Everitt Merlin Fjordbak was high. He was eloquently high, lovingly and rapturously high, not on whiskey Lord knows, but on the Holy Spirit that filled him. He leaned back in his fine leather chair and savored the past few years of his pastorship at Lakewood Assembly of God. His big, mellow baritone voice broke as he remembered the miracle that had turned him from another everyday preacher into becoming one of the most controversial and charismatic ministers Dallas has seen.
“I walked into my office one day and said to The Lord, If this is what you expect me to do, fool around with a little handful of spirit-filled people enjoying worship, well you can have it. I’m sick of it. I’m tired. Through.’
“And The Lord spoke back by taking my voice from me. For one full year 1 could not speak, could barely whisper. I did not preach. What is a preacher without a voice? A great growth grew in my throat. I had it removed surgically but my voice did not return. I remember wrestling with Satan. He was at my ear constantly, saying, “Hey, boy. where is your God now? Look at you. I thought he called you to preach and you can’t even talk.” I went through one year of hell. But I fought back.
“A year to the day, as I was backing my car out of the drive-way, I felt the power of God go through my body like a bolt of lightning. And in one instant, my throat was healed, my voice returned. I did not have a cold for four years and my voice is still powerful.
“I have personally felt the healing power of God. I am a living example. So when I pray for people to be healed, I have been there.”
Rev. Fjordbak leaned forward, his handsome Norwegian face strong in the lamplight.
“Satan is my enemy. You’ll never be able to conquer evil by psychology or even by sitting in a seminary. I’ve had to deal with kids coming out of cults, people possessed by witchcraft, you name it. Psychiatrists simply do not understand demon possession, the power of Satan at work in the world. I know these evil spirits are real. I’ve had personal encounters with them. I have absolutely no power myself. I’ve had demon-possessed people curse me to my face, spit on me and kick me. And yet within minutes I’ve been able to command, under the authority of the name of Jesus, that that thing within them come out, that spirit, and I’ve watched them change and look up and say, “Hey, where am I?” I’ve watched them become beautiful Christians, transformed. We’ve got former witches singing in the choir. Multitudes have experienced healing.”
Faye A. Spencer was hot. He was hot and in a hurry. He and his wife Ann had just driven in from Long Beach in their new Chrysler Imperial. It was a shock to walk from the clean, cool car into the dusty old church. It was a huge brick edifice, a little down at the winged heel. The angels looked exhausted. Most of the rooms were empty. A bright red carpet covered the lobby and ran down the aisle of the sanctuary. The pews had been painted white. Brother Spencer sent Ann in to test the organ and turn on the air conditioning. He would preach that night, his first appearance in Oak Cliffin a month.
Brother Spencer looked a little like Art Carney. He was artful in a country kind of way. His talk had a sing-song quality to it, like that of a carnival barker or an auctioneer.
“The reason I’m preachin’ today is this. Before the age of accountability I had double pneumonia. The doctors gimme up and no hope for me. Well my aunt she gives me this medicine and I die.”
“You mean you literally . . .’.’”
“Literally died. Lost my breath and passed away. That was when I was carried into Heaven. Saw Heaven. We have beautiful things here on earth, but nothing to compare to Heaven.”
“You mean you remember that?”
“Yes, I was only eight or nine, but I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was God that taken me. Beautiful singing. Beautiful music. It’s a beautiful place. Everyone happy.
“Meantime, the Lord brought me back in my body. When he brought me back I was raised under a stepdad and I never eat a full meal at his table to the age of 14. He beat me and whip me and when I got old enough, the age of accountability. I have enough. I got married.
“They was havin’ a brush arbor down-there in Arkansas. My mother says, “Now Faye, don’t you go down to that brush arbor. They’s a bunch of Holy Rollers; they’ve got a bottle of oil and they pour it on people and make them cut up and do all kinds of didoes. So i went down. Somethin” got a hold of me. God kept a’dealin’ with me. I was so miserable I needed help. Finally they make an altar call and I went down and knelt. Them days you either got saved or you didn’t. Them old saints would stay with you all night. When I got on my knees the Lord said to me, ’You’re gonna have to preach.’ I said, “Lord, I don’t have no education; don’t have the words.” But after a spell I commenced to shoutin’ and praisin’ God.
