(Reprinted from The Christian Sentinel ©1999)
Roberts Liardon has done an unwitting service for the entire church of the 20th Century in his reconstruction of the rise of Pentecostalism in his 12-volume video series, “God’s Generals,” and the book by the same title. Beginning in the mid 1800s with an eccentric preacher by the name of John Alexander Dowie, he follows the succession through many colorful Pentecostal healers ending in the 1960s with Kathryn Kuhlman.
“When I was a teenager the Lord spoke to me concerning the lives of His great ‘generals,'” explains Liardon, “to know why they succeeded and if they failed, why they failed. So I spent most of my teenage years… talking to people who knew famous preachers.”
Now his collection of testimonies, along with vintage film clips, help fill in some missing pieces for those of us attempting to see the big picture of how today’s various heretical movements achieved acceptability. Liardon’s narration connects some of the fringe ideas of the past to the latest “moves of God” in our time. He can really relate to these wolves in sheep’s clothing since he himself is a deceiver. He is known for his own outrageous claims of out-of-body visits to heaven where he had water fights with “Jesus” in the River of Life.
Liardon chose to air all the dirty laundry of his heroes in his attempt to tell the whole story for the benefit of the final generation that he says we are today. “I write the story the way it really happened,” he explained. “I don’t kind of sugar-coat it in any way. I tell you what they did; why they did it. And… make spiritual applications on ‘‘here’s what we can learn from their successes; here’s what we can learn from their failures…’ I believe in what they did. I understand the anointing.”
Liardon traces the modern Pentecostal movement to two healers: a man, John Alexander Dowie, who founded the Zion Healing Center in Chicago and a female contemporary, Maria Woodworth-Etter. They came from the Holiness tradition and were itinerate preachers across the United States in the late 1800s. However, they were at odds with one another. Dowie spoke at one of Mother Etter’s meetings in Oakland, California, and called her methods “trance evangelism.” Liardon explains that Dowie “said it was something of the devil and it was the worst deception he had seen in his entire life.”
Reminiscent of some of the strange manifestations in some of today’s renewals, Mother Etter’s followers would display paranormal behavior. “In her meetings, beside healing, people would go out under the power…slain in the spirit and people would go into trances, and they would stand like statues for 30 minutes, an hour,” Liardon explained, “but [Dowie} didn’t understand.”
Later, Dowie went off the deep end and declared himself to be the prophet Elijah and began dressing up in biblical robes.
Liardon goes from there to the turn of the century and Charles Parham who opened a healing home after consulting with a man by the name of Sanford, who “was kind of off doctrine and thought he was Jesus reincarnated back on the earth.”
Parham also ran a Bible school in Chicago and gave his students the assignment to answer the question, “What is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit?” His students came up with tongues and then they tarried, as the disciples did in the upper room. The first one to manifest was a lady named Agnes whom Parham laid hands on. According to Liardon, “she could not speak in English for several days after receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in other tongues.”
William Seymour, a one-eyed African-American man, was taught by Parham, but had to sit in the hallway outside the classroom because it was not acceptable in those days for him to mingle with the white students. Seymour then left Chicago for Los Angeles in 1906 and was thrown out of a Nazarene church for preaching on the subject of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He was then invited to a couple’s home on Bonnie Brae Street where he preached the restoration of Pentecost. When it got too loud there with folks shouting in tongues, they moved over to an abandoned building on Azusa Street.
When the Azusa Street meetings got out of control, Seymour summoned Parham to come West and lend a hand. “Parham now received a letter from Seymour saying, ‘why don’t you come and help me with this revival,’” recounts Liardon. “This thing took off. I don’t know what to do. We got some trouble with some flesh. We can’t discern flesh from spirit. . . come, come, come.”
Parham arrived in Los Angeles at Azusa Street and, according to Liardon, “He said there’s things going on here that are not right. He found people on the altar at Azusa Street with spiritualistic activities, hypnosis going on, as well as people receiving the Holy Ghost and salvation going on.” The two men parted ways after that.
LEGENDS OF THE “GENERALS”
From Azusa Street, the mantle was passed down through various big circuit faith healers such as John G. Lake, Smith Wigglesworth, Aimee Semple-McPherson, William Branham, Jack Coe, A. A. Allen, and Kathryn Kuhlman. Liardon examines the ministries of each “general” in depth, one per videotape. The last tape, volume 12, shows highlights of film footage utilized on the other tapes.
