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The Camouflage of Cults

1971_CRL at ROA
Charlene with coffee at The Way International’s Rock of Ages music and Bible teaching festival, 1972, in Ohio.

Cults have not disappeared and nobody consciously joins one. A person “joins” a group that offers something they need or want, but sometimes the group turns out to be a camouflaged cult. Even groups that offer friendship, love, promises of healing, guarantees of self-improvement, or “the accuracy of God’s Word.”

Let’s define what I’m talking about. I like to use this cult definition from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA): “An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.”

Usually a recruit gets showered with love, then the group enfolds and controls. Sometimes it gets dangerous.

Only six months ago, an American named Victor Barnard, age 52 and the leader of a church called River Road Fellowship, was being sought by the FBI. John Walsh on his CNN show, “The Hunt,” sounded the alarm. The FBI was looking for Bernard who had fled to Brazil.

On February 28, 2015, Brazilian police arrested Barnard. He faces an extradition process that could take years. What is he charged with? 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Some of the girls were minors.

Barnard’s background

What most people don’t know is that before Barnard started his own cult, he was trained in another one—The Way International founded by Victor Paul Wierwille. Wierwille’s fundamentalist cult is the one I escaped in 1987.

Although I did not know Barnard, it turns out that we both worked at The Way’s headquarters in Ohio during the late 1980s along with about 500 other Way followers. He graduated from the Way Corps leadership program during that time. I had graduated back in 1973.

Barnard took one path, I took another, and that has made all the difference. For more on this, read The rise and fall of Victor Barnard.

Update on Barnard as of June 2016: He has been brought back to the USA from Brazil, is in jail, and will stand trial.

Barnard to stand trial

Warning

So my point is this: If you think cult activity was only a phenomenon in the distant past when we wore bell-bottoms, think again. On the ICSA website, they report: “Research studies suggest that about one percent of the U.S. population (three million persons) have been involved in cultic groups at some time in their lives. We estimate that about 50,000 – 100,000 people enter and leave cultic groups each year. [EACH YEAR. YIKES!] Similar percentages appear to hold true for Western Europe.”

For more research sources, about a year ago I set up Google alerts to send my Inbox messages with links to news stories published online containing the words “fundamentalism” and “cults.” The stories are endless. I have read hundreds from all over the world, including, most recently, China. Although I’ve deleted many, today I have 247 emails from those searches.

To skeptics who say that nowadays people are less likely to be recruited into a cult because there is so much information on the Internet exposing the dark sides of cults, I say: Well, with statistics like the above, it does not appear we can always count on the Internet, does it?

Nor should we count on people being totally rational when they are recruited into cults, no matter what warnings they get. Believe me, I was warned by more than one person not to get into The Way, and I jumped in anyhow. I believed I was doing God’s will. Belief is powerful.

What features of The Way International make it a cult?

In my previous post, When Fundamentalism Hooked Me, I wrote about biblical inerrancy, a belief that makes The Way “fundamentalist.”

In this post, I intend to show what makes The Way a “cult.”

I was a loyal follower and then a leader in The Way from 1970-1987. What made it a cult was not necessarily its unorthodox Bible beliefs (like four were crucified with Jesus, not two) but its behavior, mainly that of its founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, other of its leaders, and its ever-faithful followers.

When I speak to college students about cults, I choose a few prominent features that apply to The Way. Some are described by Stephen Hassan in his book Combatting Cult Mind Control.

1)    A cult leader asserts a “guru claim” of special knowledge not found anywhere else.

For example, The Way was founded in 1942 by Victor Paul Wierwille, its “guru,” who claimed special knowledge this way:

“God told me He would teach me The Word like it had not been known since the first century if I would teach it to others.”

This so-called revelation was published in many Way materials. Wierwille offered Bible classes that he said resulted from that revelation, teaching what he called the “accuracy of the Bible.” That revelation hook held me and thousands of other adoring believers to the cult for a long time.

Although Wierwille passed away in 1985, many loyalists continue to believe and promote his teachings and consider him their “father in The Word,” as we called him. They also passed this warped tradition on to their children who are now grown, married, and have their own children.

2)    Control over behavior, emotion, and thoughts.

