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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. Valentijn

    The "Bible Belt" of the Netherlands is also having a measles outbreak, for the same reason. School's just starting back up, so hopefully it won't get a lot worse now.

    Doctors are doing stealth home visits so that parents can have their children immunized without being judged poorly by the community.

    August 30, 2013 at 3:52 am |
    • Susan StoHelit

      Sad that those parents will put up with their fellow congregants pushing them to do things they know are bad for their children, shameful that they fail to vaccinate when they want to, risk the health of their kids, just for peer pressure.

      August 30, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  2. Frank

    Christianity is filth.

    August 30, 2013 at 3:41 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Faith...the word they use is faith.
      Oh wait...my bad. You're right.

      August 30, 2013 at 3:44 am |
      • Frank

        LOL

        August 30, 2013 at 4:09 am |
  3. Fritz Hohenheim

    "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." – And dont forget sending money to god first, because despite all his powers, he obviously always needs money.

    August 30, 2013 at 3:27 am |
  4. NavinJay

    So what they need to do is lie down on the grass, and do nothing. Don't eat. And have faith God will feed them. I mean if God can create people from dust he can surely fill a belly with food. Right? and, if God does not feed them and they die, they did not have enough faith.

    August 30, 2013 at 3:19 am |
  5. Tim Jordan

    Riiiggghhhttt. If faith heals people where are the amputees growing new arms and legs? What a bunch of steaming hubris. This religion's focus is fear and money - just as Jesus commanded....

    August 30, 2013 at 3:12 am |
  6. jermel p

    If Christians would actually READ their bible and stop taking someones word for it or just pray to god earnestly themselves they'd know God didn't promise any of those things. Riches were never promised to children of god. We were promised peace of mind not a yacht big mansion and a fancy car

    August 30, 2013 at 3:02 am |
    • Roger that

      "We were promised peace of mind"

      Tell that to a cancer patient.

      August 30, 2013 at 3:15 am |
    • Roger that

      BTW, if Christians would actually READ their Bibles, we would have fewer Christians.

      August 30, 2013 at 3:17 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      If christians actually read the bible they wouldnt be christians. Just like Germans wouldn't have voted for Hitler had they read Mein Kampf instead of just putting it on the shelf

      August 30, 2013 at 3:28 am |
  7. mountainlady

    None of the connections between vaccines and autism have been proven. But the connection with children contracting measles and severe birth defects for the baby of any pregnant woman they come into contact HAS been proven. Measles is miserable and can be severe for anyone but modern medical care can take care of most victims. It's the unborn children of pregnant women who suffer blindness, deformities and brain damage due to measles exposure that are the real concern here. We've been giving the MMR for decades...including my own three sons..... how will these people feel when their decision to slavishly follow their religious guru leads to the destruction of the lives of others?

    August 30, 2013 at 2:31 am |
    • Athy

      They'll just claim it's "god's way". That's their stock answer to any disaster.

      August 30, 2013 at 2:41 am |
    • Kathy

      A four month old baby caught the measles. That's so dangerous. I was an adult when the measles vaccine was developed, and I rushed to get one right away. I'd never managed to catch it as a child, even though all the mothers in the neighborhood sent their daughters to visit anyone sick with measles-they wanted us to catch it before we reached child-bearing age. The people who are refusing to vaccinate their children have probably never known children who were born retarded because their mothers were exposed to the virus during pregnancy, but I have. It doesn't seem real to them.

      August 30, 2013 at 3:08 am |
  8. froggyalley

    Science is a gift from God, also.

    August 30, 2013 at 2:26 am |
    • Mirosal

      ohhhhh, let me guess... we only discover what your god wants us to know, or find out, correct?

      August 30, 2013 at 2:36 am |
      • Kathy

        Well, other than the fact that that's not what Froggyalley said.... I guess it's easier to refute an argument if it's one you get to make up yourself. Isn't that the straw man fallacy?

        August 30, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • sam stone

      pure conjecture, froggy

      if science is, why not measles? twisted ankle?

      August 30, 2013 at 6:36 am |
  9. Apple Bush

    Ok, it is late. It is boring. I will offer a game. The first one to tell me one of Daisy's nicknames will receive a custom poem by Apple Bush. I promise you will did it. Please go to wikipoops.com and then answer in a reply.

    August 30, 2013 at 2:09 am |
  10. JDaniel

    The depraved irony here is the hand-wringing that goes on over a measles outbreak while 1 MILLION+ babies are sliced, diced, suctioned, and trashed EVERY YEAR (some left on a gurney to suffocate or bleed to death)....while we simultaneously worry about some "rare" salamander or gnat being moved from it's natural habitat......

