Who Is Bill Gothard? Everything to Know About the Institute in Basic Life Principles Founder

Bill Gothard founded the Institute in Basic Life Principles in 1961 and was accused of sexual harassment decades later

People/June 1, 2023

By Alex Gurley

Bill Gothard founded the Institute in Basic Life Principles more than 60 years ago — but since then, he’s become a controversial figure in the religious community.

Growing up, Gothard, 88, was raised in a religious household, and as a teenager, he devoted his life to God and spreading Christianity, particularly aiming to help other young people “make wise choices” in their adolescence. As he traveled to speak at youth groups and visited with families in crisis, he obtained a degree in Biblical studies from Wheaton College.

In the following years, Gothard pursued a graduate degree in Christian education, and it was during this time that he created the basis for the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). His master’s thesis highlighted “seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life,” which, if followed, would lead to “harmonious relationships in all areas of life.” Those seven principles would become the core of his most widely taught seminar.

It wasn’t long after Gothard’s first seminar that his teachings found a foothold in the fundamental Christian community. In a matter of just a few years, he was teaching seminars in front of more than 10,000 people and sharing his lessons with other pastors. IBLP came to include a homeschooling program, a juvenile rehabilitation program, orphanages and more than 60 other ministries.

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But over time, a dark side to the radical organization was exposed. In addition to controversial teachings that require women to be subservient to their husbands and shun much of modern popular culture, Gothard has also been accused of sexually harassing more than 30 women, many of whom directly worked for him. Now, decades after IBLP's founding, former members are speaking out, including several members of the Duggar family, once the popular stars at the center of TLC's hit reality series, 19 Kids and Counting.

In the upcoming docuseries, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, the family’s ties to the religious organization are explored, with first-hand accounts from Jill (Duggar) Dillard, Derick Dillard and Amy (Duggar) King, as well as several former IBLP members. In a trailer for the series, one former member alleged that Gothard “turned every father into a cult leader and every home into an island.”

Speaking with PEOPLE, executive producer Olivia Crist shared that the documentary team's research uncovered "how far and wide" the IBLP ideology and Gothard's teachings went.

"It went into our police system. It went into the military," she said, adding that with all IBLP members from Australia to Tennessee, "you're going to see the same exact thing happen in terms of really just this pandemic of abuse that Gothard's teachings inhabit."

Gothard and his radical organization are set to take center stage in the docuseries, which premieres June 2 on Prime Video.

So who is Bill Gothard? Here's everything to know about the Institute in Basic Life Principles founder.

Gothard was raised in a religious family in Illinois

Gothard was born on Nov. 2, 1934. He was raised in Hinsdale, Illinois, by his parents, William and Carmen Gothard, along with his five siblings. Growing up, his father served with various ministries and was executive director of the Evangelical Christian association Gideons International.

As a pre-teen, Gothard was a part of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, where he was encouraged to dedicate his life to God. By the time he was 15, Gothard was an avid church attendee and had committed his life to helping other teenagers and their families “make wise choices.” He went on to work with church youth groups, inner-city gangs, high school clubs and families in crisis before he graduated high school.

He received degrees from Wheaton College and Louisiana Baptist University

In the 1950s, Gothard enrolled at Wheaton College, where he received a degree in Biblical studies. He also earned a graduate degree in Christian education from the university, writing his master’s thesis on a youth program that highlighted “seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life” — which would later become the basis of his teachings.

Following his graduation in 1961, he was ordained and continued his journey working with young people. Gothard later went on to receive a Ph.D. in Biblical studies at Louisiana Baptist University in 2004.

Gothard began IBLP in 1961 under the name Campus Teams

In 1961, Gothard formally began his youth ministry under the name Campus Teams. He continued his work with teenagers, speaking to groups of young people involved with inner-city gangs, high school clubs and church youth groups. Several years later, he gave his first seminar called “Basic Youth Conflicts” at his alma mater, Wheaton College.

In the following years, the scope of Gothard’s ministry quickly expanded. Attendance at his seminars grew to be as high as 20,000 people per event and pastors from around the world signed up to learn Gothard’s teachings. Seminars began to focus on a variety of topics, including homeschooling and solving financial problems — all based on the teachings of the Bible.

