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August 29th, 2013
01:24 PM ET

Former staffer: Measles church counseled faith, not shots

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) ­ When Amy Arden joined Eagle Mountain International Church in 1997, her 11­month­old daughter had received all the recommended vaccinations. But in the six years the young, single mother worked and worshipped at the evangelical megachurch, Arden didn’t take her child to get a single shot.

“There was a belief permeating throughout the church that there is only faith and fear,” Arden said. “If you were afraid of the illness enough to get vaccinated, it showed a lack of faith that God would protect and heal you.”

Members of Eagle Mountain International Church also believed that childhood vaccinations could lead to autism, said Arden, who is 35.

Arden said she was taught by a supervisor at the church's nursery how to opt out of a Texas law that requires most children to be immunized. She now regrets passing the same lesson on to other parents.

“I didn’t know a single mother who was vaccinating her children,” she said.

Eagle Mountains teachings on health, including disparaging remarks about vaccinations, have been called into question since an outbreak of measles in Texas – an outbreak that state officials tie to the church.

As a Word of Faith church, Eagle Mountain is part of the booming prosperity gospel movement, which holds that God wants to reward believers with riches, health and happiness, if they will just recite certain Scriptures, pray and trust in divine providence.

The church is part of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a vast and profitable multimedia ministry led by its namesake, a longtime prosperity preacher and television evangelist.

In the prosperity gospel world, Copeland, 76, and his wife, Gloria, are considered royalty, said Kate Bowler, author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

“He is a major grandfather of the movement, starting to age out but still incredibly influential,”

Bowler said. “They’ve been on the air forever and stayed largely scandal­free. That’s partly why they are so trusted by lots of people.”

According to Kenneth Copeland Ministries, the Copelands' daily program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reaches millions of viewers, their magazine more than 500,000 readers.

Based in Newark, Texas, a rural community 25 miles north of Fort Worth, Eagle Mountain is co­pastored by Copeland's daughter, Terri Copeland Pearsons, and son­in­law, George Pearsons.

Twenty­one people in Tarrant County and nearby Denton County have contracted measles during this outbreak, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The victims include nine children and range from 4 to 44 years old..

Tarrant County epidemiologist Russell Jones said the confirmed cases can be traced back to a person who attended Eagle Mountain International Church after visiting Asia, which has higher rates of measles infections than the United States.

Health officials are not releasing the name of that person or the particular country.

Jones said he doesn’t know exactly how many of the infected people are members of Eagle Mountain. At least 11 of the 21 did not have any measles vaccinations, he said. (Doctors usually recommend two shots.)

“Our concern would be that if you have a pocket of people who associate and think alike, if they don’t believe in immunization there’s going to be some other vulnerable people,” Jones said.

Neither Eagle Mountain International Church nor Kenneth Copeland Ministries responded to repeated requests for comment.

Eagle Mountain Pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons has said that “while some people may believe she is against immunizations, that is not true.”

“I believe it is wrong to be against vaccinations,” she said in a statement.

But the pastor hasn’t always preached a pro­immunization message.

In an August 15 statement, Copeland Pearsons drew a link between vaccinations and autism, saying, “The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time.”

Likewise, in 2010, during a broadcast about health, Kenneth Copeland – whose followers consider him a prophet – voiced alarm about the number of shots given to his grandchild.

“All of this stuff they wanted to put into his body,” Copeland said. “Some of it is criminal!”

Copeland was particularly agitated about the Hepatitis B shot.

“In an infant? That’s crazy! That is a shot for sexually transmitted disease!” he said.

“We need to be a whole lot more serious about this and aware, and you don’t take the word of the guy who’s trying to give you the shot about what’s good and what isn’t.”

Dr. Don Colbert, a "divine health" expert who has appeared with Copeland in several broadcasts, then said the autism rate among children has increased with the number of childhood vaccinations.

"I have had so many patients bring their children in and they say, you know what, the week after I had that immunization, for MMR – measles, mumps and rubella – my child stopped talking, my child stopped giving me eye contact. He was not alert, he was not coherent. he quit speaking, he quit being the child I had," Colbert said on the webcast.

