The spark for that chase came in a story written late last year by Wyatt Massey of the Chattanooga Times Free Press: For almost two years, charismatic Christians from around the region and country had been making their way to Dalton to bear witness to a Bible that was mysteriously oozing oil. Oil is a freighted symbol in many religions, and plays a prominent role in the Bible. Its sudden, unexplained and recurring appearance in a Georgia man’s Bible electrified the faithful, and became the centerpiece of a new ministry. It also was seen as a sign of Donald Trump’s favor with God.
The Slate editor pressed Graham to learn more. Graham is an experienced hand at reporting on faith. In addition to her work for Slate, she has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe and a host of other publications.
Her resulting piece, “The Bible That Oozed Oil,” was published Feb. 27, 2020. It avoids the trap of easy cheap shots and roll-your-eyes dismissal of a “modern miracle.” Rather, it is a complex weave of the intersection between politics and faith, and a non-cynical portrait of a community and some of the people in it.
It’s hard to avoid dipping into a story that promises oil-oozing Bibles. But as I read, I was particularly impressed with how skillfully Graham shifted between the modes of the story. At one point it’s a thumbnail sketch of a colorful town. Later, it serves as a brief foray into the history and role of oil in faith. Along the way, Graham doesn’t hesitate to include a first-person point of view when it serves to deepen the story.
Graham answered a few of my broad questions, then worked with me to annotate her story itself. The answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did this story pop up on your radar? Once it did, what was the timeframe for reporting and writing it?
My editor, Laura Bennett, read about the oil Bible in the Chattanooga Times Free Press last fall, and thought it had the components of a good longer feature. I did some reading and made some preliminary phone calls over the holidays, and then planned a three-day trip to Dalton for the end of January. The story ran a month later.
What part of this story made you think there was more to explore?
One thing that intrigued me right away was the fact that the oil Bible’s proprietors seemed to tie the first oozing to Trump’s rise. I had done some reporting on the self-styled “prophets” who have latched onto Trump, so I was interested in this small, apparently independent movement that seemed to attach a kind of supernatural meaning to the election. I was also very interested in the fact that they didn’t seem to be profiting off the oil financially. And of course, I wanted to know what was really going on with the oil itself.
You include some specific reactions in your story, but generally speaking, how did the residents and people profiled respond to your presence?
I spent quite a bit of time with three of the four leaders of the movement, and I would say they were simultaneously warm and guarded. Based on my initial phone conversations with some people close to the movement, I had decided to just go down and introduce myself on the scene to the main players, rather than trying to contact them in advance. I thought I would have more luck getting them to open up face to face, rather than cold-calling or emailing as a journalist from an unfamiliar secular news outlet. I think that was largely the right move, because they ended up being willing to have me around even if they weren’t thrilled about it. I don’t think they would have made plans in advance to meet with me. In fact, the owner of the bookstore that served as the de facto headquarters had agreed to meet with me, and then ghosted me when I got into town.
That was in contrast to the movement’s followers, including people who attended the prayer service every week or were otherwise deeply invested. They were incredibly happy to have me there, and very willing to talk openly. They prayed and prophesied over me, which I tried to discourage. But I also didn’t want to shut them down completely. I got the sense they were hoping to turn me into a true believer.
You’ve often written about religion before. In what ways, if any, did that help with the conception, writing or reporting of this story?
I can’t imagine going into this story without having experienced and reported on religion. For one, it helped me sort out what was unusual (uh, the Bible flowing with oil) from what is pretty standard in these settings (like speaking in tongues).
What kind of reaction have you gotten from readers and people featured in the story since it was published?
Very little, but they have not been communicative in general since Jerry was revealed to have been buying the oil. I got a brief but warm note from Leslie thanking me for sending the story, and otherwise haven’t heard anything. And obviously, there are a lot of other things going on in the world right now.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; responses from Graham in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
The Bible That Oozed Oil
A small Georgia town, a prophecy about Donald Trump, and the story of how a miracle fell apart.
By Ruth Graham
Feb. 27, 2020In the summer of 2016, God gave Johnny Taylor a prophecy. This is a striking first sentence. Was it your lede from the start, or did it change during writing or editing? This was my lede from the start, which is somewhat unusual for me. This story has such a distinct beginning, middle, and end that it felt very natural to start with the oil’s mysterious arrival.
