my room” and healed him. Coe, a big man in the first place, humorously suggested that now he weighed “two hundred thirty-five pounds and none of your business how much more” (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.). A. A. Allen told of how God had healed his permanently damaged vocal cords. After a friend prayed for him and the demons left his body, “My ‘ruined’ vocal cords were as good as new” (Allen and Wagner 1970, 118). William Branham (1976) claimed to have been healed from “stomach trouble” (96). Benny Hinn tells of being healed of stuttering (1990) and being healed of a bleeding heart valve. Now, he assures his audiences, he’s so “anointed” by God that he “has even kept my teeth from cavities” (personal observation, Nashville, TN, October 23-24, 1997).
Todd Lewis (1988) refers to the above types of claims as “conquered physical imperfections.” He suggests that audiences are “drawn to … leaders whose defects have been surmounted and those who exist despite possible difficulties” (103). When faith healers tell such stories about personal healings, they embody the beliefs, values, and hopes of the group. Audiences reason that if God could heal the preacher, surely he can heal them. To borrow Bormann’s term (1972), the faith healer becomes the “ultimate legitimizer” of what is preached (401).
God Called Me
Faith healers are always quick to remind their audiences that they were called by God. What is more, these callings came through miraculous visions. William Branham (1949b, 1952, 1976), for instance, often told of how at the age of seven an angel warned him not to “drink or smoke or defile your body in any way, there’ll be a work for you to do when you get older” (1976, 60). Branham also frequently disclosed how on May 7, 1946, at the age of 37, he was visited by an angel and was commanded to “go to all the world and pray for the sick people.” angel continued, “If you get the people to believe you, and be sincere when you pray, nothing shall stand before your prayers, not even cancer” (1976, 74; Lindsey 1950, 77).
Oral Roberts (1955b) often reminded his audiences of how, while he was lying flat on his back in his study in 1947, the Lord spoke to him: “Son from this hour you will heal the sick and cast out devils by my power.” Roberts (1955a) assured his audiences that since this visitation from God, he had “prayed for thousands upon thousands of these cases and in many instances the Lord has set them free and made them whole.” Like Branham and Roberts, A. A. Allen (Allen and Wagner 1970) told how God appeared to him while he locked himself in a closet to pray. “Then, like a whirlwind, I heard His voice. God’s voice. Speaking to me” (96).
Ernest Angley (1977) claimed that God called him one night at the age of seven, when he was lying on his bed. Like a scene from The Wizard of Oz, Angley describes how “the bed began to spin around and around until I was out in space under the stars” (129-130). Showing him millions of stars in the heavens, the Lord told Angley that he would eventually lead unlimited souls to Christ. Angley also recalled how one night in 1945, the same night he was healed of a stomach ulcer, Christ appeared to him in a blinding light and told him “that He would give me his power of healing others and that I was to carry the ministry of healing to the multitudes” (de Groot 1966, G-4). Benny Hinn (1990) recalled that day in April 1974 when he was called to preach: “I saw someone standing in front of me. He was totally in flames, moving uncontrollably; his feet were not touching the ground…. At that moment, the Lord spoke to me in an audible voice. He said, ‘Preach the gospel’” (43).
The fact is, faith healers frequently report that God, or angels, appeared to them with a message. Most of them claimed to have had numerous supernatural encounters, and they were quick to remind their audiences of such. It is as if these experiences were their stamp of approval. God had validated, in other words, what they were teaching and practicing, and audiences loved it. Todd Lewis (1988) suggests that it is natural for audiences who are “driven by the frustrations and stress of their situational crises” to seek out “a leader with a ‘messianic destiny’” (103). Certainly, the faith healers in this study claimed to have had such a destiny.
Give God the Credit
Unlike what many people believe about faith healers, those in this study were really not arrogant individuals at all. Most appeared to be humble servants of God, which accounts in part for their relative popularity. Historically, faith healers never claimed to have the power to heal people. Instead, they always gave any credit or honor associated with what they were doing to God. Furthermore, they went to great lengths to make sure that their audiences understood this. Their followers loved them for their humility, giving them the respect and credibility appropriate to a humble person.
In attempting to explain what he was about, Jack Coe once stated, “I am not a healer. I never claimed to be a healer. I believe there’s only one healer and his name’s Jesus.” Coe went on to explain, “We do not claim to heal any of these people, but it’s the prayer of faith that I pray for them” (1989d). Making sure that the audience did not think more highly of Jack Coe than they ought to, he once quipped, “I didn’t come to you with a degree from any big college” (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.). William Branham was incredibly humble. He taught, “I do not claim to do one thing myself. I have no power within myself to do anything” (1949a). He believed “there’s no great people and big people in the kingdom of God. We’re all one” (1954).