Wierwille’s control methods included intimidation, manipulation of people and Scripture, the power of suggestion, and indoctrination, often called mind control or brainwashing. This is real. Critical thinking skills atrophy over time, just like a muscle.

For some of us in Wierwille’s Way Corps leadership program during the 1970s, indoctrination was especially intense. Other believers whose involvement was more casual, like attending a once-a-week home-fellowship meeting in their community, may have had a very different cult experience than mine, unless their local leader copied Wierwille’s style.

Although Wierwille was charismatic and could be gentle and considerate when he wanted to be, I witnessed his dark authoritarian side: a combination of bully, liar, and psychological abuser. Some sociologists would say he was a sociopath. These traits are common among leaders in evangelical, fundamentalist, and other sorts of groups.

3)    Sexual abuse, usually of women

Some former female Way followers have testified in private and in print that Victor Paul Wierwille was a sexual predator who used them. A book written by one of Wierwille’s “girls” is a memoir called Losing The Way, by Kristen Skedgell.

4)    Fear tactics

Cults employ heavy-duty peer pressure, intimidation, and fear to keep members in tow and threaten dissenters.

Cults usually shun and discredit those who leave. While involved, I heard numerous tirades against people who left. They were called spiritual traitors, and we were not to communicate with them.

We were told that if we left The Way we would be turning our backs on God. We would lose God’s protection. The Devil would ruin us.

When I left in 1987, I’d already rejected those terrible assertions. After I left, The Way employed the term “mark and avoid.” That meant Way believers had to ignore anyone who’d left. Even family members. This caused untold damage.

Who cares about an old dead cult leader?

A former Way follower asked me that question when she learned I was writing my personal story about The Way. Good question.

I care about Wierwille because he changed my life—mostly not for the good, but some good came of it.

Among other things, like serving others, what makes life good is to learn from it, not deny it. I think it was the wise man, Socrates, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Besides, my old cult life makes interesting cocktail party conversation (that’s no joke).

I think every citizen should care. Cults usually inhibit the exercise of free speech and often influence followers to vote a certain way, ignoring the separation of church and state. Some promote violence, or at least obnoxious behavior, to make their beliefs known.

Is The Way still around?

The original Way organization’s headquarters is still located at the Wierwille family farm outside New Knoxville, Ohio, and continues to operate as a non-profit organization. It is currently run by a board of directors. The official number of their followers is unknown. Wierwille never wanted to keep a membership list.

About a dozen Way offshoot groups now function around the U.S. and other countries. Many were formed in the 1980s by former Way leaders and continue to this day. Some reveal their former association with Wierwille; others do not.

One offshoot of The Way, called S.O.W.E.R.S., is run by Wierwille’s grandson and namesake, Victor Paul Wierwille.

So, in closing, if you encounter a group that claims to teach “the accuracy of the Word of God,” I encourage you to ask lots of questions and do your homework.

My story

Recently, I finished writing a memoir of my fundamentalist cult years and title it, Undertow: Seventeen Years in a Fundamentalist Cult. When it gets published, I’ll let you know.

Resources
  1. Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Stephen Hassan
  2. Cults in Our Midst, by Margaret Thaler Singer
  3. Take Back Your Life- Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias
  4. The very helpful organization: International Cultic Studies Association

My next post is about our yummy trip to Gouda, the cheese capital of The Netherlands.

See you next time!

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34 Responses

  1. Michael Duffy
    | Reply

    What’s holding up the book?
    Do you need some paper?

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Good question. Currently I am searching for an agent. We’ll see how long I do that until I decide to publish it myself. Cheers.

  2. Lenora Brown
    | Reply

    I am interested in knowing where Charlene’s writings are posted mostly. I am planning on reading the books listed, but would like notification when her book is published. I attended the Rock of Ages festival in 1972, where the pic was taken she has at the beginning of the article, and was active in member and leadership roles until the early 80’s.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thank you for asking. Currently, my writings are posted here in different sections of the website. Check out the links at the top of the Home page. I wish you well in your journey!

      If you Subscribe to Updates to receive these posts in your Inbox, when the book is published you can be sure I will announce it in a post like this one. Thanks for your interest!

