He has led them, inspired them, lived off their generosity and sent them off to spread his brand of fundamentalist Christianity.
And though he denies any current leadership role, his name - James D. McCotter - emerged more than any other in recent discussions with members and former members of Iowa State Bible Study and similar groups at other campuses. Even so, those associated with the groups seem to know little about this 34-year-old Vietnam veteran who grew up in a small town in Texas.
For eight years, McCotter was regarded as a leader of the group in Ames, where he lived until moving a few months ago. Some say he was - and is - the inspiration behind an evangelical movement that has set up Bible study groups at some 30 Midwest and Southern campuses.
At Iowa State University in Ames, Bible Study, a bona fide student organization, claims about 400 members. A university handbook says the group's purpose is "to examine" the Bible and "to encourage intellectual honesty concerning Bible truths."
The sincerity of the youthful membership is seldom questioned, but critics allege that psychological pressure and deceit are used to keep followers in line.
"I've seen young people positively affected by these groups, but I've also seen lives crushed. There's a heavy guilt trip involved with trying to get out," said Jimmy Schooler, a long-time friend of McCotter. "You can't disagree with what Jim teaches or you've had it," said Schooler, who recently severed his ties with a group in Albuquerque, N.M.
According to Schooler, the movement's "elders" across the country frequently phone McCotter for advice and for planning. And others say the elders hold a national meeting at least once a year so McCotter can keep all the groups pointed in the same direction. "They're all locked into what Jim calls 'the vision.' Whether it's official or not, he's the one most of them look to for leadership," Schooler said.
McCotter disputes that view.
Though he has declined to be interviewed recently, McCotter said this to a reporter in December: "I definitely am a leader in the sense that I'm asked to speak a lot on different campuses." He added that "a lot of Christians get counsel from me," but he denied any "official" leadership role.
He was asked how he viewed himself and his role as an evangelist. "Somebody like Billy Graham," McCotter responded, then noted that he didn't in any way consider himself worthy to be compared to Graham. But he continued with the comparison.
McCotter said his methods were similar to Graham's when he stopped at a town to preach. "He would not only be speaking to a lot of people, he would no doubt have times where he would be speaking to a lot of the leaders in different churches, and they would look to him for counsel, spiritual leadership, in that capacity ... That analogy could be consistent in my case."
In October 1978, McCotter told The Register he was "born again" 15 years ago and has considered it his mission to spread his fundamental Christianity ever since.
He said he had worked odd jobs from time to time, but lived principally off donations from Bible Study members and others interested in seeing his work furthered. At that time he identified the donations as typically $10 or $15, and said his income amounted to about $300 a month.
A year later, contacted while on a speaking engagement in Albuquerque, following his departure from Ames, McCotter reiterated that he was living solely off donations, but pegged the amount at some $600 a month.
He is married and has five children.
He told The Register in 1978 that "money comes in the mail and it usually is anonymous." Other times followers leave money in envelopes on his doorstep, he said.
Recently, an attempt was made to reach McCotter in San Clemente, Calif., at the new headquarters of Today's Student, a newspaper that is an outgrowth of the evangelical movement. The person who answered the phone indicated that McCotter was there, but he did not come to the phone and did not return the call.
Despite his recent reluctance to be interviewed, a picture of the man emerges through conversations with his friends and associates, from tapes of his speeches at fundamentalist gatherings and from earlier interviews.
McCotter spent his boyhood in what he called "a little country town" in Texas, where his family was Methodist. The family moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where McCotter, the youngest of three children, attended high school and was graduated in 1963. There, the McCotters allied themselves with a more fundamentalist group, the Plymouth Brethren Church, according to Bill Taylor, a high school chum of McCotter in Colorado Springs, and a partner in McCotter's early evangelism.
Taylor lives in Las Cruces, N.M., and has helped defectors from various Bible groups begun by McCotter and his associates shed their guilt over leaving. He described McCotter as being "goal oriented," as having a "strong ego" and as "successful at motivating people."
Marian Michaux, an elder of the Brethren Church attended by McCotter's family in Colorado Springs, said he has known McCotter since his high school days there, and called him "a dynamic, positive person."
But Michaux said he believes McCotter tends to be authoritarian. The churchman said he talked with McCotter about that a few years ago, to "warn him of the dangers of growing big without any checks and balances. I did this as friend to friend. I had no legal or religious authority over him."
Taylor said he saw the same tendency, and eventually split with McCotter because of it.
"I voiced my concerns about this growing authoritarianism to McCotter, but he was very resistant to the idea of what I was saying," Taylor said. Taylor believes McCotter's goal is to evangelize worldwide. In a speech he gave at a Colorado retreat in 1978, McCotter advocated converting the entire population of the world to fundamental Christianity.
Taylor said when he and McCotter began evangelizing and proselytizing at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley in the mid 1960s, McCotter left Northern Colorado after two years, Taylor said. McCotter, in an earlier interview, said he also spent time at the University of Southern Colorado at Pueblo and at the University of Maryland.
He was drafted in the fall of 1966, he said, and served in the Army until 1969, spending one year as a clerk in Vietnam. Taylor was drafted after McCotter ended his tour of duty and did not rejoin him as an evangelist until 1972, Taylor said.
Meanwhile, McCotter was on the move. In his travels he was running into others of similar fundamentalist persuasions and they were drawn together as a team. In 1970 and 1971, according to some of McCotter's associates of the time, there was enough of a group to begin a "blitz movement," traveling in a school bus from campus to campus in the South and Midwest speaking and proselytizing.
In 1972, he and a few others moved to Ames and began converting students to their brand of religion. The group first went by the name Alpha Omega and lived in a house three blocks south of the Iowa State campus for two years. From that has grown ISU Bible Study, with its current 400 members. Leaders say membership in similar groups begun by McCotter or his close associates, or with their help and encouragement, numbers in the thousands.
The "outreach teams" or "blitz teams" that have established most of these other groups were trained in Ames and sent from there, Bible group members and former members said.