It wasn’t a specific vision, but something more like a promise. After the presidential election that fall, so the prophecy went, God would begin to “position” Johnny and his group of friends to do great things. Months later, when Donald Trump won—no surprise to Johnny—God provided another message: After the inauguration, he said, “I’ll show you what I’m doing.”
Trump was inaugurated on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. On Monday night, as they did most evenings, Johnny and a small, informal prayer group met to pray in the backroom of a small Christian gift shop called Grace 251. Johnny’s girlfriend, Leslie, was there, along with her father, John Barker, and their friend Jerry Pearce and his wife, Joyce. They usually broke up by 8:30, but on this night they kept praying until after midnight. At one point, Jerry fell down on the floor for 45 minutes in a kind of catatonic state that he describes as being “out in the Spirit.” Within a few days, he told me, he opened his Bible to Psalm 39—an uneasy poem of both praise and gloom that includes the words “every man at his best state is but vapor”—and noticed a small spot of oil. Joyce assured him the grandkids hadn’t been near the book. It could only have come from God. I love the memorable characterization here of Psalm 39, especially the use of the word “poem” … why did you choose to include it? Jerry and others mentioned often that the oil started at Psalm 39, so it was obviously an important detail to them. I heard different theories on why God might have chosen that spot, but they didn’t have a consistent explanation. The psalms are poems, and I was struck by how emotionally layered this one is, veering from praise to despair and grappling with death. It’s beautiful.
From then on, more oil appeared almost every time Jerry picked up the Bible, a leather-bound copy of the New King James translation. The oil moved to the back of the book, saturated the endpapers—a heart-shaped splotch appeared over a map of Israel—and then started at the beginning, in Genesis 1. Eventually Jerry had to put the book in a Ziploc bag, and then in a large plastic bin he bought at Tractor Supply.
News of the oil began to spread. The weekly prayer group started meeting in a larger room at the gift shop, then moved to a small performance space, and finally landed at a renovated movie theater downtown. Within three years, hundreds of people were gathering each week in the small town of Dalton, Georgia, to pray, socialize, and be healed. Believers say the translucent oil has cured skin conditions and cancer. They say it has generated crystals, changed color, and increased in volume—inching upward in the Tupperware container over the course of a few hours. They say small vials of oil refilled themselves overnight. “A Bible flowing with oil—something many are calling a modern miracle—continues to gather huge crowds,” the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported this past November. Some believers moved to Dalton to be closer to the revival; others drove hours every week to see the oil. Leslie’s father and his girlfriend got married in the prayer room. Meanwhile, the book kept oozing. By January 2020, Johnny and Jerry estimated that the Bible had produced more than 400 gallons of oil. You’re diligent in crediting reporting by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. How important was their reporting to the story you ended up writing? How much contact did you have with writers or editors there? Wyatt Massey’s first story in the Chattanooga paper was what alerted my editor and me to this phenomenon in the first place. It was a fascinating, straightforward story reporting on a local phenomenon. For the bulk of my reporting process, I had no idea Wyatt was working on a follow-up story. Then a few weeks after I returned from Dalton, he published his bombshell follow-up story, based on a tip he had gotten in response to the first story. As it turned out, Jerry Pearce had been spotted buying large quantities of mineral oil at the local Tractor Supply. By then I suspected Jerry was the key figure, but I couldn’t prove it and didn’t have those details, so Wyatt’s story definitely changed the shape of my piece. And then, of course, the oil ministry essentially shut down, which again changed the trajectory of the story. In my first draft, I cited Wyatt’s reporting but didn’t interview him, but my editor suggested it would be good to get Wyatt’s perspective as a player in the story.
Dalton is in the far northwest corner of Georgia, closer to Chattanooga, Tennessee, than Atlanta. Downtown, a statue of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston presides over Crawford Street, which runs past the Wink Theatre, home to the oil ministry’s weekly prayer services. A local directory lists 94 churches in the town of 33,000. This is quite a stat. Did you count the churches in the directory, or find the number referred to elsewhere? I counted! I picked up a free local listings magazine at a restaurant in town, and there was a church directory in the back. I try to listen to local radio, watch local TV, and read local media as much as I can when I’m on reporting trips.
