Firm Beliefs

A religious movement based in Williamson County is now part of a murder investigation. The question: did the Remnant Fellowship's Firm Beliefs inadvertently lead to the beating death of a little boy. Now, evidence uncovered by NewsChannel 5 could help investigators answer that question.

NewsChannel 5/February 5, 2004

Gwen Shamblin developed a following of thousands with a Christian diet plan she called the Weigh Down Workshop.

That message led to the formation of her own religious movement, the Remnant Fellowship. The church claims about 1,000 members spread throughout some 130 cities.

It's a movement that demands strict obedience -- even from its children.

"If you want to go back to my teachings, which is what this is founded on, I would have to snap my finger and they would want to obey," Shamblin tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

But now the apparent child abuse death of a young Atlanta-area boy has investigators questioning the Remnant Fellowship's teachings.

"I'm not going to hide behind the fact that our good Lord says do not spare the rod," Shamblin says.

Another Remnant leader, Ted Anger, describes the church's idea of spankings: "As far as a pat on the bottom, as a last resort, and it's always in love."

But two of Remnant's members, Joseph and Sonya Smith, now sit in jail, charged with killing their 8-year-old son, Josef.

Investigators wrote the child had "extensive bruising" over his "entire body," but the parents "showed no remorse."

They felt it "just a part of discipline" and were "very defensive" about their religion, the investigators added.

"Does Remnant advocate repeated spankings of children, over and over and over?" Williams asks.

"Absolutely not," Shamblin replies.

But former Remnant member Terri Phillips says, "Two or three spankings would not be enough. It could be 10 spankings."

She and her husband David say Shamblin not only encouraged spankings, but stressed they must be severe.

"You had to make the spanking count," David says.

In fact, in a tape obtained by NewsChannel 5, Shamblin tells her followers:

"If they're not scared of a spanking, you haven't spanked them. If you haven't really spanked them, you don't love them. You love yourself."

David Phillips adds, "They had to feel the pain and that they were being disobedient."

Then, during one service when their 5-year-old daughter misbehaved, Terri Phillips says another Remnant member pressured her to apply Shamblin's teachings.

"It kept on for about an hour. It was just spanking, trying to see if she would stop crying. Then, if she didn't stop crying, this person was telling me to spank her harder."

Williams asks Shamblin, "Would it ever be appropriate to spank a 2 year old over and over and over and over and over and over in one night?"

"That's not what we teach here, Phil."

But in a conference call with Remnant women, another Remnant leader David Martin holds out his own "showdown spanking" with his daughter as an example.

"A year ago, our two and half year old Avery - we had a real showdown with her.... And we had a leg spanking, over and over and over and over and over and over again time one evening."

Shamblin tells Phil Williams:

"OK, well then, you know, you need to talk to David Martin about that then, because that's not&"

"And you agreed," Williams says, "that's the perfect way to handle a child."

On the tape, she says:

"David Martin had a real showdown. It was a one-night showdown, and that child never forgot it."

"Are you asking does that go on very often?" Shamblin says. "Are you kidding, no, it does not.... It is so rare, and it is only strong-willed children."

In fact, Joseph Smith told investigators that he dealt with his own strong-willed child by spanking him with glue sticks.

"Glue sticks are actually sort of common within the Remnant Fellowship culture to be used to physically discipline children," says Adam Brooks, who was once recruited to join Remnant and now counsels former members.

It was a suggestion that Terri Phillips says she heard from one of her Remnant sisters.

"I said, why. She said, well, because they hurt like switches, that it really hurts, but it doesn't make marks on your children."

Phil Williams asks Shamblin, "Tell me about the use of gluesticks to spank children."

"It was not from here," she replies. "It came from a member somewhere, someplace else and then it went around."

Shamblin tells her followers not to worry about their children's self-esteem, worry more about what she calls their God-esteem.

In the case of young Josef, investigators say his parents locked him up in a small room with just his Bible.

"Does Remnant advocate locking children up for lengthy periods of time?" Williams asks the Remnant leaders.

"We don't advocate locking them up for any period of time," Anger replies.

"Absolutely not," Shamblin adds.

But in the women's conference call, the mother Sonya Smith relates to Shamblin:

"I did exactly what Ted told me to do... Take everything out of his room.... We got everything out of there and locked him in there from that Friday until Monday and only left him in the room with his Bible."

As a result, Smith tells Shamblin that Josef was behaving much more appropriately. Then, Shamblin replies:

"That's a miracle. You've got a child that's going from bizarre down to in-control. So praise God. We are spoiling these kids. We are ruining their lives by even letting them think about themselves at all. So, thank you, Sonya, for sharing that."