“But I disobeyed God and didn’t preach. Went to the very gutters of sin. I was back-slid for some years. The devil entered in. Lost my first wife, God takened her at 25 years old. I was a professional gambler when I wasn’t haulin’ hay. I laid my hand on my heart and said, ’Oh God, you heal this gambler’s heart of mine,” and somethin’ came on me that I still have. Three days later, I stuck a hay hook clear to the bone in my left hand. By the time I got to the truck the wound was gone, the blood had disappeared. The first miracle had appeared on my own body. From that time on to this day, why, thousands of miracles. We pray for deaf mutes, blinded eyes, short legs by the hundreds. Tumors melted. We have prayed for three known people that didn’t have no kneecaps and God created them there instantly. I myself been down to death’s door several times since I first died and went to Heaven; had five cancers in my own body and Go’d moved them; my appendix was bursted and the Lord come to my bedside.
“I give God all the credit. I don’t know nuthin’. I’m just a hunk of dirt; I’m nuthin’ but a piece of clay that God is usin’.”
Fjordbak’s church on Abrams Road has not only grown in congregation and capital, it also has brought together people who were once separated by boundaries of class and denomination. Protestants of every stripe mix with Roman Catholics and Jews. A vice-president of Coca-Cola and a vice-president of Dr Pepper prayed at the altar last week. A Jew, the son of a Centennial Liquor Stores executive, is in charge of the children’s school. A Catholic craftsman made the marvelous windows of colored glass, a Methodist designed the pastor’s study. A Baptist built cabinets and a Church of Christ man was the contractor. All have taken up the charismatic creed, which, simply stated, is that one cannot come to Christianity through intellect, that Christ must be experienced in a personal encounter with spirit-filled utterance.”Being charismatic is divisive,” says Fjordbak. “If your internal welfare is involved in something, something better take place. Jesus said, ’I came not to bring peace; I came to bring a sword. I’m going into homes and turn the father against the mother, the son against the daughter.’ What did he mean? He meant revolution. And this is revolution for the church. Doctrine isn’t important. The average church has realized that its social structure is not meeting that real deep need inside a man. They go in and maybe get a good lesson in psychology and morals and they go home empty. But you can’t go home empty after having come in touch with the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Being a better, educated person is not the answer. The church can’t make the same mistake Israel made. God was the king, but no, they wanted a king they could see, they could touch and handle. When the church tries to fit its program to the program of the world, it sinks. The Word of God says the church is going to end up as basically two churches – the denominational lines are just going to crumble. One is going on its own way where the rich increase in goods and have need of nothing. And the other is going to turn back to God. Just two kinds of churches, one going away from the spirit, the other toward it.”
Denominational lines are blurring: Paul Morrell, the senior pastor at Tyler Street Methodist, has turned charismatic, much to the discomfort of his bishop.
Howard Conatser, the senior pastor at Beverly Hills Baptist, led his flock into the charismatic circle. The Dallas Baptist Association was so affronted it expelled Conatser and his crowd. They continue to meet at the Bronco Bowl bowling alley in Oak Cliff, where Rose Renfroe rallied the anti-bussers. Fjord-bak claims that last year Conatser baptized more converts than W. A. Criswell, the venerable statesman at First Baptist.
Bobbie Cavnar, a steadfast Catholic businessman, saw the charismatic light when his son, Jim, founded The Word of God Community. Cavnar is now the chief elder of The Children of God’s Delight, a free-floating collection of Catholics.
Ted Nelson, the rector at the Episcopal Church of Resurrection, began packing people into his sanctuary after he began to speak in tongues and pray for the sick. “It blew me out of the tub with the establishment,” Nelson says. “I was the darling of the diocese. Since then I haven’t been asked to clean an outhouse.” But Nelson’s congregation has grown to become the fifth largest in the diocese, and he says some 25 fellow priests, out of 160, have joined the movement.
Nearly everyone agrees that the establishment most tolerant toward Pentecostalism is the Church of Rome. Pope John constantly referred to the Vatican Council as a New Pentecost. The word “charism” began popping up, and the Catholic Messenger set about to define it.
“It looks like we’ll have to add charism to our vocabulary,” the Messenger said, “because the news out of Rome right now is that it’s one of the biggest stories of the Council.
