In-your-face gospel riles town

Christian couple's confrontational style gets hostile response in Mormon Nauvoo

The Chicago Tribune/April 15, 2007
By E.A. Torriero

Nauvoo, Illinois -- Towering over a Mississippi River bluff, the recently built Mormon temple symbolizes the central role this town played in Mormon history.

And the arrival of two Christian evangelists from the Chicago area, proclaiming an anti-Mormonism message to the world, recalls the troubled history of those early Mormons with neighbors of other faiths.

Operating from a white stucco storefront called the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center, ex-Mormon Rocky Hulse and his wife Helen are bent on portraying Mormonism as a false religion with fabricated histories.

And though the Christian Visitors Center predates their arrival, the Hulses have taken its confrontational message to a new level, with an active public presence and a weekly television show broadcast internationally on a Christian network.

It's no wonder, locals say, the Hulses are facing blowback.

The couple reported they had received two veiled written threats late last year. Then, two days before Christmas, the couple received an e-mail that was traced to an address in Utah.

"id love to watch you all die," it read, "then witness the looks on your faces when you realize how stupid and counterproductive your fight really was."

Shaken, the Hulses installed deadbolts on their doors and floodlights around their storefront. They began checking their car's gas cap for any sign of tampering. And they called police, triggering an investigation from Nauvoo to Utah.

"This town is to the Mormons what Mecca is for the Muslims," Helen Hulse said. "Of course they don't want us here."

Mormon leaders scoff at any suggestion of conspiracy. Still, they have a dim view of the Hulses' work.

"It ought to be called a non-Christian center or anti-Mormon center," said Bishop David Wright, a top Mormon Church leader in Nauvoo. "I don't see anything Christian about it."

Sacred space

Nauvoo is a hallowed place for Mormons, who settled the town in 1839. Their prophet, Joseph Smith, received his last revelations here, where the first great temple was built and temple rituals were instituted. Smith was killed by locals nearby in 1844, and within two years, the main body of believers had begun heading west in search of a home beyond the reach of their persecutors.

The largest descendant church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has spent millions in recent years on the temple and shrines to Smith. It created a budding Mormon renaissance in this town of 1,100 residents, 270 miles southwest of Chicago, that rankles some locals.

The tensions in Nauvoo, which Smith named after an Old Testament verse describing beautiful mountains, reflect a broader uneasiness with the Mormon faith among some people. A Gallup poll in March suggested "something about the Mormon religion apparently disturbs a significant portion of the American population," pollsters said.

The poll showed 46 percent of Americans "have an unfavorable opinion of the Mormon religion." And a third of the respondents said they would not vote for a qualified presidential candidate of the Mormon faith, a question trigged by the Republican candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

In the last decade, the church began buying up property in Nauvoo and its $30 million temple opened in 2002.

Today, the town's Chamber of Commerce and Nauvoo's aldermanic government have a Mormon majority. Some locals say Mormons tend to hire from among their own, leaving others feeling left out.

"It's like Microsoft or Disney coming in and taking over the place," said Marilyn Candido, who recently lost a Web-consulting contract with the local chamber, which replaced her with a Mormon operator. Chamber officials say the move had to do with performance, not religion.

But many residents said the different factions in town have maintained a detente, one threatened by the Hulses' stance.

Evangelism fight

This month the Hulses decried an annual non-denominational Passion play held at a Mormon-owned auditorium. The Mormon site is inappropriate because Mormons do not subscribe to Christian beliefs of Jesus Christ dying on the cross of Calvary for their sins, Rocky Hulse said, calling it a heresy for other denominations to join the event.

Nonetheless, several local Christian churches encouraged their congregations to participate, not only to promote harmony in town but also to spread the Gospel message of Christ.

"We live with the Mormon people and work alongside them," said Pastor Gayle Pope of the Christ Lutheran Church who participated in the play. "We have differences with the Mormon belief but choose to do our evangelism by living out our faith."

Coming from a Mormon family of six generations, Rocky Hulse met his wife, Helen, while serving in the Navy in California. At first he tried to convert her to Mormonism, and she looked into it, though she held off joining the church.

The couple married in 1980 against his family's wishes. Later, Helen Hulse became an evangelical Christian, enraging her husband.

But on New Year's Day 1986, after hearing a cowboy preacher at a rodeo, Rocky Hulse says he became a Christian. The Lord put a burden on his heart, he says, to teach Christians about the ills of Mormonism and convert Mormons.

The couple moved to Indiana in 1999 and began a ministry targeting Mormons in the Midwest. Stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago's North Shore, the couple preached at Christian churches across the Midwest about Mormonism. On a visit to Nauvoo in 2002, Mormons barred Hulse from attending a temple open house because they deemed him disruptive.

The couple moved to Nauvoo in late 2005 to take over the Christian center. The storefront is filled with boards, pamphlets and literature such as "the troubling story of a self-proclaimed prophet" Smith.

Growing fears

Last fall, as their Christian television ministry "Truth Proclaimed" spread internationally, the Hulses say threats came. The couple now fear the threatening e-mail received before Christmas is being ignored by Utah investigators who they say want to protect Mormons.

Authorities traced the e-mail to an address belonging to a Mormon, Phil Rogers, of Farmington, Utah, a few miles north of Salt Lake City.

In a telephone interview with the Tribune, Rogers repeated what he told investigators: Someone hacked into his Internet account while he was using an open router. Internet security experts contacted by the Tribune said if Rogers allowed access to his router, tampering could be easily done by anyone in his neighborhood.

Bill McGuire, the Utah assistant county attorney investigating the case, said he is awaiting further police reports to determine if criminal charges will be filed and against whom.

"We prosecute Mormons all this time," said McGuire, a Mormon, who chuckled at the Hulses' accusation of a cover-up.

Still, Rocky Hulse doesn't trust the Mormons.

"Look at their history full of lies and deceit," he said. "We are a voice of truth and they will do anything to silence it."

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