Due to the organization’s increased reach, its name was officially changed to Institute in Basic Life Principles in 1989.

He founded the homeschooling program Advanced Training Institute
In the midst of hosting numerous seminars, Gothard says he was frequently asked about a school curriculum that centered around religion. In response, Gothard began the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in 1984, creating an educational program that revolved around applying Biblical scripture to everyday life. The program grew to include 54 “Wisdom Booklets,” teaching subjects from geography to science to math.

Through the years, the requirements to join the homeschool program became more intense. Those in the program were expected to follow IBLP’s strict rules, which mandated church attendance and included guidance on things like employment, attire and physical appearance.

In 2021, ATI concluded as an enrollment program, although their Wisdom Booklets are still available.

Gothard’s teachings have faced much criticism

Over time, IBLP has faced much criticism, with opponents complaining that the organization pushes an agenda that requires women to be subservient to their husbands and often isolates members. Followers are expected to shun dancing, television, music, dating and much of modern popular culture. Even religious children’s programming like Veggie Tales has been banned from IBLP households.

The organization additionally provides strict guidelines for all aspects of life, including marriage, medicine and modesty, as well as the behavior of women and children. Some former IBLP members say they were led to live in fear that if they did not follow those precise moral codes, it could bring harm to themselves or their families.

In the docuseries, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets, several former IBLP members are set to speak out about the radical organization. In a preview for the series, one woman accused the institute of raising “little predators,” while another man claimed that Gothard “turned every father into a cult leader and every home into an island.”

"The IBLP teachings aren't Christianity," one woman alleged. "They're something entirely different."

He has never been married

Despite teaching the importance of family structure and a man’s role in the household, Gothard has never been married. Instead, Gothard says he postponed marriage in order to dedicate all of his time to spreading the word of God and helping others make wise decisions.

According to a former ATI student, Gothard allegedly told IBLP members that while women should be married, certain men could be granted an exception to stay single “if it was God’s will.”

The Duggar family followed Gothard’s IBLP teachings

When Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar met as teenagers, they were both devout Christians. While they have often referred to themselves as Independent Baptists, they have long been involved with Gothard’s IBLP teachings. In their book The Duggars: 20 And Counting!, the couple explained that early in their marriage, a story in an IBLP booklet encouraged them to let God decide how many children they would have.

Gothard’s teachings have also played a major role in the Duggars' family life, with Jill sharing in Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets that the family was a “part of IBLP as early as I can remember.”

Jim Bob and Michelle often spoke at IBLP seminars and even followed Gothard’s ATI homeschool program. In the couple’s book, Michelle explained that she taught lessons based on ATI’s Wisdom Booklets, which covered a wide variety of subjects and weaved religious beliefs into topics.

“I like these materials because I appreciate their biblical basis and their sound academic teaching,” Michelle wrote in The Duggars: 20 And Counting!. “Everyone who’s old enough to read can sit in on the family study time with his or her own Wisdom Booklet. It’s great because we are all on the same page, literally and mentally.”

A source told PEOPLE Gothard was once a favorite guest at the Duggar family’s compound in Tontitown, Arkansas.

“Everyone who has ever spent any real amount of time with them has known forever that they are essentially devout Gothard followers and that there’s not a whole lot different between what they’re doing and a cult,” the source close to the family shared.

He stepped down from IBLP after being accused of sexual harassment

In 2011, a website was launched where people could share their negative experiences with IBLP and Gothard. The following year, a woman named Lizzie came forward, sharing that she felt she had been inappropriately touched by Gothard as a teenager. Dozens of other women began to come forward and eventually more than 30 women made similar allegations.

Amid the accusations, IBLP began an internal probe in 2014 and Gothard stepped down from his position. In a since-deleted statement, he apologized for “holding of hands, hugs, and touching of feet or hair with young ladies.” He added that his behaviors were not intended to be sexual but “crossed the boundaries of discretion…and violated a trust.” He also noted that he had “never kissed a girl nor have I touched a girl immorally or with sexual intent.”

Following the internal probe, IBLP concluded that “no criminal activity has been discovered” but Gothard “acted in an inappropriate manner.”

