Mind control and the Message

 

William Branham with his Bible

William Branham with his Bible

 

In another post, I discussed the defenses of Message believers against accusations that they belong to a cult. Believers distance themselves from accusations of culthood by pointing out that the Message is not a centralized organization, collects no money, and has no explicit creed, localized compound, or living, worshiped leader. But how does the Message stack up against the central practice of cults – mind control? On what grounds is the Message accused of being a cult, and how well do Message practices align with observed cultic behavior?

The Cult Awareness and Information Library lists these techniques in its article Identifying a Cult:

  1. Their leader/s may claim a special, exclusive ministry, revelation or position of authority given by God.
  2. They believe they are the only true church and take a critical stance regarding the Christian church while at the same time praising and exalting their own group, leader/s and work.
  3. They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members loyal to their ranks.  This could be in the form of threats of dire calamity sent by God if they leave; certain death at Armageddon; being shunned by their family and friends etc.  This is a vital part of the mind control process.
  4. Members will be expected to give substantial financial support to the group.  This could be compulsory tithing (which is checked); signing over all their property on entering the group; coercive methods of instilling guilt on those who have not contributed; selling magazines, flowers or other goods for the group as part of their “ministry”.  At the same time bible-based cults may ridicule churches that take up free-will offerings by passing collection plates and/or sell literature and tapes.  They usually brag that they don’t do this.  This gives outsiders the intimation that they are not interested in money.
  5. There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its teachings.  The lives of members will be totally absorbed into the group’s activities.  They will have little or no time to think for themselves because of physical and emotional exhaustion.  This is also a vital part of the mind control process.
  6. There will be total control over almost all aspects of the private lives of members.  This control can be direct through communal living, or constant and repetitious teaching on “how to be a true Christian” or “being obedient to leadership”.  Members will look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do.
  7. Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity distinction and no paid ministry class — that they are all equal.
  8. Any dissent or questioning of the group’s teachings is discouraged.  Criticism in any form is seen as rebellion.  There will be an emphasis on authority, unquestioning obedience and submission.  This is vigilantly maintained.
  9. Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group in some way.  This could be in the form of “dobbing” on fellow members (including family) under the guise of looking out for their “spiritual welfare”.  They may be required to deliberately lie (heavenly deception) or give up their lives by refusing some form of medical treatment.
  10. Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group may be met with threats.  Some may have taken oaths of loyalty that involve their lives or have signed a “covenant” and feel threatened by this.

Let’s see how the Message stacks up, shall we?

1. Their leader/s may claim a special, exclusive ministry, revelation or position of authority given by God.

This applies to the Message on two levels. On the first, Branham himself claimed to receive the revelation of God directly and preached “THUS SAITH THE LORD.” His claim to the title of Elijah of Malachi 4 was certainly exclusive: Branham was to be the last prophet of the gentile dispensation – in other words, the last person God would ever use to speak to His non-Jewish people. Moreover, time itself would not allow for a repetition of the Message. On June 11, 1933, while baptizing in the Ohio River, William Branham heard a voice declare to him, “As John the Baptist was sent to forerun the first coming of Jesus Christ, so are you sent to forerun His second coming.” Branham’s ministry was therefore a singular event in the story of Christianity.

The second level on which this exclusivism works is the belief of Message followers that the Message is the “wedding garment” that the true Bride of Christ must wear in order to escape Tribulation. Only those baptized with the Holy Ghost, they claim, will go in the Rapture. Rejecting the pentecostal belief that the Holy Ghost is evidenced by speaking in tongues, most believers claim that, while there is no clear-cut evidence of the Holy Ghost, it is impossible for someone to have it and reject the Word of God for this hour (in other words, the message preached by Branham).

2. They believe they are the only true church and take a critical stance regarding the Christian church while at the same time praising and exalting their own group, leader/s and work.

Not only do Message followers believe that they alone truly have the Holy Ghost and are therefore the only true Bride of Christ, they also utterly reject the Christian establishment (insofar as such a thing exists) in America and the rest of the world. Branham unilaterally condemned all denominations as the harlot offspring of the Catholic Church (the “whore of Babylon”). Message believers often won’t listen to Christian music as they believe it is the product of an unholy compromise with the satanic music of the secular world; Message believers thus have their own music stars, like the LaFontaines. Message believers studiously reject all association with denominational Christianity, so sternly that I, as a child, thought “denomination” was literally a bad word.

3. They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members loyal to their ranks.  This could be in the form of threats of dire calamity sent by God if they leave; certain death at Armageddon; being shunned by their family and friends etc.  This is a vital part of the mind control process.

This is present in spades in the Message. Warnings were constantly heaved over the pulpit that God would not be mocked. Branham’s story about the girl who rejected the last call of the Holy Spirit was used to strike fear into the hearts of the complacent. Those who left the fold were Satan’s playthings. They would be struck by horrible illnesses and accidents. A man in my congregation who committed suicide was promptly held up as an example of what could happen if believers were not soberly committed to waiting on God. My unbelieving father’s contraction of a chronic illness was taken as God “trying to get his attention” before it was too late to save his soul. Worse yet, it was hinted that the only unpardonable sin – blaspheming the Holy Spirit – could be manifested by criticizing the Message. Branham’s own wife had been struck by a life-threatening tumor for slamming a door in his face in anger. If she had dared to speak out against the Message itself, she would have been eternally lost – or so the story went. Such fear restrained my ability to speak out against the harm the Message did to me for three years after I left. Fortunately, I’ve found that life outside the Message is no more fraught with calamity than life inside – indeed, less so!

