Innerviews: Spiritual saga traces break from fundamentalist church

The Charleston Gazette/August 18, 2014

By Sandy Wells

Former fundamentalist preacher Joel Watts, now an active member of Christ Church United Methodist, holds a book of essays he co-edited on the process of leaving fundamentalism. The book includes a chapter on his isolating, fear-based affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ. He left the church after 32 years and now speaks out on the dangers of repressive and rigid fundamentalist teachings. He’s an administrator for the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

This isn't the usual Innerviews life story. It's a spiritual odyssey about escape from oppressive, fearful fundamentalism to free-thinking religion based on a loving, forgiving God.

Joel Watts, 36, grew up in Louisiana in The Church of Jesus Christ, a rigid sect rooted in literal interpretations of the King James Bible.

A fire-and-brimstone preacher, a self-described Bible-thumper, he railed about the wrath of God as the ultimate and vengeful judge.

Moving to West Virginia, he found a strict fundamentalist church in a hollow near Miami. He started reading about Bible translations and other history books shunned by his church. He discovered science and the delicate link to theology. Slowly, his thinking shifted.

A moral breach within his church spawned the outrage that prompted the emotionally painful process of breaking away.

Today, he's an active member of Christ Church United Methodist, an astute scholar of theology, a seminary graduate and a candidate for a Ph.D.

He embraces the serenity of his new life, but guilt, shame and regret nag him daily.

"I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My parents got divorced pretty early. I stayed with my mom until I was 12. Then I moved in with Shannon (it's difficult to call him anything else), my biological father. We have a very strained relationship. I moved back with my mom a couple of years later. She died when I was 17, very tragically. She was an alcoholic. Then I moved back with Shannon until I was able to go out on my own.

"He gave me that fundamentalist influence. I had to go to The Church of Jesus Christ. When you said that, you had to emphasize 'The' to make sure you understood that we were the only ones who had the truth.

"We couldn't wear red. We couldn't watch TV. We couldn't read anything but the King James Bible, nothing that challenged us, nothing that was fiction. We had to be devoted to the King James.

"We weren't allowed to have fun. I looked at a girl one time and my father caught me and I got one of the severest beatings of my life. Everything is a sin. Sex is bad. If you lust after your wife, that is bad. We didn't talk about sex.

"I bought all this until I was 32. I preached it. I was a minister for a long time. I honestly believed God would come back and send everybody to hell but us. It was what most people would call Pentecostal, speaking in tongues, jumping up and down over pews, that kind of thing. When I came here in 2002, I found the same type of church in Ohley Hollow.

"When I was a kid at my father's on weekends, I would come home after church and lie in my bed knowing I was going to die and go to hell that night. That's the fear they wanted you to have. If you didn't convert or be saved, you were likely to die before the next church service.

"As I got older, I was able to use that fear against others. I preached exactly the same thing that caused me to stay up at night.

"There was nothing else but God judging you. God doesn't like you. He comes close to hating you. If you don't walk perfectly, you are going to step out of his favor and find yourself in hell. That was a lot to take in as a kid. But it's all I knew.

"I may or may not have spoken in tongues. I would highly question anyone who tells me they actually speak in tongues. I think there is something to mass hysteria. When you get around certain people, you take on their actions. At one point, I think I did speak in tongues, or thought I did, at revival.

"Then I was able to get baptized. Until you spoke in tongues, you weren't saved. You could be perfect in every way, but if you didn't speak in tongues, you were still going to hell.

"My father tried to take me out of school when I was 16 to get a GED because the church didn't believe in college. They didn't like high school graduation. The farther you got into that, the farther away from the church you may have gotten. I did finish high school in Baton Rogue and went to college.

"I went to Southeastern Louisiana University for a couple of years. Nobody liked it because I was worldly and learning things. I was preaching then, but I was still untrustworthy because I was in college. They didn't want anyone influenced by outside ideas.

