When Roger Olson set out to write an article about Homestead Heritage, he had some reservations.
On one hand, the Baylor University seminary professor wanted to let others know about a group he considers unique on the country’s religious landscape. He first got to know Homestead Heritage in 1999 and since then has visited its property near Chalk Bluff numerous times, often bringing along his students.
The religious group even wrote a book entitled What We Believe in response to Olson’s request for information. The more he’s learned, the more he’s been impressed, he says.
Homestead Heritage certainly has its quirks, Olson says. But he has found its leaders and followers not only extremely theologically literate but also uncommonly gracious.
Homestead Heritage is also interesting from a scholarly standpoint, Olson says. It’s the only group he has ever encountered that blends Pentecostal and Anabaptist beliefs.
On the other hand, Olson was afraid that giving Homestead Heritage increased exposure could do more harm than good. Personal experience and academic study have taught him that people often fear religious sects that are different, he says. That fear can manifest itself in ugly ways, he says, especially in a community like Waco, still living in the shadow of the Branch Davidian tragedy.
After weighing his options and talking over his qualms with Homestead Heritage leaders, Olson decided to go ahead with the article. It was published in the February 2005 edition of Christianity Today, a magazine distributed throughout North America.
To Olson’s dismay, the article provoked opposition to Homestead Heritage. At least 20 people who were critical of the article contacted the magazine, says deputy managing editor Timothy Morgan. Many were former members of the group. Others were affiliated with anti-cult groups or those that defend Christian doctrine.
Because of that reaction, Morgan came to Waco to talk to people on both sides. He met with Homestead Heritage leaders as well as some ex-members. He even sat in on an April 2005 workshop for exes held by Watchman Fellowship, a self-described Christian research ministry devoted to exposing cults and giving voice to those who had escaped their all-controlling influence.
In the end, the magazine opted to publish one of the critical letters, written by ex-member Bob Beechner, along with an editor’s note.
The editor’s note explained to Christianity Today readers that Beechner’s thoughts had been echoed by others and that Homestead Heritage elders “deny the charges of coercion, abusive discipline or teaching non-biblical doctrine.” It then encouraged readers to contact both Homestead Heritage and Watchman Fellowship for more information.
“With this kind of story, it becomes extremely difficult for any individual — a reporter, historian, scholar, anyone — to sort out all of the complicated claims,” Morgan said in a recent telephone interview.
But before the letter was published, some people bothered by the Christianity Today article took their complaints to a far broader forum: the World Wide Web.
Watchman Fellowship created an Internet discussion board about Homestead Heritage through F.A.C.T.Net. That’s the abbreviation for a group called the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, which says its purpose is to promote “independent investigation and public debate and dialog on cult and mind-control issues.”
The first posting about Homestead Heritage went up on April 7, 2005. Since then, the board has exploded with posts, thrusting the Waco group into an unwanted glare shed mostly by its critics.
Besides ex-members, those posting on the site are Watchman Fellowship officials, a few ex-members who defend Homestead Heritage and interested outsiders.
Homestead Heritage leaders learned of the site three days after it was launched. Howard Wheeler, a member who acts as the group’s unofficial spokesman, recalls being awakened at 5:32 a.m. by the ring of the telephone. When he answered, a sinister voice with a foreign accent started speaking, he says.
The man told Wheeler that soon the whole world would know Homestead Heritage was the next cult in Waco and that the news media would become involved. He then said the group would come to the same fiery end that the Branch Davidians met in April 1993.
Wheeler reported the phone call to the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, but officers couldn’t trace it. He suspects the caller was a member of a New Zealand anti-cult group that he believes has had contact with an ex-member of Homestead Heritage.
Whatever the case, Homestead Heritage followers voice concern that the caller’s prediction seems to have gained traction. Day after day, half-truths and outright lies designed to poison people against the group have been posted on the Internet, he says.
“For a year and a half, they have deluged us,” Wheeler says.
Homestead Heritage leaders monitor the site and investigate each allegation, Wheeler says. Some have nuggets of truth to them, but that’s as far as it goes. Every accusation so far has been false, he says.
Wheeler and other followers are convinced the driving force behind the attack is Watchman Fellowship researcher Phillip Arnn. He is driven by a difference of opinion over doctrine, they say.