“’Charism’ comes from a Greek word, meaning literally a gift of love. As used by theologians, it describes a special talent freely bestowed by the Holy Spirit on an individual for the benefit of others rather than for his personal benefit. . .In this vein, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium told his fellow Fathers that we must today recognize the existence of charisms for a balanced view of the church, seeing them not as accidental additions, but as part of its nature.”
Pope Paul, a more practical man than John, likes charis-matics because in Europe and Latin America they have held the faith against communism.
Several Sundays ago. Rev. Fjordbak looked forward to a prayer meeting with Catholic priests and nuns. “The Holy Spirit is the Great Ecumentor,” he declared. “I remember as a boy in Iowa being made fun of many times by the Catholics for being Pentecostal, of being abused, really. I had practically consigned them all to purgatory. But by a strange turn of events, I find myself in the sweetest communion with them.”
Fjordbak is doubtless the leader of this new brand of Pen-tecostals. Morrell the Methodist, Conatser the Baptist, Cavnar the Catholic, Nelson the Episcopalian – they all speak of him with admiration. And it was he who brought them together for the first time on a Pentecost three years ago. Now they meet once a month. “We eat together, pray together and counsel one another,” Fjordbak says. “It is the finest fellowship of my life.”
Everitt Fjordbak is a startling contrast to the old image that many of us had about Pentecostals and their preachers. Once “Pentecostal” was synonymous with poverty and ignorance and Scripture-quoting con men offering prayer cloths and salvation for greenbacks and a Sunday chicken dinner. There were, and are, charlatans and victims, on both sides of the theological tracks. The itinerant evangelist who snake-oiled the brush arbors and tent revivals and later the radio stations of the white-trash South was simply no match, in a test of legitimacy, with the fat pastor who ruled from the rock of a permanent church. It was fine to pass the collection plate or sell notions in the foyer of the church, but it was tacky to pitch for money on the air.
Fjordbak is careful not to conjure up the old stigmas. He is, in fact, a middle-class man with college and seminary behind him and a prosperous church in front of him. He is dignified, conservative. It is curious that one night some years ago he’ was drawn to Oak Cliff and to a service Rev. Faye Spencer was conducting in his Revival Temple at Tenth and Crawford. Fjordbak did not feel comfortable and left. “I can’t deny the healing,” Fjordbak said later. “It’s just that we are far more formal and quiet. If you want to worship God with great emotion, that’s fine. But this I do know, that the crossing over into the other churches is not coming from the high emotional group.”
The thing that bothered Fjordbak most about Spencer “was his constant talk about money.” Spencer broadcasts five days a week on 12 radio stations that reach as far north as Chicago and as far south as Florida. He is on KSKY-AM here every weekday morning at 10. Like most radio evangelists, he offers prayer cloths and what not for a “gift offering.” You put your greenback in an envelope and mail it in.
But is that any different from Rev. Fjordbak passing the collection plate?
“No,” Fjordbak admitted. “It’sjust that it doesn’t appeal to me. It turns me off real fast. I don’t question the honesty, just the method. Look, there is no contradiction between material success and spiritual enrichment. God deserves the best. Another thing. When God called me, he made it very clear to me that he wanted me to go to the up-and-out. He said that the down-and-out had multitudes going, but that the up-and-out had very few.”
Rev. Spencer was not down-and-out. He had just had two good nights at the Revival Tabernacle. He had one more to go and then he and Ann would be off to California and his other church at Long Beach. He would leave things in Oak Cliff in good hands with Sister Ruby Hall, his black associate pastor. Sister Hall kept the tabernacle going every night of the week when he was away. Hellholes and honky-tonks stayed open all the time. Why not the House of God? .
It was 10 in the morning, time for his “Old Fashioned Healing Broadcast” on KSKY. He closed the door of the auditorium and bent over a microphone he plugged into a socket. He waited there in the vast hall, a solitary figure on stage, holding a cheap little radio in one hand, waiting for his cue. The announcer came on, speaking over taped organ music. It was a snappy tune, almost merry-go-round in its tempo. “And now, here’s Rev. Faye A. Spencer, directly from Revival Tabernacle.” Spencer turned off the radio and went into his spiel. He didn’t have anything on paper; he just hauled off and did it.