The “generals” share many of the same triumphs and failures. One thing all of them held in common was Parham’s new doctrine that babbling in tongues is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The United Pentecostal Church, the oneness cult, is also represented in the “generals” list by William Branham, a oneness proponent, according to Liardon.
The old film clips shown of the “generals” in action reveals the charged–up atmosphere of their tent meetings. Manifestations caught on film include people falling down backwards onto the floor, people babbling in unknown gibberish, and others claiming to be healed jumping up and down, bending over, or running back and forth across the platform. One film clip of A. A. Allen showed his demonstration of the ever popular leg lengthening routine. The greater signs and wonders attributed to the ministries of the generals, unfortunately, didn’t get caught on film. However Liardon fills in the missing footage with tall tales designed to bring wonder to any listener.
One that stands out involved old Mother Etter and how she dealt with a critic in the crowd who kept heckling her. This is what happened according to Liardon: “’God judge thee!’ and she pointed at him and his tongue swelled up…the size of a small banana and hung out over his bottom lip and he could not put it back in his mouth, nor could he shut his mouth, nor could he eat and barely drink.” Then, as the story goes, he ran out of the tent only to come back the next day, humbled, and apologized to her in writing since he couldn’t speak. Mother Etter slapped his tongue and it went back down to its normal size.
Divine healer of the early 1900s, John G. Lake, was equally impressive with his magical powers. He would prove that no germ could live in his presence by inviting skeptical doctors to bring saliva from dead diseased people to him. The bacteria in the tainted saliva on his hand would miraculously disappear under a microscope before their watchful eyes, the story goes.
When Lake was in South Africa, the crowds were reportedly so great that he was unable to pray for everyone that needed prayer. So he compensated for the problem, according to Liardon. “’Can you see this rock that I’m standing next to? Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to lay my hands on this particular rock. I’m going to ask God to anoint this place and any of you that are sick just come up here and touch this rock…and…the power that I leave in it will go into you and make you whole.’” If that didn’t work Lake’s anointed bubble gum would have to do, just chew it and be healed.
Another signs and wonder myth Liardon shared involved one-ness heretic, William Branham. “In one of Brahnam’s meetings in Arizona,” said Liardon, “the power of God hit the platform very strong and the piano player fell off the bench but the piano kept on playing.” Too bad for all of us that the camera wasn’t running.
Neither was there a camera present at one of A. A. Allen’s tent meetings when a 400 pound lady came to him for prayer. “Allen prayer for her,” recalls Liardon, “she fell out on the tent floor… When she got up, over 200 pounds had supernaturally disappeared from her body and when she stood up all of her undergarments fell off onto the floor.”
Although Liardon does not give much airtime to the warnings of the watchmen of those days, some of the writings of Christian leaders who witnessed the events have been recorded. David Wilkerson, pastor of Time Square Church, in his pulpit series article back in 1982, “Is Christ Becoming a Stranger in Our Midst?,” wrote of an Azusa Street eyewitness by the name of Frank Bartleman. He is quoted as saying, “The temptation seems to be toward empty manifestations. This does not require any particular cross, or death to the self-life. Hence it is always popular…Any mission that exalts even the Holy Ghost above the Lord Jesus Christ is bound for the rocks of error and fanaticism.”
And in the earlier days of the faith healing movement, Charles Spurgeon warned of the dangers of chasing after signs and wonders. “I am glad of any signs of life, even if they should be feverish and transient, and I am slow to judge any well intended movement, but I am very fearful that many so called revivals in the long run wrought more harm than good. A species of religious gambling has fascinated many men, and given them a distaste for the sober business of true godliness. But if I would nail down counterfeits upon the counter, I do not therefore undervalue true gold. Far from it. It is to be desired beyond measure that the Lord would send a real and lasting revival of spiritual life.”
For the discerning viewer of the “God’s Generals” tape collection, it would be easy to write off all of them as self-centered, power-hungry, egomaniacs until one comes to the Aimee Semple-McPherson tribute. Liardon has a good collection of vintage film of this woman and it’s easy to fall in love with her. She is gracious and beautiful and altogether charming, but, at the same time, out of biblical order in that she was a female pastor.
