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Perry Stone, a millionaire televangelist in Cleveland, Tennessee, who claims to be a prophet, is using his platform to spread conflicting information about the coronavirus to his hundreds of thousands of followers.
And, in the past week, Stone claimed the outbreak of COVID-19, which as of Thursday had killed more than 8,700 people globally and infected nearly 210,000, is God's retribution for the United States allowing abortion and gay marriage.
Religious leaders making theological claims about current events is not new. Pastors have claimed the divine hand was involved in numerous events - from the wins and losses of Civil War battles to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in which some church leaders said it was God's punishment against homosexuals - said David Holland, professor of church history at Harvard Divinity School.
While Stone's claims of God's retribution for LGBTQ and abortion rights put him among the fringe of pastors, it is not uncommon for faith leaders to attempt to make sense of the news, Holland said. Faith is an encompassing worldview for many. They interpret what is happening around them through their religion and look to pastors to help them make sense of it, he said.
"The more arresting a particular event is, the more attractive it becomes as a source of sermonizing," Holland said. "And if it's an event shared by a lot of people, you have a common frame of reference shared by everybody sitting in that church. Pastors will always look for the thing that is most accessible as an access point into the emotional and spiritual eyes of their congregants. An event like [coronavirus] is tailor-made for that."
As he has with multiple other headline-grabbing events, Stone claims he predicted the coronavirus.
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Stone did not respond to requests for comment over multiple days this week, though he acknowledged in a live-streamed service Thursday night he was too busy to talk to the Times Free Press.
Through a series of Facebook posts and in his sermons, live-streamed on YouTube, in the past two months Stone has sent mixed messages about the new virus.
He claimed he predicted the coronavirus about 15 years ago. He has also claimed the virus is media hype, God's retribution on the Chinese and could be used by the government to implement widespread surveillance of citizens.
In a Jan. 29 Facebook post, Stone wrote that "when you see these types of tragedies, diseases, viruses and pestilences, the strange and unusual words in the Apocalypse become more clear." Then, on March 3, Stone wrote people who are saying the virus is the sign of the apocalypse are wrong because the anti-Christ has not yet arrived.
In one post, Stone implied China was being punished with the virus because the country persecutes Christians and worships money as its "king-god." According to available tax records, Stone's ministry generates millions of dollars. In 2013, he built a $22 million church and conference center, debt free.
He later said, and has repeated since, the virus is retribution against America for the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage.
During a March 12 sermon, he said the coronavirus is the enemy of Christians since the virus is more deadly among the elderly.
"The older people in America, in the Southeast, are the conservative people, and this is attacking them to get that group out," Stone said. " You get rid of all these people who resist the beast, who resist the anti-Christ and who resist the system, then you have a whole 'nother socialist, pro-communist, 'give me your money and I'll do what I want with it' group coming up."
Four days after that sermon, Stone posted on YouTube claiming God told him about coronavirus about 15 years ago through a vision of empty cities.
This week, in a 4 a.m. post on March 17, Stone claimed his "connections around the world" told him there is a government supercomputer named "666" after the number signifying the devil in the Book of Revelation working on a cure for the virus.
In response to COVID-19, Stone has claimed the government will place a microchip in everyone's forehead to monitor them for fever. Stone said this aligned with the story in the Book of Revelation about people taking the "mark of the beast," meaning they were pledging themselves with Satan.
Stone has repeatedly said the media is over-hyping the virus and Christians who follow the commandments of God should not be concerned. However, he has canceled in-person prayer events he was scheduled to host and posted on Facebook about the virus more than 10 times in the past two weeks. After many of his posts, he encourages people to buy his upcoming book or register for a prayer conference.
The claims of prophecies set Stone apart from other pastors interpreting current events, Holland said.
"It's one thing to say, look at this general news event that we're all paying attention to whether that's a disease or political event or a natural disaster, and using it as a kind of object lesson for theological principle. It's quite another to say, I saw this coming, therefore my personal voice, my distinctive ability to see and predict the actions of the divine puts me on a kind of plane of religious potency that is distinct from the people around me," the Harvard professor said.
(READ MORE: How Cleveland evangelist Perry Stone built a ministry empire)
The Cleveland-based televangelist has nearly half a million Facebook followers. He travels the country, and sometimes the world, leading prayer events. He has written dozens of books and recorded more than 100 DVDs and CDs. He claims to have had prophetic visions about George W. Bush being elected president, the attack on the World Trade Center and Osama Bin Laden's death.
In 2016, Stone spread the conspiracy theory that the Zika virus was being used by the U.S. government to control populations in Latin America, since the public health advice at the time was to avoid pregnancy because of possible birth defects. He has claimed that world leaders pray to Satan and, last year, he said American politicians he disagreed with were possessed by demons.
In his posts about the coronavirus, Stone has drawn conspiratorial parallels, claiming the global outbreaks of major diseases - swine flu, Ebola and SARS, for example - occur in election years. However, swine flu began in spring 2010, the Ebola outbreak lasted two years and the SARS outbreak was happening in 2002, not just 2004, as Stone said in a Feb. 29 post.
People have criticized Stone and his ministry for decades. He has been called a heretic and a false prophet, someone who is using faith to sell his products. However, the evangelist remains popular in Cleveland. Last month, he won a local service award and, until they were canceled over COVID-19 concerns, his weekly prayer services and conferences were full.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.