Spiritual Healing Revisited

Ryan Shaffer

I have been following faith healers for several years, fascinated by the psychology of those who attend and by the performances offered by the “healers.” Of particular interest has been Walter Vinson Grant Jr., who as W. V. Grant achieved worldwide fame in the 1980s and 1990s. During that rise to fame, skeptics looked into his healing claims. Notably, the conjuror and skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi investigated Grant along with other faith healers, bringing attention to this multimillion-dollar industry that claimed cures of everything from cancer to stunted legs. In its Spring 1986 issue, Free Inquiry published a special feature, “Faith Healing: Miracle or Fraud?,” with articles by Randi, Paul Kurtz, Joseph Barnhart, Tom Flynn, and others. Randi’s article explored Grant’s healing revivals in detail; this was followed by an updated report in Randi’s book, The Faith Healers. The article and book brought increased scrutiny to Grant, but despite the criticism Grant persevered. Today, Grant’s ministry once again encompasses regular television broadcasts and public revival meetings.

Curious to see what Grant has been doing in the twenty years since Randi’s exposé, I decided to visit one of Grant’s healing revivals. In June 2009, I witnessed firsthand the famous Pentecostal faith healer at one of his “miracle revivals.” I sat in the audience at the One in Christ Temple in Buffalo, New York, but despite Grant’s claims, I did not see any miracles. What I did see was that Grant’s methods have changed little over the past two decades.

History

The son of Walter Vinson Grant Sr., a popular minister who helped found the Voice of Healing organization, W. V. Grant followed his father’s example by opening a ministry in a poor area of Cincinnati, Ohio, and taking up faith healing. In the late 1980s, he married his fourth wife, Brenda Gayle Hayes. She was the daughter of faith healer Alton Hayes, whose famed contemporaries had included A. A. Allen and Jack Coe. Despite their renown as healers, Allen ultimately died from alcoholism and Coe died of polio shortly after a judge in Florida dismissed a criminal charge of practicing medicine without a license on the grounds that “divine healing” was exempt from the law. W. V. Grant would be no less controversial, being the subject of several exposés airing in the 1980s and 1990s, including a 1991 ABC News report that destroyed the ministry of exuberant televangelist Robert Tilton. The criticism continued throughout that decade; among other things, Grant underwent regular high-profile lampooning in the “God Stuff” segment of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Grant repeatedly found himself in the crosshairs of critics, perhaps never more so than when James Randi and a volunteer panel of skeptical investigators looked into his claims in the mid-1980s. By 1987, even Grant’s hometown paper, The Dallas Morning News, echoed Randi’s criticism. Randi explored Grant’s life in The Faith Healers, noting that many of the “accomplishments” on Grant’s resumé, from college degrees to high school football records, were complete fabrications. (Since these scandals, Grant graduated college. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Christian Ministries from Dallas Baptist University in 1999 and a Master of Liberal Arts degree in 2001. At the revival I attended in 2009, he was introduced as “Doctor W.V. Grant.”) Grant also claims that he suffered many diseases as an adolescent and attended eighty-four different schools! Such misinformation, as Randi described it, is a common problem that tends to follow Grant, who has been caught repeatedly making claims that, when checked, turn out to be false. As Randi explained, “The truth has hurt W.V. Grant, and his only defense, it seems, is to try to cover it up with another set of lies.”

Perhaps more hurtful to his career than critics’ barbs, Grant and Brenda were indicted for tax evasion, pleading guilty in 1996. Grant later tried to withdraw his plea, but the judge refused, citing a video in which Grant admitted using $100,000 of parishioners’ money for personal expenses. Judge Joe Kendall ordered Grant to serve a sixteen-month sentence, pay a $30,000 fine, serve a year’s probation after his release, perform one hundred hours of community service, publish details of his offense on his mailing list, and provide continuing financial reports to the court. Separately, his wife pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, which means she knew about a felony and did not inform authorities. Brenda successfully withdrew her plea and was later acquitted by a jury while her husband went to prison.

Grant’s legal issues took a toll on his ministry, forcing him to sell his five-thousand-seat Eagle’s Nest Family Church facility to T. D. Jakes. (Jakes, a fellow high-profile televangelist, renamed the facility “The Potter’s House” and now pastors a flock boasting twenty-eight thousand members.) Grant was released after serving sixteen months in federal prison and resumed his activities in 1997. He was soon back on television on a regular basis. He resurrected his ministry in Dallas at a former used-car dealership. He currently purchases television time on BET, Word Network, and local affiliates throughout the southern United States. Just as he did in the 1980s, Grant continues to target his ministry toward the poor and desperate.