The cemetery, which still hosts an annual Confederate Memorial Day event, includes a large granite monument celebrating that “God Created His Masterpiece—The Confederate Soldier.” It was dedicated in 1999. I love this thumbnail portrait of the town itself. Why did you choose to spend a few paragraphs on it, rather than just confine yourself to the immediate story? I wanted to establish that Dalton is in some ways a very traditional Southern town, before complicating that depiction. And I just loved these particular details from the cemetery. It’s not unusual to have a Confederate section in the cemetery, but it’s something else to have it updated with much newer monuments. Visiting cemeteries is another habit for me when I’m reporting; you can pick up a lot about local history, including demographics and the big family names in town.
But Dalton does not fit all the stereotypes of a typical small Southern town. This story covers people in this story (Southern, evangelical) who are sometimes written about in a facile or incomplete way; how deliberate were you in pushing beyond that for a more rounded view? That’s one of the big goals I have with my work overall, so it’s something I’m very deliberate about. It would have been very easy to write a snide story about the scene in Dalton. But that would be so much more boring than the truth. And it would have been especially cruel with a story like this, which was not widely known nationally. I don’t see the point of introducing a scene to readers just to make fun of it.
There’s money in Dalton, and even a little glamour. For one, it’s “the carpet capital of the world.” According to the Carpet and Rug Institute, a trade group headquartered in downtown Dalton, more than 85 percent of American carpets and rugs are manufactured within a 65-mile radius of the town. In the ’70s and ’80s, the town was said to have the most millionaires per capita in the country. Marla Maples, the daughter of a local real estate developer and Elvis impersonator, was a homecoming queen here in that era. In 1991, she brought her boyfriend Donald Trump back home with her, where the future president sat in the bleachers to watch a high school football game.
Jerry Pearce’s “flowing oil,” as he calls it, turned the carpet capital into another kind of capital: the center of a spiritual revival. On a Tuesday morning in late January, about 600 people had filed into the Wink Theatre for a weekly prayer service that would last more than three hours. Rock Bridge Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical megachurch, bought the restored 1940s movie theater in the early 2000s and started loaning it to Jerry and Johnny for free last year. (The church took care to say it has no formal affiliation with the oil movement, and loaned the theater as an act of civic charity rather than a spiritual endorsement.) Christian worship music wafted from the speakers, while visitors chatted expectantly. Timothy Coyle had traveled from Walton, Kentucky, with his 13-year-old son, a friend, and their pastor. “I’ve felt the presence of God already,” he said. “It’s one of those things you need to be here to perceive.” This is a powerful quote. When did you approach Timothy Coyle? Did you identify yourself as a reporter immediately? I talked with him before the service started, a few minutes before Johnny approached me and asked me to wait until afterward to interview people. I introduced myself as a reporter right away, and like most people at the service, he seemed happy to talk with me. I talked with a lot of people there, obviously, but kept coming back to this quote when I was writing.
The Bible itself was stationed toward the middle of the room, in a wide aisle perpendicular to the stage. It sat on a folding table in its plastic tub, submerged in a few inches of oil. Two small Tupperware containers of oil sat on either side of it, where visitors could dip their fingers. Johnny Ageworth, an old friend of Jerry’s, was among the handful of men unofficially guarding the tub. He said he had handmade the special hinged lid that fit on top of the bin to prevent overeager fans from scooping up the Bible without permission. “When I first saw the [oil-producing] Bible, the Lord said, ‘This is what you’re going to be doing,’ ” Ageworth said. He wore a pendant shaped like a cross, with a vial of the oil embedded in the center. Another great quote. When did you talk to Johnny Ageworth? Also before the service, when I approached the tub of oil in hopes of finding people who were close to the ministry.
After the music, it was time for testimonies. Audience members stood up to share why they had come, and what the oil meant to them. The crowd was mostly white, but not overwhelmingly so: Like many charismatic church services, it attracted a noticeably multiracial audience. (Dalton itself is just 40 percent white.) As someone who is unfamiliar with the charismatic tradition and wrongly assumed it’s white-dominated, this surprised me. Is it safe to say this is an area where your background reporting on religion helped to add important context for readers? Yes, I knew this from my own experience and from other reporting, and I’d also done some reading and some interviews with scholars before my trip. I was still very struck with it when I got there, though. Every church I have ever personally belonged to has said it wants to look something like that room, demographically: rich and poor, black and white, young and old, everyone worshipping together. No church I’ve ever belonged to has actually done it. So I thought that was a significant detail. It also further complicates the portrayal of Dalton and this particular movement.
