By Eric Pement
(This originally appeared in the May/June 1998 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 4)
When he is remembered at all, he is remembered with a reverence befitting a legend. Yet, what did this obscure evangelist teach?
The name of William Branham probably will be unfamiliar to most of our readers, but to the Christian world a generation ago, he was as well known as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell is today. He was also as different from these two gentlemen as you can imagine.
William Branham was an American evangelist who achieved world renown for a powerful healing ministry which began in 1946 and lasted nearly 20 years. He traveled freely among Pentecostal and “full gospel” audiences, yet he taught several questionable doctrines and denied both the Trinity and the eternity of hell. At the time of his death in 1965, he claimed he was the only prophet on earth sent from God to bring the Christian church into final truth.
Since Branham’s death, hundreds or churches have been formed around his messages, while his sermons, now meticulously transcribed, have become virtually new Scripture for these churches. The story of William Branham is important because some of his teaching has become seed for aberrational doctrine among Christian groups today.
Branham’s Early History
William Marion Branham was born on April 6, 1909, near Burkesville, Kentucky, to Charles and Ella Branham. He would be the first of nine children. Within a few years, the family moved to Jeffersonville, Indiana (unofficial headquarters of the Branham movement today.)
Miraculous visitations and supernatural events supposedly followed Branham from his earliest days. He claimed a visible light hovered over his crib the day he was born (similar to the Star of Bethlehem, marking the birthplace of Jesus). 1 Branham apparently converted to Christianity at the age of 19, and within five years he was pastoring a Baptist church in Jeffersonville. His visions and revelations continued.
Branham attended a “Jesus only” Pentecostal revival in Mishawaka in 1936, and felt God wanted him to leave Indiana to evangelize other cities with these people. Yet, disapproval from his in-laws caused him to decide against it. Branham’s first wife and one-year-old daughter died the following year, and he say it as God’s judgment for not going with the oneness Pentecostals.
His Public Ministry
Branham reported that in May 1946, God led him to a secret cave in Indiana, “which no man can find,” where he met with an angel who told him God has commissioned him to carry the message of divine healing to the world. The angel said that if Branham would be sincere and could convince the people to believe in him, nothing would be able to stand before his prayers, “not even cancer.” Branham would be given two supernatural signs; first, the power to diagnose diseases through physical changes in his left hand, and second, the ability to tell the secret thoughts and deeds of people. If the first sign didn’t convince people God was at work, the second sign would. Branham’s public ministry began that same months and spread like wildfire across the United States. 2
The angel from the cave accompanied Branham onstage during healing services. This angel also directed Branham in other ways, sometimes telling him to cancel scheduled meetings. 3 It is widely reported that many remarkable physical healings occurred at his services. David Harrell, premier chronicler of the healing and charismatic revivals of the forties and beyond, agrees that “the power of a Branham service … remains a legend unparalled in the history of the charismatic movement.” 4
Lifelong Pentecostals stood in awe at the specific detail packed into Branham’s gift of “discernment” (as he called it), as Branham would reveal names, addresses, ailments and personal details of people whom he had never seen before. Gordon Lindsay, founder of Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas, wrote that Branham’s gift “was practically infallible. In the many hundreds of times I saw him speak under the anointing, he would unerringly speak for the secrets of men’s hearts – things which he had no possible way of knowing. 5
An incredibly grueling schedule was laid upon Branham. Often, he literally was carried from the speaker’s platform in total exhaustion, although a contributing factor may have been the presence of an angel. On one occasion he admitted that, “after hundreds of times of visitations, it paralyzes me when he comes near. It sometimes even makes me … I almost completely pass out, just so weak when I leave the platform many times. If I stay too long, I’ll go completely out.” 6 Branham nearly left the filed in mid-1948, [partly from overwork and partly from finding groups of followers who literally were baptizing converts in his name and who carried photos inscribed “Brother Branham, our Lord.”7
Branham returned to the evangelistic circuit later that year, and went on to go overseas: Finland in 1950, South America in 1951, India in 1954, and Europe in 1955. In 1955, interest in Branham’s ministry began to wane, and for the first time in nine years, the William Branham Evangelistic Association was unable to pay its bills The Internal Revenue Service investigated Branham the following year, claiming he owed exorbitant amounts of money for back taxes.
