Revelations, Visitations, and All That

James A. Haught

In the mid-1800s, an imprisoned Persian allegedly saw a vision of a “heavenly maiden” who informed him that he possessed holy status. Later, he declared that he was Baha’u’llah, the Promised One of All Religions. In effect, he said he was Jesus returning for Christians, the Messiah coming for Jews, Lord Krishna coming for Hindus, a long-awaited divine imam coming for Muslims, etc. He drew thousands of followers, called Baha’i. Surrounding Shi’ite Muslims massacred the Baha’is, but they persisted. The Persian’s brother tried to poison him and declared himself, instead, the Promised One of All Religions. But the brother’s attempt fizzled. Baha’is slowly grew in numbers to seven million around the world today, although they remain cruelly persecuted in Iran.

In 1935, according to the Unification Church, Jesus appeared to Sun Myung Moon in Korea and commanded him to finish the “incomplete” work that Christ started two thousand years earlier. Moon began evangelizing and slowly built the “Moonie” faith that has spread worldwide.

In the mid-1800s, a Chinese man who had read Christian missionary tracts said he had experienced a vision in which God told him he was a divine younger brother of Jesus. God commanded him to “destroy demons.” The vision-receiver drew followers, launching the Taiping religion and a Taiping army that conquered much of China and caused an estimated twenty million deaths. The Taipings finally were exterminated by forces under British commander “Chinese” Gordon. (Gordon later faced a second holy war: he led Egyptian troops against a Muslim jihad in the Upper Nile Valley and was killed when the insurgents overran Khartoum.)


In the 1970s, a French race-car driver named Claude Vorlihon said he was visited by ancient extraterrestrials called the Elohim, whom he claimed had created all life on Earth. He renamed himself Raël, wrote books, and launched a religion that consists mostly of naked assemblies, casual sex, and efforts to bring the Elohim back to the planet. Estimates of the number of Raëlians range from fifty thousand to ninety thousand.

In the mid-1800s, a much-arrested mystic named Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel called Moroni who showed him golden tablets buried on a hill in west-central New York State. The angel allegedly gave Smith magic stones that he said enabled him to translate ancient writing on the tablets. This became the Book of Mormon; it described a North American civilization that was visited by Jesus. But nobody could see the golden tablets and magic stones for proof, because the angel supposedly took them back to heaven. Today, the Mormon faith numbers fifteen million worldwide.

Mary Baker Eddy said that she heard supernatural voices as a child, and she later became devoted to a hypnotist healer. Then she claimed that divine inspiration led her to write a faith-healing book and launch the Church of Christ Scientist in the 1870s. But critics claimed that she lifted most of her spiritual healing ideas from the hypnotist and from Eastern religions.

And, as everyone knows, the prophet Muhammad claimed in the seventh century that the angel Gabriel visited him repeatedly for twenty-three years, dictating the Qu’ran. Muhammad was illiterate but supposedly relayed the angel’s words to others and scribes, who put them on paper. This launched the Muslim faith, which now has 1.5 billion adherents.

You get the picture. Time after time throughout history, various people have claimed miraculous visitations. The visionaries began preaching and spawned religions. They drew great numbers of followers, in each case revealing a remarkable human craving for miracle tales.

Alleged communication from gods and godlings goes back to the earliest known writings. Greek King Agamemnon supposedly offended the goddess Artemis, who calmed winds when the king’s army tried to sail for Troy. The goddess allegedly told the prophet Calchas that she would relent only if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and it was done.

The Bible reports many angel visitations. Genesis 6 implies that fallen angels came to Earth, impregnated women, and bred giants.

The all-time champion of holy appearances is the Virgin Mary, who often makes herself visible to believers—in 1531 at Guadalupe, Mexico; in 1858 at Lourdes, France; in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal; in 1981 at Medjugorje, Bosnia; in 1983 at a farm in Georgia; and so on and on. Vast multitudes of worshippers flock to these sites. It’s odd that Mary doesn’t appear to Jews, Buddhists, Protestants, or atheists. As a wag once said, “Some things must be believed to be seen.”

Troy Taylor, a collector of ghost tales, wrote that the Virgin made numerous appearances in Illinois. A retired railroader, praying by a crucifix at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillsdale, Illinois, in 1990, was visited by Mary, St. Michael, and three angels, he said. Swarms of believers rushed to the spot and made miracle reports of their own.

At Belleville (also in Illinois) in 1993, a man said a voice told him to visit The Lady of the Snows shrine, where Mary appeared from a bright light and gave him messages. Meanwhile, various Orthodox churches around Illinois reported weeping or bleeding statues or paintings of the Virgin. And a family at Hanover Park said Mary appeared in 1997 in shadows on an apartment wall, drawing crowds of the faithful.

Taylor wrote that all these happenings may be “the fevered imaginings of a religious mind” or they may be genuine miracles—“We leave that up to you to decide.”

How many divine revelations and visitations have been claimed through the centuries? Tens of thousands? Millions? The total is uncountable. Clearly, it’s part of human experience. It’s somewhat akin to people who say they were abducted by space aliens, taken aboard UFOs, and subjected to sexual experiments.

Are these vision-seers psychotics or “fantasy-prone” neurotics who really believe their tales? Or are they charlatans who invent lies, then spend the rest of their lives repeating them?

One exception to the lie-repeating premise is an American named Alex Malarkey. In 2004, when he was six, a car crash sent him into a coma. After he woke, he said he had gone to heaven and visited Jesus and Satan. His father helped him write a best-selling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which sold a million copies and was made into a television movie. But at age sixteen, the paralyzed boy said his tale was a hoax created to get attention. The publisher halted sales. The boy’s name should have been a giveaway.

The widespread phenomenon of miraculous encounters should be a field of study for psychiatrists. What facet of the mind causes some people to claim that divine visitors came to them—and causes other people to believe them?

James A. Haught

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and is a senior editor of Free Inquiry.

Alleged encounters with the miraculous aren’t simply common; they’re way too common.

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