Is it Religious Belief or Charlatanism?

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History Blog on March 18, 2011]

Wednesday evening the ARH graduate students at FSU had its monthly colloquium and during the lively discussion, the issue of fraud and charlatanism came up. In particular, how do we address the beliefs and practices of the historical actors we study? What about claims of healing and medicinal products? When a religious leader sells a product, such as a patent medicine or an herbal remedy, which they claim cures diseases, do we assume they believe in the product, or can we question whether their beliefs are true, raising the possibility of fraud? What if they claim they can heal by the laying on of hands, or from afar? Should we mention this possibility of fraud when there is no direct evidence?

Yesterday afternoon, in a seminar discussing the Sehat and Sullivan volumes Emily Clark blogged about, we discussed the relationship between the courts, religious intolerance, term definition, and the precarious position courts are in when they have to make judgment calls regarding religious belief and practice. While having this discussion, the previous question about charlatanism came to mind and putting these two issues together, I remembered the 1944 Supreme Court case of United States v. Ballard. While this case was not mentioned in Sehat, it would have fit his narrative well, especially in the chapter where he discusses the Supreme Court’s “radical” shift in the 1940s when “the court entered an entirely different world…[b]y acting as a guarantor of rights” (226).

Guy and Edna Ballard, along with their son Donald, were the heads of the “I AM” movement founded in 1930. According to Guy Ballard, while he was hiking on Mt. Shasta in California, he encountered the ascendant master Saint Germain. With roots in Theosophy, Ballard claimed that Beloved Saint Germain, the current master overseeing the Earth, chose Ballard and his family to be the mouth piece for the “I AM” movement. Through the Ballards, the masters, including Jesus, dictated new teachings which would grant immortality to those who accepted the teachings. The masters also claimed their wisdom would save the United States from destruction. Most importantly, because of his special position as the spokesperson of the masters, Ballard had attained a supernatural state of immortality. This enabled him to heal disease and conquer death and old age. He claimed he could do these things for others both in person and from afar if the followers sent the Saint Germain Foundation love offerings via mail. Ballard made these claims in printed literature created by the Saint Germain Press, on radio shows, which had a broad audience, and through correspondence courses.

Ballard unexpectedly died in 1939 causing a crisis within the movement. His death obviously refuted his claims of immortality. A number of his former adherents and students used this opportunity to challenge the movement and complained to the federal government about Ballard’s statements. In 1941, the United States filed a lawsuit against Edna and Donald Ballard, claiming that they were guilty of mail fraud, accepting money for products and services which they knew were fraudulent. Eighteen counts were brought against the Ballards. These claims of the Ballards included:

  • That the Ballards had attained a supernatural state of self-immortality, which enabled them to be entirely free from ailments common to man and to conquer disease, death, old age, poverty and misery, and that they could and would transmit that supernatural state to others willing to pay therefor.
  • That the Ballards had, by reason of supernatural attainments, the power to heal persons of ailments, diseases and injuries and the power to cure persons of diseases normally classified as curable and of diseases normally classified as incurable, and had in fact cured hundreds of persons.
  • That the Ballards had a divine and supernatural ability to bring forth from a supernatural state money, riches and other things necessary to mankind and could transmit that ability to others willing to pay therefor.

At the end of the case, both Edna and Donald Ballard were found guilty of twelve counts of fraud. The significant thing about the case, though, is that the district court judge gave certain instructions to the jury to not consider the religious claims made by the Ballards. The language of the judge is so specific I quote the passage in full:

Now, gentlemen, here is the issue in this case: First, the defendants in this case made certain representations of belief in a divinity and in a supernatural power. Some of the teachings of the defendants, representations, might seem extremely improbable to a great many people. For instance, the appearance of Jesus to dictate some of the works that we have had introduced in evidence or shaking hands with Jesus. To some people that might seem highly improbable. I point that out as one of the many statements. Whether that is true or not is not the concern of this court and is not the concern of the jury. As far as this court sees the issue, it is immaterial what these defendants preached or wrote or taught in their classes. They [the jury] are not going to be permitted to speculate on the actuality of the happening of those incidents. The issue is: Did these defendants honestly and in good faith believe those things? If they did, they should be acquitted. If these defendants did not believe those things, [if] they did not believe that Jesus came down and dictated, or that Saint Germain came down and dictated, did not believe the things that they wrote, the things that they preached, but used the mail for the purpose of getting money, the jury should find them guilty.

When the case was appealed (Ballard et. al. v. United States, 138 F.2d 540, (C.A. 9 1943)), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the ruling, claiming that the judge should not have excluded the issue of religious belief. The majority wrote, regarding the claims of meeting the masters and the powers of healing, “Whether such representations were false or true was a question which should have been submitted to the jury.” The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which sided with the district court and overturned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The significant point is that this opinion established the precedent that the United States government is not in the business of deciding which religious claims were true and which were false. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion states:

The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man’s relation to his God was made no concern of the state. He was granted the right to worship as he pleased and to answer to no man for the verity of his religious views. The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity,then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the Ballards were retried. This new case also went to the Supreme Court (Ballard v. United States, 329 U. S. 187 (1946)) and was vacated because in the second trial women were illegally excluded from the jury. The end result was that Edna and Donald Ballard were never convicted of fraud.


In looking at the case of the Ballards, one might wonder how nineteenth century religious figures such as Andrew Jackson Davis would fair. After Davis was visited by Swedenborg and Galen while in a mesmeric trance and given his staff of healing, he then claimed to be a trance medium and that he could heal people. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy also made claims related to curing disease. Healing is a significant aspect of various Christian movements, including Pentecostalism and Primitive Baptistism, to name just a couple. As scholars of religion, how do we engage the issue of fraud? Is it fraud only when remuneration is involved? Or is it only a problem when the alleged cure fails to work? Many say that as historians of religion we should adopt the stance of the Supreme Court and assert we are not in the business adjudicating any religious claims regarding belief and practice.

The United States v. Ballard set a precedent that, as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan points out, is impossible for the United States courts to follow. In a detailed study of Warner v. Boca Raton (1999), Sullivan shows that the court is routinely placed in the position of deciding what is a religion and thus protected belief and practice under the establishment clause in the Constitution. She notes, “legal protection for ‘religion’ anywhere demands a definition of religion” (151). I think we, as scholars of religion, are more aware than most about the difficulty of defining religion, and all the implicit and explicit baggage that comes with definition. But this, then, brings me back to my first question, how do we address the beliefs and practices of the historical actors we study? Of course there is no one answer and scholars must decide based on the data and claims of the historical actors. But what these books and court cases demonstrate is that our discipline is not alone in the struggle to answer these questions.

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