BEHIND THE HYPEMike Murdock exaggerates his accomplishments and cites dubious statistics. Critics say his goal is to keep donors from questioning his authority.
By Darren Barbee
On the television screen, letters fade in – fancy silver script spelling out wisdom.
An announcer's voice, deep and smooth, says, "Whatever your struggles, frustrations or failures, wisdom is the master key that can change anything in a moment." The Wisdom Keys announcer falls silent as the man God gave all of the keys to appears on the screen: Dr. Mike Murdock.
Viewers of Wisdom Keys can't ignore the evidence: He is Mike Murdock, anointed by God. He is DOCTOR Mike Murdock, the scholar. He is the author of dozens of books and thousands of songs.
Murdock calls himself the Mentor, and he has noted that Jesus was mentor to the Apostles. Perhaps a more apt title is Guru: a virtuoso with the power to unleash the favor of God.
When scrutinized, any number of Murdock's statements and the image he projects prove to be the smoke of hyperbole and illusion.
Murdock's goal, critics say, is to build his authority so that people set aside common sense and do as he instructs. Inevitably, critics say, that means sending money.
During a 1997 telethon, Murdock told viewers that he knew they may not think they have money to send.
"Maybe you've got money in a closet somewhere, in a coin collection, in stocks and bonds," he said. "I don't know where you're going to get it, but you know."
Murdock wraps himself in the vestments of the pulpit and is to be neither criticized nor questioned. Those who disobey or doubt, he warns, will jeopardize their miracles.
And as he shares the testimonials of those who he says have experienced the miraculous, he omits those whose devoted giving has brought them nothing.
Over the months that the Star-Telegram examined the Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association, he would not agree to an interview. Recently, in letters and on audiocassettes, he has offered all kinds of explanations for media scrutiny, ranging from disloyal friends to statements he made three years ago that homosexuality is a sin.
Undaunted, he brings his message home with absolute confidence, describing the financial wisdom and healing power that he says God gives him.
Late last year, jabbing his finger at the camera, Murdock told his audience, "We've got to get you debt-free. We've got to get you a house paid for."
Murdock gained national exposure on television's The PTL Club, where he wrote songs that Tammy Faye Bakker recorded and turned into hits on the Christian charts. Some of his songs are still sung in churches from Beaumont to Lake Charles, La., local pastors and friends say.
Over the years, Murdock has made increasingly broad claims about his prolific work as an author and a songwriter.
Critics dismiss those statements as braggadocio.
In 1995, Murdock said that he had written 57 books. At the end of 2002, he said he had written 135 books – an average of 11 a year since 1995.
He recently said that he has more than 1,200 manuscripts "we're trying to get to press."
At the same time – by Murdock's statements – he has written 6,000 songs, which would rank him among the world's most prolific songwriters.
He said that by 1976, he had written just five songs. But by 1986, he said, he had written 1,200. Since then, he said, he has written 4,800 more – an average of 300 a year.
Murdock has said he earned thousands of dollars in royalties for his songs and books.
The ministry's Web site has about a dozen different tapes of his music for sale.
Murdock has registered 76 songs with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc., according to unofficial data kept on those groups' Web sites. Murdock does not make clear how many of his songs are published.
His books cover topics such as greed, wealth, sexual temptation, the perfect mate, prosperity and depression, and offer advice for young ministers. Many are brief, and some of them duplicate the content found in his other books.
Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a televangelist watchdog group in Dallas, points out that some of the books are only 30 pages.
"He says he writes all these books, but they're like a half-chapter of a normal book," Anthony said. "They should be called pamphlets."
My Personal Dream Book, which has 58 pages – including 18 pages of ministry advertising – is largely a reprint of the tables of contents of other Murdock books.
The Three Most Important Things in Your Life, which has 256 pages, is made up of chapters from three of his other books, according to a note near the end of the book.
Murdock has had help with some of the writing. Former ministry employee Linda Knight said she was the ghost writer of one book.
Critics can nitpick or deride Murdock's books all they want, but his writings have helped countless people, said his brother John.
The books translate the Bible into everyday wisdom, John Murdock said.
"This is where he could probably be misunderstood," he said. "A lot of times, a person may look at God's book as a holy, sacred book. And it is.