Time and time again, A. A. Allen reminded his followers, “I’m not a healer, but I’m a believer” (“Two Services under the Tent” n.d.). “I’m not a healer. I couldn’t heal anybody” (“This Gospel of the Kingdom” n.d.). “We are not a healer, but the healer is here” (“Skepticism” n.d.). On one occasion, Allen humorously remarked, “I do not play at being God … I am not a healer. A. A. Allen couldn’t cure a fly with a headache” (Allen and Wagner 1970, 9).
Before calling people into his healing lines, Oral Roberts would remind those in attendance, “I’d like to tell you friends, as we start praying for the sick tonight; I’d like you to understand how God works through me. I am not the healer. I cannot heal. Only God can do that. But I am an instrument in his hands, which he is using to bring healing to many, many people” (1954c). Among more contemporary faith healers, one can hear similar disclaimers. Gloria Copeland (1990), for instance, teaches that “you come to receive healing from the Lord Jesus Christ … healing that will flow out of my hands into you, but it’s not my anointing. It’s the anointing of the Holy Spirit.”
Ernest Angley (personal observation, Akron, OH, February 19, 1988) is equally disavowing when he publicly prays, “Thou knowest, oh God, that I never take any of the honor. I never claim any of the glory. I am just a weakness to your greatness.” Once Angley disclosed to Cleveland television personality Fred Griffith that “everything” he did “is centered around Jesus, not around Ernest Angley” (1988). Benny Hinn reminds would-be critics, “I don’t heal anybody. The Lord is the healer” (“Impact” 1997).
These types of claims help faith healers increase their ethos with their “partners,” a term that some use to refer to their constituencies. Audiences love speakers who appear to be genuinely humble. Conversely, they despise those who are arrogant. Not claiming to have any personal power is advantageous to faith healers for two reasons: (1) not only does it help them increase their credibility with their audiences, but (2) it can also be used as an excuse when healings do not occur. Rather than shoulder the blame themselves, all faith healers have to say is that they never really claimed to have power to heal in the first place. The problem, therefore, must lie with the individual seeking the healing. Obviously, he or she does not have the necessary faith in God. Nonetheless, giving glory to God is one way that faith healers “sell” what they do to a compliant constituency.
The Bible Says So
Had there been no Bible or had the Bible not contained stories of miraculous cures, there probably would never have been Christian faith healers as we know them. For, despite the fact that faith healers have ministered in every community everywhere in the world since prehistory, Christian faith healers themselves take their marching orders from the miracle stories in the New Testament. They often remind their audiences that they practice what they do because they believe they can find evidence for it in the scripture. This strategy appears to work.
Throughout his sermons, for example, Jack Coe made numerous references to healings in the Bible. Coe pointed out that healing begins in Genesis 17 and runs “like a scarlet thread” throughout it. He reminded his audiences that “the Bible said that all who came to Jesus was [sic] healed.” So sure of his right and ability to heal people because of what he believed the scriptures taught, he challenged, “I dare any fair-minded person to take this blessed old book that I hold in my hand and make a fair-minded, open investigation of the word of God in divine healing.” Coe believed that he had “enough Bible to back it up” (1989d). As did other faith healers, Coe often quoted Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever”) as a proof text that healing occurs today just as it was recorded in Jesus’ day (1989a). In fact, this passage is probably quoted more than any other verse in the entire Bible to prove that miraculous healings should still be expected.
Similar to Coe, A. A. Allen also practiced what he did because he believed he could find it in the New Testament. Once, seemingly out of frustration, Allen earnestly pleaded with his audience, “Listen to me. I am giving you biblical, scriptural proof” (“Skepticism” n.d.). Like Coe and other faith healers, Allen relied on Hebrews 13:8 (Miracles Today n.d.), 1 Peter 2:24 (“Allen Exhorting” n.d.), Matthew 8:17 (“Allen Exhorting” n.d.), and Mark 16:17 (“This Gospel of the Kingdom” n.d.) among others. Allen even had a portion of Mark 16:17 plastered on a long banner, which hung behind the pulpit in his tent to remind those in attendance: “These signs shall follow them that believe.” So confident was Allen in using the Bible to prove miraculous healing that he often began statements with “my Bible says” (“Monkey Boy” n.d.) and then commanded the audience to “say amen if you believe everything in God’s word” (Miracles Today n.d.).
