The following article is different than those normally found on my site. The author is an anthropologist who attended a conference on healing, signs and wonders in 1985. He was an uninvited and unannounced participant- observer. This article is his analysis of what he witnessed. It appears as an appendix in John Wimber's book "Power Healing". This is one of two such articles, the other can be viewed here.
(By Dr. David C. PhD, Lewis Religious Experience Research Project, Nottingham University, Alister Hardy Research Centre, Oxford)
"There is a woman here whose name begins with L. . . . She is thirty-two years old, has had a throat condition for eight years, and has taken medicine for it but it hasn't helped her."
"There is a woman with a grumbling appendix, and I don't know if she knows it or not but she is pregnant too!"
"There is a young man here, about thirty-five years old, with a lot of problems in his marriage. He lives in the Midlands. He has been thinking this week about leaving his wife but the Lord wants you to stay and be reconciled with your problems. Do not leave your wife."
Words of Knowledge
The words of knowledge mentioned above pose one of the more difficult problems for rational explanation. There was no way in which most of the medical conditions mentioned could have been ascertained in advance. Delegates to the conference came from all over the country and when registering for it had supplied details only of their names and addresses. About equal proportions of men and women attended and the age spread also seemed representative of the adult population in general.
While there was an overrepresentation of professional clergy, the majority of delegates were lay people who had specially taken time off work to attend the conference. Most were white and middle-class, probably reflecting the composition of the churches interested in the conference. Until the last twenty or thirty years the phenomena seen at this conference were confined largely to black and working-class Pentecostal churches, but through this conference (and similar ones during the previous two weeks in Brighton and London as well as one in London in 1984) some of the mainline denominations had also begun to develop healing ministries using these words of knowledge.
These same facts also make it difficult to attribute these words of knowledge to statistical probability. Certainly if the one-to-one cases can be verified (as they presumably could by independent corroboration from the man in question and those who knew him), then we are dealing with a completely different level of probability than that which mentions a common ailment among a crowd of almost three thousand people. While there were many such "generalized" words of knowledge uttered at Sheffield, particularly by those who were trying out for the first time a word they thought they had received, some of the more specific ones are very difficult to dismiss in terms of probability theories.
- An ear condition—infection—with a lot of fluid in the ear so that when you wake up there is fluid even on the pillow [acknowledged by a woman on the right].
- A woman with a cyst on the left ovary—have real severe pain about six or seven days before you have your menstrual cycle [acknowledged by a woman on the left; Cook then asked for a woman nearby to lay a hand on the left side of the woman in question and to pray for her].
- The left foot—a fungus on the bottom which comes up between the last three toes to the top of the foot [a man on the balcony].
- Thirty-nine people with heart conditions or high blood pressure [they were asked to stand and raise their hands so that those around them could pray for them].
- [A little later Cook announced:] Also someone with a prolapsed heart valve who didn't come forward [a man on the right then identified himself].
- Abscessed tooth, lower jaw, second molar [a woman on the right].
- Fifth cervical disc damaged in the neck [a woman on the right]. And a gentleman with the same condition [I was unable to see if anyone acknowledged this one as by then so many people were standing up and praying in groups for those who had already identified themselves].
- Bruised right heel bone. Hit too hard on something and bruised very badly [a man on the left at the back
- Someone planning to get a root canal seen to on one of teeth in upper right side of mouth—just about to go for tests [a woman on the right].
These examples are among the more specific and detailed ones for which I was able to see people identify themselves as having such conditions. Three other conditions were mentioned in which Cook suggested the person in question should "tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to pray for you" instead of identifying themselves in public: these were for a fungal condition on the anus, vaginal herpes, and an infection in the right breast causing a discharge out of the right nipple. Cook appeared embarrassed by this last mentioned condition, commenting, "Oh boy, why does he do it to me?!"
Cook, Wimber, and all the others having words of knowledge attribute them to divine revelation, but on the surface a more "natural" explanation might be telepathy. Telepathy has a rather dubious status within orthodox science, however, so scientifically controlled tests of telepathy and related phenomena (clairvoyance, etc.) are relatively few. When such tests are conducted, they limit the number of possible choices to a known, predetermined set to calculate the statistical probabilities of random guesses. Subjects are asked to tell which card has been chosen or to predict which light will flash out of a limited possible set. The results of hundreds of such series are then tabulated and analyzed for statistical significance. If five correct guesses out of a hundred are attributable to chance, then as the proportion of correct answers rises, the probability of the results being due to chance becomes correspondingly less and less.