“Greetings my many friends I’m a’comin’ to you directly from the auditorium at Tenth and Crawford in Dallas. Don’t miss this double potion great service tonight. I tell ya, God is movin’, we want to keep Him movin’. This is a special oil night. This is the night we give out that holy oil. Bring that receipt for this special oil, the miracle oil that’s raised the dead, that’s healed ever known disease, God knows this special oil that’s blessed people by the tens of thousands. Tonight we make miracles. Bring the critical, ambulance, wheel-chair, demon-possessed, alcoholic, narcotic, short-legged people. Watch God perform miracles right before your very eyes. Last night we had a young girl here whose leg must have been three or four inches short. We raised that leg up and God began to stretch that leg and when it came out even with the other leg people fell out of the pews. They shouted, they run, they leaped. It tell ya, people enjoy seein’ miracles . . .
“You talk about a revival. Last night what an altar call. That’s where your money is goin’. You send your money in to our ministry, it’s not a’goin’ into a bag that has holes in it. Many years ago God showed me two bags. You put money in one and it disappeared. ’God,’ I cried, ’I don’t want to see that bag anymore.” And he showed me a good bag. You put money in it and it began to heap up. People, put your money in a ministry where all nine spiritual gifts are operating, where the five minister gifts operate, where people are bein’ healed, where the dead is bein’ raised, where the devil is cast out, that’s where your money belongs.. .Give one thing and receive many other things …”
He didn’t want for words. They kept coming, on the radio that morning and at the tabernacle that night. Ann told him it was like a ball of yarn right out of heaven.
we live in a more-or-less sober city in a fairly sophisti-cated time. though a certain amount of trendy trans-cendentalism comes and goes like spells of fever. Some of our young have had seizures of Eastern mysticism; we queue up for some cinematic nonsense called The Exorcist. But we are not the West Coast. Dallas is not Fernwood.
Rev. Spencer we can take without much trouble. He is dat ol” time religion which stays overon the south side of the river. His congregation, except for the racial mix, is the same one he would have had fifty, a hundred years ago. Spencer is a direct descendant of the Great Awakening of colonial times, when plain but plucky preachers began spreading the Word throughout the frontier. Ever since, certain sects of fundamental folk have been acting like heathens at camp meetings and revivals.
I don’t put it down; I knew it, hypnotically, as a child in the primitive clime of a country Baptist. The Devil sat upon my shoulder before I accepted Christ. Later, as a teenager with an early inclination toward ecumenism, I played the guitar and my brother Bobby fiddled as we sang hymns for Holy Rollers. We watched with wonder as they jerked and jumped and twitched. Our high harmonies were paltry compared to the heavenly sound that came from those who spoke in tongues.
Mark Twain, a hundred years earlier, had labelled them and their equally ardent brethren – the Methodists, Campbellites, Disciples of Christ – as “lunatics” and victims of “wildcat religions.” But Twain never got past that first sophomoric revulsion to religion that most young intellectuals experience. In his rush to rationality, he threw out his angels while keeping the demons that embittered him as an old man.
Rev. Fjordbak says this is the dilemma of modern man, and he is right. He is wrong, however, when he says psychologists do not understand the demonic. In Love and Will, Rollo May wrote that “violence is the daimonic [the Greek word] gone awry. It is ’demon possession’ in its starkest form. Our age is one of transition, in which the normal channels for utilizing the daimonic are denied; and such ages tend to be times when the daimonic is expressed in its most destructive form . . .An outstanding example of the self-defeating effects of forgetting the daimonic can be seen in the rise of Hitler.”
It seems that the fundamentalist faith healer and the rational psychologist are chillingly close in their diagnoses of the ghosts that haunt contemporary man. The difference is that a scientist such as May sees the demonic as an inner sense of being that can be creative or destructive, while a preacher such as Fjord-bak sees the demonic as Satan made manifest, as an objective reality. Fjordbak would exorcise the devil and replace it with angels; May would keep the devils and the angels intact and in tension because in balance they are, in his thinking, the well-spring of human creativity.
Only an idiot would deny that one’s mental state affects the body. The patient, the supplicant, must first want to be healed, and then he must believe in the power of the healer. Medicine men, from antiquity to the present, have found the sugar-coated pill, the placebo, to be the most effective prescription. And a placebo can be a mother’s kiss, voodoo drums, leeches, purgatives, poultices, snake oil or prayer. Maybe laetrile is a placebo. In 1955, the late Harvard anesthesiologist, Dr. Henry Beecher, wrote that “it must not be supposed that the action of placebos is limited to ’psychological responses. Many examples could be given of ’physiological’ change, objective change, produced by placebos.”
