Mar. 14—HIGH POINT — If seeing is believing, what shall we make of the story of young Ronnie Coyne, a teenager who had all of High Point whispering — or, in some cases, flat-out shouting — when he came to town some 60 years ago?
Part evangelist, part sideshow freak, Coyne traveled the country with a rather, um, eye-catching presentation called "The Plastic Eye Miracle," in which he told — and showed — audiences how God had healed him from a tragic childhood accident that claimed his right eye. Despite having only a plastic eye where his real eye had been, Coyne claimed God's miraculous healing touch allowed him to see just fine through his eye socket ... either with or without the artificial eye inserted.
The year was 1961, and High Point's Church of Jesus on Mendenhall Road advertised Coyne and his "Plastic Eye Miracle" would be at the church for a weeklong "Miracle Revival" in June. The revival apparently packed the church most every night with spectators — some of them believers, some skeptics, and others merely curious.
One night, the crowd included High Point Enterprise reporter Frank Warren, who wrote about what he witnessed at the small Pentecostal church. His story appeared in the next day's edition, under the headline, "Sight Without Eye! Is It A Miracle?"
Coyne, an Oklahoma native, told the crowd he lost his eye when he was only 7.
"I was swinging a piece of bailing wire, and the end of it stuck in my eye," the charismatic teenager explained. "It had to be removed."
About 10 months later, Coyne continued, he went to a faith healer's revival to see if she could heal his ailing tonsils. When she discovered he was blind in one eye, she prayed for that, too, not realizing the youth had a plastic eye.
"When she got through, I could see, and I've been able to see ever since," Coyne told the High Point congregation.
According to Coyne, the only time he couldn't see out of his empty eye socket or his plastic eye was when he was in the presence of someone who absolutely refused to believe, because their disbelief grieved the Holy Spirit.
In High Point, though, Coyne's audience apparently consisted of believers. When he asked the crowd if they believed God had healed him, they eagerly shouted, "Yes, Lord!"
Satisfied with their enthusiasm, Coyne popped out his plastic eye and folded it into a handkerchief, causing the crowd to gasp. Then, much to the horror of a few folks, he actually allowed individuals to take a closer look at his eye socket.
"Moving from person to person among the awed congregation, he stuck his empty eye socket, red and moist, into the faces of many," Warren reported.
Some gasped again, and one woman appeared so taken aback that she moaned, "Lord, Jesus!"
Then came the demonstration. After allowing two men to tape a handkerchief over his good eye, Coyne began to read — driver's licenses, Social Security cards, poems written in pencil and other items — all provided by the people in the pews, to ensure his feat was not rigged.
But was it rigged? Was some sort of trickery involved? The audience didn't seem to think so.
"If you can see out from under that handkerchief, you've sure got me fooled," one man told the young evangelist.
Warren, the ostensibly objective Enterprise reporter, didn't know what to make of what he'd seen during the revival. At the end of his article was this addendum: "Editor's Note: Miracle or trick? Our reporter has no answer for that one."
Coyne returned to Guilford County at least twice, sharing his story during a 1962 revival at the High Point Recreation Center, and at a 1990 crusade in Greensboro.
During the 1990 visit, a local magician — the late Conrad Kinton — told an area newspaper Coyne's feat was nothing more than "a very old magic trick" achieved by peeking out from beneath the handkerchief. Coyne denied the accusation and claimed it was the work of God — a claim that rubbed Kinton the wrong way.
"If he were doing this strictly as entertainment, I'd have no problem with it," the magician explained. "But deception in the name of religion is reprehensible."
Coyne likely heard that sort of criticism throughout his life, as he continued sharing the story of his "Plastic Eye Miracle" around the world. He even appeared on "That's Incredible" and shared his story with TV celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue.
Coyne died in 1994 at the age of 50. His gravestone reads, "Servant of God, Who Touched Thousands of Souls Throughout His Lifetime."
That includes the souls he no doubt touched one summer night in 1961 here in High Point. For them, at least, seeing was most definitely believing.
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