Watchman Fellowship defines Christian orthodoxy very narrowly and seeks to label everyone who falls outside those confines as un-Christian, Homestead Heritage leaders allege. In the past, its primary focus has fallen on religious movements that many would consider aberrant.
Over time, however, Watchman Fellowship and anti-cult activists have run out of truly dangerous groups to pursue, Wheeler says. Consequently, they have begun eyeing any group outside the mainstream.
A favorite target is any “high-demand” religious group, Wheeler says. Characteristics of such groups include not quickly admitting people into the group and not allowing people to stay if they don’t follow group rules.
Homestead Heritage is one such group and is especially easy to single out, Wheeler says, because its beliefs are fundamentally at odds with the prevailing mores of today’s Western society. Modern culture prizes individual rights beyond all else, so groups such as Homestead Heritage that set different priorities are suspect in the minds of many, he says.
All critics have to do is twist such groups’ views of authority into authoritarianism and many people are willing to condemn them, Wheeler says. Add in distortions about customs and claims of abuse and even the most wholesome religious group can be branded a cult, he says.
Watchman Fellowship has done that in a variety of ways, Homestead Heritage members say. It began with Arnn individually contacting people who left the group. Then came a so-called “recovery workshop” in April 2005, a forum for ex-members to discuss their experiences.
Those steps were critical, Homestead Heritage followers say, because they allowed Arnn to convince ex-members that Homestead Heritage is a cult. Once that frame was built around the group, Arnn could introduce the idea of spiritual abuse.
End result: Homestead Heritage became a scapegoat for ex-members. Many are trying to rid themselves of the discomfort of sin that forced them to leave the group, Wheeler says. Others don’t want to admit they freely made a decision to join a group they later ended up disagreeing with, he says.
Watchman Fellowship’s efforts have been so extreme that some of the exes may truly believe what they’re saying, Homestead Heritage leaders say. They have allowed their memories to become altered by Watchman Fellowship’s tainted information.
“All of a sudden they can really start remembering that this place is hell on earth,” Wheeler says.
In interviews with the Tribune-Herald, Homestead Heritage members repeatedly described the allegations of their critics and ex-members as “incendiary,” “inflammatory” or “insidious.” Members continually compared the claims to allegations made against persecuted groups, including Anabaptists, blacks and victims of the Salem witch trials.
The group especially noted the persecution of Jews throughout history, saying one of the weapons used against Jews was wild claims of a secret conspiracy to take over the world. Those most vocal in their criticism of Homestead Heritage have adopted the same techniques, group members say. They talk of secret meetings and secret documents. That way, when they’re asked to prove their claims, they can throw up their hands and plead a secret conspiracy.
“No matter what we say, as the Jews have experienced, you cannot falsify the accusation that someone has a secret,” Wheeler said.
An attempt to make Homestead Heritage appear clandestine and shadowy is apparent in Arnn’s first post on FactNet.org, members of the group say. He refers to a constitution the group produced in the late 1980s as “a secret document meant only for the eyes of candidates for their highest level” of membership.
That’s patently false, members say. While it’s true the document is not given to members nowadays, that’s because the church no longer uses it. The basic principles are still taught; they have just been incorporated into other documents.
The reason for that is because some of the wording in the constitution might sound apocalyptic to those unfamiliar with Homestead Heritage history, Wheeler says.
“It was really the tone we removed,” he says.
To back up its claim the document is not secret, Homestead Heritage presented the Tribune-Herald with affidavits from nearly 50 people who say it was read and that copies were distributed during a meeting in Colorado in 1988.
Members also point to a statement Arnn made later in that first Internet post about Homestead Heritage’s Sunday meetings being open only to certain people. While generally true, the statement is deceptive because it falsely implies meetings are closed to hide secrets, the group says.
The truth is visitors are asked to come to Friday night meetings because they will be more edifying, followers say. The format is akin to that of Sunday services at most churches, plus the meetings are more intimate. Held in members’ homes and attended by about 100 people, their size allows visitors to get to know the group more easily, they say.
On Sundays, however, services often revolve around church business or discussions about how the group can become a more perfect expression of the body of Christ, Wheeler says. Such meetings tend to flow week to week and would likely prove difficult for a visitor to make sense of, he says.