Colbert and the Copeland family are wrong about immunizations, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

“It's painful because these pastors are trusted spiritual leaders who are speaking to people not only in their congregations but also on television," he said. "They are putting people at risk.”

There is no link between vaccinations and autism, and hepatitis can be passed from mother to child, making the shot necessary and effective, Schaffner said.

Schaffner said that doctors call concerns about bundling immunizations the "pin cushion effect." It's a common but unfounded fear, he said.

Most health experts, including the American Pediatric Association and the Tarrant County Public Health Department, agree with Schaffner.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the church and ministry said that they believe in, and advocate the use of, medical professionals.

"If an individual is faced with a situation that requires medical attention, that person should seek out the appropriate medical professional and follow their instructions using wisdom," the church leaders said.

After the measles outbreak, Kenneth Copeland said that he “inquired of the Lord as to what he would say regarding these vaccinations,” according to a statement posted on the church's website on August 15.

The pastor said that God told him to “pray over it,” and then to “take advantage of what I have provided for you in Jesus’ name.”

Since the measles outbreak, Eagle Mountain has held two free immunization clinics, where about 220 church members received vaccinations, according to Jones, who said the county assisted with the clinics. Jones said that he is working to ascertain how many of the church’s 1,500 members have still not been immunized.

Eagle Mountain and Kenneth Copeland Ministries also disinfected their shared 25­acre campus, including the nursery and day care center, Pearsons said at an August 14 church service titled “Taking Our Stand of Faith Over Measles.” The church runs schools for children through the sixth grade.

When Copeland announces a change in church policy, it's often after he has claimed to receive a new divine revelation, said former members of the church.

"Kenneth would always come up with a new prophecy to match what's going on," said one

former church member, who wished to remain anonymous in order to maintain business ties with the church.

In this case, Copeland’s new revelation – and the church's recent statements –represent a big shift, said the former members.

Amy Arden worshipped and worked at the church, including in its nursery, for six years, first as a volunteer, then as paid staff from 2000 to 2003.

Arden said she now deeply regrets teaching other parents how to access the Texas immunization exemption forms. But she and another former church employee described a closed spiritual world in which doubts are kept quiet and leaders' words are rarely questioned.

“This was Kenneth Copeland’s ministry, and we did nothing that he did not approve of,” Arden said.

“It’s hard to believe that hundreds of his children in his church were not getting vaccinated and he didn’t know about it. If he was pro­vaccination, we would have vaccinated our children."

Arden recalled a 2002 lecture to church employees in which they were told that every part of Eagle Mountain International Church and Kenneth Copeland Ministries must reflect the founder’s vision.

Arden said she was fired from KCM in 2003 for disagreeing with the church’s willingness to take donations from the mentally ill, including institutionalized patients.

She later cooperated with a U.S. Senate investigation into Copeland’s and other prosperity preachers’ finances. The church was not penalized, but Sen. Chuck Grassley's 2011 report raised questions about the pastors' use of church­owned luxury items like private jets. The Copelands and Eagle Mountain called the investigation an attack on Word of Faith pastors.

Another former church member and Kenneth Copeland Ministries employee who volunteered in the nursery corroborated Arden’s account.

“Being vaccinated was like working against your faith,” said the former church member. “You were trusting a disease's power to infect you over God's ability to protect you.”

Neither Arden nor the other former church member recalled hearing the Copelands or Pearsons preach specifically against vaccinations, however. Nor did the Copelands counsel their flock to reject medical treatment for serious ailments, they said.

More often, the prosperity pastors would preach that faith is the best preventive measure and that some ailments can and should be prayed away, the church members recalled.

That’s a common belief among Pentecostals, said Bowler, the historian and Duke Divinity School professor. According to a 2006 Pew Study, 62% of American Pentecostals say they have witnessed divine healings.

But many Christian traditions teach that God can heal believers. What separates preachers like the Copelands is that they believe Jesus died not only to save humanity from sin but also from sickness.

“When Jesus bore away our sins, he also bore away our diseases,” Gloria Copeland has said in sermons about spiritual healing.

The Copelands also teach that they have unlocked the formula – a combination of words and Scriptures – to guide believers from optimistic faith to tangible results.

“The places they look for those results are their bodies and their wallets,” Bowler said.