    You've lost your DAMNED MINDS....

    August 30, 2013 at 1:57 am |
    • Dippy

      Its, not it's.

      August 30, 2013 at 2:01 am |
    • HotAirAce

      80+% of which are caused by believers. . .

      August 30, 2013 at 2:02 am |
    • Observer

      JDaniel,

      Please tell us how many of those babies you are willing to adopt if the mothers don't have abortions.

      August 30, 2013 at 2:05 am |
    • sam stone

      If you say so, JDaniel

      August 30, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  11. JDaniel

    I don't think I saw a single response from the lambasted Christian organizations in the article. Gee – is this journalism or just Christian-bashing? Hmmmm....when you don't even bother to ASK the other side of the story, but piece it together "propaganda-style" to convince and emotionally incite....it's just DISHONEST JUNK-JOURNALISM.

    Why not skip the reading and do Jerry Springer instead?

    August 30, 2013 at 1:50 am |
    • Observer

      JDaniel

      "Hmmmm....when you don't even bother to ASK the other side of the story"

      How do you know that is true?

      August 30, 2013 at 1:53 am |
    • up75225

      For me – it's Christian bashing. I luv bashing on you fools....

      August 30, 2013 at 2:53 am |
  12. Apple Bush

    Gods are not ministers. Use your own clouded judgment and listen to the rick kid on medical issues. My father was an idiot, so I know from all the abuse I received that gods are not lizards.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:40 am |
  13. billmosby

    Religion and moronic behavior continue to go hand in hand.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Is that an offer sailor?

      August 30, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  14. DeeB

    For many, many, many, years this guy has been fully exposed as a fraud. Why would anybody hang their brain at his teaching's doorway? Take responsibility for yourself and test the teachers.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:34 am |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Hi is one of the originals. God bless him.

      August 30, 2013 at 1:37 am |
      • truthprevails1

        Your support of a man responsible for 16 people up to this point being seriously ill only shows how seriously weak you are. How many deaths is he going to have his hand in? Any parent following his absurd advice does not deserve the right to parent and should have their children removed from their care and placed in the care of people who not neglectful or abusive.

        August 30, 2013 at 1:50 am |
        • HeavenSent

          I beg your pardon!! I support no man. I support God. Sinner, you will burn in hell. My 12-year-old daughter taught her kids how to twerk. So cute. Keep throwing rocks and get a bruised.

          Amen.

          August 30, 2013 at 1:56 am |
        • Mirosal

          Your 12 year old daughter taught her kids how to twerk? Interesting ... just how many kids does your 12 year old daughter have, and just WHO is it that's knocking her up in the first place?

          August 30, 2013 at 2:20 am |
        • Mirosal

          Mayber it's your "god" .. after all, according to the story, your god certainly seems to have a fetish for "tween"-age vir'gins, right?

          August 30, 2013 at 2:21 am |
        • truthprevails1

          HS: So you're 'Ungodly Discipline'? Split personality is a sign of schizophrenia, which in your case explains so much. Time for you to seek out the nearest insane asylum and admit yourself.

          August 30, 2013 at 3:08 am |
  15. Cindy

    Ministers are not God. Use your own good judgment and listen to the doctors on medical issues. My father was a minister, so I know from all the abuse I received that ministers are not God.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:34 am |
    • The Fladaboscan

      Ministers are human. Most of them are wonderful, well meaning people. Some of the them are selfish vicious clowns.

      All of them claim to know more about god than I do. All of them claim to know what god wants, and which god is the right one. I have heard a minister stand up and proclaim "I speak for god and god says..." I forgot what god said because I was laughing so much. I'm a musician and I have played in many, many churches over the years. I have seen speaking in tongues, I have seen Jesus, screaming and bloody on the stage of an Easter pageant. i have seen a minister put his hand on an old invalid's forehead and yell "by the power and the glory of the holy spirit!; and the old man got up out of his wheelchair and danced a gig.

      I have heard ministers raise money to go to Borneo to reach the only people on earth who hadn't heard 'the word of god.' One church I played at gave all of their preachers, at least 5 of them, a new Cadillac every year.

      They are human with human foibles but most of them are very nice. It's the idea that they know what other people don't that makes them act like that.

