The gift and calling on his life were unquestionable, but with William Branham came controversy.
Some men are ‘a beacon to be avoided and not an example to be followed’, according to well-respected 19th-century churchman Bishop JC Ryle. The Old Testament heroes, Samson and Jepthah, were two such men. We cannot approve of all they did, and certainly we should not try to imitate them. Yet the Lord – in his sovereignty and wisdom – undoubtedly used them and we have to recognise his power and anointing upon their ministries.
The American prophet and evangelist William Branham was, to all intents and purposes, another such man. Initiator of the post-war healing revival, Branham was born into poverty in a dirt-floor log cabin in the hills of Kentucky in 1909. The first of ten children of Charles and Ella Branham, he was raised near Jeffersonville, Indiana.
William Branham’s family was nominally Roman Catholic but he had minimal contact with organised religion during his childhood. His father was a logger and an alcoholic, and William Branham often talked about how his upbringing was difficult and impoverished. A mystic from his youth, Branham reported divine visitations at ages three and seven.
Having left home at 19, William Branham worked on a ranch in Arizona. He claimed to have also had a short career as a boxer, winning 15 fights for a ‘Golden Gloves, Bantam Weights’ class. At the age of 22, however, he had a conversion experience that changed the direction of his life. Later he was ordained as an assistant pastor at a Missionary Baptist Church in Jeffersonville.
In 1933, Branham experienced a personal healing, and felt called to preach as an independent Baptist. The same year he preached to 3,000 people in a tent campaign in similarly named Jefferson, another town in Indiana, and later built Branham Tabernacle there. When his wife and baby died in 1937, Branham attributed their death to his failure to heed the call to conduct campaigns in Oneness (‘Jesus Only’) churches.
Branham claimed that throughout his later life he was guided by an angel who first appeared to him in a secret cave in 1946. Preaching to congregations of thousands (sometimes 20,000 would attend his meetings), his ministry was characterised by amazing manifestations of healing and the word of knowledge. Church historian David Harrell says of him: “The power of a Branham service… remains a legend unparalleled in the history of the charismatic movement.”
Deliverance from demons was all part of a Branham meeting. Before casting out evil spirits he would insist the congregation bowed their heads during the exorcism lest the spirits get in another person! Despite the apparent primitiveness of the approach, however, no one could doubt its effectiveness.
The American evangelist, TL Osborn, told of his visit to a Branham healing meeting: “I was especially captivated by the deliverance of a little deaf-mute girl over whom he prayed thus: ‘Thou deaf and dumb spirit, I adjure thee in Jesus’ name, leave the child.’ When he snapped his fingers, the girl heard and spoke perfectly.”
Very often, as people approached him in the healing line, Branham would describe their illness, other unknown information about them, and sometimes even call them by name. The gift, many people insisted, was 100 per cent accurate. Walter J Hollenweger, who interpreted for Branham in Zurich, said that he was ‘not aware of any case in which he was mistaken in the often detailed statements he made’.
The Canadian charismatic leader, Ern Baxter, who knew Branham well and worked extensively with him for seven years, also testified to the tremendous accuracy of his words of knowledge: “Before praying for a person, he would give accurate details concerning the person’s ailments, and also details of their lives – their home town, activities, actions – even way back in their childhood. Branham never once made a mistake with the word of knowledge in all the years I was with him. That covers, in my case, thousands of instances.”
According to Baxter: “Branham’s use of the word of knowledge actually started out as a phenomenon in his hand. He would take the hand of the person in his. Immediately at the base of his thumb, in the thick part of his hand, there would be a specific manifestation according to the sickness or need. From seeing the phenomenon so often, I began to pick up what these were and became adept at reading them. Tuberculosis was a light pink flush. Cancer was an angry red appearance in which the ball of his thumb just seemed to surge like a wave.”
In addition to his diagnoses of medical conditions, Branham had astounding insight into people’s hearts and motives. Baxter recounts that one time Branham came to a certain man in the healing line. He looked at him and said: “Sir, I see you have come into this line tonight to trick me. In fact, I see you last night in a room sitting around a table with four other ministers. You are a minister of such and such a denomination.” He then pointed up to the balcony and said: “Those four men sitting up there are your friends, and you plotted last night how to trick me. I was to tell you what was wrong with you, and you were going to deny it.” The men just turned around and fled the building!
On another occasion it was reported that Branham called about ten people who needed healing out to the front of the meeting. Speaking to the first woman in line he told her she would need to repent of her adultery if she wanted to be healed. The man behind the woman suddenly said: “Do you mind, sir! That’s my wife!” Branham looked at him and told him he needed to stop carrying on with his secretary. The couple each admitted their sin and Branham took some time to counsel them – and when he was ready to move on everyone else had sat down!
