The Sussex Devils

By Marc Heal

The Satanic Panic Of The 1980s – A Memoir And A Mystery Story

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Return Of The Supernatural (1960 - 1974)

I would like to say this: The Sussex Devils is not a tract pushing any particular belief. If you’re an atheist I hope you'll you’ll dig it because it demonstrates the crazy things religious people do. If you have faith I hope you’ll love it even more because you will be able to see God’s purpose being worked out. But really the book is about people, not gods. 

Having said that, I think it's time we talked about the Devil. Take my hand.

The concept of a living embodiment of evil may seem outlandish in the twenty-first century. But it wasn’t funny if you were caught up in the satanic moral panic of the early 1980’s. And to understand the events in The Sussex Devils, we need first to peek inside the Christian churches to see the turbulent changes that were occurring there from the 1960's onwards. Daemon est deus inversus, as the saying goes. A demon is but a god, reflected. And it was no coincidence that Satan got feistier at the same time that the Christian God began once again to kick some serious spiritual ass.

This was not the way Christianity had seemed to be going. By the time the Beatles hit the charts, Anglican congregations had been shrinking for many years. The traditional Church was by now befuddled and ossified: indeed there was some debate amongst the clergy about whether God even existed. In 1963, the Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, published Honest To God, a cerebral tract that questioned not only the literal truth of the Bible but the whole concept of a “living” God. It looked as if the idea of an almighty supernatural being was gradually melting away in western culture.

But events took an unexpected turn. During the early morning service on April 3rd 1960, Dennis Bennett, the rector of St Mark's Church in Van Nuys, just outside Los Angeles, stood up in the pulpit and told his flock that something extraordinary had happened to him. He claimed that he had had a live encounter with God. Bennett spoke in “tongues”; a strange language that he claimed was the voice of the Holy Spirit. There was more. Miracles were real, said Bennett. Healing and prophecy were not just stories from the Bible – they could be performed here, today. Several of his congregation thought that the reverend had gone barmy. Even in Christian circles, it wasn’t often at this time that you heard a guy claiming that he had just met God in person, and that the Almighty was working supernatural magic through him.

The sermon in Van Nuys is usually identified as the starting point of the modern “Charismatic” Christian movement. (1) Radiating out from California, a spiritual revolution began. The idea began to spread through churches of a living, personal God, who fills his followers with his Holy Spirit and who works miracles on earth in the modern era. By the early 1970’s, the movement had gained a foothold in the UK, where it was commonly referred to as the House Church Movement - a reference to their rejection of formal, denominational Christianity.

The Charismatics were passionate, joyful and convincing. Whereas traditional church services were tedious and opaque, evangelical religion spoke in a plain language, offering excitement and certainty. At a time when tiny voices seemed forgotten, crushed between the maws of scientific socialism and amoral capitalism, the Charismatics answered the dreams and troubles of everyday folk, and their prayer groups were filled with just such people. For the first time in a long time, numbers attending worship began to rise. (2)

But an acceptance of the supernatural cuts both ways. If God can truly work magic on earth – healing, prophecy and other miracles – well, then perhaps so can his adversary. And along with the personification of purity and holiness, Jesus Christ, came the belief in a real Devil who wielded inversus powers of evil, corruption and degradation: a living Satan, Beelzebub, the seven headed dragon, the serpent, The Lord of The Flies...


(1) From the Greek: Charismata, meaning gifts, in this case spiritual ones.

(2) At least, they did in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, what one might call the "renewalists". And still they prosper. Globally such adherents numbered 62.7 million in 1970 and are expected to grow to 709.8 million by 2020. (Center for the Study of Global Christianity, June 2013).


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