Message believers are used to the accusation that they belong to a cult. Indeed, a new recruit might even be told, “There are some people who say that we’re a cult, but we’re not.” Believers argue that the Message cannot be a cult because:
- It is not a centralized organization. Each church is independent, and it is common for Message churches to split or refuse to communicate with other Message churches when the pastor of one feels that another has a “wrong spirit.” Message celebrities like Billy Paul Branham, Pearry Green, and David Mamalis have authority only over their own families or congregations. The closest thing the Message has to a central structure is Voice of God Recordings, which distributes the print and audio (and even a few video) sermons by William Branham.
- The Message collects no money, other than the 10% tithe expected by each local church. Even the tithe is not enforced if a believer can’t afford it, though skimping on tithing will inevitably result in the believer being “convicted” about robbing the Lord. William Branham accepted only modest amounts of money for travel and preaching during his lifetime, and many pastors are not paid by their churches (my pastor worked full-time as a salesman). Message believers see this as one of their strongest arguments, as they imagine cults to be localized structures with single leaders extorting money from their congregations. Without a centralized leader or membership dues, the Message appears to be free and open to all.
- William Branham is not openly worshiped. Believers will be quick to tell you, “We’re not following a man. We’re following the God who used him as a mighty prophet.” They’ll generally admit that there are some people in their ranks who believe that Branham will rise from the dead before the Second Coming of Christ, and they will even accuse each other of “worshiping” the prophet. But, they’ll assure you, that’s not what they themselves do or believe.
- There is no creed. Indeed, one of William Branham’s favorite public statements was “We have no law but love, no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” (This is not an original concept: the ICC/Church of Christ uses the following slogan: “No head-quarters but heaven, no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no plea but the gospel, and no name but the divine.”) The declaration is deceptive. True, there is no formal printed creed nor membership book to sign. However, participation in a Message church ultimately requires total acceptance and agreement with all of the Message (1100+ recorded sermons by William Branham) and participation in a rigid “Holiness” lifestyle. For instance, a woman can be identified as “not a believer” by wearing pants or makeup, baring her shoulders or working outside the home; a man who drinks alcohol (no matter how little), stays home with his children, votes Democrat, listens to rock music or gets a vasectomy is also an unlikely candidate for the Rapture. This is just a tiny sample of the hidden creed of the Message. Failure to adhere to all of its unspoken rules means that, while they might not kick you out of the church, they’ll eventually get sick of pandering to an unrepentant nonbeliever and give up on you. The intense messages of warning to the “lukewarm” usually suffice to drive people either fully out or fully into the Message – it’s too sharp a fence to walk.
- There is no compound. Message believers are scattered in tiny groups across the world. Their biggest churches in the USA are in Tucson, AZ, Lima, OH and Jeffersonville, IN (Branham’s home church). The greatest numbers of Message believers worldwide are in the Congo and Tanzania, where Message missionaries often travel. There are also, however, small pockets of believers even in Europe and Canada. One of the ways in which Message believers create community out of such a scattered population is to promote quiverfull ideals: “Not enough believers in your area? It’s up to you to raise some!”
By the Message definition, then, a cult needs to be (a) a central organization with (b) an explicit creed, (c) a localized compound or concentration of homes, and (d) a single leader who is (e) worshiped and (F) collects money from his congregation in exchange for membership.
Such characteristics are undoubtedly common of cults. However, there is a missing component in this chart – indeed, the defining element that makes such communities cultic: mind control. In a forthcoming post, I’ll explore the ways in which the Message, whether formally defined as a cult or otherwise, practices mind control.