Oral Roberts also relied heavily on the Bible as proof of miraculous cures. Hebrews 13:8 was one of his favorite passages (1954b; 1955b). Once, Roberts labeled Matthew 8:5-13 as “the greatest healing chapter in the Bible” (1952). There was never a time when Roberts did not attempt to ground what he was practicing in the scriptures. Nowadays, Gloria Copeland often assures her audiences that “It says so in the Bible” or “I’ll prove it to you from the word” when referring to miraculous healing. “God doesn’t use cancer to teach the church. He uses the Holy Spirit and the word.” “Scripture teaches,” explains Copeland. Copeland once preached, “The same word that we [she and her husband Kenneth] listened to twenty-five years ago, we still listen to because it’s the same word with the same power” (personal observation, Nashville, TN, October 17, 1992).
Many other examples could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that references to the Bible are a central rhetorical staple in the preaching of faith healers. Furthermore, such strategy works for the predominantly Pentecostal audiences who already believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God. It matters not to them that some of these passages had nothing to do with miraculous cures. The fact is, faith healers use them repeatedly and their listeners accept them as proof. Certain verses (e.g., Hebrews 13:8; Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24; Mark 16:17) became part of the faith healing culture. When audiences hear the same verses over and over again, it becomes difficult for them not to believe that these passages teach what the preacher says they teach. In this way, use of the Bible became a major inducement for audiences to believe.
I’ve Seen It with My Own Eyes
In an attempt to persuade those in attendance to believe in miraculous cures, faith healers frequently cite examples of individuals they have personally witnessed who had been cured. Gloria Copeland tells of how during the various years of her ministry, people with “all kind [sic] of terminal diseases, serious things, just absolutely serious things … were healed” (1990).
Jack Coe seemed to thrive on this type of proof. In February 1956, Coe was arraigned in a Miami, Florida, courtroom on charges of practicing medicine without a license. Eventually the charges were dropped, but the sassy Coe seized the opportunity to let the authorities of Miami know how much he did not appreciate being questioned about his authority to preach and practice healings. In one sermon preached during his Miami revival shortly after his arrest (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.), Coe offered example after example of persons he had seen healed. In bold fashion, he told of how “last Saturday night” a man was healed of blindness, and Sunday afternoon his wife testified that “God has given him back his eyesight.” He reported that a woman was “here last night who had never heard or spoke” before but was healed. After citing the healing of Naaman in the Bible (2 Kings 5) and his own personal healing, Coe cited the example of a Mr. Chumley, a Baptist preacher from Plainview, Texas, who was healed. Now Mr. Chumley is “out preaching divine healing,” Coe assured his audiences. In graphic detail, Coe boasted of the healing of Christine Carmichael of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was dying of a brain tumor. “Puss and blood ran from her brain.” He told of how after he laid hands on her she “spit up” her tumor and coughed it from her mouth. “I tell you that’s the best cancer operation you’ll ever undergo.” Coe often used these types of graphic examples to persuade audiences to accept divine healing.
William Branham (1950) boasted to his audiences how he had seen “better than three hundred cases of cross eyeds [sic] healed in less than six months time.” He told of people who were healed of paralysis, withered hands, demon possession, and crippling diseases. He assured his audiences of how he had seen miraculous cures “hundreds of times” during his ministry.
Likewise, Oral Roberts assured his audiences of how thousands of people had been cured after he laid hands upon them and prayed for them (1955a). A. A. Allen often cited examples of people who had been healed under his tent (“Two Services under the Tent” n.d.). Among the many examples that he has given, Ernest Angley (1988) once told his audience that one woman “flew in from Russia to get her miracle” before having to return.
No matter who the faith healer, examples are commonly employed in an attempt to prove to onlookers that God can and does heal people miraculously. Like the other rhetorical strategies that are employed, use of dramatic examples appears to contribute to the speaker’s ability to persuade.
If It Happened to Me, It Can Happen to You
In addition to citing concrete cases of people being healed, faith healers often allow these individuals to stand in front of audiences to recount their own personal stories. Often they return with envelops containing x-rays or medical papers as proof that tumors or other ailments are now gone. Once, for instance, Oral Roberts called Fred Odel from Oakland, California, to the stage to testify of how he was clear of lung cancer after being healed in a previous Oral Roberts crusade. When asked by Roberts what was in the envelope he was carrying, Odel confidently responded, “That’s my proof.” Odel had returned with an x-ray and doctor’s letter, verifying his cure. If only for a few minutes, Odel reveled in the spotlight, and the audience loved it. Roberts, too, appeared to relish the occasion. In fact, Roberts liked these moments so well that he often allowed individuals to return at a later date to testify to audiences about their healing. Like the other faith healers, he realized the inherent value of such testimonies (1957).
