Sunday, August 8, 2010

Not exactly Steve Martin in Leap of Faith"...but

Recently I was travelling in the US and passed through Jeffersonville, Indiana a couple of times. The name kept nagging at my memory, but I couldn't figure out why. Sitting here tonight I realized that it was because of its association with William Marrion Branham (wikipedia here) and the pentecostal/christian offshoot that he started.
William Marion Branham

Having been at one time a researcher of obscure Pentecostal and Charismatic groups there was a time where this would have been the focus of my trip. Branham was one of the key members of the Healing revival of the 1950's and as such was a role model for such men as Oral Roberts, Moris Cerullo and Benny Hinn even if they may be somewhat reluctant to admit it today.

The whole idea of evangelists having a special "word" for people in the audience (such as we see Martin doing in Leap of Faith) was popularized by Branham (it was claimed an angel spoke to him) and many healings (and even a resurrection or two were credited to him.

Yet he is hardly known now-except by those involved with churches that recognize him as God's last great Messenger who will usher in the return of Christ to earth. Members believe that his every sermon and teacher were inspired by god and should be treated as such and that in spite of his death in 1965 his words must be followed to be one of the members of the true church that Christ is coming to save from this wicked world.

This in spite of the fact that his prophecy that the world would end by 1977 didn't happen (it has since been reinterpreted by those who keep the "faith" going, and at the same time make their living selling printed copies and audio recordings of Branham's sermons, along with relics of his ministry).

I believe it is likely that some healings can be credited to him, either through the placebo effect, or the power of suggestion, both of which have shown surprising degrees of effectiveness in clinical trials. His avoidance of scandal and Sam Walton-like lifestyle set him apart from many of the more extravagant and flamboyant evangelists who were the basis of Martin's character.

Nontheists can use Branham's ministry as a case study of what a group of believers is willing to accept after 15 years of exposure-from a good man who preaches and heals people to god's true messenger whose very words are inspired scripture. Worshiped by true believers broken away from their mainstream religion and waiting from everything to be set right and god to vindicate them.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the story of Jesus, doesn't it? Branham's ministry can give us insight into how a myth forms, how people rationalize failed prophecies and gaps in teaching and how people go on believing long after long after the myth should have died out (with a little help from those who profit from keeping it alive of course).

While I'm glad that my embracing a nontheist mindset means that I have more important things to do than research church history, it might be good for those seeking to clear the minds of typical christians to look at Branham in order to better understand why religion and its bizarre claims can so capture people's thinking-after all, there aren't any first century jews around to ask.

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