For most experiments the accuracy level is well below one hundred percent, even if statistically significant, but certain individuals with practice do manage to obtain scores that are very highly significant. It appears that practice does lead to marked improvements in accuracy both in such scientific tests and in what I observed at Sheffield, insofar as the most detailed words of knowledge containing specific facts about a person's age, name, or unusual condition were spoken by those with longer experience of this phenomenon and more generalized statements such as "a dull pain over the right eye between the eye and ear," "gallstones," "irregular heartbeat," or "pain in the left foot" were given by those who had never previously had a word of knowledge but here were encouraged to pray and ask God for one.
The significance of specific numbers mentioned like "three," "39" or "41" is that in a radio analogy one would have to imagine a radio being able to identify how many stations were broadcasting the message on several different bands. It is as if the range of possible wave lengths were rapidly scanned, all those broadcasting the same message were identified, and the number of different transmitters counted. This is a much more sophisticated model than one of a single transmitter and one or more receivers of a single message, so that the radio analogy becomes strained when it comes to the question of multiple "transmitters" and counting each one separately.
Through words of knowledge various people were identified as the ones God wanted to heal and they were then prayed over by those around them (or, at the beginning of the conference, by the team members who came with Wimber and Pytches). The power to heal is attributed to the Holy Spirit and at the beginning of each so-called clinic session all those present were invited to "wait for" the Holy Spirit to come upon them. Wimber would pray briefly for the Holy Spirit to "come," then stand at the front while everyone waited quietly, usually standing and often in a position in which the hands were upturned and held out in front as if the persons were in the act of receiving. Some even stood with their hands clasped together behind their backs as if unwilling to participate in what was going on around them. Wimber at the front cracked jokes like "Now don't get religious on me" but soon began to cry out "Let it come" as he saw some of the physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit's presence.
From the outside such behavior might easily be attributable to emotionalism, but it is then surprising to find that when interviewed about their experiences afterward a relatively high number reported a sense of detachment from the proceedings and inner calm or peace. Emotions are obviously involved but not to the degree that the behavior could be labeled "emotionalism" alone and left at that.
In several cases there appeared to be a progression from "strong" to "mild" manifestations during the conference. Those who near the beginning felt that past hurts were being dealt with or found themselves stiffening up as if an inner conflict were taking place—what Wimber terms a "power encounter" as the Holy Spirit confronts forms of resistance—were by the end of the week exhibiting less dramatic symptoms such as expressions of joy or rapture. Those who at the beginning manifested hand shaking or tingling in the hands were usually those who saw these symptoms as evidence of a call to some kind of a healing ministry and who were often praying over other people by the end of the week. Sometimes the "shaking hand syndrome" occurred again while they were praying over others but sometimes not.
Words of knowledge were often used at Sheffield to identify people to be prayed for, but sometimes general categories of people were invited to stand for prayer, as on the final evening when there was a special prayer for ministers and church leaders. In the latter case prayer was of a more general nature—for God's "blessing," "strength," "courage," or whatever—whereas prayers for healing tended to involve more specific procedures. First, the person was interviewed about the illness and its relevant details, then a diagnosis was made about it, whether its origin was "natural" or "supernatural," then the appropriate kind of prayer was selected, which was followed by another time of prayer that was punctuated by further questioning and feedback from the person being prayed for. Finally some general counsel might be given after the prayer time.
However, this theory does not in itself account for all the range of phenomena actually manifested at Sheffield. It does not account for the accuracy of some of the words of knowledge (and those receiving the words of knowledge are not in trancelike states when they receive the information) and neither does it account for behavior such as that recorded in the following account:
vicarious suffering on their behalf. Moreover they see themselves as belonging to a group that in the New Testament is compared to a body with many organs in which "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor. 12:26).
Another problem in following up reports of healing is that because so many people were being prayed for simultaneously, I could not observe each case in detail and so could not confirm for myself accounts such as that of a man's clubfoot changing its shape towards a more normal one within the space of about fifteen minutes.