"But what else is it? It's a manual for humanity to live by," he said. "It takes a minister who bridges that understanding, the way the Lord has said it in his Word, to bridge it to the language you and I can relate to."
Many of Murdock's statements seem intended to puff up his image of scholarly accomplishment.
He cites statistics about bankruptcy, parenting and death as he offers guidance.
Many of the numbers, however, are apparently factoids – information that sounds factual but under examination proves to be questionable or so broad that it is useless.
Even his title seems like an attempt to infuse his advice with academic authority. Murdock makes use of his title in many ways, even writing it on legal documents.
Printed on millions of mailings, books and audiocassettes are the words "Dr. Mike Murdock." On one of his TV show's closing announcements, the announcer said "Dr. Mike Murdock" or "Dr. Murdock" an average of once every 19 seconds. In ministry memos, he is sometimes called "Dr. M."
He does not explain that his doctorate is honorary, given by International Seminary in Florida.
Seminary officials declined to comment on how they select the recipients of honorary doctorates. But according to the seminary's Web site, "the acceptance of our degrees in religious circles has been very high."
The seminary's accreditation is from the Accrediting Commission International for Schools, Colleges and Theological Seminaries, which is in Beebe, Ark.
The commission itself does not follow generally accepted accrediting practices, and it is not recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education. Critics have said the commission has few standards for granting accreditation.
Murdock dropped out of Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie in 1966.
Murdock also makes sweeping claims about the ministry's good works. Last week on Wisdom Keys, he told viewers that donations to the ministry support huge crusades, feed the hungry and spread the Gospel in dozens of countries.
"I could show you pictures of our crusades in Nigeria, where we had over 255,000 attending, hearing the Gospel. I could take you around the world, all the 38 countries that we preach every week through the Schools of Wisdom, Schools of the Holy Spirit," he said. "I could show you some checks we are writing to preachers and ministers and even feed-the-hungry programs."
The ministry's 2000 Internal Revenue Service reports show little support for charitable works or for other ministries. Its 2001 IRS report has not been filed yet.
Murdock often glosses over pertinent information, leaving out critical details.
He once told viewers that the average person makes 350 decisions a day.
Is that number accurate? That's hard to say unless he defines what he means by decisions, said Errol Wirasinghe, a business consultant in Houston who studies decision-making.
In The Three Most Important Things, Murdock uses another seemingly compelling figure: "Someone has said that we have lost more of our children to death by alcoholism than every death in all the major wars."
Murdock does not give a source, explain what he means by "major wars" or describe what constitutes an alcohol-related death (Car accidents? Domestic abuse?), said Rini Cobbey, a professor of communications at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., who studies popular culture and modern myths.
Society is saturated with such trivia, Cobbey said, and "a lot of times, we're not going to question those things."
Murdock's books claim to unravel hidden meanings of the Bible: It contains 31 career secrets, 31 facts about wisdom, 31 keys to a new beginning, 31 secrets of an unforgettable woman and 31 reasons people go unrewarded by God.
Give $58 because there are 58 blessings Murdock says he has discerned in the Bible.
Seven is the number of decision, Murdock says. The ministry's telephone number, which begins 1-888, is significant, he says, because eight represents new beginnings.
He says he can crack the Bible's puzzling financial ciphers because of God's power. It is a power instilled by the Holy Spirit, he says, which speaks to him at all hours in all places.
It is called the anointing.
The anointing gave Jesus his ability to heal, according to The Three Most Important Things.
Murdock says this power from God gives him the authority to push back illnesses, demons and creditors by "applying" biblical passages. He also uses the anointing to encourage, and even demand, donations.
Critics see Murdock's claims as dangerous because he requires people to put as much faith in him as they do in God.
"He emphasizes that you should believe and trust a man of God even if you wouldn't believe that's what God is saying," said Anthony Pratkanis, a social-psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Pratkanis, who co-wrote Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, reviewed some of Murdock's material at the Star-Telegram's request.
Murdock stops short of directly telling his audience that he is a man of God. Instead, Murdock and others talk about signs that God has chosen and empowered him.
He once brought his parents onto Wisdom Keys so they could tell a story about his destiny, a tale he has sometimes recounted.
The details vary little, no matter who does the telling.
