It was October 1985 when Ira Hathaway lapsed into a coma. Four days before his 14th birthday, he died.
The coma was caused by complications related to diabetes. Medication likely could have prevented the coma but Ira’s parents, Max and Fran Hathaway, weren’t even aware of his disease.
Ira showed flu-like symptoms in the days before his death, but no one in his family even considered taking him to a doctor — not even after he went into the coma — because it was against their religion. Instead, his family and neighbors — all members of the Faith Assembly church — prayed for his recovery.
Max and Fran Hathaway were later charged with and convicted of reckless homicide because they didn’t seek medical care for their son, according to an Elkhart Truth article published Sept. 24, 1987.
The Faith Assembly congregation shunned medical treatment in favor of divine healing. The Hathaways testified that they believed Ira died because their faith wasn’t strong enough.
“I don’t believe Ira died because of our choosing to take him to the Lord and not to a doctor,” Fran Hathaway said during the trial. “I believe he died from Max and I not being in a position to receive healing from the Lord.”
For members of Faith Assembly, which was founded in the 1970s in Kosciusko and Noble counties, deaths like Ira’s weren’t unusual. He was one of at least 91 people who reportedly died between when the church began until 1985. There were Faith Assembly branches all over northwestern Indiana; the Hathaways belonged to a Goshen branch.
A jury found the couple guilty Sept. 23, 1987. The court later decided, however, that it was more important for the parents to take care of their eight remaining children than to be punished, according to an article published Nov. 17, 1987, in The Goshen News. The Hathaways were fined, given eight years probation and had to bring their children for regular health examinations.
An upcoming documentary, “Surviving Faith Assembly,” will take a look at the church, its founder, and the congregants who died for their beliefs or those of their parents.
‘SURVIVING FAITH ASSEMBLY’
Josh Wilson, who grew up in the church, is one of the people helping to make the documentary.
The day he met the Rev. Hobart Freeman, the founder of the Faith Assembly, was the same day he started to lose his faith.
Wilson was 7 years old when he got up in front of a congregation of thousands. He had an ear infection and Freeman was going to cure him.
Wilson said he was nervous but hopeful. He’d seen Freeman cure other congregants through divine healing before, sometimes knocking them backwards with his power to cure ailments.
Wilson expected a warm light to shoot out from Freeman’s hands into his body and anticipated his ears would heal on the spot.
“He put his hands, which (were) large enough to cover my whole head, on my ears and he prayed,” Wilson said. “And I didn’t feel anything at all. All I felt was that his hands were a little sweaty.”
When his parents asked him how he felt, Wilson lied and said his ears felt a little better. He knew then that he didn’t believe in the teachings of the church.
Wilson, now 39, lives in Indianapolis. He is an atheist.
Freeman was a born-again Christian who was excommunicated from the church he was ordained in, according to an article published Sept. 29, 1983, in The Elkhart Truth.
He was fired in 1963 from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, where he was a professor, for “teaching a doctrine which was contrary to the evangelical school’s theology,” according to an Elkhart Truth article published Dec. 28, 1982.
Freeman later founded the Faith Assembly in the North Webster and Wilmot area, according to several articles published in The Elkhart Truth. It’s not clear when the church began — archived news articles name several years between 1971 and 1974. By 1983 the church gained about 2,000 followers, whom Freeman taught that medicine was “evil and Satanic,” according to an article published Sept. 29, 1983.
“Satan seems to have most Christians’ minds filled with thoughts of doubt, fear, inability, insecurity, worry and defeat,” Freeman said in a recorded speech. “Therefore, this negativism must be flushed out and the mind saturated with the positive word of the Lord.
If a child died, the blame would rest on the parents’ shoulders — as Fran Hathaway testified — because of their lack of faith, Freeman preached. Diabetics stopped taking insulin, and women commonly bled to death after giving birth. In one case, a stillborn baby was found buried in the family garden, according an Elkhart Truth article published June 1, 1984.
It was difficult for followers to leave the Faith Assembly because it’s all they had. When people joined the church, they were taught to commit everything they had to it. Any family or friends not in the church were demons condemned to hell, Wilson said.
If any of the followers were a step out of line with Faith Assembly teachings, the church would shun them, Wilson said.
“You kind of isolate your victims and then you shun them,” he said. “Or the threat of shunning would take away anything they socially had left. As social animals, that’s a really scary thought.”
Freeman, who told his followers that he “could not die,” died of complications of treatable and preventable ailments, including severe cardiovascular disease, mild bronchopneumonia and gangrene, as reported in an article published Dec. 11, 1984. He was 64.
After Freeman’s death, Wilson said followers started to attend different churches. He’s heard through the grapevine of only one small congregation in Indiana which holds true to Freeman’s teaching and continues to shun medical treatment.
‘THEY NEVER HAD A VOICE’
Knowingly and intentionally withholding medical treatment from a child who needs it is a felony, according to Indiana laws. Though a court can order medical treatment in more extreme cases, state laws generally protect a person’s choice to provide spiritual treatment in lieu of medical help. Those exemptions applied to the Faith Assembly, according to an article published Nov. 22, 1982, in The Elkhart Truth.
Wilson’s brother, Michael, died due to complications with his birth, which he said could have been avoided if his mother had sought medical care.
“I was staying with my friend’s parents at the time, and I was all excited coming back,” he said. “I remember the station wagon ride back. I literally remembered (saying), ‘I get to hold the baby first!’”
When he returned home, Wilson said he was too excited to notice how somber his parents were. Only when they told him that Michael went to be with Jesus did he know that he wouldn’t be holding his baby brother.
Wilson chose to share his and other people’s stories through the documentary so another Faith Assembly doesn’t happen.
“The kids that died and the kids that survived never had a say in things, and they never had a voice,” Wilson said, “and I felt like that voice needs to be heard.”
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