By Clete Hux –
A year and a half ago, Watchman Fellowship began receiving phone calls from former members of the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, North Carolina. Parents who had teenage children in the Spindale church called from all over the country, including Montana, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Indiana. Together, the reports indicated that a great deal of spiritual abuse was going on inside this church.
In the last few months a number of North and South Carolina newspapers have picked up on the stories and published their versions of what is taking place in Spindale. The Daily Courier in Forest City, North Carolina, basing their report on months of investigation and countless interviews with people formerly involved in Word of Faith Fellowship, ran a story saying, “The children are subjected to harsh punishment according to former church members both in the church-run school and the households where many of the children lived with church leaders. But there have also been allegations of adults held in bondage” (28 February 1995).
The most bizarre story is from an incident in 1988, when a 54-year-old woman was held against her will for 13 days while church members “tried to expel the devils from her.” This woman was taken to a church after suffering from what doctors called a “psychotic reaction” to drugs she was taking for the flu. As a result of what transpired in that incident, the woman and her husband have undergone intensive counseling to undo the damage (Ibid.). The Herald Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina ran an article about one former church leader, William Keith Grindstaff, age 33, of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, who was indicted on charges of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl who lived with his family. Grindstaff was sentenced to six years in prison for two counts of taking indecent liberties with the child (8 March 1995).
The Times News in Henderson, North Carolina reported that Grindstaff’s sentence was suspended for five years with conditions including a stipulation that he stay away from the victim (1 March 1995). However, according to The Daily Courier, Grindstaff continues to be around the victim every time he attends church services (28 February 1995). All of this came to further public awareness in February 1995, when Inside Edition exposed the church’s abusive practices on national television. Steve Wilson, the reporter for Inside Edition, began his coverage with the opening remark, “The beautiful hills of Western North Carolina may have been the perfect hiding place for the dirty little secrets you are about to see,” and he went on to interview a number of former members and people who had been devastated by the teachings and practices of the Word of Faith Fellowship, as well as pastors Sam and Jane Whaley.
Before the Inside Edition exposé was aired, Watchman Fellowship was contacted by Ralph Merriwitz, former associate pastor of Robert Tilton Ministries in Dallas, Texas. Merriwitz stated that since the June 9th, 1992 exposé of Robert Tilton on ABC’s PrimeTime Live, Tilton has associated himself with Sam and Jane Whaley, pastors of the Word of Faith Fellowship. The Daily Courier in Forest City, North Carolina, reveals that Leigh Valentine (a close friend of the Whaleys) separated from her husband, Robert Valentine, and is now married to Robert Tilton. Apparently, Tilton is back on the airwaves and has adopted the Whaley’s form of prayer – blasting out demons by shouting (Inside Edition, 28 February 1995).
Jane Brock Whaley grew up in Rutherford County. Sam has lived intermittently in the county since 1975. After Sam and Jane married, they attended Glenwood Baptist Church in Bostick, North Carolina where, according to Rev. Bob Filback, a former minister of that church, Sam “found Christ.” Sometime after that, Sam experienced a “spiritual awakening” and left to attend Rhema Bible College in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When he returned to Rutherfordton, he brought 50 people with him and started the Word of Faith Fellowship (Daily Courier, 28 February 1995). However, some of the teachings and practices of the Word of Faith Fellowship appear to be typical of the Word Faith’s name-it-and-claim-it, or positive confession theology. The Word Faith movement began as a prosperity movement which basically teaches its followers that gain is godly. If the people who follow this teaching do not get the “promised” miracle or wealth, it is because they have secret sin in their lives or they lack faith. In a sense, people are taught to claim physical healing just as they would claim the Biblical promise of forgiveness of sins.
One organization that helped Inside Edition gather information on the Word of Faith Fellowship was Trinity Foundation, Inc., a religious watchdog group in Dallas, Texas. Trinity Foundation’s president, Ole Anthony, says that, according to the church, “demons are behind every rock -everything is a demon. That’s where the Whaleys are; everything Jane doesn’t like is a demon.” Anthony says people are so programmed at the Word of Faith Fellowship that when Whaley speaks, they believe it is as if the voice of God is booming from Mount Sinai: “They can get those people to do anything. They are in total submission to the word – not the word of God, but the word of Jane Whaley” (Daily Courier, 28 February 1995).
From the reports Watchman has received, it appears the church teaches that the children in the church are disobedient only if possessed by demons. According to Inside Edition, children from birth to two years of age are strapped into plastic chairs with crib sheets referred to by church leaders as “restraints of God.” Roberta Priest, a former nursery worker who left the church after two years, says the restraints were used every day so that the children would sit still for hours while screaming prayer was used to expel their demons (op. cit.).
Someone would deliver the word of the Lord to the children each day, and these children were often told they were on the verge of losing their salvation. Ms. Priest goes on to say that “if infants began to fuss before a specified feeding time, they were simply ignored. If they continued to cry, the leadership would pray deliverance over them. If that didn’t work, then the parents were called in to spank the infant children. It was the worst form of abuse. Children were never allowed to play; they were never allowed to use their imaginations.” Another former church member, Deborah Corely, says that her son was often spanked up to 20 times for not knowing all of his spelling words (The Times News, Henderson, NC, 1 March 1995).
Ms. Jerri Martin has a daughter who attended the church-run school and who still remains a member of the church. Ms. Martin says, “They really believe in using the rod…you could hear the crack of that rod…with every whip you had to scream, ‘Help me, Jesus! Help me Jesus!'” (Phone conversation between Clete Hux and Jerri Martin).
According to John Evans, an investigator with the Trinity Foundation, who went inside the church undercover, the Word of Faith Fellowship’s leadership is now matriarchal. He says that Sam Whaley’s role is mostly as a figurehead, noting, “He is often publicly rebuked in services by Jane, as are other male members in leadership.” With the change in leadership there has come a dramatic change in the church’s philosophy. “Church members must submit to God’s authority,” says Evans, “but only Jane seems to know what God expects, so members find themselves submitting to what Jane Whaley wants” (Daily Courier, 28 February 1995).
Such authoritarian leadership patterns exist in other cult-like groups and cults. Such groups also have established loyalty and commitment mechanisms that portray their lifestyle characteristics and conformity patterns, to which members are expected to adhere.
Local residents of Spindale, NC, became concerned enough to place flyers on automobile windshields last year during a worship service at the Word of Faith Fellowship. According to Daily Courier, the flyer’s intended purpose was “to expose the underlying deception for the spiritual and psychological welfare of all who are involved” at Word of Faith. It pleads with church members to leave. The flyer reads, “Please don’t let your fear and indecision hold you in bondage to an abusive church any longer. Escape the deception and manipulation by coming out of this group immediately for the sake of yourself and those who love you. The time has come to let the truth set you free. Many prayers are being lifted up on your behalf” (28 February 1995).
The public needs to be warned about abusive groups like the Word of Faith Fellowship. The body of Christ needs to be issued a discerning wake-up call. If Jonestown and Waco had been thoroughly investigated, many lives may have been saved.
First published in Watchman Expositor Vol. 12 No. 3, 1995