Not only do faith healers allow individuals to stand in their services to testify about their healings, but they often publish these testimonies in their monthly magazines. Among the numerous others, A. A. Allen, for example, once published a testimonial entitled “I Took My Cancer to Church in a Jar” (Miracle Magazine, January 1960). Other claims involved being healed of hemophilia, growing an arm longer, passing an open safety pen from the stomach, up the esophagus, and through the mouth, being set free from demons, or having one’s lungs cured of cancer (Miracle Magazine, October 1959; December 1959; January 1960). One individual even testified how God had miraculously filled one of her teeth with gold (Miracle Magazine, October 1961). Suffice it to say that testimonials, spoken or printed, are often employed to sell the idea of miraculous cures. Just as advertisers rely on various testimonials to endorse their products, so, too, do faith healers rely on testimonials to “sell” the miraculous. It appears to work. But how?
I have argued elsewhere (Pullum 1999) that testimony is effective for several reasons. First, it is entertaining. Audiences simply like to hear peoples’ stories. They find them interesting. The more sensational the story, the more entertaining the testimony. Second, if audiences perceive that a person is credible and has received a healing, they begin to think that a healing can happen to them. While the nature of the ailment may not be identical, the fact that both are human and both have suffered a sickness or affliction provides sufficient common ground. Finally, the tendency to identify with another individual is particularly strong when the ailments are identical, especially if an individual has exhausted all other hopes of cure. The testimony of one person offers hope for another.
Just See for Yourself
Empirical demonstrations are central to the healing lines of faith healers. After persons claim to have received a healing, faith healers often command them to bend over and touch their toes, swirl their backs in circles to demonstrate a cure, or run across the stage to show that not only could they walk but could run after being confined for years to a wheelchair. Those deaf and dumb are often asked to parrot some simplistic expression that the preacher will call out, such as “baby,” “boy,” or “mama.” Others are asked to repeat “Thank you, Jesus,” “Hallelujah,” or “Praise the Lord.” These expressions vary little from faith healer to faith healer. Faith healers would often move several feet away from a person to demonstrate to an audience just how well the person can now hear (see Coe 1989f, for example).
On one occasion, in an attempt to demonstrate just how well-off a man with a bad back had become, A. A. Allen jumped into the man’s arms and commanded him to carry him across the stage (“It Is Finished” n.d.). On another occasion, after raising a man off a stretcher, Allen had him eat a ham salad sandwich and drink a carton of milk to demonstrate to the audience how he had been healed of stomach cancer (“Miracles Today” n.d.).
In his attempts to be empirical, Jack Coe was often rough with those who sought healings. It was not uncommon for him to place his hands on their neck and force them to bend their back frontward or ram his knee in their back and force them to bend backward to demonstrate that they were healed. Also, Coe frequently grabbed a person with a locked arm or shoulder and physically moved it up and down for the person to demonstrate to the audience that he or she was now healed. “Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down!” Coe would sometimes command an individual in rapid, repetitive fashion after freeing his or her arm. Coe also attempted to show how cancers would fall off people’s faces into his hands (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d., 1989c, 1989e).
Once after healing a woman with a goiter on her neck, Oral Roberts pulled at the woman’s throat and told the audience that the goiter was leaving because her skin was “loose and flabby” and “as smooth as it can be” (1955c). Roberts often affirmed to his television audiences that what they had seen was real. “Now after you’ve seen with your own eyes and felt with your own heart what God’s done for the people in the healing line tonight, I want to offer prayer for you personally there in your room for the Lord to heal you” (1955a).
Aware that many people were skeptical about what they were seeing, A. A. Allen once assured his television audience, “The camera picks them [miraculous healings] up just as they happen. Actually, it’s a part of the service” (“Skepticism” n.d.). Many other examples could be cited, but from William Branham through Gloria Copeland and Benny Hinn, faith healers relied heavily on persons to demonstrate in some physical way to those in attendance that they were healed. Apparently this strategy worked, judging by the immense applause and numerous outbursts of “Praise the Lord” or other expressions of exultation that one could hear at these healing revivals.