That’s not to say nonmembers never come to Sunday meetings. On occasion they do, members say.
The same thinking, not secrecy, guides distribution of literature, members say. While there aren’t documents nonmembers are forbidden to see, the group generally doesn’t load down visitors with a stack of books.
For one thing, some of the writings are works in progress, Wheeler says. More importantly, though, Homestead Heritage wants its beliefs to be imparted in a more personal manner. Members would rather talk with people about what they believe than tell them to read a book, they say.
That’s why the group does not have a written statement of faith, members say. The way the group lives is a much stronger statement than any written document, they say.
That approach also ensures people know exactly what awaits them if they join Homestead Heritage, members say. A chief task with any prospective member is communicating not only what the group believes but how that plays out in the context of community life, they say.
“It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to us to have someone who comes in thinking they know and they don’t know,” Wheeler says.
The only times Homestead Heritage has refused to give or sell its literature to someone was when members concluded a person’s motive was to attack, not learn. Such people want to raid the literature, not read it, Wheeler says.
The Internet postings are a perfect example of that phenomenon, followers say. Ex-members have posted passages from Homestead Heritage literature, but much is quoted out of context, they say.
“Whenever they quote our literature,” member Nathan Tittley says, “you really have to watch the ellipses.”
Such distortion is one reason why Homestead Heritage opts not to post on the F.A.C.T.Net board, members say. Their silence on the Web might play into their critics’ claims that they have something to hide, leaders acknowledge. But the group points to the example of Jesus when he was questioned by Pilate before his crucifixion.
“He kept silent. Why?” Wheeler says. “Because there was no context for the truth that he had.”
If the group really had something to hide, Wheeler says, why would it host so many public events? Why would it invite people to ask questions about members’ faith? Why would it open itself up for discussions with local theology professors and students?
The only reason critics make claims of secrecy, Wheeler says, is to give credence to allegations that people would otherwise dismiss as ludicrous. The charge that Homestead Heritage leaders profess to be Christ in the flesh is a perfect example, he says. Anyone who honestly reads the group’s literature or listens in earnest at meetings could not possibly come away with that idea, he says.
The group does teach that the spirit of Jesus is manifested within the body of Christ. But it doesn’t believe it is embodied only in a select group of people. Rather, Homestead Heritage teaches that every member receives a piece of it. That’s why living in community is so important, members say.
Ex-members are making the sensational claim because one characteristic of a cult is having a charismatic leader or group of leaders, members say. But the truth is Homestead Heritage does not fit that mold, they say.
The group is led by a contingent of 20 men called ministers who are similar to what other churches call elders. Although the group was founded by Blair Adams, he has no more authority than the other ministers, they say.
The sharing of leadership doesn’t end there, the group says. Regular members play an important role in ministry, too, doing everything from shaping the course of services to helping write religious literature.
“There is not a lording over their lives,” Wheeler says.
Criticism also has been leveled at the group’s belief about salvation. The two main distortions, members say, are that the group believes salvation comes through works and that it is imparted to only an elite few.
The truth is the group believes salvation comes through grace and that Christ’s blood alone cleanses them of sin, members say. However, the group doesn’t believe in salvation as a phenomenon that happens at just one moment in time. They reject the idea of “once saved, always saved.”
People who don’t continue walking in a relationship with God can jeopardize their salvation, they say. That doesn’t mean every time someone sins they’re in danger of going to hell. But it does mean people cannot continually commit unrepented sin and enter heaven.
“When we are walking by faith, everything is covered under the blood of Jesus,” Wheeler says. “We just don’t believe obedience to God is negated by some kind of cheap grace.”
On the issue of who can be saved, it’s true Homestead Heritage has three levels of membership, leaders say. What’s untrue is that there is some sort of caste system where people must reach the top level to be fully saved, they say.
The three levels are simply a tool to help lead people through their ever-deepening walk with God, Wheeler says. The concept isn’t unique. Many churches once employed a probationary period. Some still have a novice period before confirmation.
Again, the elitism claim is made because it fits the image of a cult, members say. It also leads into the supposed teaching that people who leave the group are damned, they say.
Certainly, Homestead Heritage takes it seriously when someone leaves. Such people are generally shunned, at least partially, because they’re breaking a commitment to God to live out their Christian walk in the context of that specific body, members say.
