The role of false prophecy in Christian history and politics

The role of false prophecy in Christian history and politics

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[This is a sample chapter from my forthcoming book, “America in Danger: Left and Right.” ]

At the beginning of the primary season of 2015, I was considering which Republican I would vote for – I had voted Republican most of my adult life but was also wary of its spiritual decline. I was surprised by the entrance of Donald Trump into the field of candidates. Several of my evangelical friends were enthusiastic about him, and claimed he was God’s appointed candidate for America. I later discovered that as early as 2011 there were prophecies circulating among Evangelical Christians that Trump would be a “Cyrus” to America.  That is, a person not orthodox in religion, but who would restore American to its Christian roots.[1]

I was suspicious of this prophetic claim and thought it odd, but possible. Over four decades earlier I had extensively studied the problem of spiritual discernment regarding visions and other spiritual experiences and had learned something of the history of false personal prophecies as well as mass false prophecies that divided Christian communities in the past. [2]

Prophetic discernment in scripture and Church experience:

False prophecies have been common in Church history, and very often involved good Christians and communities who misinterpreted God’s direction. Paul is careful to encourage prophecy in New Testament Church and recommend it to Christians as the most important gift of the Spirit (1 Cor 14:1). But Paul put discernment boundaries around it, as in having the prophet submit their visions and prophecies to the church for discernment. It is also clear that Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 principally refers to prophecies that uplift and correct at the local church level (1 Corinthians 14:3), not global, trans-church issues.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.  And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Corinthians: 29-31)

But that does not exclude prophecy about national or international issues, In Acts 11:28 the prophet Agabus prophesied that there would be a large-scale famine, and the Church had to prepare for it. It happened. Similar valid prophecies have occurred throughout Church history. For instance, Demos Shakarian, the founder of the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship International, recounts how his family immigrated to California from Armenia due to warnings in the 1900s by a local prophet. That prophet warned that the Armenians must leave to avoid slaughter by the governing Turks. Some, including his parents, heeded the warning and escaped the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916.[3]

The discernment of prophecy is both a grace and a matter of experience. That is, it is important to have a discerning community that both cherishes prophecy as possible words from God but is aware of the danger of false prophecy. I have treated elsewhere the difficulty of practicing prophecy and having a church that is at ease with the gift. Even Pentecostal pastors are often unsure how to allow and correct spontaneous prophecies in their congregations. [4]

The consensus of the discernment literature, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal is that, especially in the local church, short prophetic utterances can be of the Holy Spirit, (all must be discerned) but as they get longer, they tend to bring in element of the prophet’s subconscious wishes, prejudices and preferences.[5] So accepting the long and long-range prophecies about Trump, or anything else, should be especially cautious. But before I precede further let me cite from Christian history some false prophecies that influenced the Church to its determent.

The Montanists:

A major false prophetic movement was begun by the prophet Montanus about the year 170 A.D. His prophecies, and that of two women prophetesses who aided him, spread among Christians in the Roman Empire during a period of severe persecution.[6]  Montanus and his prophets predicted the very soon coming of Jesus, and predicted that a “New Jerusalem” would descend from heaven and alight in their hometown of Pepuza – a sleepy one-horse, or one chariot, village in the mountains of Phrygia (modern Turkey). That his hometown would be the center of the Second Coming is an example of the provincialism and vanity that often seeps into false prophecy.

Montanist prophets caused much divisiveness. The major issue of conflict with the majority churches and their bishops was the prophets’ moral rigor and legalism. They claimed, through repeated prophetic utterances, that the Holy Spirit decreed that those who had broken under Roman torture and renounced the Christian faith could never be accepted back into the Church. These had committed the “unforgivable sin.”  Most of the bishops of the Church disagreed, and saw a need for leniency, including restoration of these persons into the Church after a penitential period.