So, what do we have here in the Reverends Fjordbak and Spencer? Two throwbacks to the age of superstition? One is educated and immaculately middle class and the other is as crude and colloquial as a Cumberland circuit rider. But when you peel the lacquer off Fjordbak and the bark off Spencer what you have is the same thing, taking each at his own word. Both claim to be healers of the Holy Ghost, called upon by Christ to heal not only the sin-sick soul but the body as well. They may live with the rest of us in air-conditioned comfort, their wives may cook by microwave as they preach from pulpits wired for sound, they may tally up their take from tithes with calculators designed by some genius at Texas Instruments – indeed they may live longer and more prosperous lives thanks to science and technology – but in their work Brothers Fjordbak and Spencer are haunted by spirits that are as real to them as atoms are to an Einstein.
They are Christian exorcists. They cast out devils. Like the shaman of Egypt, Babylonia, Judea, Chaldea, Arabia, Greece, and Rome, they believe in the efficacy of incantation and religious rite. Health is harmony with God, being in divine favor. Disease, whether mental or physical, is a diabolic visitation. To a rationalist, living in what we tell ourselves is a scientific age, it seems, on the face of it, a bunch of bunk.
But one can’t dismiss it lightly. Too many people are being drawn to priests such as this. The Pentecostals are at the heart of a revolution that is shaking the church in every part of Dallas.
Charismatics have been speaking in tongues since Paul, and God knows there have been faith healers since man first divined that he was mortal. Christian Scientists and New Thoughters have been prescribing the balm of Gilea i for years, not to speak of the hocus-pocus of the curande os of the American Southwest. But what is different, at least for Dallas, is that the fervor of Pentecostalism has spread to some respectable congregations in some staid parts of town. And it has crossed denominational lines.
Across the Trinity from the Rev. Spencer, in a manicured setting, Rev. Fjordbak was enjoying miracles. “I know what it is to lay my hands on someone and feel the power of God go through my hands. I can hardly stand there. I have seen such marvelous things happen. Heard of others. The Catholics. Bob Cavnar stopped a service one night and said, ’The Lord tells me to pray for feet.’ He did, and this person who had a club foot watched it grow out, right there before every eye. Ask Bob about that. That’s kind of startling, isn’t it?”
Are the healers for real?
D Magazine asked several members of the Dallas clergy to comment on the phenomenon of faith healing, and to discuss specifically the differences between contemporary revivalist healers and the instances of healing recorded in Scripture and the religious tradition, and the ways in which they would determine the legitimacy of a faith healer.
Rev. Robert E. Terwilliger, Bishop Suffragan, Espicopal Diocese of Dallas
If someone identified himself to me as a “’faith healer,” he’d be using a vocabulary that would make me suspicious. That way of speaking doesn’t belong to the Christian mainstream, although it is perhaps common here. Sectarian groups have a following here that they have nowhere else in Christendom.
Some people do have a special gift of healing. I’ve known a number of them. But they are not the same as a “faith healer.” That’s a sort of Christian wizardry that I don’t hold with.
I’ve found that people who really have the gift of healing often don’t know how to express what they have. It has to do with a gift of personality and some other things that are admittedly quite mysterious. But let’s say there are some people that I’d like to see coming if I were ill.
The things that make me dubious occur when the healer is in any way boastful, or takes a gift, or turns his role toward his own advantage, either to acquire power over others or for his own material advancement. To me it’s an abomination to solicit a gift for healing.
My impression is that the revivalists consider healing to be extraordinary. We consider it one of the normalcies of Christian practice. We have a specific service for the laying on of hands and anointing of the sick with holy oils. And I’m revolted by their hyperdramatization of the process of healing. To me, healing is a moment of enormous care and sensitivity, and must never be exposed to the gaze of others.
Schubert M. Ogden, Prof, of Theology, Perkins School of Theology, SMU
There is a profound sense in which faith does have the power to heal. We all have to have confidence that we live in an orderly universe, where things are not random or malevolent. We must have the conviction that the world makes sense in order to do anything at all. Beyond that, Christians believe that at the center of the universe there is a benign, caring concern for them and all things.