But Homestead Heritage also believes there are other Christians every bit as sincere as they are. They also believe people have an obligation to leave Homestead Heritage if they fail to keep walking in “greater light” — meaning greater revelation from God — or if they feel called to leave by God.
All Homestead Heritage asks of such people is that if they join a church with “greater light,” then tell Homestead Heritage leadership where it is, leaders say. So far, they haven’t learned of any group with a greater amount of revelation in all areas, they say.
But it’s possible, even probable, such a church exists, members stress. They just haven’t found it yet.
That belief isn’t arrogance, longtime member Joel Stein says. Many people feel the same way about whatever religious group they’re part of, he says.
Another charge leveled at the group to make it appear cultic, members say, is that leaders exercise authoritarian control. Exes talk of people being disciplined for eating chocolate, wearing cowboy boots or rolling up shirt sleeves.
“That’s all just a lie,” Wheeler says. “That never happened.”
It’s true that violations of the group’s patterns can result in discipline, members say. But the specific violation is not the issue. It’s the person’s attitude.
“They are breaking the vow they made to God to put the unity of the body over our individual desires,” Wheeler says.
Requiring members to adhere to group patterns is no different than a football coach requiring players to meet certain standards of conduct, Wheeler says. The group’s rules may be different or more voluminous than those of other groups, but they’re based on the identity Homestead Heritage has chosen for itself.
“There has to be authority, but it’s not authoritarian,” Wheeler says. “This is the authority of fatherhood, of love, of brother and sisterhood.”
If Homestead Heritage didn’t insist on people following certain rules and customs, it would lose that identity, members say. Like any non-compulsory group, the only way it can preserve itself is through “the power of the gate,” Wheeler says.
Even when people break the rules, the discipline is not as some Homestead Heritage ex-members claim, the group says. Church leaders follow the biblical pattern of first going to someone in private about the offense. Most of the time, that takes care of the problem, members say.
But if that doesn’t work, the church takes a series of increasingly severe steps. Bringing an offender before the entire community is one of those steps, members say. But the process doesn’t involve screaming or yelling as ex-members claim, they say.
The last resort is putting members on disassociated or disfellowshipped status. At the crux of those punishments is isolation from the group, with disfellowshipment being more severe. If members see such a person in public, they might say hello. But that’s it.
Such treatment might sound harsh, Homestead Heritage members acknowledge. But the intent of discipline is not punitive. It’s redemptive. The hope is the person will realize the disadvantages of living outside the group, drawing him or her back into the fold.
Years ago, such action was common in churches, members say. But as congregations have become more consumer-oriented, many have dropped church discipline. That causes some people, like the ex-members, to make claims of abuse against those who continue exercising such discipline, they say.
Homestead Heritage also notes that some religious groups go even further with discipline. Some Anabaptists, for example, practice familial shunning. Homestead Heritage, on the other hand, lets members decide how much, if any, contact to have with family members who leave.
Another accusation that troubles the group is that members don’t lead the lifestyle they claim to. The motivation behind that attack, members say, is to make Homestead Heritage seem as if it deceptively recruits members, further fitting the mold of a cult.
The truth, however, is that Homestead Heritage members live a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle as much as possible, the group says. The extent to which that is true varies from family to family, but most regularly do things such as make their own soap.
Members produce much of their own food, whether from individual efforts such as home gardens or group projects such as Homestead Heritage’s cattle ranch. Many families obtain 80 to 90 percent of their food that way, they say.
Members still go to local stores for some needs. The group is still learning and members simply don’t have the skills to be self-sufficient in all areas yet, they say.
But followers are always pushing themselves, group leaders say. For example, one person proficient in leather work has been experimenting with making footwear. Perhaps some day those efforts will pay off in the form of shoes produced by members, they say.
“It’s a work in progress,” lifelong member Abraham Adams says. “. . . There are some areas we are more ahead in than others.”
Another false allegation is that Homestead Heritage is not conducive to a healthy family, members say. The truth is that group needs are never placed over family needs. It’s only logical, they say, because without the family, there would be no group in the first place.
