House of Judah followed classic cult storyline, psychologist says

Michigan Live/June 30, 2013

Allegan Country, Michigan - The early years of the House of Judah attracted young men and women looking for answers to life's questions, and a place to belong.

"The '60s, early 70s, people were searching for answers," a former cult member told MLive and The Grand Rapids Press. "As you get older and learn about it, you were part of a cult. We were in our early 20s. That's a youth searching for something."

Self-proclaimed prophet William A. Lewis started House of Judah in southwest Allegan County in the mid-1970s. It started as peaceful communal living. But within a handful of years, it had turned into a house of horrors where his followers and their children were severely beaten for misdeeds.

On July 4, 1983, one of the children, 12-year-old John Yarbough, died of beating injuries.

The House of Judah, which eventually left Allegan County for Wetumpka, Ala., followed a classic cult storyline, with a leader ratcheting up violence to increase his hold on his followers, said R. Scott Stehouwer, chairman of Calvin College's psychology department.

"They have to prove themselves to the group," Stehouwer said of cult leaders. "Any time the leader feels threatened, they have to keep more and more control to prove themselves as the leader. The people were looking to do something better, and he twisted it into this awful thing.

"Sometimes, people who claim to be sent from God blind us from God."

Those with few connections to others are generally more likely to become involved in a cult, he said.

Stehouwer said the 1970s brought an "interest shift" where people were "looking for someone or something greater than themselves, stronger than themselves, and also to make their lives significant."

By joining forces, the thought was: "Great things will happen."

Like many cult leaders, Lewis convinced his followers – he called them Black Israelites, the chosen ones – that he was, in Stehouwer's words, the "only way toward salvation."

The followers, in turn, come to believe they know the "real truth."

They are distanced from family and friends, and eventually, rather than feel as if they are part of something, feel like "outsiders" to the rest of the world.

"Ultimately, they get victimized," Stehouwer said.

Stehouwer said studies have shown that people are inclined to go along with others in a group if they are the only one with concerns. People are also surprisingly willing to follow rules set by authority figures such as Lewis.

"If you're in that group, it's very hard not to go along with what everybody else is thinking," Stehouwer said.

Stehouwer said in a case like the House of Judah, one of his biggest concerns would be for the 66 children who were being raised in the camp. They were forced to work, and received harsh punishments. They were taught that whites were the devil, and that blacks outside of the compound were heathens.

He said it had to be a horrible scene when the children were removed by authorities in the days following the boy's death. Most of the police officers were white.

The children probably thought, "The devil's taking us away, just like the prophet said," Stehouwer said.

"My bet is, there is a lot that could be done for the kids," he said.

"It's not a death sentence. But it can be, for sure."

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