Healing Revival

In June 2009, I traveled to the One in Christ Temple in Buffalo, New York. I had come with an open mind to watch W. V. Grant perform miracles. Prior to this trip, I was not familiar with the city. The One in Christ Temple was located in an unmistakably poor neighborhood. The majority of nearby buildings were abandoned, among them several churches that had been left to nature’s wrath. The area was predominantly African American. Convenience stores were mixed with other churches and businesses. The One in Christ Temple occupied a single-story building across from one of these stores and alongside an abandoned building. Below the name of the church on its façade was a marquee advertising Grant’s nightly miracle meetings. The details in this article are drawn from notes I set down immediately after the revival, an audio recording I made, and photographs I took.

The revival was scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m., but I arrived early to make sure I did not miss anything. As I turned onto the street, a new-looking white Range Rover blocked me from entering the parking lot. The driver was W. V. Grant; I recognized him from the 1980s CBS News program West 57th that I had seen online. Grant was considerably more portly than he had been then, but he looked younger than a man in his mid-sixties. I parked and walked into the church at 6:30, greeting the local church’s pastor along the way.

As I entered, Grant was singing into a wireless microphone accompanied by pre-recorded music on the stage. On the wall behind him was arranged a collection of crutches and canes, which I assumed were from previous “healings.” At the back of the room were two eight-foot tables with religious merchandise featuring W.V. Grant and also his father, who died in 1983. The stock consisted of audio CDs with Grant reading the Bible, CDs of his biblical prophecy teachings, and dozens of tracts about miracle healings that he sold for $2 each. Remarkably, the tracts looked as though they were unsold leftovers from the 1970s. (As a historian, part of my work consists of analyzing political pamphlets from this period. Grant’s offerings were clearly of the same vintage as many of those in my collection.) After two more
songs, Grant stopped singing at approximately 6:40. A younger man sang as people continued to enter the church, and Grant walked around the room, starting on stage right and slowly making his way in my direction, stage left.

During this time, Grant engaged with specific people. One was an older African-American woman in white clothing who was seated on my left and one row behind me. Grant’s conversation with her focused on how she was feeling and why she was there. Next, Grant spoke with the man behind me, who during Grant’s singing had been praying very loudly and speaking gibberish. He appeared to have significant mental-health issues. At last, Grant made his way toward a room near the stage, stopping only to shake my hand before walking near the organ on the side of the stage. He began writing on a piece of paper, staring at the people he had just spoken to. His expression suggested that he was struggling to remember the details of his conversations with them. Once Grant finished writing, he placed the paper in the middle of a blue three-ring binder and went into the room beside the stage around 6:50.

Although the revival was scheduled to start at 7:00, people were still filtering into the service. At 7:10, the young man stopped singing. The building was less than half full—actually not a bad turnout for a Thursday in the summer. The crowd was almost entirely African American and mostly female. The service began with a woman giving a fifteen-minute opening prayer. She thanked God for a variety of things, intermixed with several incoherent words. It ended when the church’s pastor walked over and plucked the microphone from her hands, cutting her off in mid-sentence.

The young man who had sung earlier welcomed the audience and promised that “miracles” were “coming tonight.” He exhorted them: “Only trust God.” He told all the “first-timers” to raise their hands. Several hands, including my own, went up; we each received an address card that when filled out and returned would result in our receiving material by mail about healing revivals, Grant’s newsletter, and information about earning a “fellowship certificate.” The young man then welcomed the One in Christ Temple pastor, who in turn brought out a local dance group that included his son to perform. They danced in unison to R&B music for ten minutes without any clear religious purpose.

When the dance group finished, the young man who had sung earlier walked onstage and placed Grant’s blue binder on the center-stage podium. He told everyone to shake hands and welcomed Grant. Grant made his entrance to thunderous applause and immediately launched into a story, claiming he had been shot twice several years ago in Chicago. He explained that an angel “interceded,” saving his life by blocking the bullet. Grant said that he had telephoned his father later that night, but before he could tell the story of his encounter, his father said he had known that W.V. would need an angel and had prayed for him to be safe. Grant implied that his father’s prayers had saved his life. This was an example of how “praying hard” can bring divine intervention. During this story, an older woman with blonde hair, likely Grant’s wife, Brenda, walked to the back of the hall, paying close attention to the audience.

