Bill Johnson, the Senior Leader of Bethel Church, a Redding megachurch with approximately 10,000 local attendees, used a recent Sunday morning message to compare the COVID vaccine to the “mark of the beast.”
Shasta County, where Bethel is located, has had it’s biggest surge in COVID cases over recent months. While that surge is now declining, between August 30 and September 29, 63 people died of COVID in Shasta County, more than four times the state-wide rate. Data indicates that FDA-approved COVID vaccines significantly reduce virus transmission, hospitalizations, and deaths. While those who have been vaccinated for COVID can become ill with the virus, they are far less likely to die or be hospitalized from it, than those without.
Johnson’s words about the vaccines were part of a brief series of personal political statements that were shared live and streamed to Bethel TV’s half a million users, in August. The sermon is also available on Bethel’s podcast, which has 20 million downloads a year and is available in ten languages.
Speaking extemporaneously in remarks related to his message about courage, Johnson told his local and online audience, “With the mark of the beast you can’t buy or sell or do business. And without a vaccine, they want you to not be able to buy or sell or do business.”
“Now I’m not opposing vaccines,” Johnson continued, “I’m just saying this is an interesting dress rehearsal for a bigger issue in the future. We’ve got to be careful what we buy into. Some of the things you buy into today will cost you tomorrow.”
“The mark of the beast” is a Biblical reference to an allegiance with extreme evil. In the end times, Revelation 13 reads, people will be required to wear a name, mark, or number (666), known as the mark of the beast, and signifying their association with evil in order to conduct business. Connections between “the mark of the beast” and COVID vaccines are sometimes found alongside a belief in Q-anon conspiracy theories. Danny Silk, another of Bethel’s Senior Leaders, has promoted Q-anon conspiracy theories on his social media pages.
While major religious traditions and groups, including Christianity, are largely united in their support of COVID vaccines, leaders of Bethel Church have been criticized for failing to follow COVID precautions.
Last year, Johnson’s wife, Beni Johnson, shared a video where she referred to masks as “worthless” and “security blankets.” After that incident went viral, Bethel’s Assistant Senior Leader Kris Vallotton distanced the church from Beni’s statements, saying “masks are the law, and also we personally believe it’s more than the law it’s about love.” But shortly thereafter Vallotton held a family wedding with more than 100 participants, drawing a rebuke from Shasta County Supervisors.
In the last week, Bill and Beni Johnson and other Bethel leaders have also used their personal social media accounts to promote local school walkouts in response to COVID vaccine mandates for teachers and students. A letter by a local teacher, who refuses both COVID testing and the COVID vaccine, was shared by Bill Johnson on his personal Instagram with the caption: “We must oppose government overreach, regardless of your stance on the vax.” Johnson’s post has over 12,000 likes.
Bethel’s stance on COVID has concerned local leaders, in part because Bethel is one of the largest employers in Shasta County. The church is also closely connected with Sean Feucht, a political activist and worship leader who has held “Let Us Worship” events across the United States in defiance of COVID restrictions.
Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry
Bethel Church also runs a number of schools, including Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), a program that enrolls thousands of students in multiple years of schooling. Last October, BSSM was the center of a Redding COVID outbreak involving more than 300 students.
This year, Bethel Communications confirmed that a July 15 BSSM COVID policy update is still current. That policy does not specifically address masks or vaccines but says that students moving from outside the area to attend Bethel schools will not be asked to quarantine or test prior to beginning BSSM. Students started their school year in late August and early September.
In California there is no universal mask mandate for higher educational institutions, but unvaccinated individuals in indoor settings such as churches and schools are required to mask if not vaccinated, in compliance with general indoor mask guidelines.
Bethel Communications did not answer additional questions, saying that they are undergoing a change in media staffing. But videos of this year’s first day events for BSSM’s first- and second-year students show crowded facilities and a universal lack of masks. Typical enrollment at BSSM is in the thousands. Julie Dyar, General Manager for Advance Redding, which runs the Redding Civic Auditorium did not immediately respond to questions about what role the Civic plays in ensuring compliance with indoor mask mandates for the unvaccinated.
Bethel Christian School
Bethel Christian School (BCS), which provides K-8 Education and is held on the main campus, does not require masks on site. A written policy by BCS says they emphasize personal responsibility in response to COVID. The school says while they may not be able to accommodate students who are at high risk from COVID, they will accommodate those who do not wish to wear masks. “We want to provide the least restrictive environment possible for students and families,” the plan reads, “Masks are welcome on our campus; the decision is up to individual parents.”
Both Don Mayer, the principal of BCS, and Bethel Communications, declined to comment on whether the school requires vaccines or testing for teachers. Shasta Scout reached out to the Association of Christian Schools (ACSI) International, to find out if BCS’s failure to follow state mask mandates might affect their accreditation. ACSI has not yet responded. BCS’s general policies include a directive that parents should “not share problems you have concerning the school or its members with anyone who is not directly involved or part of the solution (i.e. other parents or students.)”
On October 3, Johnson again addressed the COVID vaccines during a Sunday morning sermon titled “When in War, Create.” During that message, Johnson told his audience, “If you’re going to get a vaccine, do it with faith. If you’re not going to get a vaccine, do it with faith, because the scripture says anything you do apart from faith, is sin.” He also told congregants that the government should not be involved in mandating vaccines.
But many vaccines have for decades been a government requirement for those in the U.S. military, healthcare workers, and teachers and students. The COVID vaccines became government mandated in California only after they received full Food and Drug Administration approval. While the unusually rapid authorization of COVID vaccines has concerned many, that speed was largely due to an American government program created by former President Donald Trump to subsidize the vaccine and use the military to deploy it.
It’s unclear what ramifications Bethel Church might face for failing to follow state mask mandates in its schools. Kerri Schuette, with Shasta County Health and Human Services did not offer a comment on what consequences the church or schools could face, but told Shasta Scout “mask requirements are designed to reduce the spread of this highly communicable disease.”
Disclosure: Annelise Pierce is a former member of Bethel Church.