Liardon tells how Aimee, as a young would-be evangelist, went to visit Mother Etter when she was in her golden years and was given her mantle. He goes on to explain how her mantle then passed onto Kathryn Kuhlman, and then onto Benny Hinn of our time.
But sister Aimee’s ministry was not without controversy. Liardon makes quick reference to the infamous phony kidnapping story, when she disappeared for a while with her married lover. And he shows film footage of Aimee rubbing noses with her third husband, a musician named David Hutton who left his wife and children to marry her. That marriage was short lived. Liardon tells of the break-up: “So sister McPherson didn’t find happiness in this marriage and in fact, on her way back from Europe when she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, she discovered by the news media that Mr. Hutton had filed for divorce.” She died tragically in 1944 of an overdose of sleeping pills.
And here is another commonality of God’s generals. Many of them had nervous breakdowns, went insane, became drunks and drug abusers, or got off into doctrinal heresies of all kinds. As mentioned earlier, John Alexander Dowie thought he was Elijah, “the restorer of all things,” as did Charles Parham and William Branham. Remarks Liardon, “I don’t know what it is about these people thinking they’re Elijah – they’re not.”
One of the “generals,” Evan Roberts of the Welsh Revival, had a nervous breakdown due to the strange manifestations happening in his meetings, according to Liardon, and did not return to ministry after receiving correction by author (she wrote “War on the Saints”), Jesse Penn-Lewis, who helped him recover. Liardon was critical of Penn-Lewis and saw her concern as something the devil used to end the revival.
Another colorful “general” was Jack Coe who was known for his extreme behavior. He looked like the fat half of the Abbot & Costella comedy team. One film clip showed Coe punch a lady three times in the belly to heal her of stomach trouble.
At one of Coe’s revival meetings, Liardon recounts, he lined up a whole row of people in wheelchairs onto the platform and “he grabbed them by the collars of their clothes or by their dress and just picked them up and threw them out of the wheelchairs and said, ‘Walk!’” Those that weren’t healed were told, “’you didn’t walk cause you didn’t have any faith.’”
Liardon said that Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin both made statements that “Jack Coe was the man that had the gift of faith stronger than anybody else they’d ever seen or heard of.” But, according to Liardon, Hagin said that God spoke to him before Coe’s untimely death at the young age of 38, that if Coe didn’t change in three areas, “God would remove him from the scene.”
Those three areas were said to be, 1) his disagreeableness and nasty personality, 2) his love of money, and 3) his over eating. A. A. Allen was defrocked by the Assemblies of God denomination after being arrested for drunk driving. Allen’s protégé, R. W. Schambach, defended Allen, saying he was not really drunk but it was just a conspiracy to stop his ministry. But Allen died prematurely and the autopsy report said that he died of liver problems due to acute alcoholism.
Smith Wigglesworth was also well known for his lousy bedside manner. Liardon recalls hearing many interesting stories from those who were close to Wigglesworth, such as one meeting when a doctor brought a cancer patient to the healer. Wigglesworth “wound up his hand and hit him where the cancer was in the stomach,” Liardon recounts. “He punched him so hard until the man died… and the doctor screamed, ‘You killed him!’ Wigglesworth said, ‘he’s healed.’ Ten minutes later the man got up healed.’”
When critics would confront Wigglesworth and ask “why do you hit people,” he would say, “I don’t hit people. I hit the devil, the people just get in the way.” “And,” Liardon points out, “when you got the results he had you didn’t need to spend much time talkin to the critics.”
WHO WILL BE THE GREATEST?
In spite of much bad press that seemed to follow all the miracle men and their tent meetings, throngs would line up for miles to get a seat. “Jack Coe bought a tent and he stretched his poles just a few more inches all around so I guess it would be a few more feet than Oral Roberts’,” Liardon points out. “Back in those days, I guess these guys wanted to have little discussions over who had the biggest tent…Those would be called immature ministers on their way to maturity, so there was a big war in the voice of healing time” [sic].
The tent successes of Oral Roberts (who did not make it on the list of “generals“) in his early days brought the green-eyed monster out in A. A. Allen as well. When Allen saw the long prayer line at Roberts’ Dallas crusade, Liardon reflects, “he said, ’if Oral Roberts can do it, I can do it!’… Before he [Allen] began to pray for the sick, he felt like he had to have the power. He knew he had the call but did he have the power to actually produce the miracles that was needed for the people that came seeking them?… So he fasted and locked himself in his closet seeking the miracle ministry.”