There is a problem, however, with these “empirical” demonstrations. Often onlookers have no idea of how severe a problem an individual has, if any at all. As I have argued previously, audiences are at the mercy of the individual’s testimony. They are asked to assume that the person is truly afflicted, and merely take their word for it. When a person throws away his or her crutches or stands up out of a wheelchair, audiences just assume the individual could not walk at all before. Who really knows, though, to what extent these individuals lack the ability to walk? Who really knows to what extent a person has arthritis, cancer, or any other ailment for that matter?
You Don’t Need Those Crutches Anymore
In addition to having people who supposedly were healed demonstrate their cures in an empirical way, some faith healers such as Jack Coe and Benny Hinn appealed to their audiences’ visual senses with references to abandoned medical apparatuses (e.g., crutches, canes, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks). These served as nonverbal symbols of inducement. Jack Coe intentionally displayed hundreds of crutches, strung on ropes around the inside of his tent, to show audiences that individuals had once come into the healing line on crutches but no longer needed them after being healed. In fact, at the beginning of Coe’s television programs, aired in the 1950s, the camera would pan the inside of the tent and a narrator would ask “what is the meaning” of these crutches and braces. He would then invite people to stay tuned so that they would find out for themselves (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.). Once when trying to persuade an audience to believe in what he was practicing, Coe brashly pointed to the medical apparatuses hanging around the tent and told an audience, “I want you to see all of those crutches and all of those braces, and all of those wheelchairs that came off people’s spines here in the city of Miami” (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.). No doubt Coe was using them as symbols to induce audiences to believe in miraculous cures.
Similarly, Benny Hinn employs “abandoned” medical aides to convince his followers. After calling out scores of healings in the audience, Hinn’s ushers begin to line the stage as quickly as is humanly possible with discarded wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen tanks, and crutches. No doubt these are placed there for a reason. Hinn wants everyone in attendance to see them. Empty wheelchairs, of course, imply that people are cured. They are symbols of healings, and Hinn understands this, which is why he has his ushers place them onstage for everyone to see. Once Hinn responded after seeing so many wheelchairs on the stage, “We have a traffic jam on the platform” (personal observation; Nashville, TN, October 23-24, 1997). The audiences, already worked into a frenzy, erupted in more praise and applause.
There is a limit, though, to what discarded medical aids one will see. They are limited to crutches, braces, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and the like. It’s interesting to note that one will never see prostheses such as artificial arms, legs, hands, teeth, eyes, or ears because, the fact is, these are never miraculously regenerated.
Let Me Entertain You
In his model of communication influence of media evangelists, Todd Lewis (1988) points out that one factor that makes a speaker so charismatic and hence persuasive is the speaker’s delivery. Elements such as “vocal force,” “rapid delivery,” and “nonverbal qualities,” such as, physical attractiveness, gestures, facial expressions, clothing, touch, and crowding, contribute to the selling of the miraculous. Audiences respond favorably to varied volume, pitch, and stress of certain words. Moreover, rapid delivery, interspersed with short pauses and repetition of key phrases (“Hallelujah, Thank you, Jesus!”), “forestall[s] the possibility of immediate critical analysis” and “short-circuits the reflective process” (106).
All of the faith healers of this study employed one or more of the above elements, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, in appealing to their followers. Physically, A. A. Allen was a dynamic preacher, often athletically jumping around in the pulpit. While preaching, he frequently jumped up and down on two legs while making a chopping motion with his right hand, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs. During his healing lines, more often than not he would grab an individual’s head with both of his hands or firmly place his index fingers in his or her ears, working them in a circular motion as he cast out some type of demon. Not since the days of Billy Sunday had America seen a more animated, acrobatic speaker in the pulpit.
After being introduced by his associate pastor Bob DeWeese, like a game show host, Oral Roberts would bound through a back door onto the stage with a smile on his face. No one had more spring in his step than did Roberts. Moreover, he was tall (ca. 6′2″), dark, and handsome. He was always impeccably dressed, as are all of the other faith healers in this study. While preaching, Roberts would place one hand in his coat pocket, pick up the four-foot-long chrome microphone stand with the other, and pace across the platform. He preached so adamantly that his black hair would frequently fall limp across his forehead. While healing people, he would sit in a fold-out chair, take off his coat, and lay his hands firmly on the forehead of an individual standing a few feet below him on another platform.