Gothard was sued by victims of sexual harassment in 2016

In 2015, a lawsuit was filed against IBLP, claiming that it covered up sexual abuse and harassment of women working for the organization going as far back as 1992. While Gothard was not initially named in the lawsuit, he was added as a defendant in 2016, per Chicago Magazine. As the case moved forward, the number of plaintiffs eventually reached 18.

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The lawsuit detailed more of the circumstances surrounding the accusations, alleging that for years, Gothard had been surrounding himself with attractive young staffers to serve as his personal secretaries. Despite teaching a “purity culture,” Gothard was accused by many of these women of inappropriately touching them during private Bible studies, on conference trips and on one occasion, while traveling in a car together. One allegation even claimed that Gothard discouraged an employee from seeking outside psychological treatment after confiding that she had previously been raped as a child. The suit alleged that Gothard kept his “victims blamed, shamed, silent, compliant.”

At the time, Gothard and IBLP requested to dismiss the lawsuit for numerous reasons, including the fact that the statute of limitations had expired. The case was eventually dropped in 2018, although the reasoning is unclear. Gothard has continued to deny any wrongdoing and later called the accusations in the lawsuit “false and defamatory statements.”

Gothard showed support for Josh Duggar following child molestation accusations

In 2015, it was revealed that, as a teenager, Josh Duggar had been accused of molesting underage girls, including some of his younger sisters. It was later discovered that Josh had initially admitted his “wrongdoing” to Jim Bob, but the police were not immediately contacted. Instead, Josh spent four months at a facility affiliated with IBLP called the Institute in Basic Life Principles Training Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. There, he participated in manual labor and intensive prayer.

According to its website, the center claims to “strengthen individuals and families through sound Biblical teachings and character development opportunities and to demonstrate Christ’s love through serving.”

The methods used by the institute have since received much criticism, and the center was at one point under investigation by local Child Protective Services. The institute has denied any maltreatment, but one prominent critic called the center a “shadow world, where these kids almost disappear.”

Amid the news that the Duggars did not immediately go to the police following Josh’s confession, Gothard showed support for the family’s decision.

“They did the right things. They did maybe even more than was expected,” Gothard told The Chicago Tribune at the time. “They certainly cannot be faulted in what they tried to do to correct the problem. The problem was corrected … The fact that he became an outstanding young man would indicate that kind of success.”

Josh has since been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are still followers of IBLP despite the accusations against Gothard

Since the accusations against Gothard surfaced in 2011, Jim Bob and Michelle have continued to be a part of IBLP. In a statement about the situation, the couple shared that while they “do not agree with everything taught by Dr. Bill Gothard or IBLP,” some of the “life-changing Biblical principles” shared through IBLP’s ministry have helped them “deepen our personal walks with God.”

“The public accusations against Dr. Gothard in recent years are troubling and grievous. However, our faith in God is not based on following a fallible human man … Truth is truth, even if the messenger fails,” they told NBC News.

Jinger Duggar Vuolo has spoken out against Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles

Although Jinger Duggar Vuolo grew up as a practicing member of IBLP, she has since walked away from the organization. Jinger says that in 2017, shortly after she married her husband Jeremy Vuolo, her perspective about Gothard’s teachings began to shift. While she is still a Christian, she believes what Gothard taught was “harmful” and full of “cult-like tendencies” — and made fear “a huge part” of her childhood.

"[Gothard's] teachings in a nutshell are based on fear and superstition and leave you in a place where you feel like, 'I don't know what God expects of me.’ The fear kept me crippled with anxiety. I was terrified of the outside world,” she told PEOPLE, adding that as a child, she believed she would be harmed if she accidentally wore the wrong clothes, played the wrong sports or listened to the wrong music.

 She continued, "His teachings were so harmful, and I'm seeing more of the effects of that in the lives of my friends and people who grew up in that community with me. There are a lot of cult-like tendencies."

Now, Jinger is hoping to help others who have been through similar experiences and those who are still living in fear.

"That's the beauty of this journey," she shared. "The teaching I grew up under was harmful, it was damaging, and there are lasting effects. But I know other people are struggling and people who are still stuck. I want to share my story, and maybe it will help even just one person to be freed."

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