Shamblin tells Phil Williams, "That tape has been made or tampered or whatever - I totally deny that that has ever been said by anyone."

"You had a chance to tell her that was not correct," Williams replies.

"That was not on there."

"Instead, you said praise the Lord."

"No, that was not on there."

Shamblin now admits the tape is authentic, but says she was only praising the results achieved by the family.

In addition, the Smiths are accused of depriving their children by refusing to feed them "until their stomachs growled" and then only giving them enough food to "satisfy the growl."

That's patterned after Shamblin's diet teachings.

"Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full is suggested by the surgeon general," she says. " It is not child abuse."

"I definitely believe that Remnant has created a culture in which people on the fringe might be more likely to do this sort of thing," Adams Brooks says.

Williams asks the Remnant leaders, "Do you think it's possible that you have inadvertently encouraged child abuse?"

"No, no, no," Shamblin replies.

The Remnant Fellowship founder says everywhere she looks she sees lives that have been changed by her teachings.

But critics say she ought to take another look into the face of the child of God named Josef.

"Do you fear for other Remnant children?" Williams asks Brooks.

"Yes, I do."

Even the Remnant's most vocal critics insist they don't believe Ms. Shamblin or anyone ever intended for child abuse to occur.

Shamblin says, if she has anything to apologize for, it's that the tape got out of Remnant's inner circles.

Police in Cobb County, Ga., are obtaining the tape for their investigation.

"We plan to talk to individuals affiliated with the church," says Lt. Paula Sparks, head of the department's crimes against children section.

"If that leads us to the church leaders, then certainly those are the individuals who we'll be contacting."

Reading his Bible for a TV crew, 8-year-old Josef Smith was the very model of obedience.

But the Smiths were a family in crisis, as the mother confided in a conference call with the women of her church.

He was very destructive," Sonya Smith related last February. "Anything of mine he was trying to destroy. He strangled one of my babies, well, attempted to. He attempted to set the house on fire."

In fact, investigators say the innocent-looking child called himself Legion, a term that means "many devils." It's a term that was familiar within their church, the Remnant Fellowship.

This family came to us for counsel," Remnant Fellowship founder tells NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

The child was wild. You know, Phil, we help a lot of people every day, and we are going to get in trouble for it."

But now his parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, are charged with beating him to death.

Investigators say they had turned to the Remnant Fellowship with its message of strict discipline -- instead of seeking professional help.

It seems to be thought by Remnant Fellowship leadership that these mental illnesses are more sort of fabrications of a poor spiritual life where you are not in obedience to God," says former Remnant recruit Adam Brooks.

Brooks notes that, in Remnant's own videos, depression and anti-depressants are equated with sin.

One of those testimonies came from Terri Phillips, who had been told by doctors that she had a chemical imbalance and needed medication.

When I dealt with the leaders, they were all saying, listen, she doesn't need to be on these," her husband David Phillips recalls.

Shamblin insists that she doesn't tell her followers to give up their medication.

We don't sit there and tell someone this is what you have to do," she tells Phil Williams. "It's not the drug that's the problem. It's the heart of man. It's when we overmedicate ourselves."

But in an Internet webcast from Remnant Fellowship, Shamblin tells her followers:

How would you like to find out all of us were on Prozac? ... Then why in the world are you even beginning to think that's OK for you?"

Later, she says:

Anyone that wants to stand up and say Get off Prozac -- Ted Anger -- get on up here."

Terri Phillips says she was fine at first, because of the lingering effects of the medication and her spiritual high. Then, she began spinning out of control and realized she needed her medicine.

I was sneaking behind their backs taking it because I was desperate for my life," she says. "I wanted to feel better again. I was thinking about suicide."

Soon Remnant leaders found out.

Two of the men leaders actually said you get that medicine from her and you flush it, flush it down the toilet," David Phillips says.

Did Remnant leadership ever encourage her husband to take her medicine away from her?" Phil Williams asks Shamblin.


But she and Remnant leader Ted Anger says they were only responding to the Phillips' cries for help.

That was the advice given sure," Anger says.

The advice given, knowing what they wanted, Phil," Shamblin adds.

Phillips says her journal shows her turmoil, but Remnant leaders weren't sympathetic about her depression.

In the Internet webcast, Anger chastises those members who were suffering from depression:

There is nothing to be concerned about. What's the worst thing that happens? You die! So what? You go to heaven."