  3. Ronold Wallace
    | Reply

    Thanks for putting this information out there. I am a Ninth Corps grad. I served as a Light Bearer twice and a Wow three times not knowing then what I know now after the POP revealing. I feel and think I was doing the right thing and know my Heavenly Father will reward me for that. It is so grievous to me this stuff was happening behind the scenes when all of us was doing the right thing from the heart of we were trained to do. Thanks again for writing about this.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      I appreciate your sharing this. It’s my intention that my writing be of service to anyone who left. Cheers.

  4. Paula Reagan Naslund
    | Reply

    I was glad you brought up the connection to The Way International and Victor Bernard. It confirms the need to stomp out the embers of deception with the truth of what went on in the TWI organization. The bastard children of TWI are keeping his evil doctrines alive in their spin off cults. And if people such as yourself, Ralph Dubofsky, Karl Kahler and others do not continue to hold fire to the debris they peddle this ministry of devils will grow beyond our lifetime.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a reply, Paula.

      All the best to you in your new life!

  5. cyndee
    | Reply

    Appreciate your work in exposing this cult. I was also involved in this in the late 70s

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      I think it’s important to share our life experiences, since they may be useful to others. Glad mine means something to you.

  6. Bob
    | Reply

    Interesting post, Charlene. The psychology of cults and their leaders reminds me of the psychology of people in abusive relationships, like wives or girlfriends who are physically abused but feel they can’t leave their partners.

    • Charlene
      | Reply

      Yes, I agree with your assessment, Bob. Very similar powerful, co-dependent relationship.

  7. Naomi
    | Reply

    Charlene … I’m so very thankful for your writings and your willingness to devote such diligent effort to learning about and exposing the nature of cults. It’s been a great help to me, personally, having also been heavily involved in The Way from 1977 to 1986 (“graduating” from the 11th Corps in 1983) … and then continuing to be peripherally involved, attending various fellowships in the New York area until about 1990. Although I walked away 25 years ago … there is so much to learn and realize about just why I stayed so long. That was a continuing question I’d asked myself after leaving, and your writings are really shedding some terrific light on those issues. Thank you so much.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Dear Naomi,
      Thank you for sharing your past situation with The Way and a bit of your journey since. I am honored to be of help to you.
      Cheers,
      Charlene

  8. LewEllyn
    | Reply

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks for the researched and accurate list of cult features. I was in The Way from 1976-2006, the 30 “prime” years of my life you could say, though I’m enjoying the ones I still have. I served in various capacities — 10 years on staff at the Headquarters, home fellowship coordinator, graduate of Way Corps training, state coordinator–and still I knew little of the real abuses and methods of The Way until I left and did some objective searching. One thing you said interested me, because I found it to be absolutely untrue during my tenure as a leader in The Way (which was after Wierwille’s death and your departure from The Way): “The official number of their followers is unknown. Wierwille never wanted to keep a membership list.” The Way did indeed claim there was no membership and it was not a “church.” However, in my experience under the leadership of Craig Martindale and Rosalie Rivenbark, 1996-2006, there were incredibly detailed records kept of who attended each fellowship or meeting, when they were absent, how much money they contributed, and these were sent in to Headquarters each week. In addition Martindale required a weekly report on each person in the fellowship from the coordinator. I think these records were more invasive than any denominational church’s membership rolls. I used to laugh at that “no membership” claim even while I was still involved, realizing that The Way was more organized and knew more about the activities of its non-members than the churches it disdained. The Way did not like to be called a church or denomination, and instead taught that it was the true Household of God. But it was a church and membership lists were maintained. Maybe these were not publicly available because we were not technically “members.” But I imagine The Way has always known exactly how many people are participating. Just an aside that occurred to me as I read. Looking forward to the book!

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thanks for taking the time and putting in the effort to post this information, LewEllyn. It is very revealing…

  9. Ralph Dubofsky
    | Reply

    Hi Charlene!
    Thanks for sticking with this project. Another well-written and clearly expressed article. Groups like these must be confronted, and that’s not always easy. I know they purposely form little troll groups to pushback and naysay anything dissenters say. The offshoots of the way and other fringe, destructive “christian” groups are just as closed off from reality and xenophobic as is the way international. Your persistent effort, happy hearted charge against these harmful cults, along with your writing skills are helping many see their OWN light instead of the phony light of God these charlatans always have the only keys to.
    Godspeed to you and your efforts.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Hi Ralph,

      Hearing from you on this post is gratifying. Thank you for your encouragement and your own efforts to shed light on this most grave issue over the years. While many people reading these comments probably never heard of our former fundamentalist cult, they cannot help but be aware of similar sects in this country and around the world that seek power over people, using them for their own purposes, claiming an exclusive avenue to enlightenment.

