As an adolescent girl, growing up under William Branham’s Message of the Hour, I stood poised before a great fall. Sometimes I felt a cold breeze rising from the pit in front of me. I knew that against my will I was edging closer, and would someday have no choice but to jump in. But I looked frantically for an outlet or a bridge, digging in my heels against the edges of the pit. The name of the abyss was womanhood.
I was taught that the Bible recognized three classes of people: men, women, and children. In God’s plan for the family, authority descended directly in that order. Men obeyed God, women obeyed men, and children obeyed all three. For those living within this scheme, God’s blessings were assured, but stepping out of line meant incurring a curse.
As I reached puberty, I became acutely aware that I was leaving one class for another. I was transitioning from childhood to womanhood, and the latter was not a class I wanted to join. As a child, I was never specially commanded to obey my male friends. I could assert myself if they tried to act “bossy,” and a parent would rebuke the offender. We were all equals as children; we all had to obey our parents. None of us had the right to order one another around. This was a short-lived world of equality, however. When my breasts began to bud at nine years old, I angrily flattened them with a tight sports bra, disgusted by the reminder of what I was to become. I wore that flat swath of spandex all the time, even to bed, although I sometimes endured shooting chest pains as my lungs struggled against the constriction. I set my jaw in disappointment, warding off the tears when my period arrived at age 11. I didn’t want to be a woman.
Women in my church had one purpose: the “highest calling” to which we could aspire was indeed our only acceptable calling. At our best, we could be “jewels” in the crowns of our husbands – pretty, docile objects men cherished and admired for their beauty. We were to be keepers at home, obedient to our husbands, clothed modestly with “shamefacedness and sobriety,” forever repaying Eve’s debt with the agonies of childbirth. William Branham taught that men and women were placed on equal footing before the fall, but also that Eve’s sin was a natural consequence of her creation as a “by-product” of Adam. She was defective from the start: not even a part of the original Creation, Branham said. Before the fall of Lucifer and his angels, God had allowed him to design one facet of the universe, the only thing He hadn’t already created: the woman’s body.
Branham taught that Lucifer, not God, was the architect of the female body, and, as a result, it was uniquely fashioned for sin. Unlike other animals, which relied on periodic “heats” in which they could conceive their offspring, the woman could have sex at any time, for pleasure. Moreover, Branham argued, in the animal kingdom, the male was always the prettier of the two sexes, but the natural order of things was reversed when Lucifer designed the woman to be more beautiful than the man. The lure of a woman’s body was Satan’s trap, and marriage was merely an escape valve provided by God to keep men from inevitably landing in hell.
As my body began to develop, I was thrown into a panic. I feared the eyes of men, but I especially feared my own curves, as William Branham taught that I could find myself guilty of adultery one day if, just once, some man’s eyes lingered too long on my frame. It wasn’t necessary that I participate in the sin – my presence as a temptation was enough to send us both to hell together, a leering stranger and me.
- “Did you know,” Branham asked in a 1956 sermon entitled
Father, the Hour has Come
- , “Jesus Christ said, ‘Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Does anybody know that? If I… And if you dress yourself sexy like, no matter how modest you think it is, and go out on the street, and some old sinner looks at you to lust after you, at the judgment bar you’ll be guilty of committing adultery with that man when he answers for it. Why is it?
It was you was the one done it. You presented yourself that way, so you are the guilty one. And you, no matter how virtuous and pure you’ve lived, you’ll be guilty before God of committing adultery with a sinner, just the same as you’d went through the act.
- Jesus said so. That’s not skim milk, brother; that’s the truth. It’s barbed wire. But it’s what God’s Word tells, it cuts and sharper than a two edged sword. I don’t know whether the pastor will appreciate that or not. But I’m telling you, my sister, at the judgment bar I’ll have to answer for it, and if I don’t say these things… I don’t care how many people say liberation of women, that’s a doctrine of the devil. And it’s not in this Bible. That’s right.”
Terror grew within me whenever I set foot outside. I donned heavy sweatshirts and refused to make eye contact with men, fearful that they might catch the hint of something alluring and damn us both. As my body blossomed, hiding it became harder and harder. But the warning echoed constantly in my ears: I could be committing adultery anywhere, anytime, without even knowing it.
As the child of an unbelieving father, I stood in a unique position. I had no ‘head,’ only my mother’s authority to obey. My father’s authority was severely weakened by his unbelief and even nullified if he tried to act against the Word of God. I luxuriated in the freedom I had compared to other girls, whose fathers hovered over them. I listened to a girl’s father lecture her not to wear her sweatshirt unzipped, lest she defraud men who might imagine the rest of her clothes coming off as well. ‘Put it on completely or take it off,’ the girl’s father said sternly. I often felt such disapproving eyes scanning my comportment, certain that if I had been their daughter, such looks would have been words instead. I recoiled at the very idea of my father controlling such intimate details of my life.