In principle, there’s no difference between the revivalist and the apostles or saints in the ability to heal. Not if we interpret the apostles and saints as the New Testament indicates we should – that is, as human beings like ourselves. They weren’t special beings, they just reacted to God in a particular way and in so doing, occasionally had beneficial effects on others. Maybe that’s what the tent guys are doing, I don’t know.
You’d need an empirical test of some kind to determine an illegitimate healer. If the question is whether healing has taken place, then what other standard could there possibly be? You don’t see tests like that very often, though.
My son watches Oral Roberts on TV sometimes and we’ve had some intriguing discussions about the human side of the whole thing. Roberts is often accused of deceiving his audiences by saying that he reads every letter they send him personally, when in fact he has a huge staff to handle such things. Well, Roberts’ answer to that charge is interesting. He says, “Look, my audiences have reached the end of the line. If I didn’t give them the impression that someone cares, then nobody would give them anything.” Apparently there’s a real human need that finds expression when people call or write in to the show. And maybe Roberts is saying that he bases his attempts on the perception that God is benevolent, that if you take a stand with the sick and pray for them, well, maybe something will happen. And maybe it will.
Besides, there is a nascent community of sufferers who probably couldn’t meet in any other way, and who knows what forces the meeting can release? The sense of still belonging in the world, of not being cut off- that’s what we all live for.
I don’t feel badly towards Roberts and people like him – I just keep my eyes open, and see what happens.
Robert C. Clarke, Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas
I’m skeptical about the unconditional power of faith to heal, let’s say. I hope this isn’t rank cynicism, but I’ve known numbers of people who have put all their faith in God to heal them and alas, they died. I do believe the connection between many illnesses and the state of one’s mind and soul is pronounced, however. Doctors tell us this.
Perhaps there is more charlatanism among faith healers today than among the apostles. The early figures didn’t have the same axes to grind, if you see what I mean. A guy can clothe himself in the garments of decency and whole-someness and appear before huge audiences of people who are in pain, desperate, looking for any kind of help, and say, “I am an agent of God. Through me, the holy power works. If your faith is great enough, / can heal you.” That’s pretty strong stuff. Besides, I don’t see anyone putting on revivals and not getting paid.
As far as what is really happening at a revival session, I think it’s a temporary feeling of exhilaration and relief. People feel a little better for a while.
We Unitarians are scientifically oriented enough that we’d like to see data to determine a legitimate healer. And I’d like to see some modesty in faith healers’ forecasts about what can be done. They’ve invited skepticism with these guys who show up on crutches and leave on roller skates.
Rev. Warren F. Dicharry, C. M., Holy Trinity Catholic Church
I believe in the possibility of miracles. 1 believe that Jesus healed people and that through his power, people have been healed ever since. But it isn’t clear to us that “faith healings” are the result of God’s power rather than the power of suggestion.
I’ve seen some cases where the appeal to God appeared to have remarkable effects. Once, a woman was about to commit suicide. She had a loaded gun to her chest. I couldn’t dissuade her, so I got down on my knees and prayed. She pulled the trigger and the gun just went “click.” Maybe it misfired, or maybe she was saved by the power of prayer – we just don’t know why those things happen.
You have to know the person in question – know if he is really spiritual. Elmer Gantry .well, God just wouldn’t deal through that kind of vessel. Second, what is the nature of the illness? At Lourdes, people are first examined medically. After an apparent miracle, they’re checked out again. Only when no natural explanation suggests itself can you begin to say, “Well, it looks like we have a miracle.”
Lee Mitchell, Christian Science Committee on Publication for the State of Texas
We certainly do believe in the power of faith to heal. But I’d like to distinguish our healing, through Christian Science Treatment, from that of faith healers. We have practitioners all over the world, of course, but they don’t claim to heal anyone. That’s always a process within the individual.
Christian Scientists are not taught to respond to passion. I’ve been to Pentecostal meetings, you know, and they really get high.
Personally. I prefer quiet study and meditation, without all the noise. I feel that emotionalism is a product of the human senses, not of spiritual understanding. For us, enlightenment comes in a “still, small voice,” not with the wind, thunder and lightning.