Church cult controlled sex lives ... even on wedding nights

Sun Journal, North Carolina/February 15, 2020

By Ben Steelman

New book documents story of Word of Faith Fellowship, a bizarre Pentecostal spinoff in N.C. foothills

Weird cults normally seem to exist somewhere far away, like the People’s Temple in South America, Heaven’s Gate and the Manson Family in California or the Aum Shinrikyo, who launched a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

North Carolina readers were shocked in 2017 when newspaper reports began carrying accounts of the Word of Faith Fellowship, a bizarre Pentecostal spinoff headquartered in Spindale, a tiny former mill town in the North Carolina foothills.

To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, Word of Faith believers saw this as a demon-haunted world, with even the most faithful prone to demonic possession. To exorcise these demons, believers practiced a ritual known as “blasting,” in which the supposedly possessed were surrounded, shouted at, shaken and sometimes pummeled to drive out the evil spirits. Some exorcees were thrown brutally against walls.

Now, Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr tie up their years of research into a straightforward, coherent account of the controversies surrounding Word of Faith. The two interviewed 100 former members of the fellowship, building a harrowing picture of faith gone horribly astray.

(Weiss is familiar to area readers. He collaborated with local author and former StarNews staffer Kevin Maurer on a number of non-fiction books, including “No Way Out” and “Hunting Che.”)

Word of Faith was and is a world unto itself. Members attend three or more services per week on the fellowship’s large campus. Their children almost always attend the fellowship’s private school. Members did not watch television (particularly after a series of “Inside Edition” exposes on the congregation in the 1990s), did not read newspapers or books other than the Bible or Fellowship literature, and did not eat in restaurants that served alcohol.

Believers were encouraged to move to Spindale, where they frequently wound up living communally. Homeowners would be “encouraged” to take in other Word of Faith families or children in trouble. If you wanted to buy a house or car, you needed church permission.

Youngsters were pressured to “help out” at businesses owned by Word of Faith members, often with little or no pay. Adults were expected to report each other for breaking any of the many church rules. To prevent masturbation, for instance, men were forbidden to put their hands in their pockets.

Once past puberty, boys and girls were taught in separate classes and generally did not mingle outside the home. Marriages were encouraged, and often arranged by the church, at the age of 18, to keep young members from deserting the faith. Once married, couples were forbidden to have sex, or children, without church permission. (According to ex-members, a wedding night was limited to a hug and a kiss.)

Word of Faith had been founded by Sam Whaley, a former used car salesman, but the real boss and preacher was his wife, Jane Whaley, a former math teacher. Although women in the fellowship were forbidden to wear makeup, Jane Whaley dressed in expensive outfits (generally obtained on long shopping trips to second-hand stores) and wore a lot of jewelry. She was known to have a temper, especially when people crossed her, and she had to face assault charges in state courts.

These cases went nowhere, though, and neither did multiple accusations of abuse by former members. Both the Rutherford County sheriff and the local district attorney were elected with the help of Word of Faith votes, and neither pursued charges against the fellowship with much energy. Word of Faith members took key jobs in the county courthouse and sheriff’s office to keep tabs with what was going on.

Weiss and Mohr tell their story in easy to understated, just-the-facts-ma’am style, which only underlined the enormity of what they were describing. (For the record, the fellowship says the former members are lying and that the newspaper counts are, essentially, fake news.) “Broken Faith” makes for compelling drama, with a vision of healing and renewal at the end.

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