William Branham and the Branhamites in French-speaking Africa
Many readers may never have heard of William Branham. Until recently, I was in this group. However, in my recent travels in both the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), I came across a pseudo-Christian cult which is endemic in these two countries. It is so popular in the Republic of Congo that it is like an unofficial religion of the country. In discussing with Christians in Congo I realized, first of all, that this was a force they had to deal with in order to share the gospel, and second, that this group had to be a cult rather than a Christian group. The essay below is intended to summarize a bit of the life of the founder of this group, along with a very brief synapsis of what they teach. At the end, I will give a biblical argument in response to the chief false claims of William Branham.
Branham was born 1909 in Kentucky. He had a limited education, having never completed high school. His career was fairly obscure until the year 1946, when he emerged from the Pentecostal movement as a very popular faith healer. He was the top faith healer in the US at the time, filling stadiums for his healing services. He made outrageous claims about his healing power, including stating that he had raised people from the dead. Such claims were always vague and were never verified. He also claimed to have healed King Edward VI of England. Unfortunately for this claim, Edward was ill at the time, and his health progressively deteriorated, resulting with his death two years later. Branham claimed not only to have the miraculous gift of healing, but also to have the power to diagnose people’s illnesses. Even one of his disciples admitted that “Unfortunately his healing prognosis was accurate only in rare cases. The excuse of healing evangelists in such cases has always been: The patient did not really believe; for they were convinced that faith leads automatically to health.”
His career as a circuit preacher pretty much came to an end in 1956 when he was charged with tax evasion. The end of his role as a famous faith healer and preacher was as dramatic as his rise. He continued his ministry after this time, but with very limited success.
It was after his fall from grace that Branham made increasingly wild claims about himself. He began to claim that he had seen a bright light in a vision in June, 1933 at the Ohio River in which God called him to be his special messenger of the return of Christ. There is no evidence that he reported this vision until decades after it supposedly happened. He began to claim that he was the second coming of John the Baptist, as prophesied in Malachi 4:5-6 and that the letter to Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22 is a prediction of his ministry. Even his friends admit that his claims were complicated, inconsistent and confusing. Did he claim to be the one preparing for the return of John the Baptist, or did he claim to be the resurrection of John? It is hard to say. He also made a great number of bizarre prophecies. More will be said about his claims and his “prophecies” below. Braham was killed in a car accident in Texas in 1965. Many of his followers eagerly waited for his resurrection. They were disappointed when he was buried a few days later.
Mr. Branham always claimed to his followers to be dirt poor and to not have a dollar to his name. He told his followers that “my choice is to be a poor man.” He told his followers that whatever money he received he gave to world missions. Yet at his death he was worth 3.1 million dollars, which is about 25 million in today’s money.
Another fact of note is that the infamous Jim Jones, the cult leader who led his followers to a mass suicide in Guyana, was a former disciple of Branham. Clearly, it is not fair to blame Branham for this aberrant behavior, but if we understand his teachings, it is not surprising that some of those who look to Branham as a model end up in dangerous fringe groups.
On his death, his oldest son, Billy Paul Branham, took over his ministry and financial empire, cutting out Branham’s wife and daughter, and eventually breaking with William’s other son as well. Like his father, Billy never graduated from high school and has shown disrespect to educated people in general. Billy Paul is president of the William Branham Evangelistic Association and vice-president of Voice Of God Recordings, which is the publishing arm of the group. He personally became very wealthy selling his father’s materials and living off of his legacy. He continued his father’s legacy, claiming to be the fulfillment of many of his father’s prophecies, claiming to have had a vision of an angel in 1947 and the like. He prophesied that Jesus would come back while he was still a young man. He is now eighty-three years old. In a sermon in Los Angeles in 2015 he claimed to still be young!