Many claims of supernatural manifestations were associated with Branham’s ministry. Perhaps the most famous is shown in a photograph taken of him on the night of January 24, 1950, during a debate between Branham, another healing evangelist, FF Bosworth, and a Baptist minister, regarding the biblical justification for healing. The photograph, the only one of its film roll that developed successfully, showed a light appearing above Branham’s head.
Gordon Lindsay, a member of William Branham’s ministry, made arrangements to have the photograph examined by George Lacy, a professional examiner of questioned documents who worked in Houston. Lacy, in his report, stated, “The negative submitted for examination was not retouched, nor was it a composite or double exposed negative.” Branham believed that the light was supernatural and was a verification of his ministry. A copy of the photograph is held in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
In contrast to the caricature of an image-minded evangelist, Branham lived and dressed modestly and even boasted of his youthful poverty. This endeared him to many people, who idealised him. He was self-conscious about his lack of education, but the simplicity of his messages had worldwide appeal. By acquiring Gordon Lindsay, editor of the ‘Voice of Healing’ magazine, as his manager in 1947 and also playing down his Oneness theology, Branham enjoyed popularity among Pentecostals and was also highly touted by the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International. However, support declined as his ideas became more and more unorthodox.
Branham’s insistence that believers baptised in the name of the Trinity must be re-baptised in the name of ‘Jesus only’ put him on the fringes, but other teachings plunged him into heresy. His doctrine of the ‘serpent’s seed’ taught that Eve’s sin involved sexual relations with the serpent. Those descended from the serpent’s seed were destined for hell, which, however, was not eternal. Only the seed of God – those who received Branham’s teaching – were predestined to become the Bride of Christ.
Branham proclaimed himself the angel of Revelation 3:14 and 10:7, and prophesied that by 1977 all denominations would be consumed by the World Council of Churches. To him, denominationalism was the mark of the beast.
In December 1965, Branham was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He lived for six days after the crash but died on Christmas Eve in a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. After his death it was reported that Branham’s followers expected him to be resurrected, some believing him to be God, others claiming him to be virgin-born. Even today he has his disciples. Branham’s life and ministry raises an obvious question: how could a man so gifted with a powerful prophetic anointing have fallen into such error and caused so much confusion among his followers? The first reason probably lies in Branham’s almost complete lack of education. The remarkable signs and wonders that followed his ministry could not disguise the fact that he was both academically and theologically illiterate.
Baxter recalled: “When he would speak, his English grammar was bad, and his theology worse. A lot of ministers gnashed their teeth and wrung their hands when he preached.” For such a man to try to teach doctrinal truth was, naturally speaking, courting disaster.
The second answer to Branham’s theological waywardness is that the ministry of the prophet and the teacher are different, and problems occur when any ministry oversteps its calling. The prophet might reason that, if God has given them genuine prophetic information about people’s lives, why shouldn’t he, in the same way, give them sound doctrine? But a prophetic gifting in no way guarantees the gift of teaching or sound doctrine.
Baxter said: “Branham saw himself as a teacher of some kind of ‘in’ truth. To me, some of it was quite esoteric. I became aware early in his ministry that there was a mixture. I urged him not to say some things in public. As long as we worked together he refrained. One of the reasons for my leaving him was that he was starting to say some seriously wrong things. I think there can be a lesson in this. Branham, as a miracle worker, had a real place. Branham, as a teacher, was outside of his calling. The fruits of his teaching ministry are not good.”
The antidote to the doctrinal problems Branham experienced is team ministry, with prophets and teachers working together; the prophets providing the vision and the drive while the teachers keep the show on the straight and narrow with sound doctrine.
Well known speaker and author, Mike Bickle, has wide experience of pastoring prophetic ministries and says: “When prophetic people and evangelists become separated from the local church, they become tempted to establish doctrine as a gifted teacher does, especially if they have a large following.
“Some of the unbalanced doctrine so widespread in the body of Christ has come from such people who have large followings through television and radio. They teach multitudes who have been gathered by the supernatural gifts of the Spirit that operate through them. However, if they don’t have a teaching gift that has been cultivated through proper training in the Scriptures, they are sure to teach unbalanced doctrine to their followers.”
Branham’s ministry stands as an encouragement and also as a warning. It shows us what can happen when a simple, uneducated man ministers in the power of the Holy Spirit under a prophetic anointing. But it also shows us the pitfalls that can happen even in the most powerful ministry.