(CNN) – When Amy Arden joined Eagle Mountain International Church in 1997, her 11-month-old daughter had received all the recommended vaccinations, Arden says.
Her child didn’t get another shot until Arden left the church in 2003.
“There was a belief permeating throughout the church that there is only faith and fear,” Arden said. “If you were afraid of the illness enough to get vaccinated, it showed a lack of faith that God would protect and heal you.”
Members of Eagle Mountain International Church also believed that childhood vaccinations could lead to autism, said Arden, who is 35.
Arden said she was taught by a supervisor at the church’s nursery how to opt out of a Texas law that requires most children to be immunized. She now regrets passing the same lesson on to other parents.
“I didn’t know a single mother who was vaccinating her children,” she said.
Eagle Mountains teachings on health, including disparaging remarks about vaccinations, have been called into question since an outbreak of measles in Texas – an outbreak that state officials tie to the church.
As a Word of Faith church, Eagle Mountain is part of the booming prosperity gospel movement, which holds that God wants to reward believers with riches, health and happiness, if they will just recite certain Scriptures, pray and trust in divine providence.
The church is also part of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a vast and profitable multimedia ministry led by its namesake, a longtime prosperity preacher and television evangelist. Based in Newark, Texas, a rural community 25 miles north of Fort Worth, Eagle Mountain is co-pastored by Copeland’s daughter, Terri Copeland Pearsons, and son-in-law, George Pearsons.
In the prosperity gospel world, Copeland, 76, and his wife, Gloria, are considered royalty, said Kate Bowler, author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”
“He is a major grandfather of the movement, starting to age out but still incredibly influential,” Bowler said. “They’ve been on the air forever and stayed largely scandal-free. That’s partly why they are so trusted by lots of people.”
According to Kenneth Copeland Ministries, the Copelands’ daily program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reaches millions of viewers, their magazine more than 500,000 readers.
Recent media coverage of the Copelands hasn’t been as positive.
Twenty-one people in Tarrant County and nearby Denton County have contracted measles during this outbreak, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The victims include nine children and range from 4 to 44 years old, according to Tarrant County.
Tarrant County epidemiologist Russell Jones said the confirmed cases can be traced back to a person who attended Eagle Mountain International Church after visiting Asia, which has higher rates of measles infections than the United States.
Health officials are not releasing the name of that person or the particular country.
Jones said he doesn’t know exactly how many of the infected people are members of Eagle Mountain. At least 11 of the 21 did not have any measles vaccinations, he said. (Doctors usually recommend two shots.)
“Our concern would be that if you have a pocket of people who associate and think alike, if they don’t believe in immunization there’s going to be some other vulnerable people,” Jones said.
Eagle Mountain Pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons has said that while some people may believe she is against immunizations, that is not true.
“I believe it is wrong to be against vaccinations,” she said in a statement.
Since the measles outbreak, Eagle Mountain has held two free immunization clinics, where about 220 church members received vaccinations, according to Jones, who said the county assisted with the clinics.
Jones said that he is working to ascertain how many of the church’s 1,500 members have still not been immunized.
Eagle Mountain and Kenneth Copeland Ministries disinfected their shared 25-acre campus, including the nursery and day care center, Pearsons said at an August 14 church service titled “Taking Our Stand of Faith Over Measles.” The church also runs schools for children through the sixth grade.
Jones praised the church’s efforts thus far, but other health experts have criticized Pearsons and Copeland.
In an August 15 statement, Copeland Pearsons drew a link between vaccinations and autism, saying, “The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many immunizations at one time.”
In 2010, during a broadcast about health, Kenneth Copeland – whose followers consider him a prophet – voiced alarm about the number of shots given to his grandchild.
“All of this stuff they wanted to put into his body,” Copeland said. “Some of it is criminal!”
Copeland was particularly agitated about the Hepatitis B shot.
“In an infant? That’s crazy! That is a shot for sexually transmitted disease!” he said.
“We need to be a whole lot more serious about this and aware, and you don’t take the word of the guy who’s trying to give you the shot about what’s good and what isn’t.”
Dr. Don Colbert, a “divine health” expert who has appeared with Copeland in several broadcasts, then said that the autism rate among children had increased along with the number of childhood vaccinations.
“I have had so many patients bring their children in and they say, you know what, the week after I had that immunization, for MMR – measles, mumps and rubella – my child stopped talking, my child stopped giving me eye contact. He was not alert, he was not coherent. he quit speaking, he quit being the child I had,” Colbert said on the webcast.
Colbert and the Copeland family are wrong about immunizations, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.
“It’s painful because these pastors are trusted spiritual leaders who are speaking to people not only in their congregations but also on television,” he said. “They are putting people at risk.”
There is no link between vaccinations and autism, and hepatitis can be passed from mother to child, making the shot necessary and effective, Schaffner said.
Schaffner said that doctors call concerns about bundling immunizations the “pin cushion effect.” It’s a common but unfounded fear, he said.
Most health experts, including the American Pediatric Association and the Tarrant County Public Health Department, agree with Schaffner.
Neither Eagle Mountain International Church nor Kenneth Copeland Ministries responded to repeated requests for comment.
In a joint statement on Wednesday, the church and ministry said that they believe in, and advocate the use of, medical professionals.
“If an individual is faced with a situation that requires medical attention, that person should seek out the appropriate medical professional and follow their instructions using wisdom,” the statement said.
After the measles outbreak, Copeland said that he “inquired of the Lord as to what he would say regarding these vaccinations,” according to a statement posted on the church’s website on August 15.
The pastor said that God told him to “pray over it,” and then to “take advantage of what I have provided for you in Jesus’ name.”
When Copeland announces a change, it’s often after he has claimed to receive a new divine revelation, said former members of the church.
“Kenneth would always come up with a new prophecy to match what’s going on,” said one former church member, who wished to remain anonymous in order to maintain business ties with the church.
In this case, Copeland’s new revelation – and the church’s recent statements – represent a big shift in church policy, said the former members.
Amy Arden attended and worked at the church, including in its nursery, for six years, first as a volunteer, then as paid staff from 2000 to 2003.
Arden said she now deeply regrets teaching other parents how to access the Texas immunization exemption forms. But she and another former church employee described a closed spiritual world in which doubts are kept quiet and leaders’ words are rarely questioned.
“This was Kenneth Copeland’s ministry, and we did nothing that he did not approve of,” Arden said. “It’s hard to believe that hundreds of his children in his church were not getting vaccinated and he didn’t know about it. If he was pro-vaccination, we would have vaccinated our children.”
Arden recalled a 2002 lecture to church employees in which they were told that every part of Eagle Mountain International Church and Kenneth Copeland ministries must reflect the founder’s vision.
Arden said she was fired from Kenneth Copeland Ministries in 2003 for disagreeing with the church’s willingness to take donations from the mentally ill, including institutionalized patients.