I chanced upon an infomercial for the notorious Peter Popoff, televangelist and roving healer, on TLC (January 21, 2016), featuring a “Toronto Miracle Crusade.” For me it was dèjá vu once again.
Popoff was exposed in the 1980s by famed investigator James Randi. Popoff appeared to demonstrate a Pentecostal gift, known as a word of knowledge, “calling out” members of his audience for healing and telling them their names and addresses, illnesses, and more. But Randi was suspicious, especially when he spied the alleged healer wearing a hearing aid. Randi smuggled an electronics expert with computerized scanning equipment into a service. He overheard Mrs. Popoff broadcasting the information—gleaned from “prayer cards” people had filled out—into the reverend’s “hearing aid.” A subsequent exposé on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show soon stemmed Popoff’s moneymaking operation and drove him from television.
Eventually Popoff rebounded. Forsaking the “hearing aid,” he used other techniques to give the impression he was still receiving words of knowledge. One method was the old generalization technique employed by psychics and spiritualists. Another was a version of the “shotgun” technique—mentioning, say, that certain illnesses are being healed, without saying just who is being favored.
I went undercover to one of Popoff’s wonderworking crusades in 2002, held in Toronto. Although I was malingering, Popoff was clearly unaware of the fact and “healed” me twice: The first was when he was about to cure a woman of back trouble by having her “go under the power.” (He places his hands on the suggestible person who does what is expected and falls into the arms of a “catcher.”) Popoff said a man was also afflicted and I quickly stood up, but since I was a distance away he gestured for me to remain there and receive the anointing at the same time. Later, he prayed over me and several others in a group.
People were invited to exchange their offering envelopes for wristbands imbued with the power of “Dr. Jesus,” but when these ran out helpers distributed packets of “Miracle Spring Water” by the handful instead. No doubt many—caught up in the excitement—felt healed, and some played to the cameras at Popoff’s suggestion and walked or pranced about, although there was no reason to think they had been unable to do what they did. In fact, as far as I could tell, those who had arrived in wheelchairs left in them. (See my The Science of Miracles, 2013, 197–204.)
Now many years later, I watched another Popoff side show. Here were Rev. and Mrs. Popoff speaking between taped episodes of a “Toronto Miracle Crusade.” In one he convinced a woman with ringing in the ears that the condition had gone “back to the pits of Hell where it belongs.” Addressing the camera, he said (using the illogic of “an argument from ignorance”), “A miracle is something you cannot explain,” and his wife read from letters offering testimonials. One said that after using the “Miracle Spring Water” the writer received a phone call “the next day” resulting in interviews that led to a good job. And so on.
Despite repeated exposés, Popoff and his ilk continue to profit from the pain and suffering of the afflicted. I am again reminded of a passage in Matthew (7: 15–16): “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”