4. Members will be expected to give substantial financial support to the group.  This could be compulsory tithing (which is checked); signing over all their property on entering the group; coercive methods of instilling guilt on those who have not contributed; selling magazines, flowers or other goods for the group as part of their “ministry”.  At the same time bible-based cults may ridicule churches that take up free-will offerings by passing collection plates and/or sell literature and tapes.  They usually brag that they don’t do this.  This gives outsiders the intimation that they are not interested in money.

This actually does not apply. The Message is, by and large, not concerned with money. Tithing is expected but not strictly enforced – it’s believed that God will convict the slovenly tither, and the believers themselves usually do not feel compelled to police one another. This emphasis on financial control distracts from the real harm done by cultic practices: money can be recuperated, but a crushed soul is much harder to rehabilitate. If the Message has a financially detrimental effect, it is distributed toward women: they are not to work or get college degrees unless their husbands require their help in a family business. They are thus left to “trust in the Lord” (destitute) if they suddenly face divorce or widowhood.

5. There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its teachings.  The lives of members will be totally absorbed into the group’s activities.  They will have little or no time to think for themselves because of physical and emotional exhaustion.  This is also a vital part of the mind control process.

William Branham taught that “sin is unbelief.” Coupled with the doctrine that the Holy Spirit will recognize the Word of God for its day, the effect is that any disbelief in the Message or the prophet means danger. Individuals must police their thoughts constantly, “bringing every thought into captivity to Christ.” This means silencing any doubts about the Message. Since the Message practices “Holiness,” believers are constantly on guard for the darts of Satan (lustful thoughts, rebellious spirits, selfishness) and exhaustively search their hearts for evidence of straying. It is also taught that the Holy Spirit changes the desires of the heart, so that believers will not actually want to do anything other than “feed on the Word of God” (read the Bible or Branham’s sermons, or listen to his tapes) in their free time. When I was growing up, I made myself listen to at least one hour-long sermon (or read its transcription) a day. My mother never seemed to do anything else when there was not work to be done.

6. There will be total control over almost all aspects of the private lives of members.  This control can be direct through communal living, or constant and repetitious teaching on “how to be a true Christian” or “being obedient to leadership”.  Members will look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do.

Message believers practice “confessing their faults to one another” in order to stay accountable before God. They are never satisfied with the number of church services they have every week, preferring at least one mid-week service and two on Sundays. They may also meet every week for Bible study, though Communion (the Lord’s supper) tends to take place less often out of Branham’s emphasis on the solemnity of the occasion and the desire to avoid letting the ceremony become a formality.

7. Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity distinction and no paid ministry class — that they are all equal.

Message pastors are seldom salaried and never ordained by a denomination. I know of none who possess seminary degrees. They are members of the laity who are “called” to preach, and often do so in addition to full-time work in the secular world. My own pastor was a salesman and took no money for his pastoral services.

8. Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group in some way.  This could be in the form of “dobbing” on fellow members (including family) under the guise of looking out for their “spiritual welfare”.  They may be required to deliberately lie (heavenly deception) or give up their lives by refusing some form of medical treatment.

Message believers do not take part in such blatant hazing rituals. More insidious is the emphasis on constant godly living. Correcting others in their error is stressful for believers, as they truly wish to avoid picking at a mote in a brother’s eye and neglecting their own beams. Nonetheless, there are always “policing” members of congregations – probably a feature of religious life in general rather than the Message. Moreover, while divine healing is taken for absolute truth, Message followers do not always abstain from seeing doctors. Sometimes the pragmatic impulse wins out over the “lying vanities” of illness, and believers will seek chemotherapy or surgery for serious matters.

10. Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group may be met with threats.  Some may have taken oaths of loyalty that involve their lives or have signed a “covenant” and feel threatened by this.

Once again, leaving implies a revoking of one’s baptism of the Holy Spirit (and, naturally, draws the accusation that one never was really a believer). The greatest threat is, of course, the doctrine that only the Message can save you from the Tribulation. There are no formal membership vows, though the testimony of being born again and baptized into the Bride of Christ (in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as per Message directive) presents a forceful deterrent. It is impossible to simply walk away without the feeling of having taken one’s soul into one’s hands.

The Message thus meets some criteria more easily than others. Can we simply mark off each criterion, tally up the numbers, and declare the Message a cult? It is undoubtedly not that simple. It is not my purpose to declare the Message cultic – this does not interest me. What I hope to achieve here is to display the similarities and differences between the cultic mind control techniques and the practices of the Message, to see where they align and how they differ, and to, I hope, give others something to think with.

This post was inspired by Lewis’ discussion of biblical patriarchy and mind control at The Commandments of Men.


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