William Branham delivered nearly all of his messages in a bellowing, screaming voice. Message believers usually call this the “eagle scream,” or the “voice crying in the wilderness,” a passion inspired by God. It would send chills down your spine. I often felt like a child scolded by a force much greater than myself as I listened to Branham’s recorded sermons (or sat in church, where his followers did their best to emulate his delivery), convinced that the screaming voice was probing the depths of my sins. I was still more convinced when Branham’s normal voice returned, and he said softly, gently, “Now, I don’t mean to yell at you, my brothers and sisters. I just have to say what the Lord says. That’s not me talking. That’s Thus Saith the Lord, and I can’t help but cry out what He puts on my heart to tell you.” The raw emotional power of his delivery was enhanced by the sense that he was not in control – that God had taken hold of his body and voice and was the one crying out directly into our hearts, telling us that time was short and we must make things right with Him while we still could.
I was sure that nowhere outside the Message could I find that feeling. Nowhere would I hear the earnest, passionate delivery of the Word of God. Other speakers were polished, educated, eloquent. Not Branham – he was raw. He was real. He was a prophet.
Then I learned a little something about the power of rhetoric.
Take this clip, for instance, which I found on Lewis’ blog, The Commandments of Men:
This man preaches politics – indeed, introduces himself in the manner in which Branham preached. But the emotional effects aren’t absolutely negated by the frivolity of his speech. How does it make you feel to hear it? Startled? Attacked? Even, involuntarily, for the briefest of seconds, moved? His enthusiasm is comically out of place – but it’s worth considering why this kind of delivery has a place, and what it is intended to do when it gets there.
The delivery of Message sermons is not unique. In fact, most fundamentalist pastors are apt to employ the same style of delivery. Consider the Baptist pastor Steven Anderson in his tirade against the German practice of, um, not standing up to pee. It is a calculated rhetorical strategy. It projects emotion in order to draw emotion from the audience – to make the hearer receptive, or at least attentive, to what is being said. Listen to Davison insist, “I will not apologize!” for taking his Republican stand. Are Message preachers not forever saying that they won’t apologize for standing up for the prophet or the Word? It’s a show of courage and defiance, intended to inspire the hearer to identify with the bold speaker. It’s a rallying cry. And it’s not just for the Message.
Let’s consider the body language of both of these men. Eyes are wide and focused intensely at the audience. It’s a nonverbal challenge. Direct eye contact tells the viewer: “I am sincere. I am honest. I will not change my mind.” Pacing and gesticulating (often pointing, a favorite of Message pastors) suggest agitation – in Branham’s case, inspiration. He was supposed to be so moved by the Spirit that he couldn’t stand still. Long pauses are intended to let the message sink in. They are sobering in that they contrast with the harsh, booming delivery of the message and punctuate it, keeping the reader from tuning out the overwhelming din. It’s a technique designed to hold the audience’s attention.
Notice the disclaimers, as well. “I won’t apologize.” “It’s the truth, it’s not my opinion.” “Thus saith the Lord (not me)!” “You’re not going to like this, but it’s the truth.” In the Message, the truth is always supposed to be unpleasant. In the quest not to “tickle the ears” of the congregation, Message pastors (as well as other fundamentalists) go out of their way to unapologetically “blast” their listeners with inconvenient truths. But just as something isn’t necessarily true just because you want to hear it, it may not be true just because you don’t, either. Let’s step away from our gut reactions (does it hurt enough to be true?) to see if what we are hearing is something we really can, or should, believe.
It’s worth taking a step back from the emotion of Branham’s delivery to ponder the real values he is trying to impart. When the emotions are drained away, do you still find the message consonant with the God you believe in? Or is the sense of urgency, even desperation, conveyed by Branham’s crying voice enough to pry open your defenses and embed his message in your heart, unchallenged and unthinking?