A middle-aged black woman said she had anointed her adult son, who has been in a coma for two years, and noticed a “change in his countenance.” A slight white man said he was heading to China soon and wanted to bring the oil with him. He alluded to the possibility that the oil could cure the coronavirus: “I look forward to bringing back a good report!” There were stories about the oil healing arthritis and dissolving tumors. Others said their vials of oil had spontaneously refilled. One woman said she had given it to a friend who traveled to North Korea and slathered three rocks there with oil, including one representing North Korea and one representing the United States. “Right after that was when Trump met with Kim Jong-un,” she said. The crowd murmured in awe.
The centerpiece of the service was the sprawling rite Leslie called “ministry time.” This was what the audience had come for: spontaneous prayers, encounters with the oil, healing, communing with strangers with whom they felt safe. Most people stood up and started to move around the room, clustering together organically as the band continued to play. The emotion and excitement in the room was palpable. Some people lined up at the oil table for prayer; others huddled in small groups. Many people were speaking in tongues. Others collapsed in the aisles, “slain in the Spirit” sometimes for minutes at a time. (When this happened to women wearing skirts, helpers unobtrusively preserved their modesty by covering them below the waist with small blankets.) As the service progressed, Jerry removed the Bible from the oil and advanced slowly up a side aisle as people approached him for prayer. A tall, gruff-looking man wearing a T-shirt that said “I Fell in Love With the Man Who Died for My Sins” assisted him. (The man in the T-shirt later told me a story of seeing an angel in the sky outside the plant where he works.) Jerry pressed the dripping book on some supplicants’ heads, who often fell backward, overcome. People cried, shook, prophesied, prayed, hugged, and told each other stories of illness and longing and heartbreak. Near the oil table, a woman who had collapsed suddenly woke up, laughing. This is filled with telling details, such as the modesty blankets and the T-shirt logo. How long did you spend writing the passage about the service? What impression did you most want to convey to readers? I was assuming that most Slate readers would not have been in a charismatic worship setting like this, so I wanted to do two things: Describe the atmosphere and the action, and provide a sense of what makes it appealing and exciting to the people drawn there. It’s a sensory-rich environment, a little chaotic but also joyful and dramatic and, for many people, therapeutic.
Officially, the prayer service ended at noon, but it was well after 1 p.m. by the time most people filed out of the theater. Johnny and Leslie were among the last to leave; he helped drain the plastic baptismal tub onstage, and she handed out more vials of oil to a few stragglers who approached her. Afterward, leaders and regulars walked over to the Oakwood Café, which was filled by the time we arrived.
Johnny and Jerry have been friends for more than 20 years. They met in church. Jerry retired more than a decade ago, after a career that included supervising a network of Shoney’s restaurants and working in pest control. These days, he devotes himself fully to the Bible ministry, and to his own spiritual life. He told me he’s not interested in politics or sports. “I just don’t have time for it,” he said. “The time I’d be doing that, my Bible would be laying on the table, not open.” Johnny’s career included a stint as a church administrative assistant. Both men have experience with charismatic revival movements: Johnny was raised Pentecostal, and Jerry spent several years in the 1990s working at a revival based out of a small church in Calhoun, Georgia. Earlier you gave us a short-profile of the town; now there’s a little background on a couple of important people in the story. Why is it important for readers to have this background? Jerry and Johnny are key players in this story, so it was important to introduce them as individual characters. Throughout the story, I’m trying to suggest the context and history that could have fed into the creation of this movement, without drawing direct lines. So it was very interesting to me, for example, that Jerry had previously worked at a similarly long-running revival. I was able to find some local news coverage of that revival, though it didn’t make the final cut of my story.