The orthodox Bishops came out of this conflict as defenders of the true Gospel of mercy. In the process, the prophetic ministry was put under suspicion. Sadly, the bishops began to appropriate the prophetic office into their ordained office, and away from 1 Corinthians 14 as Paul indicated, by interpreting the meaning of “prophecy” as the preaching and teaching ministry of the Church. This is an idea that the Reformers were to adopt as standard.[7] The effect was that prophecy, instead of being what Paul suggested, the most common gift for the Christian community (1 Cor 14), became an increasingly rare gift.[8]

After a while the Montanist prophets declared that the “prophetic age” (their own) was over, and the movement settled down as a legalistic sect – and eventually petered out. But the Montanist movement extended negative consequences throughout Church history. It vastly curtailed (but did not totally end) the frequency of lay prophetic utterances. Without a flow of prophetic utterances in the Church’s normal parish life there was crated a vacuum of ongoing (and necessary) practice of discerning prophecy by church elders and leaders. That is, there were few, if any, persons experienced in the gift of prophecy who could exercise discernment.

Catholic tradition of prophetic discernment

Later, the Catholic Church developed the practice of “spiritual direction” in which a mature person, usually a cleric, would act as the discernment person to nuns, monks and others who experienced visions and prophecies. But this was a specialized and limited ministry. The Reformation rejected this tradition and the excellent literature on discernment that it generated. They saw prophecy, as the other gifts of the Spirit, restricted to the Apostolic Age (the doctrine of cessationism).[9]

Indeed, the Catholic Church is the denomination that has the most sustained experience in discerning true and false prophecies. Since the earliest times all Christians, lay or religious, have visions prophetic dreams and mystical experiences.  But those in the religious orders and monasteries are more likely to remember their dreams and revelations and take them seriously. It was there that the discipline of spiritual direction came to be most exercised. The Catholic tradition of discerning spiritual experiences is quite good, with ample understanding of how to gently correct a false prophecy without crushing the person’s spirit. [10]

The advantage of this tradition of discernment is that it takes into account true and false prophecies and visions and does not automatically assume that a prophecy is true because it seems spiritual.  Rather, prophecies must meet certain discernment criteria to be accepted as possibly true and worthy of public consideration. Further, the Catholic tradition of prophetic discernment understands that whole sections of the Church may be beguiled by false prophecies, as the Montanists and others.

False prophesies in France:

Pertinent to our study was a series of prophets and prophecies centered at the time just before the Franco-Prussian War (1871-1872).  At this time there were many Catholics in France who passionately disliked the French Revolution and the secular governments that flowed from it – with good reason as they were at times anti-Christian.

Catholic prophets kept putting out prophecies, some of book length, assuring the coming restoration of a Catholic monarchy. These prophecies predicted the wholesale conversion of France to devoted Catholicism (riding the country of the pesky “secularists” and atheists). To boot, England and Scotland would be re-converted to Catholicism, and the Pope would reign over a mostly Catholic Europe. Varieties of these prophecies went on for decades.[11]

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out it quickly went badly for France. There was another burst of prophecies assuring Frenchmen that the Prussians would be driven back past the French border. Here is a snippet of some of these prophecies:

They [the Prussians] will come back again, and they will destroy everything on their line of march. No resistance will be offered; they will be allowed to advance, but after their supplies will be cut off they will suffer great losses. They will retire towards their own country, but we shall follow them up, and not many of them will reach home. Then we shall recapture everything that they have carried off, and plenty more besides.[12]

None of the above happened, not even close. France lost the war, had to give up the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and pay a huge indemnity to Prussia.  But it is important to note, just like the Montanists, many of the prophets were good, devoted Christians. What they saw in visions, or imagined, was from their “flesh,” as Paul would say. They were the wishes of their religious community. They were “wish for” prophecies not real prophecies from the Lord.[13] We will come to this again later in our examination of the Mark Taylor prophecies on President Trump.