Allegations to the contrary are actually self-indicting, group members say. If a member were to do something as former member Bob Beechner claims he was required to do — leave a pregnant, bed-ridden wife to work on church literature — that person would be behaving irresponsibly. All a member must do in such a scenario is explain the situation and the group will gladly understand, they say.
The same is true for exes who claim their children’s schooling suffered because of group responsibilities, members say. If parents aren’t spending enough time on their children’s education, that’s because of choices they make, not the group.
What’s so frustrating about those accusations and others like them, members say, is that they’re almost impossible to categorically refute, at least publicly. Some involve matters of ministerial confidentiality. Others boil down to a he said/she said contest.
However, the group believes it can prove its case in a few instances. And by extension, it believes it can discredit the entire body of allegations. The thinking is that if critics can be shown to be lying about one thing — even small matters — it stands to reason they’re lying about other allegations.
To that end, the group compiled information they say refutes some of the posts on the Internet discussion board and gave it to the Tribune-Herald. Most of the accusations were written by ex-member Jeremy Crow. But the group says they indict their critics as a whole because his attitude and falsehoods have “infected” other ex-members.
The posts cover a range of topics of varying importance. An example of a less serious post is one in which Crow says Homestead Heritage founder Blair Adams lives in a home with luxurious touches such as leather furniture and the best of appliances. It also talks about Adams owning a Toyota Land Cruiser and a private ranch in Colorado.
An example of a serious post is one entitled “It’s your time to die.” In it, Crow writes: “I just heard that someone I love very much in HH is very sick and nothing is being done. This is normal and was accepted in HH (if your condition is considered spiritual or a judgment.)”
For both posts, and several others, the group provided the Tribune-Herald with documentation it believes shows Crow to be a liar, or at least wildly careless with the truth.
To disprove Crow’s assertions about Adams’ living situation, for example, the group provided photos of his purported vehicle — a Toyota 4 Runner, not a Land Cruiser — as well as his home, decked out with cloth couches and run-of-the-mill appliances. Members also supplied documents showing that the ranch is owned by the church, not Adams.
For the claim of medical neglect, the group furnished the Tribune-Herald with medical bills, as well as affidavits from the doctor of the woman they believe Crow is referencing. The paperwork indicates her treatment included more than 25 visits to specialists, two major surgeries and other procedures and testing.
But in those examples, and all of the others given by the group, ironclad proof that ex-members are purposefully lying is elusive. Crow maintains that Adams had leather furniture the last time he was in his house, suggesting that it may have since been replaced. He concedes that he got the type of vehicle wrong but says it was a simple mistake. As for the information about the ranch, he says he was just repeating what his father — once a group leader — told him.
Crow also has an explanation for his comments about medical care. The woman he was referring to in the Internet post, he says, was not the woman the church provided documentation on.
The closest the group came to providing evidence that anybody acted in bad faith is information it gave the Tribune-Herald about Watchman Fellowship researcher Phil Arnn.
Making the point that Watchman Fellowship claims to be a truth-discerning ministry, Homestead Heritage officials furnished documents which show that several articles on Watchman Fellowship’s site about Branch Davidians were written by a man named James Trimm. He has been decried by numerous religious groups for misrepresenting and faking his credentials. Even more damning for Arnn, they say, is the fact Arnn commissioned the articles.
“Jim Trimm is a total fraud and nutcase,” Howard said. “. . . (Arnn) can’t tell a total charlatan.”
Arnn has shrugged off the criticism, saying he is well aware of Trimm’s dubious behavior in recent years. However, Trimm came by his knowledge of Branch Davidian theology through legitimate study, Arnn said, and that knowledge is still sound. That’s why the articles remain on the Watchman Fellowship site, he said.
In another effort to discredit Arnn, the group gave e-mails to the Tribune-Herald which they say show Arnn was not interested in getting Homestead Heritage’s side of the story before he began attacking the group. At one point after the launch of the Internet discussion board, he proposed a dinner meeting between himself, a former member of the church who posts online in Homestead Heritage’s defense and the former member’s father, who is still a member.
However, when the father, Warren Owen, wrote a letter to Arnn laying out conditions under which a meeting could take place — one of which was that the meeting include others from the group besides Owen — Arnn never replied.
Worse, members say, Arnn sent Owen’s son, Daniel, an e-mail in which he said he didn’t believe his father had written the letter himself. He theorized founder Blair Adams wrote it.