Murdock was 3 years old and had intestinal worms. Nearly 600 had passed through his body. His parents, J.E. and Willie Murdock, were approached by an illiterate woman who told them that the Lord wanted to "use" their child.
"The devil is trying to destroy him," she said.
He recovered only because of God's intervention.
Murdock says he does not understand the anointing, except that it is within him to bestow its benefits. It has given him the ability to offer people financial guidance and to provide financial rewards, he says.
"I believe I can see that you get a raise 90 days from today," he told viewers of Wisdom Keys in November 1998.
But he also says he can invoke spiritual protections and heal people.
"I decree that sickness and disease shall not come into [your] dwelling," he said, dashing across the stage during a seminar in Grapevine.
"I apply Psalms 91 ..." for protection against demonic forces, he said. "I apply Isaiah 58 ..." for health.
On one prerecorded show last year, he says he senses that a woman watching him has pain in her knees.
"Your knees are being healed, now, now!"
With a simple "I decree it," Murdock ends family discord.
In The Three Most Important Things, he promises those willing to follow his instructions that they, too, can wield the marvelous power that "... removes burdens ... destroys yokes that enemies place upon you."
He tells people not to take the power for granted or to use their own reason to weigh God's instruction.
"My world changed through one ridiculous instruction from God," Murdock wrote in a letter sent out last summer. "He is always specific. Always illogical. Whether it is dealing with Gideon's 300 or instructing the Israelites to walk around the walls of Jericho seven consecutive days."
A person may have to rely on "the prophet's word alone instead of your own inner confirmation," he wrote in a summer newsletter.
"I also believe you will have to believe some man or woman of God ... somewhere ... sometime ... before God ever releases a miracle toward you," he wrote.
Defying a proven man of God – such as by disobeying God's instruction to send money – is rebellion against God himself, he wrote. If you do so, Murdock wrote, "you must live with the consequences and losses your rebellion has created."
Should there be any doubt about who is a man of God, Murdock makes it clear on his TV program.
"Father, I've told your people what you told me to tell them," he says.
He often closes his eyes tightly to deliver his prayer. He is asking for 3,000 people to send $58 a month.
"Don't sit there on the sofa watching me," he admonishes viewers. "Go to the phone."
Obey, he says. Go to the phone, quickly, quickly.
"Delayed obedience is disobedience," he says.
Sarah Young said she was a friend of Murdock's in the early 1990s when her husband was a member of the ministry's board. She said she has learned much from Murdock's teachings and echoed his warning about those who question a man of God.
"If you do, bad things happen to you. If you don't want anything to happen to you, drop some of it," she said in a telephone interview from her husband's church in South Carolina.
Murdock often tells viewers miraculous tales of people who give specific amounts of money and reap great rewards.
His assistant gave $58 to the ministry and 14 days later found that family wounds had healed, as the man had hoped. A couple prayed for a new house and got one appraised at $58,000 – no strings attached – after the seller dropped dead.
A woman found "Unexpected Finances!" – an envelope stuffed with cash – according to a letter Murdock showed viewers. Another woman who donated received a "$4,600 raise" 57 days later.
During a 1997 telethon, Murdock said he gave $1,000 to a ministry and received almost $500,000 a few months later.
Elaborate testimonials seal the deal by giving the impression that the Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association is a miracle factory, churning out blessings as soon as donations are received and the return is calculated by God.
But Murdock offers a disclaimer: God's offer is not for everybody, just the true believers who give sacrificially.
Murdock says nonbelievers scoff at such stories as mere coincidences.
Even some Christians scoff, he says.
"One preacher friend of mine said, 'I can't believe you tell people they're going to get a harvest back,' " Murdock said during a broadcast in November.
"I said, 'I wouldn't have the gall to ask people to sow into God's work if I couldn't promise the harvest he promised.' "
If skeptics question his message, Murdock says they don't understand what prosperity means. Prosperity means having enough to be able to do what God wants a person to do – no more, no less – he says. The things Murdock has – sports cars, Rolex watches, a luxurious estate – are God's will.
God isn't influenced by need, Murdock said at the Grapevine seminar.
"Now this is something that the secular world does not understand," he said. "Why doesn't God take care of the little kids over here and little orphans over here? Why doesn't God take care of this country? God has never responded to pain. He only responds to faith."
Faith and seed money given to God – through the ministry – are all that's required to get a bonanza, he says.