 Her we should add that although the Catholic tradition in dealing and discerning of prophesies is excellent, it has faults and does not always manifest at a parish level.[14] The bothersome phenomenon of Marian apparitions and multiple false prophecies have made the issue of discerning prophecies for Catholic clergy complex. Many (all?) Marian apparitions and prophecies are bogus and most likely of demonic origins, but the Catholic clergy are reluctant to come down hard on such manifestations as this would offend many lay persons who easily become attached to such prophetic movements.[15] For instance, in Georgia, in the 1990s just such a bogus apparitions and prophecy cluster arose in the town of Conyers. The prophecies were obviously Gnostic and bogus, and the local bishop discouraged its propagation, but the movement lingers.[16]

Evangelical lack of a discernment tradition:

Several important revivals among the Protestant churches occurred from the 1600s to the present. In these the gifts of the Spirit were newly discovered by one community or another, but lack of a discernment tradition on prophecy and experience in discerning prophecies was a constant problem – the result of the theology of cessationism. This discernment lack often discredited many of the revival movements of the Church. This was the principal reason why the Great Awakening (1737-1742) of New England was cut short. Specifically, there arose traveling prophets who put forth false prophecies and presumptuous judgments about other ministers and churches. The American theological genius, Jonathan Edwards, witnessed this discernment failure firsthand and single-handedly created Protestantism’s best discernment work in response, but his work came too late to save the Great Awakening and it shut down prematurely.[17]

In more modern times, just before the Azusa Street revival and the birth of modern Pentecostalism, there was a revival that took place among several Holiness congregations in Corsicana County, Texas, in the 1870s. This revival began with a burst of worship and enthusiasm which included tongues. Significantly, the local leadership understood that the gifts of the Spirit described in 1 Corinthians. 12 -14 were for the present. Unfortunately, the leaders were inexperienced in prophecy and its discernment (of course, there were no mentors or literature to help them) and drifted into false prophecy. Some of their prophetic utterances included the message that a person baptized with the Spirit would be regenerated physically to the point of being able to live a thousand years. But strangely enough, folks in the congregation continued dying. The revival disintegrated as local prophets urged their followers to sell all and await Jesus’ return in 1875. Jesus didn’t show up, and the only thing achieved by the revival was the discrediting of future Pentecostal efforts in the area four decades later as the people remembered the previous fiasco[18].

The false prophecy of David Wilkerson:

In the Twentieth Century there was the interesting case of a major American false prophecy given by  David Wilkerson in 1973. The Rev. Wilkerson (1931-2011) was truly one of the heroes and pioneers of the Charismatic Renewal. He began as a small-town Pentecostal preacher (Assemblies of God) in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. Through a series of promptings from the Holy Spirit he went to New York and was led to minister to delinquent and gang teenagers in the slums of New York City. This eventually led to a marvelous and effective ministry in New York and other cities for the evangelization and rehabilitation of inner-city teenagers called “Teen Challenge.”  The story of the beginnings of this ministry is told in his book, The Cross and the Switchblade.[19] That book had a special anointing in its power to inspire people and was translated into many languages and sold more than 50,000,000 copies worldwide.

But in April of 1973, when Wilkerson was already known worldwide for his teen ministry and first book, he received a series of visions. The visions dealt with the supposed coming events of the next decade (1973-1983), with special attention to events in the United States. It was published as The Vision and became a best seller among evangelicals and charismatics.[20] Wilkerson first publicly proclaimed the vision in a conference of Lutheran charismatics in August of 1973. The tape of that session is an amazing document in the history of Christian false prophecy.[21]

Although the book contains all the prophecies, one can best appreciate Wilkerson’s state of mind by listening to the tape. As he spoke at the Lutheran assembly, he asserted time after time that his message was directly from God, and that it was the “clearest vision I’ve ever had.” He assured the audience that the Spirit behind the vision was the same that guided him to the teen ministry. Several times during his delivery he was practically overwhelmed by emotion and said, “Never have I felt such an anointing,” or “I predict in the Spirit!” and so on.[22]

Wilkerson warned of five major calamities that were surely coming on the world by 1983. In economics, the “next few years” would be prosperous (he missed the recession of 1974-1975), followed by a deep depression brought about by financial collapse. The depression was to start in Germany and the Arab countries will suffer the most. None of that happened. At the same time there would be severe earthquakes in the United States and worldwide food shortages. That also did not happen. On the moral front, the United States was to be invaded by a flood of pornography never before seen, and the courts would take an even more permissive stand on this issue. This turned out to be generally true, but one did not need to be a prophet to see the trend already apparent. There would also be a major wave of disobedience by children towards their parent (a constant, but no noticeable jump in this sin area).

