Sharing the Message with someone for the first time is a terrifying process for the believer. You’ll never see Message folks picketing a funeral like the Westboro Baptist Church, or handing out tracts in the mall. The Message is usually transmitted from friend to friend, in a sober, cautious way.
“The Message is heavy,” my mother explained to me recently. “I didn’t want to share it with [my friend], but she kept pulling it out of me. I didn’t want to scare her away. And it was the same when [my other friend] shared it with me. I was the one who asked for it all the time. I had to drag it out of her.”
Believers speak frequently of introducing the ideas of the Message slowly: spiritual “babies” are only able to stomach the “milk” of the Word of God. The “milk” is the gospel: the love and forgiveness of Christ, His desire for a personal relationship with you, and the joy of recognizing your place as His Bride. The “meat” of the word, however, is the stuff usually saved for last: matters of marriage and divorce, the destruction of the world, the order of the church and the family. Message believers share this material reluctantly, carefully, and almost mournfully. It marks the maturity of the believer if they are able to accept Message doctrines on these matters: the end of the innocence of baby faith.
Moving up from spiritual infancy is a solemn process, and believers take up their roles as mentors to their “spiritual children” with trepidation. Although every mentor embarks on the journey of witnessing with intense prayer and consideration, there is a general order and pattern to the materials shared with the new believer.
An initiate will almost certainly begin by reading the Supernatural series of books, written by Message believer Owen Jorgensen. These books tell the story of Branham’s life in an inviting, simple prose that tries to acquaint the reader with the spirit of the man and his encounters with the supernatural (hence the title), saying little about his weightier teachings. I read these as they were being written, and as a child I found them accessible, even pleasant. They were less “preachy” than some of the children’s literature I was reading, like the wretched Elsie Dinsmore. They are the safest possible introduction to the Message, as they present the image of a modest, humble young man harangued by the calling of God until at last he obeyed and began to preach the truth, even though he was often scared and confused along the way. Branham is presented as a brother: a gentle man, relentlessly used by God. One learns to like and sympathize with Branham from the start.
During or shortly after an introduction to the life of William Branham will follow a discussion of the “signs and wonders” that “vindicated” his ministry. The cloud pictured above is one of them. Message believers have rotated and superimposed the outline of the cloud over the Heinrich Hofmann’s “Head of Christ at Thirty-Three” painting, which Branham described as the most accurate depiction of Christ he had ever seen according to his visions (who knew, Christ really was a northern European!). They also claim that the cloud was formed by the appearance of seven angels arranging themselves in a constellation over Branham while he was at prayer in the wilderness.
The cloud was actually the smoky remnant of a Cold War test missile explosion in 1963, which caused something of a stir amongst observers who could not immediately explain its appearance at a previously unrecorded height of 26 miles. Pictures of the Cloud appeared in Time magazine, and many Message believers have original or reproduction pages of this issue framed on their walls or in their churches. The government was not exactly forthcoming about its operations during that very tense and unstable decade, but scientists were eventually able to determine that the origin of the cloud was not supernatural. John Kennah, a former follower of the Message, has a more detailed explanation of the cloud hoax here.
In addition to the mysterious cloud, “signs” include the ability of Branham to tell people in his prayer line what illnesses they had and what sins they’d committed. (These two facets of their lives were highly intertwined, as I’ll discuss in a future post.) These signs, he claimed, was to raise their faith sufficiently so that they’d have enough faith to accept their healing from Christ.
A thorough investigation of believethesign.com, a website jointly published by volunteers from a number of Message churches in the US and Canada, reveals only tantalizing shreds of information about Branham’s doctrines through the lens of prophecy, revelation, and healing. In other words, there’s not a single explicit page containing a full statement of beliefs. While it’s well known that Branham rejected creeds, there are a number of (mostly written, but some unwritten) codes of belief and behavior amongst Message churches that are never explicitly stated to the curious new believer, for fear that full exposure to the “meat” of the Message will “choke” the spiritual infant.
Some of the doctrines not revealed up front are these:
-Complete female subjection to male “headship” is required, whether to one’s father or husband. This is actually the foundational concept of Branham’s theology, as the sermon “Choosing a Bride” reveals that “earthly” marriages are constructed to reveal the relationship of Christ to the church. Women are to behave toward their husbands as the church behaves toward Christ: in obedience and servitude, and especially in pregnancy and childbearing. This is meant to reflect the plan of salvation.
-Branham taught that women receiving the vote was an “evil thing,” that women would usher in the end of the world by voting for “the wrong person,” and that women’s bodies were designed by Lucifer to tempt men into sin.
