Message believers take William Branham to be the last prophet of the gentile dispensation, fulfilling the promise of Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” This is, to them, what makes Branham exceptional: other evangelists might bring kernels of truth to believers, but only the spirit of Elijah (under which Branham preached) revealed the whole Word of God for the last days. It was the Elijah spirit who cried out against the lax and superficial faith of the denominations, just as the real Elijah had cried out against Ahab and Jezebel. There were therefore many prophets, teachers, and evangelists, but only one Elijah.
Except there wasn’t just one.
In 1901, John Alexander Dowie claimed to be Elijah the prophet and built his ministry around divine healing. Branham would not be born for several years.
Also in 1901, Frank Sandford made the same claim. He died in 1948, when Branham’s ministry was just taking off.
“But Branham never called himself Elijah!” some Message believers will protest. In doing so, they invoke Jesus’ words in Luke 22, where he answered only “Ye say that I am,” to the question of whether or not he claimed to be the Son of God. Believers understand this to mean that Christ was sure of his identity (“he knew who he was”) but did not put himself forward with self-aggrandizing claims because he was by nature meek and humble. This is the parallel they want to draw with William Branham, that his Christlike humility prevented him from making a public declaration that he was himself Elijah. Sometimes he claimed that a prophet was merely a servant of God, but it takes little subtlety to understand the claims Branham was making in the sermon Do You Now Believe? (August 17, 1952):
Do you believe me to be His prophet? Look this a way then. If God will tell me what is your trouble, will you believe me to be His prophet? Wouldn’t you like to get over your diabetes?
He asked whether his audience believed him to be a prophet ten times in the course of the sermon. A fair bit more blatant than the comment of believer Elton Desouza that Branham referred to himself only as a servant of God:
The part that stirred me most was where you recognised and highlighted the most valuable attribute of our beloved brother and prophet, Bro. Branham, who repeatedly in his ministry called himself ‘HIS Servant’. Oh my!!! Servant??? See? Servant, not Prophet which he was, Servant, he kept calling himself servant. He kept pointing and pleading us to look at Christ, not his ministry, not him, Christ. Oh my. Truly brother, if only today Christians around the world could take a small part of that example of his life and try to imitate him rather than indulge in fleshly thoughts and desires, we would be much better off.
If Branham made his claims to the Elijah title more obliquely (asking for vindication rather than asserting his identity) it was perhaps to avoid the stigma associated with previous Elijahs, whose open claims left them vulnerable to scorn. But it would be disingenuous to believe that Branham himself did not seek the Elijah identity through his public ministry, when it made such a prominent appearance in his prayer lines and the subject matter of his sermons.