The name of the late William Branham may have no significance at all for you or your church. If so, I am delighted. But why should I now tell you about Branham? There are three reasons for doing so.
One reason is that Branham’s disciples are contacting increasing numbers of evangelical pastors and churches. Some pastors are confused as to whether or not his teaching is biblical. They are asking for help and hence this article.
A second reason is that Branham’s books, cassettes, tracts and videos are available in many languages. They are pouring into countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay.
Branham’s resources are also penetrating effectively into other areas of the world like England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Russia, the Philippines and South Africa.
And this is not an exhaustive list. It is probable that you may soon have contact with a person who has received Branham’s books or cassettes.
Thirdly, people make foolish claims concerning him. For example, Branham is regarded as ‘the twentieth-century prophet’; ‘A man sent from God’; and ‘a prophet to the Gentiles’ whose ministry ‘has been unparalleled since the days of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
These fanciful claims will be considered later. I will begin by answering some questions in order to outline and evaluate Branham’s life and teaching.
When did he live?
William Marrion Branham (1909-1965) was born in Kentucky, USA. Following a personal healing as a young man, he felt a call to preach and became an independent Baptist pastor.
In his itinerant work, he emphasised healing, deliverance and prosperity.
One historian, D. E. Harrell, in his book All Things are Possible (Indiana University Press), reports that many participants in the ‘healing revival’, which ‘erupted’ in 1947 in the USA, regarded Branham as its ‘initiator’.
His simple messages, and reports of many alleged healings, made him extremely popular worldwide.
Why is he considered a special person?
Firstly, because of ‘the pillar of fire’ photograph. Here are the details.
In January 1950 a photograph of Branham was developed and a light appeared in the negative above his head ‘in a halo-like form’. Rather than seeking a technical explanation, his supporters regard the phenomenon as supernatural. They say the light is a supernatural entity and claim that this is ‘the only supernatural Being ever photographed’!
When Branham himself was informed about the photograph, he expressed no surprise. He said that before the photo was taken, he ‘heard the Pillar of Fire descend into the building with a sound of rushing wind’. Astonishingly, people believed Branham.
Branham claimed that ‘the same Being’ photographed in 1950 had appeared to him earlier in 1933 with the message: ‘As John the Baptist foreran the first coming of Christ, you will forerun the Second Coming’.
Could he read minds?
He is considered special, secondly, because it is stated that Branham could read the hearts and minds of others, at least during healing meetings. The claim is that ‘the hearts of the people were revealed – the past, the present and the future’.
That is not all. They add: ‘and not one time did it fail … God was doing through this ministry exactly as he had done in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ 2000 years ago’.
What happened? Branham told ‘the people of their past life … sins would be called out, secrets of their hearts revealed…’
Even Walter J. Hollenweger, who interpreted for Branham in Zurich, was ‘not aware of any case in which he was mistaken in the often detailed statements he made’ (The Pentecostals, 1972, p.354).
Foolishly, many followers accepted his claims. In fact, when he died in 1965, many ‘expected him to be resurrected, some believing him to be God, others believing him to be virgin-born’ (Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, 1988, p.96).
Should we reject these claims?
Yes, of course. After all, only God is omniscient. No human is able to reveal the thoughts and secrets of individuals. That is God’s prerogative alone.
To claim that the ‘light’ that appeared in the photo was a ‘supernatural Being’ and, by implication God, is absurd. There are plausible explanations, of this phenomenon, such as glare or reflections, accidental film exposure, or deliberate ‘touching-up’.
Furthermore, now we have the complete Bible, God does not ‘reveal’ himself physically to anyone, and certainly not in photographs! Apart from God’s glory stamped on creation (Romans 1:19-20), all that we ‘see’ of God here and now is found only in the Bible.
Also, we must reject the claim that Branham had achieved ‘exactly’ what our Lord’s ministry achieved 2000 years ago.
Christ’s miracles were unique, functioning as ‘signs’ verifying his deity and confirming his claims.
For example, to answer John the Baptist’s doubts as to whether he was the promised Messiah, Jesus referred to his own mighty miracles as evidence of the fact (Luke 7:22). No comparison can be drawn between the Lord’s ministry and that of Branham.
Is there an occult explanation?
I think there is evidence for such an explanation. For example, he claimed esoteric, mysterious experiences from his childhood. According to Branham, he experienced ‘supernatural visitations’ even at the ages of three and seven.
Throughout his life, he claimed, he was guided by an angel. It was in a secret cave in 1946 that an angel supposedly first ‘appeared’ to Branham. On this occasion, he reports, he was given the power to discern people’s illnesses and thoughts.
Are these encounters associated with the occult? That was the opinion of Rev W. E. Best, pastor of Houston Tabernacle Baptist Church, at the time.
In 1950 Best, a godly Reformed pastor, challenged Branham’s colleague, Rev F. F. Bosworth, to a debate over this healing ministry.
The debate was attended by 8,000 people and Best argued his case well, despite many interruptions. After insisting on the uniqueness of our Lord’s earthly miracles, Best proceeded to emphasise the unique authority given to the apostles.
He rightly argued that this authority, including gifts of healing, was confined to the foundational period of the New Testament church in the apostolic era.
While God in his sovereignty can heal whenever he pleases, ‘No man has the power to heal,’ insisted W. E. Best.
Was it the work of God?
Amidst uproar in the meeting, Best claimed there were those ‘who used sorcery to bewitch people, so that people are sincerely misled and say it’s the power of God’.
Another person suggested that Branham ‘hypnotises his audience’. The use of hypnotism and his own psychic powers may have contributed to Branham’s reputation as a healer and a ‘revealer’ of people’s secrets.
Best, however, may be on the right path in suggesting a more sinister force as an explanation of Branham’s experiences and healings.
A ‘healing’ is not necessarily the work of God. This point needs to be stressed. For example, the devil and his hosts can also work in extraordinary ways.
In Egypt, Pharaoh’s servants performed miracles (Exodus 7:11,22; 8:7), while in Samaria Simon the sorcerer astonished people with his ‘wonders’ (Acts 8:9-11). In Philippi, Paul delivered a young woman possessed by a spirit of divination; she clearly had unusual abilities which attracted the attention of many people (Acts 16:16).
According to 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10, the man of sin will be revealed ‘with all power and with pretended signs and wonders’ (cf. Revelation 13:11-14). Tentatively, I suggest there may have been a mix of psychic and occult factors contributing to Branham’s success.
Was Branham clear about the gospel?
Yes and no! I will explain this answer in more detail next month. His sermons point to the way of salvation through Christ alone. He underlined texts like Acts 4:12: ‘Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’.
Branham declared: ‘It is Christ or perish … salvation is not Jesus plus. It is Jesus alone…’ [italics original]. The Lord Jesus, he added, shed his ‘innocent blood to atone for our sins and rose again, to redeem…’
I must warn, however, that his presentation of the gospel came (and still comes) in a package which is unbiblical. But more of that next time.