Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud

Pentecostal evangelist Peter Popoff built a financially successful empire from donations given by the desperate, sick, and elderly. He based his empire on his claim that God spoke to him. In 1986, professional skeptics James Randi and Steven Shaw investigated Popoff and discovered that the voice he heard came not from God but from a radio transmitter operated by his wife, Elizabeth Popoff. Randi exposed Popoff’s fraud on The Tonight Show. Within a year, Popoff was bankrupt, but he did return to televangelism.

Summary of Event

Pentecostal evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff built a financially successful empire from donations given by the desperate, sick, and elderly after he conducted a strategically targeted direct-mail campaign offering the faithful items that included anointed healing oil. It was his televised healing ministries, however, in which he claimed to hear the voice of God “call out the sick” that brought him success and fortune. [kw]Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud, Faith Healer Peter (Apr. 22, 1986)
[kw]Fraud, Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a (Apr. 22, 1986)
Popoff, Peter
Faith healing
Randi, James
Evangelists;Peter Popoff[Popoff]
Popoff, Peter
Faith healing
Randi, James
Evangelists;Peter Popoff[Popoff]
[g]United States;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Religion;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Communications and media;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Radio and television;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Public morals;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
[c]Business;Apr. 22, 1986: Faith Healer Peter Popoff Is Exposed as a Fraud[02220]
Popoff, Elizabeth
Shaw, Steven

In 1986, professional magician and skeptic James Randi and magician and mentalist Steven Shaw, better known as Banachek, began investigating the Reverend Popoff. It did not take long for Randi and his team to discover that the voice Popoff heard came not from God but from a radio transmitter. Randi first turned to the authorities with his evidence of fraud, but when they showed little interest in pursuing Popoff, he took his evidence to national television. He exposed Popoff on one of the most popular network television shows of the day, The Tonight Show, Tonight Show, The (television) hosted by Johnny Carson, on April 22, 1986. Within a year, Popoff was bankrupt. However, he returned to televangelism and sending miracle healing oil through the mail.

Popoff was born in 1946, reportedly behind the Iron Curtain in Berlin, East Germany. He stated that the Soviet Union;atheism in Soviet Union’s official antireligious stance forced him and his family to flee to the United States. In his new homeland, he began preaching from the age of nine. A Pentecostal evangelist, Popoff claims to have been granted the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit, which, as explained in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, include knowledge and healing. This claim of being spiritually gifted lifted Popoff from the rank-and-file televangelists and made him a budding superstar.

Prior to 1985, Popoff’s ministries in Upland, California, made its money from the evangelist’s slick direct-mail ministry campaign and crusades. Radio and television ministries added to the coffers initially by adding names to Popoff’s mailing lists. Popoff would send the faithful computer-generated letters that, at first glance, appeared to be personalized. The mailings would include novelties ranging from miracle-healing water to handkerchief swatches “soaked in Popoff’s sweat.” The letters also included a pathos-laden appeal for money to help Popoff’s ministries overcome some purported crisis.

In September of 1985, Popoff’s office ordered radio-broadcasting equipment from Audio Specialties in Los Angeles. Soon after this purchase, Popoff’s use of the “gifts of the spirit” became much more pronounced during his crusades.

Popoff began displaying an incredible ability to use the gift of knowledge, meaning that God was speaking directly to him during his sermons, telling him who to heal. He would stand before assemblies and call out names, street addresses, names of physicians, and describe a selected person’s illness. Then, in a flashy display, he would “heal” a chosen person before a camera through the “laying on of hands.” The newly healed person would rise from his or her wheelchair, or let go of his or her aides, and walk from the stage, all the while shouting “hallelujah!” with Popoff and the other congregants in the assembly hall. These crusades made wonderful theater that played even better on television. Popoff’s ministry was soon raking in millions of dollars. The spectacle caught the eye of Randi and Banachek, both of whom were specialists in investigating and exposing pseudoscientific and other frauds.

As a young man, Randi (born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge) was isolated, in many ways, by his startling intelligence. He read books on magic and fell in love with the craft after spending more than one year in a body cast from a bicycle accident. The constant practice required to master the art of sleight-of-hand and misdirection offered solace for the isolation that Randi felt in his youth. He recognized early that magicians are “honest charlatans” because audiences expect to be deceived. When Randi saw others utilizing the tricks and apparatus of magic to pose as spiritualists, psychics, mediums, healers, and the like, he felt that an important role that he was to play was to use his skills and knowledge to debunk these frauds.