With a body like Santa Clause’s, Jack Coe was a large man, well over 235 pounds. He had a large stomach, which was noticeable, in part, because he often took off his suit coat in an attempt to stay as cool as he could. Due to his size, Coe did not jump around in the pulpit as did Allen. Instead he used his voice and facial expressions to emphasize his points. Coe also frequently repeated himself for the sake of emphasis. Once when defending his right to practice healing, he read from the Bible about Jesus’ ministry. With a sassy smirk on his face, Coe yelled that Jesus went about all Galilee preaching “and healing aaaaaaall manner of sickness and aaaaaaall manner of diseases with-out-a-license. I said with-out-a-license” (“Practicing Medicine without a License” n.d.). Coe’s nonverbal mannerisms and vocal inflection dared anyone to take issue with what he preached.
Benny Hinn is one of the most animated faith healers one will ever watch. His performances are nothing short of theatrical. In fact, Hinn once disclosed that when he is onstage, he is under “pressure to produce.” “People don’t come just to hear you preach; they want to see something” (Davis 1993, D7). If people “want to see something,” certainly Hinn does not disappoint them. Holding a cordless microphone in one hand, Hinn roams widely across the platform while preaching or calling out healings. He frequently takes off his coat and swings it around and around in lasso fashion while running across the stage to slay someone in the spirit.
Slaying people in the spirit is one of Hinn’s specialties. Like Ernest Angley, after Hinn places a hand on an individual’s forehead, the person falls backward into the waiting arms of an usher, trained to catch people. Oftentimes the ushers themselves fall out under the power of the spirit. Even Hinn will fall backward as if overcome by the Holy Spirit. Once I witnessed Hinn’s ushers catch him just in time before he crashed into the drum set. Audiences burst with sidesplitting laughter when they see such histrionics. Although critic Ole Anthony describes Hinn’s behavior as “goofy” (“Impact” 1997), audiences find him highly entertaining. It is doubtful that they could have a better time at a stand-up comedian’s concert.
Less dramatic in her stage presence than any of the above faith healers, Gloria Copeland is still a dynamic speaker, physically restrained but bold in speech nonetheless. Often she directs her comments forcefully and adamantly toward the devil himself. One woman in the audience of Gloria Copeland explained to me that she likes her so much because “she’s so powerful—dynamic.” When asked what she liked about Gloria Copeland, another woman replied, “Her strong faith. Her healing is real—very real!” In addition to her dynamism, Copeland is physically attractive. Standing approximately five feet five inches tall with smooth complexion and blonde, shoulder-length hair, Copeland is pleasing to the eye (personal observation, Nashville, TN, October 17, 1992).
Both Ernest Angley and William Branham were also forceful speakers. Although their power came more from their voices than from their physical presence, they still were entertaining to watch, especially when laying hands on an individual to be healed. There can be no doubt that part of the success of faith healers was due largely to the way they conducted themselves onstage, which was generally very entertaining.
In summary, the faith healers in this study attempted to sell the miraculous to uncritical, highly religious, not-well-educated audiences who were afflicted with various physical and emotional problems. Supposedly, these ailments were oftentimes the results of demons inhabiting people. Faith healers used a number of strategies, often consciously, to persuade those listening that miraculous healings were normative for the here and now. These included (1) testimonies of healers themselves of being miraculously cured, (2) claims of being miraculously called by God, (3) disavowing personal power while simultaneously giving God the credit, (4) references to various passages throughout the Bible, (5) use of examples seen by the faith healers themselves, (6) public testimonies of individuals who claimed to be healed in prior revivals, (7) empirical, physical demonstrations, (8) use of nonverbal artifacts, and (9) commanding stage presences of the faith healers.
The above strategies are powerful factors in persuading audiences that they can receive a miraculous cure, particularly when used in combination with each other. It is hard for unsuspecting religious followers to deny the claims that faith healers make when constantly bombarded with these rhetorical arguments, especially if a person has already exhausted all that medical science has to offer. Given the fact that humans will always suffer physical and mental afflictions, one should not look for faith healers to go out of “business” any time soon. In fact, it is doubtful that such will ever be the case. For now, at least, all over this country people continue to flock to large auditoriums, seeking relief, just as they fled in hordes into the tents of post-World War II faith healers, and as they came flocking to Jesus in the biblical narratives. Like the faith healers who evoke them, the expressions “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” will not likely fall silent any time soon.
The haunting fact, of course, that leaves us all wondering, is that despite the foibles of faith healers, and perhaps even because of some of the characteristics of their ministries, here and there individuals continue to claim indications that miracles happen, usually in other settings than the faith healer’s tent.