William Branham never claimed to be a faith healer. That is, he claimed that it was the power of the individual’s faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that healed their diseases. Christ had finished the work; there was nothing left to do but believe. In a 1955 sermon entitled Jehovah-Jireh, Branham explained that faith was the force that brought healing to the believer:
If I could heal anyone, I’d come down here, and go to each one and heal everyone. I would, if I could. But I can’t. And there’s no other man can. And–and if Jesus was here, He could not, only if you’d believe. Look. That sounds strange, that Jesus could not heal unless you’d believe. When He went to His Own country, the Bible said, “Many mighty works He could not do, because of their unbelief.” Now, if He was standing here tonight on this platform, just like that you’re looking at us, and you’d come up to Him, and say, “Jesus, will You heal me?”
He’d say, “Child, can’t you believe that I have already done it on Golgotha? I paid for your sickness. If you believe, go and receive.”
For here’s what He said. “As thou has believed, so be it unto you.” He said, “Now, for Myself, I can’t do nothing. I do what the Father shows Me. The Father shows Me a vision, then I do what He tells Me. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Now, you just ask. It’s your faith. … Just go out believing and you get well. Isn’t that simple? It’s God’s love. Now, we will call a few people up here at the platform to pray for them. You know why I do that? Is to get the anointing, Spirit started among the people. It begins to build their faith. And as their faith comes up, He speaks to me, just like He did to the Lord Jesus. The woman that touched His garment and she went out in the crowd, Jesus said, “Someone’s touched Me.”
And everybody said, “Not me.”
And then He looked out; He seen the woman. He said, “Thy faith has saved thee.”
Now, it was her faith, not Jesus. She–she drew the power from–from God through Jesus. Now, watch and see if He doesn’t do the same thing. See? As soon as the Holy Spirit gets anointing the people, the prayer line as good as stops.
Believing was evidently an imperfect process, as I slowly watched the demon of cancer waste away the life of one of my dearest friends.
Pearl and Eamon were my Message-church grandparents. Their love story captivated us all: they’d met at six years old (like Sven and me, everyone not-so-subtly noted) and had a joyous marriage. They were still infatuated with one another forty years after their wedding day. Pearl was an inspiration to me in every way. She challenged her husband as much as she supported him. She regaled us with a robust sense of humor at every church luncheon, and she listened with genuine sympathy to our ills. She was well known for founding a support group for sufferers from a chronic gastrointestinal disease, ignoring the naysayers who accused her of leading men and dealing with the World. She and Eamon had just one son.
Patriarchy had not succeeded in suppressing Pearl’s energy, creativity or zest for living. I hinged my hopes for the future on her example: if she could exercise her own intelligence and independence within marriage, maybe one day I could be so lucky. Maybe I wouldn’t be stuck with a replica of my controlling father, asking permission for my every breath. Never once did I see Eamon give cause for Pearl to submit. He loved her as Christ loved the church, I thought. She never even needed to obey him. They were neither male nor female, head nor feet in Christ.
But it was my fate to watch their tragic separation, as the stomach pain Pearl suffered one summer turned out to be much more than the precociousness of her existing disease. The doctors could do nothing. I lay awake for those long summer weeks, praying desperately for her healing. What stands in the way of our faith? My mother and I wondered. God promised Brother Branham that not even cancer would stand in the way of the Bride of Christ, if only we would believe. I felt a growing hopelessness as Pearl was admitted to hospice, and rebuked myself in terror, lest my unbelief pollute our church and hinder her healing. My mother shared my thoughts, however, revealing that she thought God had other plans this time.
When at last Pearl died, I felt a part of me detach. I no longer had reason to believe that divine healing was more than cruel chance, taking the profane and the beautiful without regard for the damage left behind. But in Pearl I also lost my future self: no more was there an example of a woman in the Message who thought and did for herself. I burrowed still deeper into a bodily regimen in the effort to stave off womanhood. I would not eat, I would not grow, I would not be enslaved. I would die first.
Meanwhile, my pastor preached, as he had often done, that mental health, like physical health, was a promise of the Holy Spirit. There was no room for depression or fear in the minds of the elect – indeed, they were signs of the absence of the Holy Spirit. “He has promised us a spirit of power and of a sound mind,” pastor Jacob frequently reminded us in a sober voice. He went on to warn us of the perils of seeking worldly counsel. His sister saw a psychiatrist every week, he explained, and her worldly counselor only enabled her to blame her parents for her problems rather than taking responsibility for her own sins. This story was taken as a word from God in my household.
“I don’t believe in counseling,” my mother told me on the single occasion when I was so foolish as to bring up my depression. “God promised us a sound mind. Just pray to Him for deliverance. Worldly counselors just teach you to blame others for your problems.” I never mentioned it again, fearing that admitting any instability of mind would immediately reveal to her that I didn’t have the Holy Spirit. I owed it to every midnight breakthrough and morning profession of faith not to admit that I was afraid I didn’t have it. My every outward move must reflect the change that Christ had wrought in my heart – even though I’d never known another kind of heart – lest I be revealed as a corrupter, or worse yet, as the Serpent’s Seed. Some new births are not so dramatic, it was rumored, especially for kids growing up in the Message. They’ve never had the chance to grieve the Lord like their parents. I often wished I had – then, at least, I’d be able to point at the date of my conversion and feel assured that my life was, after all, not the same.
I strove harder. I ate less.
