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.
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
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.
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.
- Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Stephen Hassan
- Cults in Our Midst, by Margaret Thaler Singer
- Take Back Your Life- Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias
- 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!