In the early 1980s Branham’s ideas made their appearance in Africa—especially in the two Congos. It has been limited mostly to French-speaking Western and Central Africa. The movement has become the largest (supposedly) Christian group in Congo-Brazzaville. The group raised millions of dollars selling recordings and tracts of sermons by William Branham to people with very little education. They also preach the prosperity gospel. Not surprisingly, given all the money and lack of accountability, the group has fractured repeatedly. There are three principle groups in the Congos, two of which are quite wealthy. They have become independent movements, no longer sending the earnings back to the Billy Paul Branham. These Branham groups in Africa have various practices and prophetic claims, but all teach the claims described below.
Let us consider some of the teachings and some of the prophecies of the infamous preacher. In the earliest part of his ministry, Branham held to most of the standard teachings of the Oneness branch of the Pentecostal Movement. For example, he consistently denied the doctrine of the trinity. This is characteristic of the Oneness Pentacostal teaching. He was a Unitarian. In other words, he denied the classic trinity doctrine—that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are separate persons/entities. He was in the mainstream of the Dispensational Premillenialists. For example, he believed in the Rapture, and in a literal Millennium of Jesus reigning on the earth. Premillennial and dispensational presuppositions form the basis for his prophecies and claims about himself.
After his career as a faith healer stalled, Branham moved toward a much less orthodox belief from his Pentecostal colleagues. For example, he denied eternal punishment in hell, holding to the belief that those sent to hell cease to exist. He is not the only Pentecostal leader to teach that judgment is of a limited time, followed by ceasing to exist.
It has been said about Branham that the number of his false teachings were equaled or surpassed by his false prophecies. Some of his clearly false prophecies included the claim that the Roman Catholic Church would take power in the United States in the near future. Clearly, this has not yet happened, and it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. He also claimed that the United States would be destroyed by 1977, at which time Jesus would come back. His prophetic career reminds one of the Jehovah Witnesses who have made repeated false prophecies, only to move onto make new ones when they do not come true. In December, 1964 Branham prophesied that the city of Los Angeles would sink into the Pacific Ocean—that a chunk of land 1500 miles long, 400 miles long and forty miles deep would fall into the Ocean, making waves that would “shoot out all the way to Kentucky.” Such a prophecy does not need any comment. God told the Jews that if the predictions of a prophet do not come true, then he is a false prophet and should not be listened to.
There is no doubt that this man was a false prophet. Then there is the matter of his personal claims. It is because of his claims about himself that it is tempting to apply the label Antichrist to this man. As already mentioned, he claimed to have had a Joseph Smith-like visitation of a bright light and a voice from heaven in June, 1933. In another parallel to Joseph Smith, as far as we know he did not mention this supposed vision to anyone until decades later. His story about this vision varied over time. It tempting to think that this vision is a pure fabrication.
Branham also implied that he was the one of the two Prophets described in Revelation 11:1-13. This not being enough, he also claimed that he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist as a forerunner of the return of Jesus Christ. “As John the Baptist was sent to forerun the first coming of Jesus Christ, so your message will forerun His second coming.” It is a common claim of Pentecostal premillennialists that the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are seven ages leading up to the end of time. Beginning with this idea, Branham claimed that the seventh letter—the one to Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), is a prophecy about him.
Branham had an extremely negative view of women. He considered them inferior to men and the cause of much of the sexual sins of men. He taught that the serpent in Revelation 3 was in fact in human form, and that he had sex with Eve. The result of the union produced Cain, who was literally the son of Satan. Eve, then, was the mother of evil and her progeny carry this curse. , Branham said that women are “essentially immoral sexual machines who were to blame for adultery, divorce and death. They were the tools of the Devil.” Branham labeled scientists and intellectuals as the sons of Cain. He literally demonized educated people. He also imposed a highly paternalistic culture on his followers and taught that women could not wear makeup or jewelry or style their hair. They could not wear pants, but only long dresses. All of these are still practiced by Branhamites in Africa.