When his ministry was still young, Branham restricted his sermons to personal testimony and God’s power to save sinners and heal diseases. Many of his crusades were organized by Trinitarians, and he was content to let others teach while he focused on healing. However, at Branham Tabernacle (his home church in Jeffersonville), he had free rein to promote his real beliefs. Consequently, when his popularity died down in the late ‘50s, Branham turned his attention to the churches which not believed his message, and his doctrinal peculiarities became more and more pronounced.
William Branham and the Trinity
From his earliest days, Branham rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He thundered, “Trinitarianism is of the Devil! I sat that ‘THUS SAITH THE LORD!’” 8 Branham insisted that the Trinity doctrine originated with Satan, and that it taught there were “three gods.” Therefore, he directed that any believer who was baptized according to the triune formula given in Matthew 28:19 should be rebaptized “in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Branham generally described the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as being three “titles,” “offices,” “attributes,” or “merits” of God. 9 The problem with this explanation is that titles, offices, attributes, or merits cannot relate to one another on a personal level.
The Bible shows that a personal relationship exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “The Father loves the Son” (John 3:35); the Son glorifies the Father (John 17:4); the Son sends the Holy Spirit (John 16:7); the Father “knows the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:27); the Holy Spirit listens to Jesus and testifies to others of Him (John 15:26, 16:13). If the love, communication, and relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to be meaningful, there must be a distinctly personal self-consciousness between the members of the Godhead.
If the reader will forgive this intrusion, perhaps the problem can be clarified with this illustration. This writer is both a son and a father. I also have the office and title of “deacon” and “assistant editor.” Yet there is no way that I meaningfully can say that my “sonship” loves my “fatherhood.” My office as a church deacon cannot communicate with my office as assistant editor. Persons can engage in meaningful communication, but attributes cannot. Offices, attributes, titles, or merits – none of them can say, “I.” Only persons can say “I.”
Serpent’s Seed and Predestination
Branham also claimed God revealed to him a complex doctrine known as “serpent seed.” 10, pp. 97-107; and Conduct, Order, Doctrine of the Church (Tucson: Tucson Tabernacle Books, n.d.), Vol. 2, pp. 821-23, 1131-36] In a nutshell, Even’s sin in the Garden of Eden was not eating a fruit but having a sexual relationship with the serpent. Before the fall, the serpent “was somewhat in between a chimpanzee and a man, but closer to a man.” 11 Satan entered the serpent and seduced Eve. Thus, Cain was begotten by Satan not Adam.
Ever since, there has always been a race of people whose ultimate ancestor is Satan. When Jesus told the Jews in John 8:44, “You are of your father the Devil,” He was speaking literally. These descendants of Satan never can be saved because they are the “seed of the serpent.”
At the same time, there is also a “seed of God,” a lineage or people irrevocably predestined for salvation. This group is the true Bride of Christ. They are predestined to hear and receive the “message” of Brother Branham.
Furthermore, there is a middle category of humans who are neither the seed of God not the serpent’s seed. They are not predestined to at all but are saved or damned by their own choices. Branham taught that the vast majority of the traditional Church is in this category. Those Christians who reject Branham’s message will suffer through the Great Tribulation when it arrives, whereas the Bride will be raptured off the earth before the Tribulation begins. 12
Branham taught other doctrines of questionable validity. He denied that hell was eternal, and maintained that Satan and all the wicked would be annihilated. He claimed that the passageways in the Great Pyramid and the twelve signs of the Zodiac, though inferior to the Bible, were also revelations from God.
He decreed that for a woman to cut her hair was grounds for divorce, according to the Bible (see Matthew 5:32 on this one!); and that unborn children are not alive until they take their first breath. “You say, ‘Oh, it’s alive!’ No, it isn’t! That’s little nerves jerking muscles … the baby hasn’t received life till it’s born.” 13
Branham’s concept of Jesus was unscriptural in at least one important respect; he asserted that during the days that Jesus lived on the earth, He was the Son of Man, not the Son of God. Branham declared, “He never said He was the Son of God.“ 14 Branham taught that Jesus became the Son of God (i. e., the Holy Spirit) after His ascension into heaven.
One need only to read the New Testament to refute this claim. In John 10:36 our Lord directly says, “I am the Son of God.” (See also John 3:18. 5:25, 9:35-37, and 11:4 for further testimony from Jesus’ own lips when He was indeed “the Son of God.”) When Peter gave his famous confession in Matthew 16:16, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” When Peter gave his famous confession in Matthew 16:16, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus certainly did not correct him, saying, saying, “No Peter, not yet.”
