In the summer of 2016, God gave Johnny Taylor a prophecy. 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.
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.
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. 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.
But Dalton does not fit all the stereotypes of a typical small Southern town. 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.”
It was Jerry’s Bible that produced the oil, but Johnny, 63, serves as the group’s unofficial pastor and preacher. It was Johnny who received the prophecy about Trump, and Johnny who preaches when the group brings the oil to churches and conferences around the country. (The group does not charge to make appearances, but churches they visit often help cover travel expenses.) Onstage at the Wink, he recalled visiting the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina, where he sat quietly as erudite ministers around him debated the precise meaning of “unity.” “I raised my hand and said, ‘Can I say something?’ ” Johnny said. “ ‘I don’t have a definition of unity, but I see it every Tuesday morning in Dalton, Georgia.’ ” The audience at the Wink cheered. A band onstage started to play praise songs. A woman on the stage began to paint on a large blank canvas. A man in the audience blew a large coiled shofar. Another large shofar, about 10 rows back, echoed him.
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.
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.) 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.’ ”
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.
For some conservative Christians, especially those from charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, Trump’s victory seemed like part of a broader auspicious atmosphere they sensed all around them: Good things were happening, and revival was coming. “It’s easy for me to envision the intense feelings that come with the election of the president you favor, especially coming out of eight years of ‘darkness and despair,’ ” said Scott Draper, a sociologist at the College of Idaho who has studied group religious rituals. “It’s not difficult for people opposed to Trump to imagine what it would feel like for a Democrat to be elected this fall. It can give you a feeling that all kinds of new things are possible.”
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.
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?
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.
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. 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.”