In many ways, the Copelands are the spiritual successors to last century's revival preachers, Bowler said, trading traveling tent meetings for lucrative television ministries.

Kenneth Copeland learned at the feet of prosperity gospel founders Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts. Copeland calls Roberts, who believed that God had anointed his right hand with healing power, his "spiritual father."

The Copelands have since created their own unique brand of theology, emphasizing that the

spoken word – a Word of Faith – can turn prayers into reality. Kenneth Copeland teaches that simply uttering the words “I’m sick” can lead to illness, and that proclaiming yourself well can likewise lead to health.

“Our health, our wealth and our place in eternity is in our mouths. Everything about us has been, and will be, determined by the words we speak,” Copeland has said.

Arden said that church members were taught to repeat certain Bible passages, almost like a magic spell, to ward off disease.

“There were healing Scriptures we had to recite over and over again, and eventually, whatever you say will come to pass.”

The Copelands don’t claim to be healers, though they teach that believers who sow “seeds of faith” – sometimes through donations – can see miraculous results.

One account on the ministry’s website says that a Dutch boy was cured of autism after his mother attended Gloria Copeland’s healing school and watched Eagle Mountain church services online.

Arden recalled donating $400 – all she had in her savings account at the time – to the church when her daughter had a serious ear malady.

“I was a broke, single mother earning $7.50 an hour, so that was a fortune to me.” Her daughter required four surgeries before she was healed, Arden said.

Now a financial analyst in New York City, Arden said she keeps her distance from organized religion, but understands what draws certain kinds of Christians to churches like Eagle Mountain.

“About 90% of the people were just like me,” she said. “They needed hope, and they needed to believe that there was something bigger than themselves that would guide and protect them and keep the whole crush of life from pressing down on them.”

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Bioethics • Church and state • Culture & Science • evangelicals • Faith • Faith & Health • Money & Faith • Pentecostal

soundoff (1,318 Responses)
  1. Colin

    Reason number 120 to despise religion and oppose it in all respects.

    August 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Colin

      Reason number 120 to act ridiculously smug and ugly toward everyone else who doesn't believe like I do.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
      • Hyptiotes

        The problem is that THEIR belief negatively impacts MY health (and the rest of the public). If it were live and let live, that would be fine except it is live and let you die of measles. That's not okay and deserves being ridiculed for a truly dangerous and dumb belief–that immunizations don't matter. You can believe it because Kenneth Copeland said it (or used to say it) or you can believe it because ex-playboy centerfolds said it, but either way it is dangerous and dumb.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Rett

      The extremes of any group is a poor indicator of he group itself...at least in my opinion.

      August 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
      • knowmoststuff

        The problem is that there are way to many groups that believe just like they do.

        September 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
  2. snowboarder

    a level of religious faith which brings one to the point of "faith healing" should be considered a mental illness.

    August 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  3. ME II

    An article that responds directly to the common Theist's question of,

    "Why do Atheist care what believer's believe?"

    August 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • A loving atheist

      Non-theists are also curious.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • ME II

      Sorry, thought it was obvious... because things like what this article describes happen.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • knowmoststuff

      Because we are caring people.

      September 3, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  4. gary

    also, look up "Cult" and then "Religion" in dictionary ... definitions are the same ... why can't stupid America see that?

    August 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  5. gary

    wow .. there's just no end to human stupidity... There is no more of an "our god" than there is with every or rather any "god" ever known since we started. Oh, buy the way christians that's not 6k years ago. If you buy into the stupid bible money maker you are dumb .. sorry no god .. no devil .. just simple minded people who will do no good for anyone.. oh, and Jesus, if he existed at all, was a out of work carpenter, hanging around with 12 rejects from town and banging a w.h.o.r.e. ... wow what salvation

    August 29, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • fred

      Another example of what we have to look forward to when godlessness rules. I imagine you do not find your banter hateful.

      August 29, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
      • knowmoststuff

        Being godless means being without god and that is good cause religions main function is to control. I, along with millions of other atheist will not be controlled. As in telling us that god will cure you, sheesh, if god was going to cure you why the heck did he make the germs in the first place, after all he made everything.

        September 3, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • Rett

      Man, you must be like the only guy on the planet that doubts that Jesus existed.....even secular records of the day attest to his existence.