The most important and dramatic part of the vision pertained to the churches. According to Wilkerson, there would arise a new Church, really the Church of the anti-Christ, made of a liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic amalgam, in which the Pope would be recognized as the political head. The “true” Church of God, a new union of all authentic Spirit-filled Christians, will of course oppose this Church and in turn suffer persecution.

Wilkerson especially warned Catholic charismatics to expect persecution from their own hierarchy. They would eventually be forced to choose between their Catholicism and the Spirit-filled life. As a practical measure he warned all Christian churches to put their financial houses in order to weather the coming hard times. Specifically, no new buildings or borrowing should be initiated in the immediate future. All through the delivery of this prophecy Wilkerson provided ample Biblical quotations to give it a sense of Biblical validation.

That The Vision was a false prophecy is now obvious. Was it merely a subconscious concoction of the beliefs, fears and prejudices of a Pentecostal preacher raised in the tradition that the Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon?”  Certain elements in the prophecy suggest that they may have had a deeper, demonic influence. The very shrillness and lack of humility in his assertions was itself a sign of that. The prophecy did not call Christians to prayer or repentance, nor did it console, edify, or exhort; it frightened and condemned. There was not a single suggestion that might have been useful.

Further, the only practical suggestions were destructive. The attempted separation of Spirit-filled Christians into “one true Church” would have resulted in a new Montanism with results perhaps more destructive to the Church than the old Montanism. Even the minor point of financial conservatism most probably had a demonic source, for many churches in the 1970s did in fact continue to flourish and to build in response to their growing needs.

That Catholic charismatics did not follow the deadly advice of The Vision was due in great part to the intelligent and quick response of other, more mature leaders. David du Plessis, the elder statesman of Pentecostalism, who had seen first-hand the birth of the Catholic charismatic movement, quickly denounced the prophecy as not coming from the Lord. He compared it with many a false prophecy he had heard as a young man which claimed the coming world rule of Stalin and the Papacy.[23] Ralph Martin, one of the best-known and respected Catholic charismatics, quickly spread the warning of “false prophecy” among fellow Catholics. Indeed, as time has shown, Catholic charismatics never suffered persecution from their bishops, and although the movement slowed down in the U.S after the 1980s, there are many Catholic charismatic fellowships in the United States that are doing fine. Further, in Africa and South America the Catholic Charismatic movement has been instrumental in bringing millions of nominal Catholics to become true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Wilkerson’s prophecy goes to the core of the discernment problem. His false prophecy no way negated his splendid ministries. Wilkerson did nothing wrong in reporting his prophecy. As a matter of fact, according to traditional Catholic discernment theology, he would have sinned from cowardice had he not spoken. But he should have sought verification from older, mature Christians. The famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, in a brilliant work, Inquiries, made clear that, the prophet is in a poor position to discern his own revelation. This is because if it is of demonic origins or contamination it will play upon the fears, prejudices, and belief structure of his own subconscious mind and those in his immediate faith community.[24]  It is the task of the Church to judge prophecy, not the prophet. This again is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians. 14:29.

It is clear that Wilkerson’s original teen ministry was anointed by God and bore much good fruit, as well as his book, The Cross and the Switchblade, yet The Vision was demonic. This is a modern example of Peter’s “multiple inspirations,” as when Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:17) but later urged Jesus not to continue to Jerusalem and His crucifixion (Matthew 16:23). It is also important to realize that while Wilkerson delivered his address to the Lutheran conference, he was probably functioning as a partial medium for an evil spirit. Yet in no sense did he commit the sin of mediumship. Rather it is in the nature of the spiritual life to be an instrument of either the Holy Spirit or other spirits, just as Evagrius Ponticus, the monk had shown (see chapter two).[25] Advanced spiritual life is by nature risky – but not as fatal as a mediocre spiritual life, for our Lord makes it clear that he abhors those who are neither “hot or cold” (Rev. 3:15). The major failure with Wilkerson and his vision was that he did not seek an elder or mature spiritual director with whom to discuss his visions before he went to the public with them.