My father could not have fought harder against the Message. But he did nothing to soften the blow of the patriarchy or protect me from the constant scrutiny of my developing body. Indeed, he perpetuated it. One day he told me in a solemn voice that he, as a father, had the right to inspect my naked form to ensure that I was developing properly. “No, you don’t,” I protested. “You’re not a doctor.” But he was adamant: I was his, to do with what he liked. I hid myself ever deeper in baggy sweatshirts and wrapped my breasts ever tighter, locking myself in my room whenever he returned from work, emerging only for a torturous dinner. The night of his remark, I had the first of many recurring nightmares, in which my father ripped off my clothes and sliced the curves from my body with a carving knife. I kept my window open at night, reasoning that I could crash through the screen quickly if I ever needed to escape. I often wondered if the woods were deep enough for me to lose the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, my father lamented the fact that my mother’s modest dress and uncut hair meant he could no longer show her off to other men. He was furious, and his rage turned to abuse. I hid in my room, but I listened carefully to every word of his nightly howling invective, ready to detect a threat and to run for my life. I knew when he slapped her, but I could not call the police without crossing his path to get to the phone. The woods were alive with the hum of crickets and cicadas in the night. Our neighbors would never hear anything. I continued hiding and furtively praying.
Finally, he left. I learned that he’d found a girlfriend: a divorced prostitute from New York who participated in the cult of Santa Ria and had a daughter two years younger than I. His choice of woman only served to polarize the messages I was receiving from my church. Outside of their tight embrace lay sexual immorality and death. People who rejected God’s prophet naturally cleaved to the devil. My father was the living evidence.
In the stillness of our house without him, the Message grew louder. I felt disgusted with myself and increasingly terrified at not living up to the standards set by William Branham – God’s standards. The curvature of my hips began to show through the tight bike shorts I wore under my long, dense skirts, and my breasts grew more pronounced despite their frantic burial in fabric. Gaining weight only complicated my efforts to thwart an increasingly feminine figure.
I had learned to hate women. After all, God’s own prophet himself admitted that he hated us. Branham confessed in an interview that he had grown up watching his father’s dalliances at a moonshine still with unfaithful women and had learned to despise the female sex. He said,
- “But I remember when my father’s still up there running, I had to be out there with water and stuff, see young ladies that wasn’t over seventeen, eighteen years, up there with a man my age now, drunk. And they’d have to sober them up and give them black coffee, to get them home to cook their husband’s supper. Oh, something like that, I said, ‘I…This was my remarked then, THEY’RE NOT WORTH A GOOD CLEAN BULLET TO KILL THEM WITH IT.’ That’s right. And I hated women. That’s right. And I just have to watch every move now, to keep from still thinking the same thing.”
The only good woman, in Branham’s eyes, was an obedient wife – and even then, she was not to be trusted.
I pored over the Bible, desperate to find some outlet – I told myself I wanted to find something real. Maybe all this chaos meant that Jesus was trying to get my attention – maybe he would save me from the horror that was myself. As weeks and months went by with no answers to my screaming prayers, at last I hit rock bottom. In the still early hours of an autumn morning, I decided that I was going to fix my life once and for all. I was going to stop “messing around,” stop “sleeping,” stop all of those things my pastor cried out weekly that we must not do in these urgent end times. It was time to be serious about God. “Life is serious,” my pastor was fond of saying. This was why he only smiled during worship services.
I hastened to purge my life. I threw away my Pokemon collection, my videos, my music, my online friends. Nothing between my soul and the savior. I found a cool, peaceful silence in their absence: I had given away all that I had. Surely God would notice.
In the autumn of 2000, I stopped eating. Food represented all the selfish indulgence of my “sinful man,” the flesh that kept my soul from reaching communion with God. Food represented a fleshly desire, a near kin to sexuality, the tool of Satan. It was also the easiest thing to fix. Three things were broken: my weight, my family, and my relationship with God. I was determined to fix them all, and the easiest place to start was the dinner table. I was fourteen years old.
When I stopped eating, my period soon ceased. My breasts and hips subsided. Suddenly, I felt transported back to an imaginary, innocent childhood time. I was in a place filled with love and acceptance, generated by my own determination to immerse myself in the Spirit of God and to reject the flesh with all of its excessive “needs.” I was prepared not to live on bread alone, but alone on the Spirit. When hunger pangs struck and I felt irritable, I immersed myself in Scripture to purge the demons of dissatisfaction and anger from my mind and body.
What I found was an unexpected liberation. As my curves disappeared, I felt suddenly that I didn’t have to be a woman after all! I didn’t have to have that sultry, sinful shape that seduced my father away from the Message and caused him to abuse my mother. I could be ramrod straight: sexless, sinless, ascetic. If I didn’t have sex appeal, I was not that creature of Satan, cursed by God.
Even better, my newfound girlish body could not possibly bear children. I was saved from the life of toil, obedience and childbearing that awaited married women in the church. I could stay single, I realized, and be free. My father had left – if I didn’t marry, there was no one I needed to obey. I could spend my whole life free of a godly “head.” I could answer directly to Jesus, like a man would! I could minister to others, I could travel, I could see and reach out and love the whole world – as long as I never became a woman. And all I had to do was skip meals. This was easy! Without a period, I had circumvented Eve’s curse. I had found the secret to independence without rebelling against God. I had crucified the flesh and reaped freedom. God was surely blessing me now!
Nobody else saw it that way.
Sierra is a graduate student living in the Midwest. She left William Branham’s Message of the Hour in 2006 and enjoys a life of peace and freedom with her boyfriend and two cats.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.