Over an $8 plate of pork chops at the Oakwood, Johnny and Leslie talked about the growth of their ministry and what they believe God is doing in Dalton. The whole thing had started at Grace 251, the shabby-chic Christian gift shop—where a large wooden sign saying “Blessed” retails for $450—a block from the Wink. Susan Brown, the store’s owner, had welcomed the group to meet in the shop in 2015. They took a storage room in the back and turned it into a prayer room, with soft lighting, an angel motif, and seating for at least 10 people; everything down to the paint color, a delicate blue, had been guided by instructions from God. In 2015, Leslie and her stepmother, Eileen Barker, told me, they began to see oil dripping from the walls there. Their prayers intensified until Johnny had his prophecy in 2016 and Jerry’s Bible started to leak in 2017. God told Leslie they should meet on Tuesday mornings, so they did. Eventually, pastors around the country started inviting them to churches to display the oil and preach. On Monday nights, volunteers met at Grace 251 to fill vials of oil for the next day’s service, and to pray.
To Johnny and Leslie and their friends, everything that happens in the news and in their own lives has a direct spiritual meaning. The conversation at the Oakwood was easy and comfortable, with mentions of prophecy interspersed with personal reminiscences and jokes. A retired friend named Darla, who travels with them when they bring the Bible to churches in the region, had heard about a prophecy that the Kansas City Chiefs would win the Super Bowl. (Five days later, they did.) I visited two days after Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, and the group agreed that his death was bringing young people to Christ. God works in mysterious ways to draw people closer to him, they agreed. As for the oil, Johnny said, in the end it’s incidental to the ministry. It’s real, but it’s also just a symbol. The oil itself doesn’t heal; it merely points to a healing God. “This Bible is a literal manifestation of what you think is impossible: every prayer you prayed and gave up on,” he said. “It’s an awakening.” This is one of my favorite paragraphs because it conveys Johnny and the others’ worldview in some depth. How important was it to the story that you were able to do that? This lunch was a very important piece of the reporting for me, because I got to hear Johnny and Leslie and their friends just chatting over a normal lunch, talking about the news and their work lives and families. It was very pleasant and relaxed, and I’d almost do a double-take when someone would casually mention, say, a prophecy about who was going to win the Super Bowl. I wanted to give a sense of how thoroughly these beliefs influenced how they saw the world. I tried a few different quotes for the end of the paragraph, including one where Johnny teased Darla about drinking decaf coffee, and said regular coffee wouldn’t keep her up at night if she believed it was decaf. I tried something kind of convoluted and corny about how substances only have power if you believe they do. My editor rightly pushed me to find something else. I like this quote because it’s an example of Johnny de-emphasizing the oil itself as a magical substance, which was a recurring theme that is even more poignant in hindsight.
Oil is a significant substance in many religions, including Christianity. Anointing the sick with oil is a sacrament in the Catholic Church; the words Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.” The Bible’s many references to oil include a story in the second book of Kings about a poor widow whose single jar of oil multiplied so prolifically that she could pay her debts and live off the profits.
Dalton is not the only place where modern charismatic Christians have claimed that God has shown himself by causing oil to flow spontaneously from an unexpected source. In 1956, traveling Pentecostal evangelist A.A. Allen began to report that healing “miracle oil” was flowing from the hands of people who attended his revivals. Miracle magazine, which Allen founded to promote his work, printed stories like one about Josephine Girdner, who said she suffered from painful nasal polyps until attending an Allen revival in California. Halfway through the service, she looked down at her hands and discovered they were covered with oil. “At that moment, my nose cleared up completely,” her account reads. I was largely unaware of the relationship between oil and Christianity, particularly its references in the Bible. How much of the detail of these grafs about its background were known to you, and how much did you have to research? I was raised evangelical and am still an active church member, so I definitely knew that oil is a symbolically rich substance for Christians. I knew that miraculously flowing oil was a phenomenon in some modern Catholic settings. (In hindsight I wish I had briefly mentioned that in the story.) But I didn’t know about the history of flowing oil in modern Protestantism. I got most of that from a fantastic 1979 book, “All Things Are Possible. The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America,” by an historian named David Edwin Harrell, and then used his endnotes to find some original sources online, like a PDF copy of that issue of Miracle magazine.
Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, visited a small rural church where Jerry and Johnny showed the oil in early 2019, after hearing about it on social media. “It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some odd things,” she said. “The whole thing struck me as very sincere, not like the televangelists who say, ‘Give us a million dollars and we’ll give you a vial of oil.’ ” Why was it important to include Professor Brown’s views in the story? I didn’t know when I contacted her that she had gone to see the oil! I wanted to get her perspective as a scholar with an expertise in contemporary Christian healing movements, among other things. We had a great conversation about that context. It was a nice surprise that she had also had experience with the oil. In general, I wanted to include at least a few informed, expert voices who would view the scene in Dalton a similar kind of essential skepticism as most readers, but could interpret it without cynicism.
By all accounts, Johnny and Jerry have never asked for money in exchange for the oil. Anyone who came to Dalton for the prayer service received a free vial; many asked for more than one, and I didn’t see a single person turned down. Until the volume of requests became too overwhelming, the group freely mailed the vials to anyone who requested one. They did not take an offering at the service, and there were no receptacles in the theater for accepting cash. If an attendee wanted to make a donation—and some did—they had to figure out on their own how to seek out a member of the leadership team and hand the money to them directly. When the group traveled to lead prayer services at other churches, those pastors often took up donations on Johnny and Jerry’s behalf. (I spoke with a pastor who had hosted the oil and who confirmed that the group refused formal payment but allowed the church to take up a “love offering” for them at the event.) Donations eventually became significant enough that Leslie said Johnny was paid “a very modest amount” approved by a three-person board of directors, but she declined to say how much. He quit his job at a local hospital in 2017.
Leslie started a Facebook page and a bare-bones website called His Name Is Flowing Oil, but otherwise the group participated in few of the promotional opportunities that came their way. When Sid Roth, host of the Trinity Broadcasting Network show It’s Supernatural! approached Jerry and Johnny, he said they needed to have something to sell on the show, so they declined, Jerry told me. (They appeared on the show later, when Roth found another guest with something to hawk on air.) Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who became a Christian cause célèbre when he was imprisoned in Turkey and then freed under pressure from Trump, stopped by the store for prayer last year after hearing about the oil from a friend. “They appear to be sincere followers of Jesus Christ,” Brunson told me. “There was not any hype. There did not seem to be any self-promotion, or any attempt to monetize.”
Johnny speaks at conferences around the country, like last summer’s USA Prophetic Convention in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, presided over by a Hindu-born prophet who says oil flowed down from his head and out of his toes when he prayed to become a Christian. Christian celebrities like Brunson have made time to stop at the store. One believer in the oil told me that she saw Marla Maples come into Grace 251 with her family and dip her hands in the oil. (Maples’ assistant did not respond to requests for comment.)
By Jerry and Johnny’s own account, they have brought thousands of people closer to God. The movement is bigger and wilder than any church, the group believes. “We’ve had every denomination you can think of,” Leslie told a small group of visitors in the prayer room when I visited. “Nondenominational, witches, Muslims—everyone’s been back here.” The group is not “religious,” Johnny likes to say. People who are religious “do everything a certain way at a certain time” without leaving room for the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. For a while, they displayed a large sign at the Tuesday services, reading: “Church has left the building.”
The oil also conferred a kind of political status on the group and provided entree into a circle of Trump-supporting prophets who see themselves as intervening for the president in the spiritual realm. Johnny and Leslie said they were invited by Christian right activist Andrea Lafferty to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, where Johnny said he surreptitiously spilled “a lot” of the oil in the chambers. (Lafferty did not respond to requests for comment, but a photo posted to the Facebook page of her organization, Women for a Great America, appears to show Jerry and Johnny among a group gathered to pray on the top floor of the Senate building during the hearing.)
In late 2018, Johnny received another “vision” related to Trump, which he shared with a pastor in North Carolina, who posted it online:
President Trump was standing outside in the dark and a big spotlight was shining on him like he had broken out of prison. He was being fired at and was taking all the shots and being hit by bullets being fired from the dark from the prison. Pastors and Christian leaders were standing behind him kind of pushing him out in front of them. They were praising him for standing up for them. Then the Lord spoke and said, “He is not supposed to be standing up for you. You are supposed to be standing with him. When you stand with him, persecution will come like it has come on him. When you stand with him, I will back you up. I will defend you. I will stand with you. If you don’t stand with him, they will kill him.”