"You don't have to work like a dog to get ahead," he said during one broadcast. "You don't have to work four jobs to get ahead."
Though Murdock's testimonials often feature swift rewards, he said at the seminar that it may take donors a long time to get a reward from God.
While donors wait – perhaps for years – they must have no doubts, Murdock has said.
"Now if you get bitter, you get angry, you get critical, obviously you sabotage the whole reward process," he said in Grapevine.
To Pratkanis, that's an escape clause. "It's kind of cruel," he said. "So you give your money, and nothing happens. It's your own fault."
Cynthia Elrod, a nursing assistant who lives in Kissimmee, Fla., is waiting for a blessing she is sure will come.
Elrod, 51, has been an avid Murdock supporter since she first saw him on The PTL Club. In 1998, she gave Murdock's ministry $1,000. That year, her salary was $16,000. The next year, with about the same salary, she again donated $1,000.
Elrod said she has not been blessed as she had hoped. Today, she makes not quite $19,000. She lives in what she describes as "the ghetto" in a $50,000 house she inherited from her mother.
Elrod still has faith, and she believes she has no one to blame but herself for her lack of a harvest, as Murdock teaches.
"He also teaches that there's a waiting period," she said. "You have to be patient."
Ministry donor Beverly Franton of West Monroe, La., believes that the Murdock books she has received have helped her. But she recalled watching Murdock on television at her home and catching herself wondering whether her donations had paid for the black leather jacket he sometimes wears.
But such thoughts are only fleeting.
She is sure the money goes toward spreading the Gospel.
Milestones in Mike Murdock's life
Mike Murdock is the son of a minister who built churches throughout southern Louisiana and Texas. Of the seven children in the family, Murdock seemed destined to follow his father to the pulpit. One brother said Murdock was blessed with the gift of talking. Murdock and people close to him have described turning points in his life.
April 18, 1946 - Michael Dean Murdock is born to J.E. and Willie Murdock in Lake Charles, La.
1954 - The 8-year-old preaches his first sermon at his father's church in Waco.
1961 - Murdock preaches his first evangelistic crusade.
1963 - Murdock, 17, meets Jimmy Swaggart, described as a mentor. Murdock later writes songs for Swaggart.
May 25, 1964 - Murdock graduates from LaGrange High School in Lake Charles.
1966 - Murdock leaves Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie after three semesters.
May 1966 - Murdock marries Linda Lormand, a student he met while attending the seminary.
June 1967 - At a church in Victoria, Murdock hears a sermon on money that may have inspired his "seed faith" ministry.
1973 - The Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association is established as a nonprofit organization.
1979 - The Murdocks adopt a baby boy, Jason.
Oct. 4, 1979 - Mike Murdock files for divorce.
Early 1980s - Murdock appears on the PTL Club television program with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
1982 - Tammy Faye Bakker records You Can Make It, one of several songs written by Murdock.
1985 - The Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association's revenues exceed $1 million for the first time.
1987 - Jim Bakker resigns after saying he had an affair with a former church secretary and paid her to ensure her silence.
March 12, 1989 - Murdock is awarded an honorary doctorate from International Seminary in Florida.
Early 1990s - Murdock's ministry moves to Argyle from Dallas.
July 13, 1994 - Murdock considers this the most significant date of his life, when he "fell in love" with the Holy Spirit.
1997-98 - At least eight women come to Argyle believing Murdock will marry or employ them.
1999 - The Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association moves to Denton.
August 2002 - Murdock announces that his brother John has left the ministry's board of directors.
November 2002 - Murdock fires long-time accountants James and Doris Couch and hires a new firm.
Star-Telegram religion writer Darren Barbee spent six months examining the Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association. Staff writers Jeff Claassen and Mike Lee and librarians Jan Fennell and Cathy Belcher provided research assistance. The Trinity Foundation provided some documentation. The project editor was Lois Norder. The articles were copy-edited by Scott Mitchell and John Lydon. The photographers were Ian McVea, M.L. Gray and Rick Moon, and the photo editor was Mark Rogers. Sarah Huffstetler designed the pages. Tim Bedison produced the graphics.
You may comment on this project by calling Darren Barbee at (817) 685-3818 or Lois Norder at (817) 685-3823.
On the Web
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability
Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association