Perhaps Branham’s most drastic claim was that he was the “angel” referred to in Revelation 3:14 and 10:7, the Prophet to the Laodicean age, the final era of time. Branham’s message would set the Christian Church in order, and then Jesus would return. Indeed, Branham insisted that the true evidence of possessing the Holy Spirit was to follow “What God’s prophet gave for his age.” 15 In short, following Branham was the test of who was “in the truth.”
Influences on Modern Teachers
One of Branham’s doctrines, which seems to have affected some of the modern “word/faith” teaching, involves the power of the “spoken word.” Kenneth Hagin, an extremely popular teacher of the “word/faith” message, seems to pay a good deal of respect to Branham’s teaching – in one of his publications he calls WilIiamBranham “a prophet.” 16
Branham believed that one of the marks which would identify him as the prophet for this age was the power to call things into existence out of nothing. Branham’s term for this gift was “the third pull,” and he believed this “new ministry” could never be duplicated by anyone else. In essence, though, it involved the power of the spoken word to create things – anything – ex nihilo, “Just speak the word, and there they would be standing there.” 17
Modern faith teachers seem to have appropriated this doctrine. The idea that faith is a force – which, when activated by the spoken word, inevitably brings things into existence – may well owe its genesis to Brother Branham.
Another carry-over from Branham into contemporary circles involves the doctrine that the Bride of Christ is different from the assembly of born-again Christians generally. Branham taught that only the elect Bride would be raptured, while the great majority of Christians – those who had not accepted his message – would face the Great Tribulation.
This two-story version of Christianity is replicated in many “higher light, deeper truth” groups, who basically have developed their own variations on the above theme. With the purest of motives, members of these groups often come to see their spotless and unblemished condition (Ephesians 5:27) as a consequence of following the prophet (whomever he might be). Subtly, the believer’s acceptability with God is no longer based solely on the blood of Jesus, but on adherence to dress codes, baptismal formulae, and following a proposed “divine order.” At the end of this road lies the cultic doctrine of the “one true church,” pushing ordinary Christians who are merely born-again off to one side.
Evaluating Branham’s Claims
It is imperative that we evaluate Branham’s claims by the only valid test there is: conformity to the Word of God. Some followers of Branham would claim that his many miracles and the accuracy of his words of knowledge (or “discernment”) must make his doctrines true, validating his subsequent revelations.
However, we feel that Branham, himself, has given an adequate answer to those who would make him an infallible teacher. “Now, can’t you see that you can’t put your trust in healing campaigns? You can’t put your trust in any kind of a sign like that. The only thing you can put your trust in is THUS SAITH THE LORD from the Bible.” 18
In subjecting Branham to his own standard, we sincerely feel his claim to be the only prophet for today should be rejected on several levels. To begin with, the concept that each period of Church history has its own prophet is pure conjecture. There is no biblical evidence that the seven churches of Revelation are meant to be interpreted as seven successive periods of time, nor is there any command in the New Testament to follow a “prophet” other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, if Branham really was sent from God to correct the Church, he would have been theologically sound on basic doctrinal issues such as the Trinity. Branham’s modalistic view of God, basically a variation of the “Jesus only” churches, cannot answer the Bible’s evidence for personality within the Godhead. He also should have been sound on such a basic issue as whether Jesus was the Son of God while He was on earth.
Third, we should expect that a true prophet would describe his opponents accurately. A prophet who denounces heresy must be able to “lay his finger” on the real problem. Branham regularly claimed that Trinitarians say there are “three gods,” when in actual fact, Trinitarians always have said there is only one God. If Branham was a true prophet, he wouldn’t have misrepresented the teaching of his Christian brethren.
Finally, those who accept Branham’s message ultimately teach that a Christian’s depth of spirituality is not gauged on whether he merely follows the Bible, but on whether that person also accepts Branham’s revelations. In essence, Branham taught that if you accept his special teachings (“the word for your age”), you are in the Bride of Christ. If you reject them, it is evidence that you are not “in the truth.”
The New Testament gives a different description of how we can know we are in the truth. Note that it has nothing to do with following a human messenger, but is based solely on following Jesus Christ:
“And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments … Therefore, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and the Father.”
“My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but indeed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him … Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by His Spirit whom He has given us”(1 John 2:3, 24; 3:18-19,24).