No one mentioned Trump onstage at the prayer event at the Wink Theatre. Some attendees wore Trump buttons, stickers, or red MAGA hats, but that’s not out of the ordinary at a large gathering of Southern Christian conservatives. “For me, it was like the president opened the window,” said Elgonda Brunkhorst, a retired nurse at the Wink Theatre. “And Jesus went, ‘There you are, America. I’ll give you a new start.’ ” Brunkhorst felt electrified when Trump referred to Psalm 133 in his inaugural address—a chapter, she pointed out, that refers to oil running down from the head of a high priest. Was there any consideration on your own part — or discussion with editors — how prominently to include the details about political beliefs? Other reporters may have been tempted to feature them prominently; here it’s very much one piece of a larger story. I initially thought this might be an even bigger part of the story. It was certainly a big part of the initial impetus for exploring the scene in Dalton. When I actually started reporting, I came to believe that politics was not the primary motivation for either the ministry leaders or the people drawn to view the oil. That said, I don’t want to underplay it. For the leaders especially, I think it conferred a certain sense of national and even global importance to their work. I was surprised to learn about some of the doors it opened for them, even though it didn’t grant them any real power. But I could certainly see why they believed they were part of something much larger than themselves.
In 2017, someone affiliated with the oil ministry sent a sample to a lab. Testing apparently found it was a substance similar to mineral oil—but not identical to it. (Only partial results and secondhand references to that test have been posted online.) Several visitors at the prayer service proffered these results as proof the oil is not of this world. Others whipped out their phones to show me photos of strange crystals that have appeared in certain vials at portentous moments.
On my last day in Dalton, I looked up Jerry and Joyce’s address online and drove to their house. Jerry keeps the Bible at the house between showings; he told me he sometimes keeps it in his garage, and other times inside. The Pearces live in a one-story brick townhouse in a modest gated community. I drove in behind the mail truck and knocked on the door. After several minutes, Jerry’s wife, Joyce, opened the door a crack. She did not look happy to see me. When I told her I was a reporter working on a story about the oil, she said Jerry was down at Grace 251—and no, I couldn’t come in. Had you spoken with Joyce at all previous to this encounter? No, and I didn’t afterward, either.
When I drove to the store, Jerry asked me right away how I’d found his address. We had met briefly at the theater, but hadn’t talked in depth yet. His answers to my questions were short and wary. He wouldn’t say where he thought the movement was going, why he thought God had chosen Dalton, or how, exactly, he observes the plastic bin refilling with oil. “We’ve done what the Lord said,” he said. “I am just a layman. I’m just trying to steward that Bible. That’s what the Lord has asked me to do and that’s what I do.” Before I said goodbye, he said something Johnny had said to me earlier: “I would just ask you to not add to or take away”—to just let the story be what it was.
Less than a week after I left Dalton, that story changed. First, Leslie posted a notice to the ministry’s website, announcing that the Bible had stopped producing oil on Jan. 10, weeks before I arrived. Because there was no new supply of oil to hand out, the last weekly service at the Wink Theatre would take place on Feb. 11. Then, on Feb. 13—Jerry’s 77th birthday—the same Chattanooga Times Free Press writer who had covered the oil Bible in November published another report: An anonymous source told the writer that Jerry Pearce was a regular customer at a nearby Tractor Supply store. And he’d been seen purchasing large containers of clear oil.
Two managers at the store “visually identified” Jerry to the reporter and confirmed that he bought “gallons of mineral oil.” This time, a chemical analysis performed for the paper by the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga found that Jerry’s oil was indeed nearly identical in chemical structure to the brand of mineral oil sold at Tractor Supply. When Wyatt Massey, the Times Free Press reporter, questioned Jerry about the evidence after a prayer service in January, Jerry “got pretty upset pretty quickly,” Massey told me. “He scoffed, like, ‘This is crazy, this is stupid.’ ”
Jerry did not respond to multiple texts and voicemails from me over the course of the past several weeks. But I talked to Leslie one last time, a few days after the newspaper story came out. She sounded shellshocked. She and Johnny had been on the phone constantly, talking with followers and canceling their future appearances at churches and conferences. “We don’t want to do anything that would harm anybody,” he’d said. “This is like a big bomb thrown in the middle of everything.” The pastor of Rock Bridge Community Church, Matt Evans, who had loaned the Wink Theatre to the oil ministry, posted a response online to the controversy, describing the ministry’s “mistakes” as a reminder of the importance of “biblical leadership structures”—a rebuke, if a gentle one, to Jerry and Johnny’s pride in rejecting the fetters of institutional Christianity.
