When a cult leader is not a cult leader (1)

So I was wrong in my recent post: I haven’t finished on Pentecostalism yet. I want to bring Jesus into the picture.

Back in the early 1970s, Father Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning was required reading for us keen young Christians (though for some reason I never read it). Bennett is credited with making the Charismatic experience mainstream, after he announced to his Episcopalian congregation that, quietly in prayer with a couple of others in his living room, he had received the baptism of the Spirit and the gift of tongues “as a real language with grammar and syntax.”

This “index case” poses some problems, firstly in that no scientific study has ever identified actual language in Charismatic tongues, but also in that good Bible scholars agree that any experience of the Spirit subsequent to conversion (as in this case) cannot be described as the “Spirit Baptism” of Acts, and that few Charismatics now agree with Bennett that tongues speaking is the inevitable mark of such a baptism. These are “traditional” Pentecostal understandings that Bennett had obviously already imbibed, perhaps through reading, even if the experience he had was, itself, private. It’s intriguing that the current takeover of Evangelicalism by Pentecostal theology should be based on such a confused description. But all that aside, there would be little concern amongst believers about people receiving a deep experience of God at some opportune time, or even being blessed by glossolalia.

The problem, as I’ve described in the post linked above and elsewhere in my series, is the “programming” of Charismatic experiences and understandings into intense settings for suggestion like Alpha Courses and revival meetings, and the apparently irresistible gravitational pull towards ever more spectacular phenomena, prophecies, miracles and novel teachings to prepare for a final spectacular revival before Christ’s return. These are almost invariably linked to strong individuals running lucrative ministries by exercising mind-control and, very often, much worse abuses, as I will now document.

The currently most influential flavour is the New Apostolic Reformation of Bethel Redding (seeking to bring a church near you under Bill Johnson’s apostolic authority), IHOPKC (Mike Bickle, the latest to be found guilty of sexual and spiritual abuse), and so on. But this movement overlaps a whole range of similar but confusing movements like the Manifest Sons of God, Joel Army, the Latter Rain Movement, and so on back to the post-war Message organisation of arch-huckster, William Branham, leader of the post-war healing movement, of whom more anon. All exhibit the same pattern of authoritarian leadership and systematic deception.

But in fact, the pattern of sexual, spiritual and financial abuse, stage magic and near-hypnotic suggestion goes right back, sad to say, to the originators of the Pentecostal Movement like John Dowie, Charles Parham and William Seymour. We seldom hear that the movement has its roots not only in the Holiness sects of the nineteenth century, but in Christian Science and British Israelism (the latter leading, in many branches including Branham’s, to a racism that regarded only whites as the holy seed of Israel, and excluding blacks and Jews from salvation). Branham even had links to the Ku Klux Klan. Pretty well all the bizarre proofs that God is “doing a new thing like we’ve never seen” at the end of time were reported in the press in the Los Angeles Azusa Street events of 1906-8. The New Thing is Old Hat.

Just as, when investigating disciples of the occult from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, the name of Aleister Crowley always seems to crop up, so William Branham’s name is usually in the DNA of whatever abuses of Charismatic theology appear across the world, at least after the Second World War. He was the first to have an invisible angel in his stage show (which he blasphemously said was Jesus himself), and finally he even claimed the distinction of being God incarnate. This made his sudden death in a road accident in 1965 more than devastating for his followers, as he was expected to have revealed the necessary means for them to prepare for the Rapture. Indeed, they delayed his funeral in the vain hope that he would be resurrected.

None of this has harmed his movement, The Message, which claims still to have 2-4 million followers worldwide. Charismatic writers seem to put any problems in his ministry down to his later followers, ignoring a wealth of historical research by ex-cult members.
This diagram (click to enlarge), from the William Branham Historical Research website, gives an incomplete picture of some of the connections to and from Branham.

To extract and extrapolate a few threads, Branham’s right-hand-man in later years was Paul Cain, who went on to lead the Kansas City Prophets before his eventual exposure as a false prophet and longtime user of male prostitutes, as well as a CIA agent, apparently.

It was Cain who was most instrumental in John Wimber’s founding of the Vineyard Signs and Wonders movement that really embedded supernatural gifts into Evangelicalism: I heard him speak at the last Spring Harvest I attended, the only one where audience members fell over. Wimber seems to have been more honest than most of these leaders, but still regarded Kathryn Kuhlman as his role model and had a dismal record of failed prophecies and healings, including wrongly predicting David Watson’s cure from cancer, and a revival in Britain that never happened.

The pastor of the KC Prophets in their prime was the aforementioned recently-disgraced Paul Bickle, but Bob Jones, another of the prophets, was also found guilty of sexual abuse many years ago. Bethel is a direct descendant of their influence, and holds William Branham to be a spiritual father.