      August 29, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
      • knowmoststuff

        Show us where....

        September 3, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
      • Sam Yaza

        with Christianity instance of destroy and rewriting history id take it with a pillar of salt..

        [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxTeriFc_Xs&w=640&h=360]
        ancient Egyptians made no mention of Jewish slaves. in Egyptian faiths nearly all of them it is illegal to not pay a worker what he is owed, you cannot enslave a man.

        September 3, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • bww

      Gary,

      You are very uneducated. I can tell that just by the way that your post was written.

      September 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  6. rockysfan

    You know, Lilly Tomlin was right. When you talk to God, it's called prayer. When God talks back to you, it's called schzophrenia.

    August 29, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  7. False Prophet

    What we need is a church of common sense! Some people just prefer to be followers, less thinking involved..

    August 29, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  8. Kris

    This isn't any different than those idiots who handle poisonous snakes in their church services. They believe if you get bit and have faith, god will heal you and you won't die. It amazes me the stupidity of people.

    August 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Scarlett

    "When Copeland changes his mind, it's after he has claimed to receive a new divine revelation, said former members of the church."

    This just screams CULT to me.

    Don't drink the KOOL-AID!

    August 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  10. Jerry Martin

    There's no cure for stupidity!

    August 29, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • cali girl

      AMEN to that.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • seth koch

      In the last American Medical Association survey, over 80% of Obstetricians refused to take the MMR vaccine. I don't think they're stupid. I think they've seen enough child destroyed by the vaccines.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Refused to take or refused to administer?
        Vaccines do not cause autism.
        That foolish position has been thoroughly debunked.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
      • Pat

        They aren't stupid but anyone stating that fabrication is.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Lemme guess – you got that gem of a statistic from Neil MIller.
        His fudged data actually gives the stats as 66%, but anyways – his sources are flawed.
        Miller frequently Andrew Wakefield’s studies allegedly linking the MMR vaccine to autism and his unsupported speculations that single vaccines are preferable. It fails to mention that he had falsified data in his study and that he was stripped of his medical license. It also favorably cites the Geiers’ discredited research; the book was published before one Geier was stripped of his license and the other Geier was prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
      • Factsaredangerous

        http://search0.ama-assnDOTorg/main/jsp/templates/primaryJSP/fullview.jsp?keyword=mmr&FilterList=&advancedSearch=&sort=&pagination=

        Latest studies from the AMA. Not one mention of this so-called poll of yours. You can search the Library of Medicine and the NIH as well if you like, but that poll doesn't appear to exist.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
      • Logical Positivist

        If true, the behavior will be self correcting. Refusal to give your children a MMR vaccine is motivated by fear. Once mothers and fathers see children dying from these preventable childhood diseases, the pendulum will swing the other way just as it is doing in Copeland's church. Unfortunately the vaccination program was too successful. Nobody knows anyone that has gotten these diseases so it isn't a real threat. Too bad this learning experience is completely avoidable. Unfortunately we will be missing a real opportunity to eradicate these diseases. Smallpox and polio were eliminated because they required a refugium or safe harbor (i.e. unvaccinated people). When EVERYONE gets vaccinated, it leads to extinction. Deciding not to vaccinate your children is a vote to keep these childhood diseases around. It doesn't take many either before epidemics spring up. This church is a classic example. I would say believe what you want, but the beliefs of others can keep a disease alive. Regardless, scientific illiteracy can kill you.

        January 28, 2014 at 7:52 am |
    • andrew

      Amen to that...and..they all get huge tax deductions for all their BS preaching and spend it on homes cars furs vacations, dinners, parties, yeah..great way to steal a living..

      August 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Durundal

      Natural Selection?

      August 30, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  11. the observationist

    I say let them refuse vaccines... its just natural selection... the germs will do the rest of us the favor of letting them thin their own herds.... last thing we need is bigger herds of people believing in non existent creatures.

    August 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The problem is that it harms everyone.
      Google "herd immunity".