Even Liardon admitted that some of the generals would exaggerate their healing successes in order to one up the next man with a tent. Referring to A. A. Allen, Liardon said, “It seemed that Reverend Allen tried to outdo the persecution by exaggerating some of the miracles that he talked about.”
Just about every one of God’s generals had unusual metaphysical experiences that the average Christian could never attest to. Liardon demonstrates how very special they were due to some of these unexplained phenomenon. Several of the generals had glowing halos or auras around them.
Branham would frequently display a photo of himself with something resembling a halo over his head. Since he was so holy God would speak to him out of a whirlwind in a tree or from a pillar of fire coming into his room at night. He had his own personal angel whom he would wait on during his meetings. This angel had taught him how to detect diseases and demons by different vibrations in his hands. One film clip shows Branham at a healing service and he says to a lady, “You know I’m waiting for something, that is true. It’s the angel of the Lord… I’m just as helpless as can be, just like any of the rest of you” until the angel shows up.
Also, Mother Etter, at the age of 13 had an unusual occurrence according to Liardon. “A light came and stood over her,” said Liardon, “and other people began to say, ‘look at the light on Maria…’ and they began to talk about this glowing holy light as they would call it.” And John G. Lake’s spirit would leave his body and minister to people in the spirit realm.
Throughout the “God’s Generals” tape series, Liardon says he wants to clear up all of the controversy surrounding the lives of these men and women. But by the end of the series, the discerning viewer is not left with happy thoughts of the valiant deeds of bygone saints. Instead one is convinced that the root of the modern tongues movement is tainted and not of God. Any Christian could come up with a better line-up of people such as Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, and Oswald Chambers. These contemporaries of the generals are much more impressive.
These true evangelists and theologians of the past 100 years realized that the purpose of the filling of the Holy Spirit was mainly for the power to do the ministry of saving souls. The Word of God was front and center and the gifts of the Spirit continued in the lives of the saints ever since the day of Pentecost but did not take the front seat. However, with “God’s generals,” the signs of tongues and faith healing was the focus and even their messages were short on Bible teaching and most of the time was spent hyping up past so-called miracles in an attempt to stir up the faith of the listeners.
This surely worked to their benefit in planting expectations that in the heat of the moment seemed to work. But after the excitement died down, many would leave and remain sick and the faith healers had to come up with excuses for why people didn’t retain their healings. Of course it was a lack of faith on the part of the poor pitiful person.
Where I believe the “generals” went astray was in the pursuit of a question that is unbiblical to even ask or concern oneself with, and that is “What is the evidence that a person has been baptized with the Holy Spirit?” This doctrine has borne nothing but divisiveness and wicked fruit from day one. It caused believers to examine one another instead of examining themselves and has tempted people to counterfeit a gift of the Spirit to achieve a spiritual status symbol.
And oddly enough, none of the victims of the false teachings of the “generals” received their “prayer language” until they were taught that there is such a thing and they must tarry to get it. But John R. Rice has pointed out, “I had the mighty power of God upon me in soul winning before I understood the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” And, as any born-again person can attest to, the gifts of the Spirit could be seen in their lives before they had opened up to the book of 1 Corinthians and before they had even heard that there were such gifts. But, the apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthians saying, “But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
Dave Hunt, in his book, Occult Invasion, put it in biblical perspective when he wrote:
“If genuine, the gifts of the Spirit are under the direction and control of God and are provided by His grace exclusively for His purposes and to His glory… Whatever the ‘gift of the Spirit’ may be, it is given in specific instances to effect God’s purpose at that time; it does not become a power possessed by an individual which he can wield at his discretion… It is a great delusion for anyone to imagine that he possesses any gift of the Spirit in the sense that he can exercise it whenever he so desires. And that includes the gift of tongues—a gift which multitudes imagine they ‘possess’ and can ‘practice’ when they please and, thereby, have been led astray… Whatever purports to be the manifestation of a ‘gift of the Spirit’ and is not initiated by Him, but is under man’s control, is not of God but from the occult. (pp. 126-127)”
The value of the “God’s Generals” tape series is in the vintage films it contains. But Liardon’s commentary is a clear demonstration of the distorted logic and biblical ignorance displayed by the Word/Faith movement in general. Anyone testing the spirits that operated in these “general’s ministries” would come to a far different conclusion than the host.