Terri Phillips recalls, "I was also feeling very guilty because I thought God hated me because I couldn't be strong enough. I couldn't pray enough. I couldn't knock the demons out of my mind enough."

She was just going overboard," David adds. "Down on her face praying Oh, God, just relieve me of this pain that I'm in."

Finally, Terri says she was near suicide.

I left church one Sunday and nobody had compassion for me, not one bit. They told me to stop crying, to just not feel sorry for myself and I ran to an ER and they admitted me."

Brooks says he knows of some cases in which the admonition to give up medications "resulted in hospitalizations, which is not in the Remnant brochure, I can assure you."

"Look at the results, Phil," Shamblin replies. "Person after person coming off, person after person being set free."

He kind of informed me there are true chemical imbalances and it's not a sin like Remnant says it is," David says.

Remnant's critics say they fear most for children who may need professional help. "In a situation where physical discipline is the primary tool for getting kids in line, I worry a lot about that," Brooks says.

Shamblin and other Remnant leaders insist they are not insensitive to mental health issues -- that they have a psychologist on staff.

But there's no evidence that their staff did anything -- other than encourage the Smiths to get tougher on their troubled child.

An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation focused on a Williamson County church, and how its Firm Beliefs may have led to the child abuse death of a little boy. One of the questions: why are members so willing to let the group's founder tell them how to run their lives?

In the Bible, there are the prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi.

In Remnant Fellowship, there's Gwen Shamblin.

"She seems to be considered a prophet by all members of Remnant Fellowship," says former Remnant recruit Adam Brooks.

Which is why Brooks and others believe members -- like the Atlanta-area couple now charged with beating their son to death -- are willing to yield to Shamblin on the use of severe discipline for children.

"If Gwen speaks about parenting, you can bet people are going to listen, they are going to take her advice and follow it," Brooks says.

NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams asks Shamblin, "Are you a prophet?"

"I don't believe I know what my gift name is," she replies. "I will tell you that I am still wrestling with that.

"I've been told that for years."

In fact, videos from Shamblin's Weigh Down Christian diet plan strike an exodus theme, and she finds reassurance in her own public relations.

"Even in the Atlanta Constitution years ago, they likened me unto a present-day Moses because it was breaking people out of the slavery of overeating," she tells Williams.

Then, when terrorists struck on September 11th, 2001, Shamblin quickly sent out an e-mail to her followers, comparing herself to the Old Testament prophets and saying she had been trying to warn America.

Brooks lived in New York and was being recruited to join Shamblin's church.

"She was kind of saying you don't have a lot of time to make a decision and a smart person would decide in my favor and get underneath the authority of Remnant Fellowship because that's the only thing that's going to protect you."

Former members say there was something exhiliarating about Remnant's claims to be a group of believers who are completely becoming obedient to God.

"They always said this is the true church," says former member David Phillips. "There is no other church. Every other church out there is counterfeit. This is drilled in your head week after week after week."

Members are encouraged to listen to Christian music by Shamblin's son Michael, but avoid other Christian artists who might present counterfeit messages.

And Shamblin tells her followers that she has the authority to tell them what's right and what's wrong. In a conference call obtained by NewsChannel 5, she says:

"I have not been put in this position because I'm going to put up with you all's disobedience. If I hear of it, then I will correct it. If I have to come to you, then you're really in trouble."

David Phillips' wife Terri says that was a recurrent theme.

"If it was storming -- it was God's judgment," she remembers. "We might not live through the night. She used a lot of fear. And then if the storm was over, then she'd say oh God is so good he actually let us to live another night."

Remnant's church services have even drawn protests from parents, who say Shamblin encouraged her followers to cut off contact with their non-Remnant families.

One of those parents, Pamela Carney, blames Shamblin personally.

"It's all about being under Gwen's control," Carney says. "She wants to control everybody."

By all accounts, Shamblin has made millions of dollars through the Weigh Down Workshop, the for-profit arm of her ministry. But, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by some former employees a few years ago, she insisted that those financial details be kept under seal.

Shamblin says she believes the questions about the apparent child abuse death of a young Remnant child is just God's way of getting out word about what she calls the New Jerusalem.

"I do believe we are on to things. I believe God is making public what we are doing."

As to the truth about Remnant Fellowship, there is this problem:

"You think if you lie for God's sake, it's OK?" Williams asks Shamblin.

"I believe if God calls you to, you'd better protect Jerusalem," she answers, pointing to her Bible.

"There are so many cases in here where people did that very thing to protect Jerusalem, and so they were rewarded."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.