Randi’s stage career as a so-called escapologist began in 1946. His popularity grew as host of his own radio show, The Amazing Randi Show, during the 1960’s, and a television show, Wonderama, during the 1970’s. He also made frequent appearances on one of the most popular network television shows of the era, Tonight Show, The (television)
The Tonight Show. He appeared often enough to become Carson’s friend and a household name across much of the United States. However, it was Israeli spoon-bender, Uri Geller, Geller, Uri who made Randi world famous in 1972. Carson invited Geller to appear on The Tonight Show to display his ability to bend spoons using the power of his mind. However, Carson had Randi secretly set up tests for the show to make certain that Geller could not bend the spoons using sleight-of-hand. Geller was unable to bend anything during the show. Carson later explained why, leading to Randi’s new fame.

In 1986, Randi was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s genius award for educating the public about magic fraud and other forms of pseudoscience. He used this money to pursue the wave of televangelist faith healers who were incredibly popular during the late 1980’s. The leader of this Pentecostal group was Popoff. Randi, Banachek, and their team began investigating Popoff by attending his revival meetings in Houston, Texas, and other U.S. cities.

The team soon uncovered the method to Popoff’s fraud. His wife, Elizabeth Popoff, and other members of his team would meet with those who arrived at the revival early and would ask the audience members questions and give them prayer cards to fill out. The cards were then collected. How was the information getting to Popoff on stage?

From those cards, Elizabeth was able to transfer facts about certain audience members through radio transmission to an earphone used by her husband. One of Randi’s confederates, Alec Jason, an expert in electronics, brought a sophisticated radio scanner, hooked up to a tape recorder, to the parking lot of the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, where Popoff was preparing for his next crusade. Just before showtime, Jason recorded the voice of God on 39.17 megahertz. Unfortunately for Popoff, God’s voice was a feminine one; in fact, it was Elizabeth’s voice. She was backstage feeding information from those same prayer cards to a tiny receiver in the evangelist’s ear.

Randi’s team was inside the auditorium Video evidence videotaping the event as well. When the video- and audiotapes were paired, the evidence was damning. To effect their magic, the Popoffs collaborated as God and faith healer: Through radio transmission, Elizabeth told her husband certain facts (obtained from the prayer cards) about his audience. Claiming he was receiving messages from God, he then healed those whom God instructed him to heal. Randi and Banachek first tried to get legal authorities interested in pursuing Popoff based on this evidence, which was obtained over a period of six months in several cities around the United States. When the law showed no interest, Randi turned to his friend, Carson.

Popoff was exposed on Tonight Show, The (television)
The Tonight Show. Although it took some time for the news of the truth to reach the world of the faithful, donations to Popoff’s ministries eventually fell to such a low level that he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1987. Despite this fall from grace, by 2005, Popoff was once again leading a multimillion-dollar ministry, based in Upland, in no small part because of the ease of direct mail and the power and reach of infomercials.


Randi’s and Banachek’s public expose of Popoff’s deception helped to dismantle what was an enormous upswing in Pentecostal televangelist faith healers during the late 1980’s. The two investigators exposed other similar fraudulent healers as well and forced many of the faithful to take, for the first time, a skeptical look at practices they had always accepted on faith. The unveiling of the scam also led to a revival in skepticism. Randi’s million-dollar “psychic challenge” brought all manner of fraud into the harsh light of skepticism and scientific analysis. Popoff, Peter
Faith healing
Randi, James
Evangelists;Peter Popoff[Popoff]

Further Reading

  • Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. In this well-researched work on social psychology, sociobiology, and the evolution of human behavior, Blackmore explores, among other issues, how Peter Popoff’s ministries used fake miracles to convert nonbelievers.
  • Huston, Peter. More Scams from the Great Beyond! How to Make Even More Money Off Creationism, Evolution, Environmentalism, Fringe Politics, Weird Science, the Occult, and Other Strange Beliefs. Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press, 2002. An astonishing collection of scams based on strange religious and other fringe beliefs. Huston includes analysis of Randi’s investigation and exposure of Popoff’s fraudulent actions.
  • Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Rev. ed. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989. Randi traces the history of faith healing, misplaced faith, and unquestioned trust. An indictment of televangelist fraud. The book, originally published in 1987, includes a chapter on his investigation and exposure of Popoff and his fraudulent “healings.” Also includes a foreword by astronomer Carl Sagan.

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