      Raising awareness and sharing my cautionary tale is my intention at this website and in my other writing.

      Thank you for speaking up and speaking out, too.

  10. Rick Vogt
    | Reply

    Charlene….
    I am an ex Way person who has recently come upon your writings. I appreciate the work you have done to articulate the errors, deception and hurt that the Way has engendered in the lives of so many people, some with very tragic consequences. Like you, I have spent endless hours trying to unravel the bad theology ( a whole other topic) of TWI that had such a grip on my life.
    I think a point you made, and one that is often overlooked, is the most rudimentary area of deception and error – intentional or not – that has caused such doctrinal and practical error by the Way and it’s current “nostalgia” seeking offshoots:

    “I’ll teach you the Word of God like it hasn’t been known since the first century if you will teach it to others”.

    I think this was the most fundamental precept that their theology and belief system was based and built upon.
    I think this statement is the filter through which all so called Biblical research was agreed upon, baptized and book-ended.
    I think this statement led to the numerous “super-scriptural” teachings and practices of VPW and TWI. If it wasn’t in the Bible, it was “new light” based on this preposterous claim.
    It was the justification for all of the overly spiritualized biblical, cultural, political and historical positions of TWI.
    I think it engendered the gnostic like, superstitious, magical and often spirtualist scriptural interpretations the Way held.
    I think it was the cause of the fawning personality and leadership worship the Way was so focused on.
    I think it is the primary motivation and theological lens for many Way offshoots and why they continue to espouse VPW’s theology.

    We could have a long conversation about how belief in this statement infiltrated every aspect of the Way’s faith and practice. Think about it – what other religious leader who made this claim would not be denounced as delusional for thinking this and what ministry, congregation or religious organization would not be considered a cult for believing it?
    It disrespectfully and naively relegates all of the great Christian theologians, apologists, preachers and teachers throughout history into obscurity and non – relevance.

    I still wrestle with how foolish I was to believe it for so many years. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
    All the best,
    Rick Vogt

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Hi Rick,

      Thank you for sharing your story here. You raise many good points. One that stands out is this quote from Wierwille: “I’ll teach you the Word of God like it hasn’t been known since the first century if you will teach it to others”.
      You added:
      “I think this was the most fundamental precept that their theology and belief system was based and built upon. I think this statement is the filter through which all so called Biblical research was agreed upon, baptized and book-ended.”

      Because I worked on The Way’s biblical research team I can tell you that whatever Wierwille taught had to be supported. He was the final authority, after all, about The Word. This put Rev. Walter Cummins, the man Wierwille put in charge of research after he retired in 1982, in a tight spot. Sometimes Wierwille’s “Greek wasn’t so good.”
      And because Wierwille was a fundamentalist, biblical inerrancy was the cornerstone of research.
      These two features of The Way were central to my experience in the group, and in my upcoming memoir, I show how they erupted into one big mess that prompted my escape from Headquarters in 1987.

      Again, thank you for visiting here, and I hope you continue the conversation.
      Charlene

  11. Mandy
    | Reply

    I have so many mixed emotions reading this article. My family joined when I was 18 months old back in ’79. I think I even had a picture of me on VPW’s lap. The nostalgia is palpable!! It was like a family. We belonged. Life was good. But when they were taking a picture of our fellowship for the magazine they opted to remove the black family in lieu of a “lighter version” a family that was just visiting. My parents moved fellowships because they new that racism was not a Christian trait. Then the new leadership began confronting my parents about tithe and stuff. Long story short at the ripe old age of 18 I was corned by a grown man shouting at me that if I loved God I wouldn’t speak to my father again who was “mark and avoid”. Thank God I had a deep enough connection with God to quote Scripture and walk away. I do miss the good times. Our initial fellowship sheltered us from a lot of the culty stuff. Thank you so much for writing this article. I’m 38 and have been away from them for almost 20years but I am still not fully healed. Thank you for being a part of that healing tonight.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Dear Mandy,

      Thank you for sharing your story here. My heart goes out to you, brave woman. I am honored my writing has found my way to you and helps you to process the experience and bring understanding in some way. Let’s hope that love, more powerful than evil, continues to heal each of us.