Although William Branham was sincere and felt he loved the Lord, he did not adhere to biblical truths. As we have seen, he was not informed about the teachings of the Bible, and he was deceived in several respects. There were many more doctrinal irregularities than we have had space to explore in this brief article. To those who believe that Branham’s healings vindicated his authority, we reply that divine healing is meant to draw people to God, the Healer, not to any human vessel.
The Journal would like to thank Eric Pement for untangling this issue’s “Spider’s Web.” Eric is a Senior Editor of Cornerstone magazine.This article was reprinted with Eric’s permission. It originally was published under the title, “William Branham: An American Legend” in Cornerstone, vol. 15, issue 81, pp. 14-17. 1986.
- Branham’s biography has been derived from the following books: Pearry Green; The Acts of the Prophet (Tucson; Tucson Tabernacle Books, n. d.); David E. Harrell, Jr.. All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modem America (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1975); Gordon Lindsay, William Branham: A Man Sent From God (Jeffersonville, Ind: William Branham, 1950); Julius Stadsklev, William Branham, A Prophet, Visits South Africa (Minneapolis: The author, 1952); Lee Vayle, Twentieth Century Prophet (Jeffersonville: Branham Campaigns, [1963?)); and Footprints On the Sands of Time (Jeffersonville: Spoken Word Publications, 197:;), a compendium of Branham’s teaching, containing his autobiography, Visions, experiences, and prophetic utterances. The incident involving the light over Branham’s crib appears in Green, p.39; Stadsklev, p. 1; Vayle, p. 35; and FootprInts, pp. 21, 93 ↩
- The angelic commission is reported in Footprints, pp. 73-75, 79-80; and in the books by Green, Harrell, Lindsay, Sproul, Stadsklev and Vayle. The secret cave is reported in Green, pp. 67-68. It seems that the cave Branham described on several occasions did exist, and recently (ca. 1991) photographs of the cave interior were published in a movement magazine, Only Believe; the precise location remains undisclosed to safeguard its interior from over-zealous followers. ↩
- See Kathie Adler, William Branham: His Life and Teachings (Holbrook, N.Y.: Narrow Way Ministries, 1986), pp. 3-4; Pearry Green, p. 115; Kurt Koch, Occult Bondage and Deliverance (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications 1970) pp. 49-50′ and Dick Leagatt, “New Wine Interviews Ern Baxter,”New Wine, Dec. 1978, p. 5. ↩
- Harrell, p. 162 ↩
- Gordon Lindsay, ‘William Branham As I Knew Him,” The Voice of Healing, Feb. 1966, p, 11 ↩
- Footprints, p. 74 ↩
- Sermon: “Revelation Chapter Four (Who IS WIIIIiam Branham?),” June 11, 1961; Green, p. 199. ↩
- Footprints, p. 606 ↩
- William Branham Adoption (Jeffersonville: Spoken Word Publications, n.d.), pp. 21, 31, 62, 69. ↩
- On serpent’s seed, see “Serpent’s Seed,” The Spoken Word, VoL2, No.4; _An Exposition of the Seven Church Ages_ (Jeffersonville: Spoken Word Publications, 1965) ↩
- Seven Church Ages, p. 98-99 ↩
- On this middle category, see Seven Church Ages, pp. 275-286. On the rapture being limited to the Bride, see The Revelation of the Seven Seals (Tucson: Spoken Word Publications. 1967), pp. 57-58; Conduct, Order, Doctrine, Vol. 2. p. 1040 ↩
- Conduct; Order, Doctrine, Vol. 2, p. 1121 ↩
- “This Day This Scripture Is Fulfilled. The Spoken Word, Vol.19, No.5, p. 7. The same teaching is given on another occasion, in a sermon of the same title; see The Spoken Word, Vol. 3, No.8, p. 26. ↩
- Seven Church Ages, p. 165; see also pp. 155, 169 ↩
- Kenneth E. Hagin, The Ministry of a Prophet (Tulsa: Faith Library Publications, 1979), p. 8. ↩
- William Branham. The Easter Message (Jeffersonville: Spoken Word Publications, n.d.), p. 100, para. 171. For further information on the “third pull: see The Easter Message, pp. 98-105; Seven Seals, pp.558-64; Footprints, pp. 480-94; and Green, pp. 75-86 ↩
- Footprrnts, p. 656 ↩