My mother was furious. My grandmother was furious. I was sworn at, cajoled, and commanded, yet I felt a desperate power in resisting. I alone knew what this “personal walk” meant for me. I knew what I had not to eat. We lived now in my grandparents’ basement, having been ejected from our home of seven years when my father left to pursue his affair. My mother struggled for several months to make up the rent payments by foster parenting, but ultimately failed. We supported ourselves by selling our belongings until there was nothing left to sell. At last we returned to my grandparents’ door, paupers. I hung long curtains from the basement window in my room in the effort to pretend my view consisted of more than the underside of a garden shrub. We were expected to share my grandparents’ dinner every evening. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let them control what I ate: they were dead set on making me fat. I adhered strictly to what I could measure: no rogue food passed my lips. I rinsed the powder from my chewing gum to cut down on the calories. When it was dinnertime, I would hide. I rose at 6AM to do my schoolwork, then immersed myself in Scriptures and the Message, pausing only to entertain myself by writing fiction. On other days, I simply worked.
Reactions to my shrinking figure from people in the church were initially positive. Even my mother once commented on my waiflike figure and long, trailing hair: “You look like one of those lovely, pretty Message girls.” I was engulfed by the persistent belief that Christ could make one beautiful: the glow of the Holy Spirit was to endow us with a beauty beyond our mortal frames. Others were to look at us and wonder at the supernatural glory we radiated. “Hollywood glitters,” ran a famous Message saying, “but the Gospel glows.”
People commented on my grace and maturity as I set about desperately reforming my attitude. I would be sweet. I would be kind. I would let Jesus rule my every thought, word and deed. I immersed myself in scripture and tearfully apologized to my parents for my sinful attitude of rebellion and anger. I felt a thick knot of rage welling up against the injustice of my plight even as the words of penance rained from my lips: I was apologizing for my anger with the man who had abandoned my family – yet I suppressed it, swallowed it, indeed rebuked it in the name of Christ. Satan was the author of anger, and bitterness would bar me from the Rapture. My father hugged me, and I gloried in my own humiliation. I was crucifying my flesh. A part of me still burned with indignation as I handed over a thousand dollars to my father, all of my earnings for a year’s work in a bakery, to pay one small fraction of his massive debts. Jesus would give away all that he had, I thought. My father had asked – I had no right to refuse. Yet I would never be able to buy a car now.
“Sierra is getting so mature,” I overheard adults saying. They commented on my air of serenity. My father praised me for my patience. All the world seemed to approve, at first. I finally looked and behaved as a Message girl should.
But there was a hitch in my master plan. People were growing suspicious of me. One year, I spontaneously bought presents for my friends: all of the people in my youth group, numbering about ten. The problem lay in the fact that I had given presents to girls and boys alike, and one of those boys read deeper into my present that I’d ever thought possible or desirable. A five dollar radio from the clearance shelf at Ames seemed to have translated into a gesture of romantic intent, and the church was abuzz with Jonathan’s newly awakened interest in me.
I was mortified. Jonathan was a narrow, bespectacled character seven years my senior. He was part of the “youth group” simply because he inserted himself there, despite the fact that he was in his early twenties. I knew him for correcting every grammatical mistake that might slip into my colloquial speech, and for the perfect SAT scores of which his doting mother never ceased to boast. I began to avoid him, and the church began to notice. Sympathetic figures whisked me away when they saw him coming. Other times, I answered his queries in a monotone and escaped to the bathroom. I wondered if I could eat so little he would really cease to notice me. I was also humiliated to note that the church elders had noticed my avoidance of the young man, and several mothers commented that this was causing a scandal. I withdrew still further, sitting alone in my mother’s car or talking to no one but my old friend Sven and my younger friends, Rachel’s children. And still I grew thinner.
Eventually, my thinness became a subject of general concern.
“Turn sideways,” Eamon instructed me playfully one day. I complied, and he asked, “Where’d you go?” I walked away, confused by the encounter.
Jonathan’s mother, her interest piqued by her son’s, began to follow me, handing me copies of Above Rubies excerpts she had personally printed out, if not whole magazines themselves. I discretely took them home and threw them in the trash. I sensed that she was perpetually measuring me for my potential as a producer of grandchildren for the Lord’s army. On more than one occasion, I turned to find her round eyes boring into the back of my head, and once exited the sanctuary to find myself yanked by the elbow into the adjoining bathroom before I could identify my assailant. “Sierra,” she rebuked in a harsh whisper. “I can see your thighs!” It was Donna, Jonathan’s mother. She hastily drew a safety pin from her purse and pinned shut the back of my baggy denim jumper, which was slit to the base of the knee. Thus repaired, I waddled from her clutches to the car, rolling my eyes with my back to her face. I did not speak.
It was from Donna that would come the most eye-opening criticism of my decision not to eat. “You know,” she said, cornering me against a vending machine with an air of invested concern, “a woman needs to have some fat on her hips in order to bear children.”
Involuntarily, I laughed. “That’s great news,” I said with magnanimity, basking for a moment in her dumbfounded stare. “I don’t plan on having any children. The Lord is calling me to be single. I am going to serve Him as a truck driver and spread the gospel across the country.” She stammered in shock as I excused myself, hastily greeting a friend. Inwardly I thought, with a stab of realization at my own small worth, No one cares whether I’m hurting myself. All they really want from me is my womb. That’s all they think I am. I am nothing but a walking womb.
With Pearl gone, and Donna’s intensive focus drawn upon myself, I withdrew from the social throng of the church. I became increasingly dependent on Sven, newly returned from his three years in a Connecticut church, in order to endure the whirlpool of misdirected emotions in our peer group. I hid under his wing from the attentions of Jonathan and the assaults of his mother.
Little did I know how effectively Sven’s wings were clipped.
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.