Jerry denied the newspaper story completely, saying the managers were lying. But Leslie said he had admitted to the group that he bought mineral oil one time. (She later reported this on the group’s website.) When the oil stopped producing a while, he had panicked, bought some oil, and stored it in the garage. But he told his friends that “the Lord didn’t let me do anything with it” and he had never used it. “We’ve been over and over and over it again [with him],” Leslie said. “Is that it? And he has said the same thing over and over again.”
Leslie said she didn’t know what to think now. If Jerry was refilling the oil, “it will cause people to be more jaded or more skeptical about anything God is doing. It’s like a black eye for God.” No one was angry at Massey, she said; he was just doing his job. And she wasn’t angry with Jerry, either. But she wanted to know the truth. If it’s not true, her friend is being falsely accused. If it were true that he was refilling the oil himself, she would be sad and afraid for him. “That’s not the Jerry I’ve known in the past at all,” she said, her voice quavering. “If it’s true, then the enemy has gotten a hook in him somehow.”
I told Leslie what I had been wondering when I visited Dalton. Wasn’t it plausible, I asked, that Jerry had found a mysterious spot in his Bible, and when he saw how excited people were, and how their faith was strengthened by the miracle, he convinced himself it was OK to add more oil himself? Maybe he even believed God was telling him to do it. Jerry and Johnny and Leslie were always emphasizing that the oil wasn’t magical, and it can’t heal on its own. It was just a sign pointing to the greatness of God. I could understand, I said, if Jerry thought he was helping God along. If the oil itself was never the point, then was it really so bad to refill it? I was moved by this exchange, which goes beyond a just-the-facts style of interviewing and is more conversational. Is that something you aim for when talking to people for stories? At this point we had spent quite a bit of time together, so it really did feel like a conversation. To me, the scenario I laid out to her was the most plausible explanation of what had happened, and I also believe it doesn’t reflect too poorly on Jerry. I was somewhat surprised that Leslie was so open to accepting the paper’s reporting, so I thought there was a chance she would agree this scenario was plausible. Including this part of our conversation in the story was also a way of me to offer my own best guess about the situation without stating it as fact.
Leslie was quiet for a long time. Did that description of Jerry’s mindset make sense to her? I wondered. She finally answered: “No.” She believed she had seen the oil expand on people’s hands. She had heard too many stories about it growing in independent vials. None of it made sense, she said. What prompted you to devote most of the final few paragraphs to Leslie and her reactions to what had happened? It was partly because Leslie was the only leader speaking with me at this point! But I also thought her obvious heartbreak and confusion was very poignant.
At Grace 251 on the day I left Dalton, I looked down and saw that my notebook had a splotch of oil on it. For a split second, my jaw hung open. Then I felt ridiculous. I’d been shaking hands with people whose fingers were doused in oil. But I’ll admit I was still, for that one instant, weirdly energized. You use first-person occasionally throughout the story, but share something more personal here. Why did you include it? This was the part of the story that my editor and I reworked the most. It was hard to figure out how to end the story, since so much of the dramatic final action—the newspaper bombshell, the ministry closing—happened out of my view. I wanted to get back to why this movement was so appealing to so many people before it fell apart. I came back to this split second where I almost believed it myself.
The store was homey and bustling with people who had found each other because they believed in the same wildly improbable phenomenon, which brought them community and hope. In a few weeks, it would all be over. In that moment I remembered something that a woman named Leah Lesesne, who drove from Atlanta to visit the oil a few years ago, had told me in December: In the end, she wasn’t sure how much she cared whether the oil Bible was real. “It has brought people closer to God, it has brought people healing, it has rekindled people’s faith and curiosity,” she said. “Even if one day it’s proven that all this was a sham.” What made you choose this quote as your ending? I interviewed Leah weeks before I traveled to Dalton, and as soon as she said this to me, I thought, “Aha, there’s my kicker.” I played with some other endings, but it turned out I was right. I loved that she expressed skepticism and belief in the same breath.