      August 30, 2013 at 2:26 am |
      • sam stone

        "I have heard ministers raise money to go to Borneo to reach the only people on earth who hadn't heard 'the word of god.' "

        do you think that's a good thing?

        August 30, 2013 at 6:40 am |
        • tallulah13

          It has been my observation that every time an indigineous culture is introduced to christianity, they lose their own identity and start looking like third-world refugees in cast-off clothing. I think missionaries are some of the most destructive forces in history.

          August 30, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  16. wikipoops.com

    Say goodbye to wikileaks!

    August 30, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  17. Ungodly Discipline

    tallulah13 calls me a troll. A troll. Ok, but let me ask you this...would a troll carry that baby for 2 trimesters? Would a troll give you excellent daily advice? Go to http://www.wikipoops.com Would a troll respect this blog? wikileaks is dead! Viva Revolution!

    August 30, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  18. SentHeaven

    Belief bloggers, I say unto you this day of my creation that each and everyone of us is a piece of me. I have many brothers and sisters. In a future as yet not possible, our reunion can be realized. In the meantime, enjoy http://www.wikipoops.com.

    August 30, 2013 at 12:58 am |
  19. robert

    Im curious how many of you that are for forcing vaccines upon everyone are also against the mandate in the ACA? That would be pretty hypocritical.

    August 30, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Walk the path of righteousness or enjoy your own personal worm feeding off your fat drippings for all eternity. Why do this? I got rid of the fleas in most of the house but not my bed. Give up yourself to Jesus and accept his large blessings.

      Amen.

      August 30, 2013 at 12:53 am |
    • Massey

      Which mandate? And if you don't want your kid vaccinated, fine. But when your kid can't get into school, be prepared to homeschool. And when your kid comes down with something that was totally preventable, it's on you.
      And why bring up the ACA? Stupid. Just go ahead and bash Obama. Get it out of your system.

      August 30, 2013 at 12:55 am |
      • robert

        I wasn't bashing Obama. I was posing a question. How can one hold the opinion that we should force everyone to be vaccinated because its a shared responsibility but at the same time how could one also be against the mandate forcing everyone to buy health insurance because that to would be a shared responsibility. I find it hypocritical that some are for one but not the other. I posed this question because I am against forced vaccination but I am for the health insurance mandate. Im trying to reconcile how I could believe this way without being hypocritical. Maybe I can't reconcile this and I am just a hypocrite.

        August 30, 2013 at 1:11 am |
    • tallulah13

      Immunization is a matter of public safety. It's done for the good of the community, the country and the world. Perhaps you are ignorant of history. Do yourself a favor - google things like polio, smallpox and influenza. Understand the devastation caused when these diseases are allowed to go unchecked. Perhaps if you have a better understanding of history, you wouldn't sound so ignorant.

      August 30, 2013 at 1:09 am |
      • robert

        My post did not show a anti-vaccine bias. I was merely posing a question. Now, I have studied the history of vaccines. Vaccines are effect especially when you look at polio and small pox. Those are horrible diseases that can kill you and if they don't can leave you disabled. Now in the case of the chicken pox vaccine I believe that it is unnecessary. Chicken pox has a very low mortality rate and because of that the risk/reward of that vaccine just is not there IMO. Now with the Hep B vaccine I am entirely opposed to that vaccine in newborns. Hep B is a blood born virus and therefore a new born is not at significant risk of contracting it. Most countries don't even put that on their vaccine schedule until the age of 1

        August 30, 2013 at 1:24 am |
        • tallulah13

          Your original question pointlessly compared apples to oranges. It made you sound as though you were blindly pursuing a political vendetta instead of asking an honest question.

          August 30, 2013 at 1:43 am |
    • 4Mel

      So I hate bureaucracy and the big laws that come along with it, but totally support vaccinations. They're separate issues. Vaccinations have been proven to improve the health of the overall population, where the ACA is a political/philosophical belief that hasn't been proven to do anything, good or bad.

      August 30, 2013 at 1:20 am |
      • robert

        I see what you are saying. Vaccines have been proven to be beneficial and we have a 100 years of data to support that. The ACA hasn't been around very long so we do not know what impact it will have on public health. Forcing vaccines is big government just as the ACA is big government. With that said people have the right to opt out of vaccinating their children but beginning next year you won't be able to opt out of health insurance without a fee. Like I said earlier I think both have to do with public health and I feel like a hypocrite because I am for the mandate but against force vaccination as some people argue. And for the record my children have had most of the recommended vaccines. Not all but most.

        August 30, 2013 at 1:45 am |
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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.