The self-appointed religious leader really captures something close to the American spirit. Examples of the type can be seen across all regions and all races, from Wallace Fard, who organised black Detroiters into the Nation of Islam, to the founder of Christian Science, who was the kind of lunatic who could have only come from New England.
One feels the need to preface an article about dubious Trump-era Evangelicals in this way, lest I be accused of harbouring prejudice. You could probably find the equivalent of today’s figures riding the wave of the First Great Awakening.
A ministry in Dalton, Georgia, shut down this month after doubts emerged about whether their copy of the Bible was truly miraculously generating oil. Johnny Taylor and Jerry Pierce, two long-standing residents of the Northwest Georgia town of 34,000 souls had drawn crowds for months to see the book and be healed by the oil, which was kept submerged in a tupperware container, and allegedly generated hundreds of gallons of the stuff. Chemical analysis commissioned by a Chattanooga newspaper indicated that the oil was a match for mineral oil sold at a local tractor supply store, sold for use as a horse laxative, among other things.
The miraculous oil was believed to be linked to God’s alleged approval of Donald Trump: it began appearing soon after his inauguration.
The story, then, brings to light some of the ways Trump’s relationship with Evangelicals is different from that of previous Republican presidents. More mainstream groups, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention, have been remarkably cool toward his administration. The Washington-based Evangelical power-brokers have by and large been replaced by a different, more colourful group of outsiders – among them Paula White, a prosperity preacher who has now joined the administration.
Once the Dalton Bible began oozing, word spread quickly about the ministry, known as His Name Is Flowing Oil. Marla Maples, who hails from Dalton and was Trump’s first wife, allegedly visited a store connected to the ministry, though this has not been confirmed.
Andrew Brunson, the pastor imprisoned by the Turkish government who became a cause célèbre for American Evangelicals, certainly visited. According to Slate, “Johnny and Leslie said they were invited by Christian right activist Andrea Lafferty to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, where Johnny said he surreptitiously spilled ‘a lot’ of the oil in the chambers.”
Taylor claimed to have received a “vision” in which God told him to stand with President Trump, part of which was related as follows:
Then the Lord spoke and said, “He is not supposed to be standing up for you. You are supposed to be standing with him. When you stand with him, persecution will come like it has come on him. When you stand with him, I will back you up. I will defend you. I will stand with you. If you don’t stand with him, they will kill him.”
Pierce and Taylor travelled the country handing out vials of the oil and touring with the Bible, even taking a trip to Canada. In December the ministry caught the attention of the Chattanooga press, which covered the throngs showing up to the Dalton theatre where their services were held.
By mid-February, the Chattanooga Free Press had obtained a vial of the oil and had it tested, publishing a story on the 13th that said: “The tests found Pearce’s oil is petroleum-derived and the results ‘strongly suggest that the oil sample is mineral oil,’ according to the analysis. The second test, comparing the chemical composition of Pearce’s oil to the product sold at Tractor Supply, found a nearly exact match.”
The paper also spoke to two managers at Dalton Tractor Supply who said they had seen Pierce come in routinely to purchase mineral oil.
Statements on the ministry website, however, maintain that the Bible was only removed from display because it had stopped generating oil in January.
“We know the oil flowing from the Bible was a true miracle,” it reads. “We deeply regret that this controversy happened. We want to assure you that the statements are being reviewed by our ministry and steps are being taken to attest to the integrity of the oil. We will keep you updated as more information comes to light.”
In the meantime, Pearce seems to have relocated to a church in Cleveland, Tennessee, which – according to the Times Free Press – began to experience gold flakes showing up around the building. The events have since caused controversy in the Cleveland church.
Catholics who have experienced a certain Protestant stereotype involving superstitious votaries who drop to their knees at the first sign of a weeping statue may find much to be amused by in this story. And our separated brethren may be reminded that, as much as highly organised religious institutions like the Catholic Church can foster networks of corruption, a church of self-appointed leaders may tend to have problems with religious snake oil – or in this case, mineral oil – salesmen.