      August 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • dom

      You're going to need to show some irrefutable proof to disprove the existence of God. Until you do, don't go around saying your ignorant nonsense as fact.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
      • Unlo4

        The default null hypothesis is that there is no god. It's the theists' burden of proof to prove their claim that there is one.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • Brian

        The burden of proof lies with someone who is making a claim, and is not upon anyone else to disprove. The inability, or disinclination, to disprove a claim does not render that claim valid, nor give it any credence whatsoever.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
      • Popperian refutability

        I have no evidence that leprechauns don't keep a pot of gold at the bottom of a rainbow. This isn't a compelling reason to base my retirement planning on finding the pot.

        January 28, 2014 at 7:55 am |
  12. dick conley

    I sat next to the Copelands at a restaurant in Steamboat Springs CO several years ago and they were one of the most obnoxious and rude patrons i had ever witnessed. Very disappointing.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Athy

      But not really surprising.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  13. QS

    "Neither Arden nor the other former church member recalled hearing the Copelands or Pearsons preach against vaccinations, however. Nor did the Copelands counsel their flock to reject medical treatment for serious ailments, they said."

    Well yeah, it's easy to get people who are that easily manipulated by talk of "god" and "spirituality" to do whatever you want without ever having to actually say outright what it is you want....you just have to get them to believe that if they do one over the other they will be viewed as less in the eyes of their "god".

    Religion – the world's ultimate dividing force.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  14. Lester Singleton

    There is not shot to cure stupid.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  15. Diraphe

    “If you were afraid of the illness enough to get vaccinated, it showed a lack of faith that God would protect and heal you.”

    God gifted you with the brainpower to protect and heal yourself; these people are throwing that gift back in God's face.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      God didn’t gift anybody with anything. Scientists and doctors worked their azzes off to come up with a vaccine. Those idiots deserved what they got for believing in that fairy tale.

      August 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
      • Diraphe

        I don't believe in god; I was presenting a hypothetical that if god DOES exist then "he/it helps those who help themselves"

        August 29, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          Sorry for my reaction then.

          If that is true then there is no reason to even believe in a god.

          August 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
        • Rett

          In my experience God often helps those who can't help themselves......that being said I do believe he intends us to use common sense.

          August 29, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
      • A loving atheist

        Have Christians contributed anything to the medical field? Most hospitals in my city are named after religious people or inst!tutions; from Menorah Medical to St. Mary's Hospital. And even some of the hospitals that have generic or secular sounding names, when I do so research I learned that they had roots in religious groups trying to help people with medical conditions.

        Some Christians do a lot more than you. And you are fully capable of actually doing something. Instead you waste time on here and make it difficult of us loving atheists to make a difference in the world. Thanks a lot.

        August 29, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          Sorry 😦

          August 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
        • Unlo4

          > Some Christians do a lot more than you.

          You were doing good until you started throwing unfounded accusations about a person you've never met.

          August 29, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          Yes you are sorry for posting as me. I'm NOT sorry. The people may have been religious but RELIGION has done nothing positive for this world.

          August 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
        • Johnny

          As religious people like to point out every time someone brings up someone brings up evil acts. That wasn't religion that was people.

          August 29, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
        • Rett

          You are about the only atheist I have seen post something that was not condescending, arrogant, or angry in tone. You apparently are a rare breed.

          August 29, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
      • A loving atheist

        But why don't you call him out for doing the same thing? I've never personally met him, but have seen him post a lot. Is that good enough for you?

        August 29, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • A loving atheist

          ~For Mr. Unlo4

          August 29, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          You're not being too loving.

          August 29, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  16. Organic1

    Well that's one way to clear the shallow end of the gene pool.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Gern Blanston

      My sentiments exactly. The appalling stupidity of these people knows no limits.

      August 29, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow Kenneth Copeland to use my name to steal money from poor people. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Rett

      You would take away man's freedom to choose how he acts?

      August 29, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  18. Dyslexic doG

    I wouldn't let anyone get sick. That's the difference between me and your god.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  19. AE

    Act in faith, not in fear.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      I would NEVER act based on a lack of evidence. That is like closing your eyes and then crossing a the street. Stupid!

      August 29, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
      • AE

        Yea. I don't do that either.

        August 29, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          I guess that you just dont have enough FAITH.

          August 29, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
        • AE

          It just takes a little, according to Jesus.

          August 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  20. Reality

    Yet again, the brutal effects of stupidity!!!

    August 29, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.