-Education for both young men and women (but especially women) is strongly discouraged. Branham frequently criticized denominational pastors for their seminary degrees, teaching that education led to a generation of self-reliant “stuffed shirts,” ignorant of God. I knew girls who were forbidden to enter even a Christian college in another state because they would be “too far from their fathers’ headship.” College is deemed unnecessary for women, as Branham all but forbids women from holding a job outside the home.
-Men are allowed to get divorced (in case of adultery or finding out his bride wasn’t a virgin after they are married) and remarry, but women cannot divorce and cannot remarry until their previous husband dies. This is due to the “natural law of polygamy,” which Branham taught was a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden.
-Message women are not allowed to trim their hair, wear makeup, wear pants, wear skirts shorter than their knees, wear sleeveless tops, disobey their husbands, hold any position of authority over men (including as police officers, teachers, or coaches of any kind, let alone as pastors or song leaders), or (barring infertility) refuse to have children.
-Message believers may not listen to “worldly” music (including much Christian contemporary music with a discernible beat), watch TV or “worldly” movies, listen to secular radio, or (often) play video games.
-Message youth may not date (they must “court” their prospective partners under constant surveillance by parents or siblings until the wedding day itself). Message married couples often brag that they never even held hands before their wedding day.
This is just a hint of many doctrines we’ll discuss on this site. Being a woman, I’m more aware of the restrictions on women’s lives than on men’s, but the demands of fitting into the patriarchal mold of father and provider place unnecessary strain on men, as well. The complementarian model of marriage promoted by the Message allows for only one kind of family: a subservient wife and a leading husband. This model does not match all personalities, and can do serious damage to the relationships of real people on the ground. I’ve known easygoing men tormented by feelings of inadequacy when they could not bring themselves to order their wives around, and wives who insisted they must not be submitting enough because their husbands never told them to do anything! Worse yet, I’ve witnessed families caught in an endless cycle of abuse and codependence when a too-controlling father was given the carte blanche to make house slaves of his wife and children. All of this will be addressed in due time.
For now, it’s important to note that the new believer is not exposed to any of this. “You can’t teach a baby how to dress,” it is commonly said. Therefore, women who enter the Message aren’t deliberately rebuked for wearing earrings or shorts. They are gradually surrounded by the ideal of beauty promoted by the Message – naturally “pure” and virginal young women, without makeup or worldly hairstyling, until they begin to make changes to match that ideal themselves because they feel so out of place.
Another common phrase is, “You can’t teach someone algebra who doesn’t know his ABCs,” which is used to discourage new converts from delving too deeply into the “mysteries” of the Message. The Message is replete with ancient Hebrew and mystic symbolism, with numbers to represent just about everything. Making connections between concepts is very exciting for new believers, but can lead to some pretty wild ideas. As a matter of precaution, therefore, mentors take care to emphasize the grace of God, perfect love and forgiveness – the most important concepts, they will say – before delving into issues of church and family order and finally into the “meaty” mysteries.
Message believers are aware that if they present all of the doctrines of the Message too soon – even the core belief that William Branham is the last of the seven prophets to the Gentiles before the return of Christ – they will scare away new converts. They’re adept at saying, “No, we’re not a cult,” and cautioning the initiate, “No, we don’t follow a man. We follow the message he brought, which was inspired by God. He was just the mouthpiece of God to our generation.” However, should such secrecy and careful conditioning really be necessary to bring someone into the truth? If God is calling someone to the Message, shouldn’t laying it all out up front merely cause them to rejoice at having found their answer?
Why is it that Message witnessing so easily takes the form of baiting and hooking? Why do families need to project a constant air of happiness and fulfillment in order to ensure that others ask what it is that’s different about them, only to be evasive when pressed for the doctrines that produce the effect? The uneducated observer might find the girls in their floor-sweeping skirts and long, little-girl locks charming and sweet, without realizing the strict, hidden code of acceptable appearances to which they adhere to present that image? He or she might admire the obedient children and conflict-free marriages they observe, without realizing that they are based on corporal punishment and subordination of the wife’s will.
When new converts are fed only revelation and “signs” in response to their questions about why Message believers live so differently, when they’re told that it’s just the love of Christ working in the hearts of the believers, they’re missing out on the fine print. And that’s exactly the form that witnessing takes. While believers themselves fret over possibly “casting their pearls before swine,” and worry that the new convert might shun the Message and be worse of than if he or she never heard it in the first place, they do not themselves realize that what they’re doing is a sales job. They’re creating an interest, revealing only tidbits of a different lifestyle meant to entice, and getting a signature out of the new believer before full disclosure has been made. It’s unconsciously dishonest, but it’s doubtful whether anyone would sign up for the Message life without it.