 

 

 

[1] The earliest source for this I can find is a Charisma newsletter by Jeremiah Johnson, “Prophecy: Donald Trump Shall Become the Trumpet,” Prophetic Insight, (July 28, 2015). There may be earlier source.  https://charismamail.com/ga/webviews/4-864964-30-224-231-371-9d7ae3cdab

 

[2] De Arteaga, Past Life.

[3]Demos Shakarion, The Happiest People on Earth (Old Tappen: Chosen, 1975), 19-22.

 

[4] William De Arteaga, “Prophecy in the Church: Pathway to Revival.”  Pneuma Review,  Posted Feb 18, 2016.    http://pneumareview.com/prophecy-in-the-church-pathway-to-revival/

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] For a balanced, extensive and sympathetic view of Montanism, see the work by R. A Knox, Enthusiasm: chapter 3.  The Wikipedia article on the Montanists is more accessible and excellent.

[7] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians. Trans. By Ross Mackenzie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960) 376 ff.

 

[8]Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church in the First Three Centuries. Trans. J.A. Baker, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969) chapter 8 “Prophets and Teachers in the Second Century.” Dr. William Spencer of Gordon-Cornwall Seminary believes that already by the end of the 3rd century the gifts of the Spirit were waning. See his article, “The Chaining of the Church, Christian History #17 “Women in the Early Church.”

[9] I have explained how disastrous the doctrine of cessationism has been for the Church in several of my works. See especially my Agnes Sanford.

 

[10] The crown jewel of Catholic spiritual direction and discernment literature is Augustine Poulain’s, The Graces of Interior Prayer. (St. Louis, B. Herder, 1910). Still in print in various editions. Better for the contemporary reader is a reduced and edited edition of this work which focuses on discerning visions and revelations, Revelations and Visions (New York: Alba House, 1995).

[11] Herbert Thurston, The War & the Prophets. (London: Burns & Oates, 1915). Chapter 1. Available in reprint version. Fr. Thurston was a master of documenting false prophecies and other spiritual phenomena of all sorts. His works deserve to be read in our day.

 

[12] Ibid., 40-41.

 

[13] Here I must confess that in my decades in the Charismatic Renewal I have issued some “wish for” prophecies but also a few valid ones.

 

[14]Among the best in the Catholic tradition is Karl Rhaner’s Visions and Prophecies, in Inquiries (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964).

 

[15] An excellent Catholic critique of apparitions and false messages from Pseudo-Mary was done by the Catholic scholar Fr. Herbert Thurston, “The False Visionaries of Lourdes,” in his Surprising Mystics, ed. By J. H. Crehan (Chicago: Henry Regency, 1955).

 

[16]William De Arteaga, “Marian Devotion and the Coming Second Wave of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal,” Pentecostal Theology, Posted April 9, 2019.  http://pneumareview.com/marian-devotion-and-the-coming-second-wave-of-the-catholic-charismatic-renewal/

 

[17] In particular, Edwards’ classic, Distinguishing Marks of the Spirit of God. I treat this issue in my work, Quenching the Spirit (Lake Mary: Creation House, 1996), chapter 3.

 

[18] On the rise and fall of this revival see: Barry W. Hamilton, “The Corsicana Enthusiasts: A Pre-Pentecostal Millennial Sect,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 39 #1 (Spring, 2004) 173-193.

[19]David Wilkerson The Cross and the Switchblade (Old Tappen: Spire Books, 1963.

 

[20] David Wilkerson, The Vision (New York: Pyramid, 1974).

 

[21] David Wilkerson, “The Coming Persecution,” Tape #DW-8, Springs of Living Water tape library. In author’s possession.

 

[22] Ibid.

[23] David du Plessis, “Persecution for Charismatic Catholics?” New Covenant (Jan. 1974) 13.

 

[24] Karl Rhaner, “Visions and Prophesies,” in Inquiries (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964).

[25] I am of the opinion, which the French Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal, first put forth, that the pineal gland is the brain’s portal to communication with the spiritual world, either from the Holy Spirit of unholy spirits. Thus, the demonic can use the same portal and brain circuitry to suggest his diabolical messages as the Holy Spirit can give us inspiration.

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William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.

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