Word of Faith Fellowship Church, a small Christian group in Spindale, North Carolina, believes that you can be possessed by devils. The church has faced criticism for its controversial practices, as well as allegations of cult-like mind control and abuse. Word of Faith’s leaders, husband-and-wife team Sam and Jane Whaley, restrict their congregates’ every move. Jane’s purported direct connection with God allows her to tell Word of Faith members where to work and live, how to conduct their relationships, and even what television to watch.
When John Huddle joined a North Carolina church with his family, he never imagined that they would end up in a cult. After leaving the church in 2008, John now writes about his personal recovery and offers support for other cult survivors on his blog, Religious Cults Info. Here, he shares his cult survival story with Sensa Nostra.
At Word of Faith, you’re first greeted with acceptance and love. In 2002, I moved with my wife and kids, Michael and Sarah, to Spindale, North Carolina, to join the church. We had already been driving out of state to attend services there for years, before we finally decided to move into the community. Word of Faith was set apart by their intense belief that they had the answers to life’s issues. The positives outweighed any deep-lying questions I may have had. I first began to have doubts when I was reprimanded for looking for employment without asking for permission. By that time I was so embedded, my family was so entrenched, that I had to make a decision: am I going to agree with the correction of my actions, or am I going to risk being separated from my family?
Within Word of Faith, your problems were often attributed to the devil. One fellow was caught watching a video in his car, and he had a ‘Video Devil’. There would be the Lazy Devil, the Intellectual Devil, or the Perverted Devil, or the Religious Devil. Sam and Jane realized that if they could come up with a scripture for something they wanted to do, people would accept it. You can make the Bible say anything you want. When I left, I wrote down every rule at Word of Faith, and got to about 145. I realized later that I’d missed some. The rules were never written down. They got changed at the discretion of the leader to fit whatever need there was at the time.
Even so, I sincerely believe that Jane sincerely believes 99.99% of stuff she tells you. She’s so caught up in her own religious deception that even she’s deceived by it. The locus of Jane’s control is that she tells you, “God said for you to do this.” But the truth is that Word of Faith is a pyramid structure: Jane Whaley’s at the top, money flows up, fear and control flows down. Several people in Word of Faith can barely pay their bills, while Jane has a $24,000 ring. She and her husband live on a 40-acre estate. Many people within Word of Faith work for other members of the church, and they have recently started several new businesses. Part of the church’s appeal, especially for someone who’s down on their luck, is that they can offer you a job as well as a community and friends.
My exit story started on April 9th, 2008, when I was called into a meeting with the leaders of the church. I always had a problem with Jane thinking she could tell me what God was telling me. I did my best to maneuver my life and my decisions away from her control. So my condition of taking a full-time job working for church members was that I be able to keep my other, part-time job. But that day I was called into the meeting, my wife was there too, I was told, “You quit that part-time job outside the church, or you’ll be fired from your full-time job.” And I said, “I got a real problem with that.” The leader of the group came and screamed at me. The meeting continued on for over two hours, which was common inside the group. When they finally realized that none of their screaming or their forced confessions were going to get me to do what I didn’t want to do, they gave up. I was fired that day.
Two weeks after this meeting, I was driving to my part-time job. This is going to sound real folksy, real hokey, but it’s really what happened. I was driving up the country on a two-lane road, and I went over a dead skunk. There’s a song from 1972, written by Louden Wainwright the Third; the song is “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.”And when I ran over that skunk, that song came back up to me from when I was a child. And I began to sing it. And I realized that within the group, you couldn’t sing stuff like that. You couldn’t even talk about stuff like that—it was ‘being silly’.
At that point, two thoughts came to me. I realized that Word of Faith is a cult because they’re more afraid of Jane Whaley than God. And I remembered another cult, back in the 70s in Florida, known as the Shepherding Movement. This was a group of men who began to control the lives of their congregates—the same type of control that was at Word of Faith. The Shepherding Movement broke up when some of the leaders went public, and said they were wrong. So I did my research, and I realized that what I was living in was the Shepherding Movement, brought back from the 70s. I knew that soon I would be leaving. I didn’t want to be a part of that.
I was being shunned within my house. I had been put on church discipline, so I wasn’t allowed to go to the church. The only person who would talk to me was my wife, saying, “You need to repent and go back to the church, and talk to Jane.” But that was not going to happen. My wife would have none of it, as far as coming out. She was too far entrenched. One night, my daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, and I said, “You know, I may not go back to Word of Faith.” My daughter said, “You’re not taking me to hell with you.” So there was no talking to my children about them coming out with me. My son actually told me, “You cannot love God, and not go to Word of Faith.” That’s what he was taught, that’s the environment he grew up in. I don’t hold anything against them. They are just a reflection of who I allowed them to be. And that is a heavy burden to bear.
When I left, I didn’t think it was going to be forever. I thought I was just going to move out for a few weeks and get some perspective. I loaded up a van, and backed out of the driveway. I looked across the street, and there’s my son at a church member’s house, watering plants. I drove across the street, walked up to my son, and I said, “Michael, things have been kinda rough around the house lately. I’m going to take some time, and move out.” He didn’t say anything, he didn’t turn to look at me, he kept watering the plants. I got in the van. I called my daughter. Sarah was acting like nothing’s wrong, I said “Sarah, I’m going to move out, to gain perspective,” she said, “Okay.”
Three days later, my wife called me, and said, “Your stuff is here, you need to come get what you left.” When I went back to house, my stuff was piled up in the garage, as if I didn’t take it, she was going to burn it. We filed for separation soon after I left. My children would not act like anything was wrong, and my ex-wife would not act like she cared about me from that day forth.
I started writing for my own personal therapy in October of 2008. It was a way for me to process my memories. The blog started in January of 2010. Now I get emails from people all over the world that have family members still in the church, or they are former members. That’s one of the reasons the blog has been a help to a lot of other people—my writing’s helped them understand how their relatives inside the church still think. I’ll tell you this story: I drove up to a drive-thru eating place; the people who own that place used to be in the group. A lady opened the window and started crying; she said, “Let me tell you what happened a few weeks ago. I printed off a copy of your blog for my nephew, who was considering going in the group.” He read it and decided not to join Word of Faith. She turned to me and said, “Thank you.” From that day forward, I had a new perspective on my writing.
My kids don’t call me, and me calling them wouldn’t work either. Still, I did find out eventually that when I left, they were crying, they were hurt. They had to get prayer, they had to be consoled. But they wouldn’t show me that part. And that hurt even more, that they weren’t allowed to process the emotion of my leaving. That gives you the idea of how much control is there. I’ve written letters to my wife and kids, that I’m going to post on my blog. I’ve heard from people who’ve recently left that, inside the church, my blog is read in secret. Someday, my family will read it.
Jim Jones Junior, the son of the Peoples Temple Leader, said that when you grow up in a dysfunctional home, you think it’s normal. The children inside that group think that what they’re doing is the only way to live. They struggle with going from what they think is a safe place, to an unsafe place, which they think is the outside world. A large bridge to get over is to let them know that the world is not full of devils. There are some good people in the world, who can help them move on with their lives.