      Peace,
      Charlene

  12. Daryl Lamkey
    | Reply

    Thank you for this! When I was recruited, in the fall of ’78, I was very much in the closet, and these people told me that “god” could heal me from being gay, and I took the bait hook, line & sinker.
    Many years later, along with 1-2/3 WOW years, I realized that this ministry was really nothing more than a goddamned cult. I split from the organization right around the time that all the “Passing of the Patriarch” bullshit became public. So my timing was nearly perfect.
    I’m out now. And I no longer think of myself as unholy and unworthy. The god that vpw preached, to my mind, doesn’t exist.
    That raises some questions, of course.
    Do I believe in Jesus Christ and what he stood for?
    I do.
    Was he a good man?
    YES!
    Did he die so we could be saved?
    I don’t know.
    Will there be a resurrection or, as twi calls it, a “gathering together?”
    I don’t know.
    Is there a god?
    I don’t know.
    Am I at peace with myself?
    Yes, now more than I EVER was with The Way.
    Peace to you!!!
    From Chicago…
    Daryl Lamkey

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Hi Daryl,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. You probably know that many other gays were involved with The Way, too, and suffered in confusion and silence for years, since Wierwille taught that being homosexual meant a person was “possessed by a devil spirit.” That is such a terrible lie. I’m thrilled you finally got out and found your path to a REAL life being who you are.
      Cheers,
      Charlene

      • Billy Williams
        | Reply

        That confusion and silence has been rampant with many “out in the world” for many years because of peoples’ attitudes, including mine before my “awakening”. I’ll admit the treatment of gays and some others was extremely blatant in The Way, but a more silent form of such treatment has been acceptable by so many in our country and world, and is only slowly changing.

        • Charlene L. Edge
          | Reply

          I appreciate your contribution here. My experience in The Way was like a frog slowly boiling in a pot. Rationalizing bigotry towards gays and other bad behavior became common practice, I am ashamed to say. What a relief to shed that old identity.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      As you say at the end of your comment, peace with yourself is a great gift! Thank you for sending me some from Chicago!

  13. ICK
    | Reply

    Many things on my mind.
    • He did have two sets of rules, teaching we were not to ask for signs but he being in the same time period as us asked God for a sign. (I held many of these discrepancies on my back burner).
    • I stayed so long because I had no place else. I had vowed to stay to help people when $#” hit the fan. And, didn’t want to leave people floundering. In the end the new BODirectors and all flushed old Corps out to get rid of the past and begin fresh with newer believers. There were old-timers still around but most gone.
    • For me, I’ll never be involved in a ministry again. Groups always try putting you under their thumb and that I cannot abide ever. Nor will I let them pressure me into what God’s will is for me in my life.
    • Am looking forward to your book.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. And for your support of Undertow. I do hope you enjoy reading it.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment. I think the point you made about “groups always try putting you under their thumb,” is one of the major problems we face whenever we get involved with a group. Freedom choose is precious. Hang on to it.

  14. MrsH
    | Reply

    I found all the comments very interesting and thank Charlene for the book. I wonder sometimes “what people are doing now”. I attended a church for several years, but left when it started to get to be “too much”. The odd thing is, I still believe much of what we were taught. Not the nonsense, the good part. I have fond memories . But I also have unresolved questions.
    None of it bother me much now. Just glad I didn’t get any more deeply involved. Live and learn.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      It’s a pleasure to share my story with you. Thanks, MrsH, for telling us a bit of yours here.
      Be well!

  15. Tom Lehr
    | Reply

    Charlene, i came across your post.I was wow 3 times, 9th corps grad and married a corps grAd, left I left the way in 86 and bounced from church to church, and am not totally happy with the one I attend now, but at least can think on my own.I pray that I or anyone is never put under the thumb of any church or so called leader. I think that it is human nature for us to want to belong but as someone said,” If everyones thinking alike then someones not thinking. Good luck with your writing.

    • Charlene L. Edge
      | Reply

      Thank you, Tom, for sharing part of your story here. I appreciate your good wishes.
      All the best to you,
      Charlene

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