Ernest Angley, one of the televangelists discussed in James Randi’s 1987 book The Faith Healers, is the subject of “Falling from Grace?,” a new six-part investigative report by Akron Beacon Journal reporter Bob Dyer.
According to Dyer, the 93-year-old Angley has been accused of:
- Operating a dangerous cult in which “pregnant women are encouraged to have abortions” when they wanted to have children and “childless men are encouraged to have vasectomies” [Updated: when they wanted to have children]
- Personally examining the genitals of male church members before and after the vasectomies he encouraged
- Being gay [not that there’s anything wrong with that], despite preaching “vehemently against the ‘sin’ of homosexuality” [now that’s wrong!]
- Consistently threatening and intimidating “his flock into following his instructions, bullying them into life-changing decisions that often split up families”
- Counseling his devout followers to stay silent in response to their complaints to him about sexual abuse occurring at Grace Cathedral in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
- Advising church members to shun people who leave the church including their spouses and children
- Violating a former associate pastor over a seven-year period by having him undress and then touching him all over [genitals supposedly excluded]
- Blaming demons hovering over a woman for the severe beatings she received from her husband.
Angley has denied all the accusations except for the genital checking.
In 2011, Dyer reported that the plane, dubbed Star Triple Seven, largely stays on the ground at Akron-Canton Airport thereby making Angley unavailable to facilitate supposed in-person faith cures around the world. But that shouldn’t be a barrier to healing the Angley way. In 2009, Dyer reported that according Angley’s Web site, “untold multitudes have been healed as they put their hand against mine on the screen.”
Typical of phony faith healers, Angley gives God credit for miracle healings, while blaming the afflicted. Dyer quoted Angley’s site:
''It is no harder for God to heal AIDS than for Him to heal anything else. Mark my words: There will be many, many AIDS victims God will heal if they turn to Him in their desperation and say, 'God, I have sinned against you. God I was wrong. God, I failed you.'''
I don’t know what impact the current scandal will have on Angley or his ministry. Chances are he will lose supporters in the short-term, but I lack the psychic ability to confidently predict the long-term impact.
When James Randi and his investigative team exposed faith healing televangelist Peter Popoff as a blatant fake, the negative publicity derailed Popoff’s ministry, but it turned out to be only a temporary setback. After declaring bankruptcy, Popoff eventually got his ministry restored on television and the Web. He now offers “miracle spring water” to those requesting prayers.
Observations of Angley in Action
Angley was the first faith healer I ever saw on television back in the mid-1970s. I was astounded that anyone could believe that faith in God could evoke miracle healings during Angley’s services. Angley’s helmet-like toupee suggested to me that if there wasn’t a divine cure for baldness at Grace Cathedral, there probably wasn’t a divine cure for anything else there.
While I was an undergraduate at University at Buffalo (SUNY), my friends and I watched Angley’s program for the kind of comic relief we got from watching professional wrestling (another type of preposterous morality play). His histrionic preaching and creepy manner were as outlandish as the performance of Robin Williams as the Reverend Earnest Angry on the live, Grammy Award-winning 1979 album “Reality…What a Concept.”
One of my friends thought Angley’s reality-challenged approach to facilitating supposed divine healing was similar to Moe Howard delivering forehead slaps to the other two stooges. Randi, who attended one of Angley’s services with the late Paul Kurtz and two other philosophers in 1986, described the ritual:
He also does the ‘slaying of the spirit’ demonstration to which I subjected myself at his meeting. I stood before him and two huge ‘catchers’ stood at my sides. He placed one hand at the small of my back, pressed the other to my forehead and easily pushed me over. Kurtz was not such a “pushover.” He decided to resist, and though Angley pushed him hard three times, Kurtz remained firmly standing. Disgusted, Angley muttered to him, ‘Well, then, take the healing for your friend!’ and went on to more pliant victims.
The ritual that followed the healing portion of the service was really frightening. Kurtz and I saw otherwise intelligent, quiet people could be manipulated into a frenzy by a sort of hypnotic, paralyzing repetition of a short phrase (‘God is good!’) endlessly chanted, while Angley ‘conducted’ the chant with a bemused smile. It went on for 26 minutes, as evidenced by my tape recorder. (p. 238)
My three-year-old 1990 Ford Taurus was about the nicest car in the Grace Cathedral parking lot for our Friday evening date. I concluded that many congregants struggled to pay their bills and could ill afford to donate money to Ernest Angley Ministries.
Sitting through the worship service was dreadful. Randi’s description of it rang true; he called it a “pathological experience” lasting two hours before the spirit slaying ritual even began. Randi summed it up: “His sermon was simply a mind-numbing, disconnected, rambling series of mild admonitions and folksy anecdotes.”
The congregation sat quietly throughout the rambling. I wanted to get up and scream out something like: “What’s wrong with you people? How can you stand this? This is insane!” But I was too afraid, if not too mature, to act on my impulses. This simply was not a place where independent thinking was welcome. I was afraid that the ushers might not take care to avoid injuring me if they decided to escort me out of the building. I was afraid of alerting the hive mind of the congregation that I was not buying it. I concluded that any expression of resistance to the groupthink would be futile. But at least I had no fear of being assimilated into the Angley Borg.
I chalked up the evening as first-hand experience of how powerful social influence can be. Perhaps there were others in attendance who had some doubts about the validity of Angley’s preaching. But if everybody there thinks that everybody else wholeheartedly believes in Angley as prophet, turning away requires remarkable resistance to social pressure. And if you’re in desperate need for a miracle, abandoning your misplaced faith in God’s supposed messenger can leave you hopeless.
Randi wrote that most of the people he observed at Grace Cathedral regularly attended services “every Friday night” as a regular night out like going to the movies. [Emphasis in the original] I got that impression as well, especially when I observed congregants returning to their seats after participating in the “slaying of the spirit” ritual at the front of the cathedral. I noticed no expressions of joy even though each congregant was expected to have experienced a healing miracle of some sort. It was routine rather than miraculous. I’ve seen people show more enthusiasm returning to their seats following restroom visits.
I suspect that the miracle seekers at Grace Cathedral left the services knowing on some level that they didn’t get the healing they had hoped for. Yet they keep coming back for miracles they were supposed to have gotten each previous Friday. Failed healings may be embarrassing to admit, but they aren’t difficult to rationalize: if faith is required for a miracle, then lack of a miracle means insufficient faith and the need to continue to work on it. Simply enduring Angley’s service is work.
Vulnerability to Faith Healing Deception
I doubt that many readers of SWIFT are likely to become devoted to a someone like Angley. Most readers would recognize how preposterous Angley is. But that isn’t because SWIFT readers are so smart that they cannot be taken in by deception...
Deceptive social influences can have powerful effects, especially when we are unsuspecting. But different people have different vulnerabilities to different social influences. Our cultural backgrounds influence the specific types of deceptive messages that can persuade us.
My visit to Grace Cathedral was a cross-cultural experience. I was a stranger in a strange land and could not personally relate to Angley’s worldview. Angley’s messages did not resonate with me the way they resonate with his devoted followers, who embrace faith as the greatest of virtues.
In his book The Transcendental Temptation, Paul Kurtz described intransigent faith as a type of faith tenaciously held by some people in spite of strong opposing evidence. It’s the type of faith displayed by many of those who have failed Million Dollar Challenge tests of supposed psychic, supernatural, or paranormal abilities.
I’m afraid that many of Angley’s followers will remain devoted to his ministry and many of those who abandon his ministry will switch their devotion to another ministry promising miracle healings as a reward for faith.