I know it’s hard to keep up with all this, but below is a picture of Bethel-endorsed prophet Jeff Jansen “grave-sucking” Branham’s tomb. Jensen founded and led the NAR Global Fire Ministries, and followed the apparently standard apostolic path of wrongly predicting Trump’s re-election, being found guilty of sexual and financial misconduct, leaving his wife, family and church and starting up in Charismatic ministry again elsewhere, only to die suddenly in 2022 at the age of 59.

Jeff Jensen claiming the mantle of William Branham, and perhaps receiving it

John Wimber’s Vineyard, through council member Randy Clark, in turn gave rise to the Toronto Blessing. Clark claimed the phenomenon had been prophesied by the Kansas City Prophets a decade previously. The manifestations were carried over to Holy Trinity Brompton here in the UK, and its spirit lives on in the Holy Spirit weekend of Nicky Gumbel’s Alpha. Paul Cain and Bob Jones even ran a fortnight of meetings at HTB, wrongly prophesying an imminent revival in Britain. Most British Charismatic leaders (with the notable exception of my old boss at Prophecy Today, Clifford Hill) signed a statement affirming the God-given authenticity of the KC Prophets, for which they appear never to have repented. It was published in Renewal in October 1990, and read:

We believe they are true servants of God, men of sound character, humility and evident integrity…We have no doubt about the validity of their ministry… and encourage as many as possible to attend the conferences to be held in Edinburgh, Harrogate and London in the autumn of this year, at which they will be ministering.

The signatories included Gerald Coates (Pioneer), Graham Cray (St Michael-le-Belfry), Roger Forster (Ichthus), Lynn Green (YWAM), David McInnes (St Aldate’s, Oxford), Sandy Millar (Holy Trinity, Brompton), John Mumford (South West London Vineyard), David Pytches, Brian Skinner, Teddy Saunders, Barry Kissel (St Andrew’s, Chorleywood), Terry Virgo (New Frontiers International), Ann Watson (widow of David Watson), Rick Williams (Riverside Vineyard, Teddington). The problem is not simply that of being deceived, but of being convinced that the Holy Spirit of Truth has given you supernatural discernment that turns out to be completely deceived.

The chief “revivalist” of the Brownsville revival, Steve Hill, carried the phenomena back to America from HTB, and Brownsville in turn gave way to the Lakeland revival (also inspired by the Toronto Blessing) under the now serially disgraced “biker revivalist” Todd Bentley. (Bentley is another grave-sucker who was told by Jesus to visit John Knox’s grave because Knox had a ministering angel, later assigned to William Branham, and now to Bentley. Needless to say nothing in Knox’s writings suggests angelic visitations.) All the people involved in these shenanighans have endorsed each other, not just as “sound,” but even as veritable apostles and prophets worthy of obedience by God’s people.

William Branham’s own prophetic endorsements are even more horrendous: he endorsed Jim Jones who massacred hundreds with poisoned Kool-Aid in the People’s Temple cult in 1978, and he endorsed David “Moses” Berg, whose Children of God is yet another sex cult, involving paedophilia. Worse still, Branham endorsed one Paul Schäfer whilst in Germany, a paedophile who went off to found a Branhamite sect in Chile, Colonia Dignidad. This excelled the COG by not only abusing, but torturing children, and building up an intelligence network that spied on, and so controlled, all its members, and apparently most of Chile’s thinkers too. Better still, the colony became a state torture centre under General Pinochet, who was a friend of Schäfer. You see what fun and blessing we miss if we resist the full release of the Pentecostal Spirit in our lives?

Now as I have been exploring this glorious spiritual heritage, I wondered how on earth it has become the unconscious mainspring of current Evangelical spirituality, replacing stick-in-the-muds like Luther, Calvin, Richard Baxter or John Owen, whose take on the Holy Spirit was poles apart from it. I thought of the thousands deeply involved in the cults over the years who have thought they were experiencing the power of God and the teachings of heaven, even after their apostles and prophets were dead or disgraced. There are millions across the world who believe their experiences to be of God, rather than of suggestion and mind-control by ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. Or if that statement is unjust, then the alternative truth is that the highest spiritual experiences Christians can ever receive have been restored by, and are primarily mediated through, sexual, financial and spiritual predators. Who would have thought?

And I thought of the millions of Charismatics in our churches who have no idea about any of this, and take the scandals amongst pastors and apostasy amongst worship leaders as simply the human failings of, otherwise, supremely godly and Spirit-filled saints. Nobody really stops to think why their mutual preening should be taken as any kind of evidence of their authority, or to care that Scripture teaches such a different spirituality. Tales of spiritual gifts beyond their experience and unimaginable spiritual ecstasies are sufficient to keep them watching the videos, buying the books and albums, and longing for God to zap them in the same way.

But then I had a far more sobering thought. If critical investigation shows these global leaders of the last 120 years to be a bunch of corrupt charlatans and deluded patsies, what might I discover if I subject the Jesus of the Bible to the same standard of examination? Will I find he is just another cult leader, to whom I have devoted my entire life for no longer than many cult members have served the Branhams and the Cains, for purely psychological reasons? If the cult of Parham has lasted 120 years, might not the cult of Jesus last for 2000?

