Nostalgia | Brother Isaiah

Brother Isaiah, pictured in his white robe among a crowd of spectators in 1920, lived with his mother and sister aboard a small, ramshackle houseboat on the batture at Calhoun Street while he worked as a ships’ watchman. He became known among the nearby residents and squatters for his immense faith as well as his ministrations to them when they were sickly. They started spreading tales of his ability to heal through prayer; when the newspaper wrote about it, New Orleans went absolutely wild for him.

When John Cudney, aka “Brother Isaiah,” first arrived in New Orleans from Pennsylvania in 1916, nobody knew who he was. By the summer of 1920, his fame as a faith healer had spread nationwide. 

He set up his “Camp of the Saints” on the levee in February 1920 and started drawing large crowds with his sermons. People filled streetcars beyond capacity and jammed the surrounding streets with cars and wagons, all eager to see or be cured by this white-clad healer. Police were brought in to maintain order, booths were set up to sell refreshments and the Red Cross provided beds and tents for the most ill of the miracle seekers.

Those who came for healing would spend days trying to get to the front for hands-on prayer. Bonfires were lit at night for those who refused to leave their place in line. One reporter referred to the atmosphere as “Carnival and the Day of Judgment combined” and estimated 10,000 people in attendance.

Brother Isaiah accepted no payments for his prayers and insisted everyone could be healed if they just had enough faith, regardless of their ailments: blindness, muteness, paralysis, cancer. Many people claimed they had been healed. Steps were taken, sight improved, words were uttered … and these stories were passed back through the crowd, embellished and exaggerated until tales of truly miraculous healings spread like fire. 

What wasn’t passed along were the stories later told by the hundreds who had been “healed,” many acknowledging the power of suggestion and how the outright hysteria of the moment greatly amplified their perceived results. Months after Brother Isaiah’s levee healings, only a handful claimed any actual improvements in their conditions. 

He left for California in July to set up another healing camp, but accidentally killed a woman during “treatment.” He returned first to New Orleans, then Biloxi, then back to California where he died in 1934. His disciples, whom he told he would never die, initially refused to bury him, convinced he would rise from the dead. Readers, he did not.  

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