In the early 1950s, the Lester Sumrall (1913-1996), an American evangelist, sensed God prompting him to go to the Philippines on an evangelistic mission. He was impressed by the Holy Spirit that God would move in a powerful way while he was there.
During the early days of his ministry attendance was low. At times, the only ones that showed up were Sumrall’s family members and servant girls. After he decided to build a church, Sumrall experienced some growth largely through transfers from other churches, hardly the powerful evangelistic thrust that he anticipated.
But that would change almost over night. While he was there the local media broadcast a story of the perplexing phenomena surrounding a new inmate in the Bilibid prison in Manila.
In his book, Bitten by the Devil, Sumrall told the strange story of Clarita Villaneuva.
The front page headline of the May 13, 1953 edition of the Manila Chronicle read, “Police Medics Probe Case of Girl Bitten by Devils.” The convict’s name was Clarita Villaneuva.
According to reports, some mysterious creature was repeatedly biting her. She had bite marks on her arms, legs, and neck and when doctors tried to check her, she violently attacked them. At other times she acted like a dog – biting and scratching.
When the story first broke, many felt it was being blown out of proportion and that the girl was either biting herself or was being bitten by others in the prison.
Chief among the discounters was Dr. Mariano Lara, the Chief Medical Examiner for the police department and Head of the Department of Pathology and Legal Medicine at the University of Santos Tomas in Manila.
He largely discredited the reports because his scientific dogma said it was impossible for invisible creatures to be doing this.
On May 12, 1953 when Dr. Lara came in contact with the inmate, he concluded that the bite marks were self-inflicted. But this flew in the face of a number of witnesses including reporters, who observed the bite marks appearing on Clarita as they watched in stunned amazement.
But Dr. Lara’s opinion took a dramatic 180 degree turn when he had Clarita in his own office for examination. The woman suddenly screamed that she was being bitten and with him and his assistant watching in astonishment bite marks appeared on her arm.
As the controversy gained momentum, the radio stations played taped sessions of Clarita being bitten. Sumrall said you could hear Clarita screaming and then others shouting in the background that she was being attacked. The story became headlines news in Manilla, and nobody, it seemed, could get enough of this story.
While listening to the unfolding drama, the Holy Spirit spoke to Sumrall telling him that if he went to Bilibid prison the Lord would cast the devil out of the woman. At first Sumrall said no. But after wrestling with God one night on the issue, he finally agreed to go.
He prayed the rest of the night and the next day he approached the mayor about seeing the woman. The mayor said she was a witch and for safety reasons, people were not allowed to see her.
But Sumrall persisted and the mayor finally relented stating the evangelist could see Clarita provided he received permission from Dr. Lara. When Sumrall met the Chief Examiner, the doctor told him that he had never believed in the spiritual realm but said, “Reverend, I am humble enough to admit that I am a frightened man.”
Sumrall knew that Dr. Lara would need convincing that an American evangelist could deal with a situation that doctors had failed to resolve. Sumrall told Lara that there were three powers on the earth, God’s power, human power and demonic power.
He asked Lara if what was happening to Clarita could be rationally attributed to Godly or human power. The doctor said no. Then Sumrall said we must conclude it is demonic and added that only God could deliver the girl.
At his point, Dr. Lara’s willingness to let Sumrall try was probably due more to the abysmal failure of his other options than the belief that deliverance would work. When Sumrall was taken to the Bilibid prison the next day, he had been fasting for two days.
Sumrall said he was shocked when he was led into a small chapel in the prison where about 100 people had gathered including police, reporters, doctors and even inmates.
As soon as Sumrall arrived, the woman told him, “I don’t like you,” and cursed both Sumrall and Christ. This was the opening slavo in what Sumrall described as the greatest battle he had ever been in.
Though noticeable progress was made in the first session, Sumrall knew the deliverance was not complete and felt he needed another day of fasting and prayer to drive the evil spirit out. The media interpreted this differently. The front page headlines in a Manila daily trumpeted the news, “The Thing Defies Pastor.”
When Sumrall arrived the next day, he said the extra day of prayer and fasting made a difference and he was quickly able to deliver the woman after Clarita renounced the demonic herself.
The woman, now in her right mind, was finally able to come before a judge to answer to her crime of vagrancy. She told the judge that she was fine since Sumrall had prayed for her and at that point authorities released her into a halfway house.
Unfortunately, Clarita’s growing notoriety eventually forced her to leave Manila to get away from all the attention that was focused on her.
This deliverance was significant because it marked a dramatic change in the Philippine’s response to the gospel. Sumrall said, “150,000 people experienced salvation because of this great miracle….From that day the Philipines has had revival.”
Sumrall added, “This was the miracle that opened the hearts of the people of Manila to the full gospel and prepared the way for the great revivals which followed.”
The evangelist credited the media exposure given him because of the deliverance for the dramatic response to his gospel message. Certainly this played a role.
However, the change was so widespread that others wondered if Sumrall had bound a strongman?