Here is the bottom line with William Branham. He was an uneducated, misogynistic con artist who turned outright lies and outrageous unfounded claims to create a high-profit financial empire.
It might be tempting to simply dismiss these claims. How could anyone believe that a discredited faith healer who made a huge profit from his own ministry and nearly all of whose prophecies did not come true and who, by the way, has been dead for more than fifty years, be one of the most important persons in the history of God’s relationship with his people? Well, the fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of people who take these claims very seriously. Anyone wanting to share his or her faith in French-speaking Africa must be able to answer the claims of these people.
Let us then consider the principle claims of Branham—especially those he made about himself. First of all, let us look at his teaching about women. There is not the slightest indication that Eve had sex with the serpent. As far as we know, the first sin she committed was eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, after which she was cast out of the garden and had no interaction with the serpent. Besides, in Genesis it is unambiguously stated that Adam and Eve had sex and that this relationship produced Cain! (Genesis 4:1). Add to this, the statement about the serpent in Genesis 3:17-19 is inconsistent with the claim that he was in human form. Besides, there is no indication anywhere in the Bible that women are the cause of man’s sin. Man is held responsible for his own sin. “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) Jesus showed great respect to women and treated them as equals on a human level. It is outrageous inconsistent with both the life and teaching of Jesus to claim that he blamed women for men’s sin.
As mentioned above, Branham claimed, and his followers today agree, that he was the one prophesied in Malachi 4:5-6, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of their children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” Branham’s followers claim that the prophecy in Malachi 3:1 is a prophecy about John the Baptist, but that Malichi 4:5-6 is not—that in fact it is a prophecy of a second (third?) Elijah who will usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ. They claim that this end-time Elijah is in fact William Branham.
First of all, we know that Malachi 3:1, the one about “the one who will prepare the way—the messenger of the [New] Covenant”—is John the Baptist. We know this because Jesus said so in Matthew 3:3. This is unambiguous. Nearly all New Testament scholars agree that the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6 is also John the Baptist. They do so because Jesus said that John the Baptist is the Elijah who was to come. Matthew 11:14 makes it clear that Jesus said John was a fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6. The Old Testament ends with a prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist, and the next time we hear prophecy from God, it comes in the form of the preaching of John the Baptist who came announcing the coming of the Lord. Certainly, John the Baptist fulfilled both Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6.
Ignoring Matthew 11:14, Branham’s followers try to find room between Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5-6. They claim that no one person could be the fulfillment of both prophecies. Never mind that Jesus disagreed with them. We can concede that one can make a case, in isolation (ie ignoring what Jesus said) that the two figures in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6 are not the same. The second comes “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Branhamites say this is at end times, so it has to be a third Elijah.
For the sake of argument, even though I disagree that these are two different people, let us concede the possibility that they are not one and the same John the Baptist. What if they are two different people? Does this make it believable that Malachi 4:5-6 is about Branham? His followers are using the classic logical fallacy of the False Dilemma. In other words, either Malachi 4:5-6 is John the Baptist, or he is Branham. You choose! Well, this is a false dilemma. What about a third possibility? Why Branham? Why not someone who is not a con artist and a false prophet who teaches false doctrines such as Unitarianism and Eve having sex with Satan? What in the life of William Branham, the discredited faith healer who gave dozens of false prophecies that have not come true, makes him the fulfillment of this prophecy? This claim is so outrageous that it does not even deserve any consideration at all. Branham is dead and Jesus has not come back!!!! John the Baptist and Elijah were godly prophets who lived simple lives. Branham was wealthy, owned really nice cars and lived in luxury. He committed tax fraud (to be fair, he was not convicted). He is the Elijah of end times? Really? Let us ignore his personal shortcomings. He is long dead and Jesus has not come back. That single fact proves without even the possibility of doubt that the claim is false. End of story.