Grant told the audience they needed to “get the word of God first” before they could pray. From this, Grant segued into promoting his CDs and “books” (referring to four-page tracts from the 1970s). In particular, he recommended CDs of him reading the Bible because people may not have the time to read but can play the CDs in their cars. He then promoted his “teaching sets” and mentioned that his music is also sold online.

This “advertising break” was followed by several stories about his youth and how his prayers had been answered. During these stories, Grant specifically said God would heal someone’s cancer and financial insecurity. He then talked about meeting Cathy Carlson, who had been married to Ozark Air Lines pilot and alcoholic Carl Carlson. Grant said that Cathy, Grant Sr., and himself had prayed for the pilot to stop drinking and “find God.” A few weeks later, Carl’s airplane crashed during a rainstorm near St. Louis, killing all ninety-one people on board including himself. Grant said that a pilot flying another aircraft had overheard Captain Carlson leave the cockpit after his instruments quit working to join the passengers in prayer and that because of that prayer, everyone on the plane, Carlson included, was “saved” before they died. Making sure the congregation was listening, Grant intoned, “Say it with me: Ozark Air Lines Flight 649; you can look this up.”

I did look it up, and there are no news articles about a Flight 649 crashing or a pilot named Carl Carlson working for Ozark. I found information about Ozark Air Lines’ two major crashes, Flight 809 and Flight 650. Flight 809 crashed near St. Louis during a thunderstorm, killing thirty-eight of the forty-four people on board. According to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash, the pilots were Captain Arvid L. Linke and First Officer Michael D. Williams; both survived. In the other case, Flight 650 struck a snowplow on the runway in 1983, but everyone on board survived (one person on the ground was killed). According to a news search, a Captain Carl Carlson had been involved in the Horizon Air Flight 2658 crash in 1988, but the pilots along with everyone on board survived. Carlson is still alive and as of 2006 was a member of the Horizon Air Crew Resource Management team. Grant’s airplane story was the only set of claims he made that night that were specific enough to fact-check. I doubt whether anyone else in the audience took notes to later check on the accuracy of Grant’s stories.

Facts notwithstanding, Grant summed up the moral of his air-crash story by declaring that God will help solve your problems if you pray “hard enough.” As Grant saw it, prayers did not get the desired results for those who were not praying hard enough. Fortunately, Grant and his father had been able to help Cathy “pray through” and reach God, “making God listen.” Subsequently, Grant had everyone join hands with another person and pray “hard” for the other. This was followed by having everyone jump up and down twenty-five times.

While the people obeyed his instructions, Grant flipped open his blue binder and looked at the small slip of paper on which he had written earlier. He walked to the front of the stage and prepared the audience for the coming miracles by telling stories about past miracles, including healing “short legs.” This was one of Grant’s tricks that Randi had exposed as being something “12-year-olds do at summer camp”; it involves arranging someone’s legs so that one looks longer than the other. After a short prayer Grant would make the legs look normal again; the miracle was complete. While Grant prepared to perform the coming miracles, the woman with blonde hair walked out of the room, showing perfect disinterest in witnessing the miracles. The reason became clear later on.

The first of Grant’s miracle recipients was a woman in the audience whom he told to come up front. She walked slowly toward the stage, limping noticeably. He asked her what church she attended, and without her saying another word Grant announced, “God told me to tell you the attack is over.” He then said, “God’s healing your spine here [on] this disc on top of your spine” and “healing your knee.” He then asked, “Did you tell this to anyone here?” pointing to the audience. She replied, no. He continued with a pseudoscientific claim that there are thirty-nine diseases that doctors c
ategorize, relating to the thirty-nine lashes Jesus received on his back. Grant then described the woman’s knee problems and blood pressure issues, stopping only to ask again, “Have you told this to anyone?” as he gestured to the congregation. After she again replied no, he said she would “keep growing as a Christian” and receive a “double portion of healing” before he declared her healed.

The woman then interrupted Grant and grabbed the microphone away from him. He looked taken aback but did not resist. She announced into the microphone, “The last time you were here I was bleeding out because of cancer.” She continued, “God closed the arteries and all the visible manifestations.” The crowd cheered in praise, some shouting “Amen!” Once the noise subsided she continued, “I came tonight because I have one more little issue. The doctor said the cancer has gone to my head.”

Without skipping a beat Grant replied, “All your symptoms are leaving” and “God will heal your pain.” “How’d you hurt your knee?” he asked.

She answered, “From the treatments.”

