I recently had a discussion with Libby Anne at Love, Joy Feminism about the logic of anti-abortion beliefs in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. I was struck by the difference in our past experiences. Although the Message has grown to look more and more like mainstream evangelical Christian culture by embracing courtship, the Republican party, Vision forum materials, and books by Debi and Michael Pearl, there remain serious differences in emphasis on the issues of abortion and birth control.
There is growing tension within the Message as 21st century cultural values clash with the 1930s-60s lifespan of William Branham’s ministry. Because Message believers make a point of listening to his tapes and reading his sermons several times a week and at church, their faith must negotiate what they believe is the literal truth of Branham’s words with the changing climate of the culture wars. Abortion is a much bigger issue than birth control for most evangelicals. Additionally, evangelical culture is preoccupied with homosexuality. Message believers take anti-gay beliefs on readily, but Branham himself was not as concerned about homosexuality because the gay rights movement simply hadn’t happened yet while he lived.
For Libby Anne, growing up in mainstream evangelical culture, the abortion debate was about three things:
- The soul of the child
- God’s plan for women was to bear and raise children
- The harrowing spiritual and emotional consequences post-abortive women suffer
Only the second of these implicates birth control. The others are about the act of having an abortion, not the effect (not having a child). Incidentally, when I look at Branham’s words, only the second resonates with me.
Branham did not treat abortion as categorically different from birth control, or even as more sinful. For Branham, the problem was not killing an ensouled being (although Message believers today accept this as part of the problem and afford it greater significance). No, the real problem Branham had with abortion was women being “selfish” and not accepting their role as submissive wives and mothers.
A Message believer writing on the William Branham Homepage has compiled the following quotes on abortion from Branham’s sermons:
GOD PERFECTING HIS CHURCH – 04-12-54
I‘ve heard people say, a lot of time, “What is the unpardonable sin, Brother Branham?” My mother used to tell me that it was a woman that would take the life of a baby before it was born – abortion case. Well, She said, “She has done something. She didn’t give the little fellow a chance to live.” Well, that’s awful. I’ll admit that.
GOD PERFECTING HIS CHURCH – 04-12-54
Here not long ago, I met a woman that had committed some of those cases, practicing birth control. That’s the disgrace in America. This may kindly singe you a little bit, but watch it….. These American people will practice birth control, and give a hundred dollars for a little old dog, and pack it around, and give it the love of a baby. It’s a disgrace. But that’s right. Yes, it is. You know that’s the truth. Will lead him (the dog) down the street with a little jacket on him, when he is nothing but a dog. That’s right. But you wouldn’t have the baby. Because you’re afraid you would deprive yourself of something. God commissioned women to bring forth children. That’s exactly right. It used to be it was a wonderful thing. Nowadays, it’s a disgrace. Too much time. That’s right. You have to have time for your social life, you’ve got to go out to gatherings. You’ve got to do this, got to go at the card party.
This is just a sample; you can read some more of the quotes here.
The first quote is deceptively cut off. Branham did not believe that abortion was the unpardonable sin. In another sermon (The Unpardonable Sin, October 24, 1954) he expanded on this story:
Now, I know mother taught you things that was very good, and so forth, but sometimes mother had things wrong.
I’ve got a mother setting right here that I, on the very subject I’m coming to in a few minutes, told me years ago, that she thought the unpardonable sin was for a–a woman to–abortion case, in other words, take the life of a child ‘fore it was born. Said, “How could she ever be forgiven it?” Mama, in her best of her knowledge, to all that she knew, that was true. See? But it isn’t true according to the Word of God, so that makes a difference.
Branham always mentioned abortion as a symptom of the increasing sin and selfishness of the modern generation he lived in. It stood right alongside birth control, non-submission, and women going to work outside the home as evidence of growing perversion in society. It was not a category unto itself. He sometimes mentioned abortion by itself, but always as a lament of a broader dissolution of society:
QUEEN OF SHEBA – 01-19-61E
I read in the paper the other day, I forget… It’s thirty thousand abortion cases per month, done, recorded in the city of Chicago. How many is not recorded? Thirty thousand abortion cases, my, my. What’s going to happen, brother? Think of the world over, what’s going on at this time, sin. Oh, it’s horrible.
What was wrong about abortion, for William Branham? You can certainly see him referring to abortion as “killing children,” but mostly he talked about the perversion of the modern woman. Abortion, for Branham, was a symptom of women’s refusal to submit to the role God had planned for them.
I think these are the most significant lines from the quotes above:
These American people will practice birth control, and give a hundred dollars for a little old dog, and pack it around, and give it the love of a baby. It’s a disgrace. … But you wouldn’t have the baby. … God commissioned women to bring forth children.
The problem with abortion is the same as the problem with birth control, for Branham. They are consequences of women’s rebellion. It’s telling that the first Scriptures the Message believer uses on his page about abortion are from Genesis. Be fruitful, and multiply (Gen 1:28) is the first, followed by “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire [shall be] to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16).” What is the lesson taken from these verses? The William Branham Homepage continues:
Man would multiply and replenish the earth through a union with the woman. Multiplied sorrow and suffering in pregnancy, bringing forth with pain would be synonymous with birth. A constant reminder of “original sin”. But thus it is ordained that the woman should conceive and bring forth children. She would according to the original command multiply and replenish the earth BUT through sorrow and pain.
In Invisible Union of the Bride of Christ (November 25, 1965), Branham said the following:
And if a woman won’t have a baby for her husband, she’ll take a dog or a cat or something. She’s got to mother something. It’s their nature. But to bear a child for her husband and raise it to the service of God, that’s entirely all out of her line. … She’d be so disgraced, if she did, by her sin-loving society of this 1965 type of women.
Although you can see on the William Branham Homepage that the Scriptures have been interpreted in a way that matches the current evangelical climate (an emphasis on the moment of conception), I see something different operating in the Message itself (Branham’s own sermons). Message believers now tend to emphasize birth control less (though they still perceive it as wrong), and consider abortion to be much more heinous. For Branham, however, the problem was not the act of abortion but the refusal to be a mother. Rejecting motherhood was rebellion against God’s will. Abortion and birth control were two sides of the same coin: “selfishness.” This is where my upbringing overlaps with Libby Anne’s. Current American Christian culture has implicitly accepted beliefs in women’s equality and self-determinacy, even if women are expected to prioritize raising children over working and are expected to defer to their husbands to a “reasonable” extent. Most evangelicals accept the idea of sending daughters to college, practicing abstinence (a form of birth control, after all) and postponing motherhood.
Abortion is the last front on which women can be attacked for refusing or postponing motherhood. By emphasizing the “life at conception” argument, evangelical culture has steered away from telling women outright that the reason they should not have abortions is because God commanded them to be mothers (and mothers of many). Branham, however, knew only the first glimpses of this cultural shift and attacked what he perceived as the heart of the problem: female rebellion against submissive motherhood. Message believers now keep this idea alive even as they negotiate the shift to adopt “life at conception” beliefs. As the pace of social change strains the connection between Branham’s world and ours, Message believers must continually reinvent their faith to remain relevant against contemporary issues. Opposing homosexuality and abortion are the causes célèbres of Christians now; Branham must be recruited to the side of 21st century believers so that the Message itself can retain its image as eternal truth.