The third claim of Branham we need to discuss is his statement that he and his ministry are the subject of the seventh of the letters to the churches in Asia. The claim that he is one of the two end-time prophets in Revelation 11 is related. We can deal with this one at the same time. It would be fair to say that no one reading Revelation 3:14-22 would have Mr. Branham come to mind. If anyone were to read the biography of the faith healer, and then to read the letter to Laodicea, no sane person would find a connection, because there is none. Besides, John was told what the prophecies in Revelation are about and who the letters are written to. The clear statements in Revelation leave no room for this truly whacky claim.
Consider Revelation 1:1. “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” (emphasis added) There you have it. The prophecies in Revelation are about things which would soon happen—soon after about AD 95, when John received this prophecy. Soon might mean a few months or a few years or even one hundred years, possibly, but certainly not more than nineteen centuries later. In fact, the prophecies in Revelation concern the persecution of the Church under Rome. For a detailed treatment of this claim, please consider looking at the material at my web site on Revelation. (www.evidenceforchristianity.org search word Revelation)
Besides, there is no indication in the text that the letter to Laodicea is a prophecy at all. Branham claims that this letter was written to people in the end times and that those end times are this present generation (or more accurately two generations ago, in the 1960s). This claim is disproved by the book of Revelation. Who was this letter written to? Let us listen to Jesus: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11, emphasis added). Of course, Revelation is written to all Christians, but the immediate audience is the seven churches in Asia. If we look at Revelation 3:14, we are told that this letter is “to the angel of the church in Laodicea.” Branhamites say that the letter is not to Laodicea, but to its angel. Well, if we consider Revelation 1:11 and Revelation 3:14 we can see that the “angel of the church in Laodicea” is the church in Laodicea, or perhaps to the leaders of that church, as an angel is a messenger (Hebrews 1:14).
Jesus said that the letters were addressed to the churches in Asia, but Branham tells us that they are addressed to people at end-times. They have no statement in the letter of Revelation to substantiate this claim. Even if we accept the false claim that the Revelation 3:14-22 is about end times, what fact in the life of William Branham suggests that this letter is about him? I am left speechless here.
If Branham is not the subject of the prophecy in Revelation 3:14-22, which is not even a prophecy, then he also is not one of the two prophets in Revelation 11:1-14. This passage is an apocalyptic vision of the attack of Rome on the Church in the first centuries. Rome will attach God’s people, his people will continue to testify, as personified by the two prophets, the prophets will appear to have been killed, but will come back to life and the church will win over Rome. This is what Revelation 11 is about. Again, to quote John in Revelation 1:1 (repeated in Revelation 22:10), the prophecies concern things which will soon take place, not two thousand years later—things about which the seven churches would be concerned.
A note to those confronting Branham’s followers; as a rule, it is not advisable to “go after” one’s opponents. In other words, when you are having discussions with believers in the Branham deception, I suggest you not throw out the “dirt” on Branham. I suggest you show these people your life as a disciple of Jesus. You are surely living a life more in concert with the life of Jesus than the Branham followers. Then, I suggest you deal calmly and humbly with the false interpretations of the Bible found in the Branham teachings. You should make the “dirt” on Branham available to your friends, but should not put it out there aggressively. They respect this man, but it is more on an emotional than factual level. They will be offended if you force negative information about their hero on them. You should stick to the Bible and to your Christian life as a witness and let the truth come out with regard to Branham’s life in its own time.
To summarize, there is a large cult-like community of pseudo-Christian believers in French-speaking Africa who follow the teachings of the former faith healer William Branham. The evidence leads to the conclusion that Branham was a religious con artist who turned his false prophecies and outrageous personal claims into a financial empire that earned for him a lavish lifestyle in contradiction to his public claims that he lived in poverty. When his faith healings are investigated, they turn out to be mostly unsubstantiated. When his prophecies are examined, all or nearly all of them simply failed. When we investigate his claims about himself, that he is a major figure in God’s plan to bring on the return of Jesus Christ, the biblical claim collapses of its own weight.