"I majored in political science. I was going to be a teacher. I left college after I met my girlfriend because all my attention went to her. We went our separate ways, and I met someone shortly afterwards. We are married today.

"I wanted to go to West Virginia. I have a little sister here. In 1997, the first time I came across that last tollbooth and saw the lights of Chelyan, and the bridge and those mountains and valleys, I knew I had to move to West Virginia. I would come once or twice a year. I love the people, the land. I don't think I've ever felt as much at home as the first time I came here.

"We moved here, my wife and my first daughter. We started to attend the church at Ohley. My wife hadn't had any religious experience growing up. We went to a revival and she repented, a long process where you have to cry and confess your sins and go to the altar and get shaken by the old ladies in church.

"They move them back and forth to get them filled with the holy spirit. I have seen ladies beat children and women trying to force the spirit of God into them. I can't believe I participated in that. I still have a lot of guilt about it. I look back now and think we were crazy.

"My little sister's mother, my former stepmother, let us stay in their four-room cinder-block house up Sharon Hollow. I got a job at first as shift manager at McDonald's in Chelyan.

"I started to shift theologically when I read a book about the history of the English translation of the Bible. We could only have the King James version. As I read the history, I thought, this makes sense. Here are the footnotes. Here are the facts. I like facts. I started to read more books.

"I read a book about young-earth creationism, the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old, not being plausible scientifically. So here's theology that comports well with science, and science is OK. That was frightening. We were always anti-science.

"The church I grew up in did not believe in medicine. My pastor's wife died because by the time they took her to the doctor, cancer had eaten about every part of her body. But I was sick one time, and she came and got me. When the pastor left that morning, she took me to the pharmacy to get some Tylenol to keep my fever down. She did for me what she wouldn't do for herself because she was afraid of her husband.

"A huge controversy developed in the church at Ohley. The only cure was, 'Well, let's pray about it.' I couldn't take any more. So we left. For a year, we sat home on Sunday mornings. We had a Bible I would read, so we had our own little family service.

"My wife still dressed the same. She didn't cut her hair from 2002 to 2010. It got to her ankles. My oldest daughter was the same way. The holiness standards didn't affect men. We couldn't wear shorts, but women had to be covered completely because if a man sinned, it was the woman's fault.

"I always thought we would go back to the church. If we went to another church, I would be praying to a false God. For a whole year, it was like I was in a desert. Then my wife and I had a big fight. At one point, I said, 'What else are you not being honest about?' She said, 'I'm tired of dressing like this and living like we are going to go back to the church.'

"It was finally over, making believe that we were going to go back. So we decided to find another church. I grew up around my great-aunts in Beckley. Their church experience was happy. They loved God and loved people, and I never heard a sour word out of them. I said we had to find a church like that.

"Christ Church was the first church we came to. I had met the pastor a couple of years ago when I was a community organizer and I felt he was right on a few issues. But it was not easy. After 32 years of brainwashing, you can't just throw it away.

"I went to Kanawha Pastoral Counseling for a couple of years. I knew in my head that God did not hate me any more or any less if I wore shorts or my wife cut her hair or if I wore red or saw a movie. It was difficult to remove the language of hate and judgment and fear and replace it with 'Hey, it's all right. God loves you.'

"It was so ingrained. I believed everything, preached everything. I condemned a lot of people to hell. I had to give away 32 years of everything that defined who I was and deal with the guilt of everything I'd done.

"Christ Church has been welcoming. I've learned to live in a church where I don't have to judge people. I don't have to worry about anybody but me and God.

"In the church, I taught Sunday school. Now, I'm looking at another type of ministry. I write books. I've got three. I blog. I try to help people understand the dangers of fundamentalism.

"People say, 'Oh, I feel so loved by fundamentalists.' But that's only until you become a member of their church. Then you have to toe the line. Fundamentalism is based on fear -- fear of God, fear of change, fear of others. Fundamentalism is not healthy.

"Eventually I'd like to get more into talking about that and helping people out of fundamentalism. If you see someone going into fundamentalism, stop them."

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