Again Grant asked, “You haven’t told this to anyone?” When she answered no, Grant said, “I saw an angel rubbing your shoulder” and claimed that “The attack is over.” He then entered into prayer and bid the congregation to pray with him. Afterward, he asked the woman her name and told her to touch her toes. She appeared reluctant, as if she were in pain. Grant noticed her reluctance but proclaimed, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” He argued that it is the obedience that actually cures and “touching toes never healed anyone.” So she complied, and he then had her walk over to the pastor before sending her back to her seat. With that W. V. Grant declared her “healed.”

As many in the room would see it, Grant had divinely learned the woman’s problem and healed her. However, for those who had watched Grant before the service, it was clear that this was no divine action. The woman in white with brain cancer was the same African-American woman dressed in white whom Grant had spoken to before the service, the one seated on my left (see photo of “healing” exchange). This was the conversation he had with her before writing it on a piece of paper and inserting that paper into the binder, which was later brought on stage. Yet only a few people in the church witnessed those conversations, which took place before most of them arrived; and of the few who had come that early, many were deep in prayer and paying negligible attention to Grant’s activities.

Following the first “healing,” Grant explained why he chose some people instead of others. He claimed that people are like peaches; some are more ripe with faith and ready to be plucked. Yet when Randi exposed Grant twenty years ago, he found another reason. Digging through the garbage after one of Grant’s services, Randi had found the notes Grant had used. Grant had simply spoken to certain audience members before the revival, made notes of those conversations, and later repeated that information from the stage. In fact, as Randi noted, Grant engaged in conversation only to call those people up for “healings” later. That is the reason people were selected and, in all likelihood, why his wife had no interest in watching the “miracles.”

I stayed for two more “healings,” which unfolded in a similar fashion, before leaving. Each time Grant called up someone whom he had talked to before the service. His performance was without variety, and I grew uncomfortable watching so many people be deceived. I couldn’t help thinking back to a 2003 investigative report by WAGA-TV, the Fox affiliate in Atlanta. News reporters attended a Grant healing revival with hidden cameras and later conducted follow-up interviews with the “healed.” They found that two out of three people Grant claimed to heal were in worse condition than they had been before the service. The third had assisted Grant with equipment earlier in the day with no appearance of the condition from which he claimed to suffer during the service.

As I sat in my chair watching Grant, I wondered if the lady dressed in white would wind up like the two attendees on whom WAGA-TV had reported.

It is clear that Grant’s performances have scarcely changed in the last twenty-plus years. He is now a little older and a convicted felon, but Grant conducts his faith healings just as Randi described them more than two decades ago. Yet, to many who see him on television and do not investigate his claims, he appears to be a “miracle man” with divine abilities. This helps him earn a living by selling his $2 tracts about “healings” and CDs of Bible readings and his biblical prophecies.

Rational persons understand that the efforts of doctors and scientists, while imperfect, are a far better route to a healthy life than attending one of Grant’s healing revivals. Grant would not agree, thundering to the crowd assembled in the One in Christ Temple, “Who cares what doctors say?” That should have been a caution to everyone. When someone rejects scientific knowledge in favor of undemonstrated claims, we should closely examine the reasons.

Further Reading

  • Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989.
  • ———. “Be Healed in the Name of God!: An Exposé of the Reverend W.V. Grant.” Free Inquiry, Spring 1986.
  • Hacker, Kathy. “Conjurer Focuses on Faith Healers.” The Wichita Eagle, January 16, 1988.
  • “Ex-Magician Exposes the Fraud Behind Faith Healers’ Feats.” The Dallas Morning News, December 13, 1987.
  • “Helen Lorene Grant Obituary.” The Dallas Morning News, March 28, 2003.
  • “Non-Believers Denounce ‘Hocus Pocus’—Believers Flock to Healers.” The Post-Standard, December 15, 1986.
  • “Pilots Say Crash Landing Was Unavoidable.” The New York Times, April 19, 1988.
  • “Reverend W.V. Grant: An I-Team Investigation,” WAGA, November 3, 2003. Http://web.archive.org/web/20031226065057; http://fox5atlanta.com/iteam/wvgrant.html; accessed September 1, 2009.
  • “Televangelist’s Wife Not Guilty of Evading Taxes.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 15, 1997.

Ryan Shaffer

Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He has a PhD in history and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University.


I have been following faith healers for several years, fascinated by the psychology of those who attend and by the performances offered by the “healers.” Of particular interest has been Walter Vinson Grant Jr., who as W. V. Grant achieved worldwide fame in the 1980s and 1990s. During that rise to fame, skeptics looked into …

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