“Now Daniel, what kind of man writes that kind of a letter and then makes someone else sign his name to it?” Arnn says in the e-mail. “It would seem to me that most people would think that such a man is one of low character, even a coward. Doesn’t it make you mad that your dad, who I believe is an honorable man, was made to shield for someone who does not have the courage to sign his own letter?”
It turns out Arnn was wrong, an error he attributes to the letter’s “bombastic” tone, which he says several people told him sounded like Adams.
As for the invitation to meet with the broader group, Arnn says he didn’t take Owen up on it because he felt it would prove a waste of time. Through the years, he says he has learned when something might be gained from meeting with group leaders and when it won’t.
Besides, Arnn says, he has volumes and volumes of Homestead Heritage literature. They tell him more about what the group believes than any meeting could.
Beyond all of this documentation, Homestead Heritage followers allege some ex-members faced crushing personal struggles. They include such challenges as suicidal tendencies, faltering marriages and family dysfunction.
The group said those crises and shortcomings help explain the troubled states of mind that spurred some of the accusations. Clinton Elder is a perfect example of how ex-members have tried to blame Homestead Heritage rather than deal with personal failure, members say.
Although Elder’s letter to church leaders criticizing Homestead Heritage was hurtful, that wasn’t the reason the group wrote a formal response, members said. It was to set the record straight, especially for those outside the group to whom Elder had given his epistle.
Contrary to Elder’s subsequent assertions, nothing in Homestead Heritage’s public response, issued in the form of a book, was confessed to a minister, the group says. Members believe they would have prevailed in court, too, after Elder brought legal action against them. But after praying and studying Scriptures, they came to the conclusion they should not only give Elder the money he sought, they should give him more. That’s why a settlement was reached —- not because the group had done anything wrong, they say.
The group noted that the attorney Elder hired became so impressed with the church’s handling of the matter he started bringing his family to Homestead Heritage events and continues to do so.
“That’s some kind of evidence,” Wheeler says.
The rationalization that Elder and other ex-members have engaged in, the group says, has left those ex-members vulnerable to Watchman Fellowship’s manipulation. That’s why the exes are now condemning practices they accepted while at Homestead Heritage and saying their treatment there amounted to spiritual abuse.
It’s the same sort of shift that happened in Germany between World War I and World War II as anti-Semitic propaganda took hold, says member Tsafrir Yarden. Within a short period of time, the country went from awarding military honors to Jewish soldiers and lauding Jewish scholars to denigrating and destroying them, he says.
The environment in Waco is particularly ripe for such accusations to fester, Homestead Heritage followers say. The Branch Davidians and their apocalyptic saga here made people realize how dangerous aberrant groups can be, they say.
“Because of all the crazy things that go on in the world, (people) are a little suspicious,” Wheeler says. “They think it must be true.”
Ex-members have intentionally tried to stoke those fears by comparing Homestead Heritage to the Branch Davidians and other cults, members say. In Internet posts, for example, the group and its leadership have been compared to Nazis, Jim Jones and Warren Jeffs.
“They’ve literally called us just about every name in the book,” Wheeler says.
Local ophthalmologist Scott Smith, 45, says he’s all too familiar with the phenomenon. He started getting to know Homestead Heritage members in 1996. But because of his knowledge about cults such as the Branch Davidians and his fear that Homestead Heritage, too, might be a cult, he held back from joining for about five years.
Now that he is a member, he laughs at how preposterous those fears were, Smith says. But he still worries that others might not bother to investigate the group after hearing lies from ex-members.
Yarden agrees, saying it concerns him that the plan laid out two years ago in that early morning anonymous phone call to Howard Wheeler now appears to be unfolding. Not only have lies about the group been publicly aired on the Internet, he says, but now they’re being picked up by the news media.
Some people might think it’s absurd to assume that just because such developments have occurred, the dire prediction about Homestead Heritage coming to a violent end will also come true. But stranger things have happened, he says.
The group practices nonviolence. But that doesn’t protect it from others who might be stirred to act out of prejudice, Yarden says.
“You murder their reputation and cause people to fear them,” Yarden says. “. . . For many of us who know history and see how it works, it’s pretty concerning.”