Actually, I already know enough to dismiss any doubt on this score without a formal hearing, but perhaps it will be a valuable exercise to make such a critical inquiry anyway. Unfortunately, laying the groundwork has used up all the space for a manageable article, so I will return to this investigation in the next post. I somehow think that, even if we allow for the possibility that apostles were dupes in a cult under the control of a Svengali-like Jesus, we’ll find someone very, very different from the Parhams, Branhams, Cains and Bentleys, the hypocrisy of whom I have only sketched here.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to When a cult leader is not a cult leader (1)

  1. Ben says:

    I’ve touched on this in a previous comment (what experience of God’s reality can we hope for if the Charismatic hopes are dashed?), and your “sobering thought” chimes with thoughts I’ve been having since.

    What faith is available to those who aren’t epistemologically inclined? Who don’t want to read 3 volumes of apologetics to convince themselves that the possibility of God is worth risking? Jesus’ fisherman disciples presumably weren’t philosophers, but things were different for them, as they grew up in a culture imbibed with God’s reality, and Jesus reached them with fish and healing (as well as who he was), not high-falutin’ reasoning.

    I suspect that the secret is intellectual humility? Not just for oneself, but the whole of humanity. Those of us who have been steeped in a scientific, materialist culture think that ‘we’ know everything, or at the very least, we think that there is nothing that cannot, or could not, be understood and explained by ‘us’. That’s a faith-based stance too.

    But pushing back on that is tricky, because at least superficially, arguing for that kind of confession of ignorance looks very much like the “to be a Christian you have to commit intellectual suicide” accusation that I remember from my CU days.

    Thinking about this reminded me of Sir Gibbie. I suspect for ‘intellectuals’ like me, learning a simple faith is akin to camels and eyes of needles. Lord, have mercy.

    Really should read Sir Gibbie again.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Very valid thoughts, Ben. The Charismatic experience is, often overtly, deliberately promoted as opposed to the intellect (notably recently by Bill Johnson of Bethel), and that has been the attraction to “experimental religion” since Wesley’s day in the midst of Enlightenment rationality. “Heart religion is better than head religion.”

      Yet I’ve been very struck, reading Romans 8, that Paul speaks of experience in the form of the Spirit of Sonship etc, but as the birthright not of those seeking more of God, but of everyone belonging to Christ, since by definition all have the Spirit. As it happens I wrote a little on that yesterday, for myself rather than for publication, thus:

      Romans 8 is a key passage, though not directly mentioning “baptism” in the Spirit, but echoing 1 Corinthians in asserting that life in Christ simply IS life led by the Spirit within. Ergo, not baptised in the Spirit = not a believer. Yet the very fact of Paul’s exhortation to choose the Spirit rather than the tempting flesh shows that he has no concept of ecstatic “MORE MORE MORE of God,” but a matter of faith, will and perseverance in simple holiness of life.
      Now, this must surely be true of vv15-17, which does not ask us to seek an experience of sonship, but assures us that we have the Spirit of sonship already. If by this Spirit we (in our own spirit) cry, “Abba, Father,” it is surely not because we have a sudden experience of overwhelming love (not to deny that can happen), but because our faith includes assurance of Sonship, as it includes assurance of forgiveness, of Christ’s Lordship, and so on. In part, at least, we must cultivate that Spirit of sonship by practising prayer to our Father, just as we cultivate Spirit holiness by practising the mortification of sin.
      Compare: everyday experience assures me that I am my earthly father’s son. When I was small I admired him and asked for stuff and had great times of closeness. Now he is dead and I am old I remember his good qualities with fondness. But he never made me fall down, laugh hysterically or gabble nonsense.

      Early Pentecostals believed that conversion was in three stages: faith, entire sanctification, and finally Baptism in the Spirit (shades of David Pawson there). But it didn’t end there, both from schisms in the movement and, since Branham, with the worm on the hook of some even newer thing that would deliver the experience we crave – and now that is the empty promise of the NAR.

      But Paul assumes that true conversion has delivered all that we need already. What the Evangelicals called “the means of grace” through imbibing the word, the sacraments, prayer and fellowship (“Be filled with the Spirit as you address each other in spiritual songs,” etc), and of course service can connect us with the sense of God. English Puritanism (forget the Blackadder parody) was deeply “experimental,” yet without seeking either sign gifts or a second (or third) blessing.

      I think you’re right that materialistic naturalism has queered the pitch by making “intellectual faith” the kind of arid desert to which the Charismatic is a response. Functionally, we can all too often be materialists to whom a veneer of (genuine) faith has been applied, but we’re afraid to see God in every turn of creation and providence, as well as being rather ashamed of emotion. So re-enchantment is very necessary, but (in my humble opinion) Pentecostal theology is ultimately a false trail.

      The magic is in the very dust on the ground (Thomas Traherne), every tasty hamburger (the Didache), every common task (George Herbert), and every waking from sleep: “New every morning is the love/ our wakening and uprising prove” (John Keble).

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